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Why Are We Pleased With Others' Misfortune?

"It is not enough to succeed; others must fail." —Gore Vidal

"It is not enough to succeed; others must fail." —Gore Vidal

"Malice is like a game of poker or tennis; you don't play it with anyone who is manifestly inferior to you." —Hilde Spiel

The emotion of pleasure in others' misfortune (Schadenfreude in German) is generally regarded as morally evil. It is often considered to be less acceptable than envy, which is regarded as a deadly sin. It would appear to be morally more perverse to be pleased with another person's misfortune than to be displeased with another person's good fortune. Indeed Arthur Schopenhauer argues that to feel envy is human, but to enjoy other people's misfortune is diabolical. For Schopenhauer, pleasure in others' misfortune is the worst trait in human nature, since it is closely related to cruelty. I believe that once we understand better this emotion, it becomes more natural and acceptable. (See also Portmann, When Bad Things Happen to Other People.)

In describing pleasure in others' misfortune, two features are not disputable: our pleasure and the other's misfortune. These features describe a significant conflict between our positive evaluation of the situation and the negative evaluation of the other person. This conflict indicates the presence of a comparative, and sometimes even a competitive, concern. A major reason for being pleased with the misfortune of another person is that this person's misfortune may somehow benefit us; it may, for example, emphasize our superiority.

It is not sufficient to characterize pleasure in others' misfortune as including our pleasure and the other's misfortune. I would like to suggest three additional typical characteristics: (a) the other person is perceived to deserve the misfortune, (b) the misfortune is relatively minor, and (c) we are passive in generating the other's misfortune.

(a) A central feature of pleasure in others' misfortune is the belief that the other person deserves her misfortune. For example, when stuck in a traffic jam, should a driver pass us on our right by driving on the hard shoulder, our anger will be replaced by pleasure when we see a policeman giving the driver a ticket. The belief that the other person deserves his misfortune expresses our assumption that justice has been done and enables us to be pleased in a situation where we seem required to be sad. Moreover, this belief presents us as moral people who do not want to hurt others. The more deserved the misfortune is, the more justified is the pleasure. Norman Feather shows in a study of people's attitude toward the downfall of those in high positions that the fall was greeted with positive approval when the fall was seen to be deserved, but reactions were negative when the fall was seen to be undeserved.

(b) Another characteristic of pleasure in others' misfortune concerns the minor nature of the misfortune. This characteristic is associated with the comparative concern prevailing in this emotion. Comparison is possible when the two parties are not too far apart when they are considered to belong to the same comparative framework. Accordingly, pleasure in others' misfortune is concerned with small differences. When the misfortune is severe, pleasure in others' misfortune often turns into pity. For example, should our noisy, inconsiderate, and snobbish neighbor find out that his wife is having an affair, we may feel some pleasure; however, if his daughter becomes seriously ill, we are more likely to feel compassion or pity. We can admit that in some circumstances the other's misfortune may be grave, but it is still not significantly graver than that caused by this person to other people—especially ourselves and those related to us. Some may be pleased when a brutal dictator is murdered, as many Romanians were when Ceauşescu was executed, because such a murder seems well-deserved given what Ceauşescu did to his people.

(c) Pleasure in others' misfortune is associated with the passivity of the agent enjoying the situation. Active personal involvement is contrary to the rules of fair competition; it would present us as deliberately harming the other, and hence as not being the real winner in the ongoing competition. It may also be considered an offense; although the other person might deserve misfortune, or even punishment, we lack the authority to impose it. Typically, one of the greater contributions to the pleasure we take in others' misfortune is the feeling that the failure of our competitor is not due to our own wicked behavior. It is as if justice has been done in the spirit of the Talmudic saying: "The tasks of the righteous get done by others." This is a kind of unsolicited gift.

Some people identify pleasure in others' misfortune with sadism, arguing that the difference between them is negligible and pleasure in others' misfortune involves hate and cruelty. It is true that pleasure in others' misfortune often has such a public image, but this merely represents extreme and nontypical cases. The above three characteristics of pleasure in others' misfortune are absent in sadism: The punishment is not deserved, it is not minor, and we actively participate in it. An interesting study on unrequited love indicates that contrary to the stereotype of the rejector as a sadistic heartbreaker, rejectors do not enjoy this experience and experience negative emotions, such as guilt and regret. In their verbal and nonverbal behavior, most rejectors try to minimize the hurt that they cause the other.

There would seem to be little in common between romantic love, which involves a positive attitude toward the beloved, and the negative attitude of pleasure in others' misfortune. However, it can be present when the misfortune is very minor and the partner responds to the misfortune humorously or by teasing—a response that is part of a loving relationship, as are other types of games. It is, however, more common in loving relationships when a third party is involved, or when the romantic relationships failed. Consider the following case described a student: "Last winter, I had a lover, who had this awful girlfriend. Some days after I had an aching throat, I heard them talking on the phone, and she was surprised to discover she did not feel well and that her throat ached. Well, the smile on my face was not easy to conceal." In another case, Inga is joyful over the infidelity of Kate's husband Richard, since Kate used to be her own husband's lover. Kate may suffer a great deal because of Richard's infidelity, and Inga may know it; nevertheless, in enjoying this event, Inga thinks that justice has been done and that Kate's suffering resembles her own, thus putting them on equal footing. In such cases, the other's misfortune may be substantial, but it is not much greater than what used to be, or may still be, our own misfortune. Here punishment also fits, and in no way exceeds, the crime, and we can continue to believe that justice has been done.

Sometimes the profound pain of losing a lover may generate pathological attitude which is even worse than pleasure in others' misfortune. A real example like this is that of a man whose wife had an affair, and as a result, they divorced. The wife married her lover, and shortly afterward, gave birth to a son. A few years later when the child developed cancer, the man expressed pleasure that his ex-wife had been punished. This is a pathological case, since not only is the wife's misfortune far too severe, but the misfortune is shared by an innocent child.

When we consider pleasure in others' misfortune as pertaining to minor misfortunes and involving our belief that justice has been done, and we are not responsible for eliciting the misfortune, then this emotion is not so reprehensible from a moral point of view. The conventional view, which severely condemns pleasure in others' misfortune, stems from considering cruelty and sadism as prototypical cases of this emotion. We have seen that this view is mistaken.

Adapted from The Subtlety of Emotions

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