Schadenfreude is often thought of as something immoral to the core. Behind the gloating half-smile there seems to be a malicious wish to see others suffer. A far more suitable response to other people’s disasters, however, seems to be compassion. All the same, it is nevertheless considered quite normal to read fairy tales to children, where the evil witch is pushed into the oven or the big bad wolf falls into the well, and rejoice that the story had such an ending. But here, too, we are dealing with pleasure at the misfortunes of others. Therefore, a question arises: is schadenfreude really as bad as it initially seems, or could it perhaps sometimes be morally justified?
In order to evaluate the morality of schadenfreude, philosophers have based their judgments on what exactly it is that delights us about the calamities of others. At least three sources of joy could be distinguished, sometimes manifesting in their pure forms, other times intertwined with each other. These include pure malevolence, a feeling of superiority, and the sense of justice.
One possibility is to say that schadenfreude is based on malevolence and all the pleasure derives from other people’s suffering as such. This is the approach taken by Arthur Schopenhauer – one of the most well-known advocates of compassion. Schopenhauer saw schadenfreude, and malice in general, as opposed to a mere egoism. For the egoist, the distress of others just constitutes a means to achieve some additional benefit for himself. For example, he might rejoice when the person walking in front of him accidentally drops her wallet, because he can now take it himself. A person feeling schadenfreude, on the other hand, is – according to Schopenhauer – glad for the other’s mishap even when there’s no profit for himself. Thus, other’s calamity has an intrinsic value for him. Described as such, schadenfreude comes dangerously close to cruelty, and we can indeed contend that we are dealing with a “diabolical” emotion (Schopenhauer 1995).
Schopenhauer’s approach makes it somewhat hard to understand what is there so good about other people’s suffering that it should be considered as a value in itself. The question becomes even more urgent as we take into account that our own situation need not change at all. Let’s imagine that a neighbour hits a street light with his fancy car while backing out of his backyard. The car might be ruined now, but there’s no direct benefit for us. So, what is there to rejoice in? The next approach offers an explanation that is psychologically more nuanced.
The second main source of schadenfreude has been considered to lie in feelings of superiority. Baudelaire used the example of a person slipping on ice to show that there is actually unconscious pride behind it: “I don’t fall, I don’t; I walk straight, I do; my footstep is steady and assured, mine is” (Baudelaire 1972). In a similar manner, after seeing the neighbour hit the street light, one could think what a bungler he is, backing out like that – the same thing wouldn’t have happened to me. In both cases, the downfall of others is not a value in itself. Rather, it has an instrumental part to play: by offering a favourable point of comparison, it brings our attention to our own greatness and swiftness, and it is precisely the latter that we rejoice in.
By the way, even though joy comes from the feeling of superiority, this doesn’t necessarily mean that people with high self-esteem are the most prone to schadenfreude. It may even be the other way around: those most prone to schadenfreude may be those with low self-esteem, because they might have an even greater wish to see themselves in a better light (Dijk & Ouwerkerk 2014). Other people’s mess-ups provide a good pretext for boosting one’s self-esteem, thus leading to a feeling of superiority (at least temporarily).
Pride and hubris have been seen as one of the seven deadly sins. In medieval times, not only schadenfreude but laughter and humour in general were linked to hubris, and this is why the whole comedy genre fell into disrepute for a long time. In talking about only some of the reasons why the feelings of superiority can be morally problematic, it could on the one hand be stressed that often the person filled with pride has no objective basis to see himself as better than others. Thus, his judgments of others can be unfair.
On the other hand, the problem doesn’t necessarily vanish even when the person truly is, in some respect, better than others.
According to Immanuel Kant, we should always treat other people as ends in themselves, never as mere means to our own ends. In applying this maxim not only to our deeds but also to our attitudes, it could be said that that the arrogant person uses other people as touchstones of inferiority against which his own superiority can shine brightly. For such a person, other people are tools that provide external validation for boosting or maintaining his self-esteem.
Sense of Justice
Thirdly, schadenfreude has been linked to justice and deservingness (Portmann 2000, Ben-Ze’ev 2014). According to Descartes’ definition, schadenfreude comes about when trouble has struck someone who, in our opinion, deserves it (Descartes 2015). The aspect of deservingess is also well captured in the Estonian saying that “It fits him” (“Paras talle”), as it hints that the other person received a fitting “paycheck”, though such gloating is characteristic of an arrogant person whose evaluation of the fairness of the situation is usually biased and for whom justice is merely instrumental in perceiving himself as good and just. This, however, doesn’t exclude the possibility that in some situations the other’s misfortunes might be well-deserved and we might rejoice because we sincerely care about justice. For example, when the bad guys get punished at the end of a fairy-tale, we celebrate the triumph of justice – or at least that’s what we think. In this case schadenfreude could, at least in theory, be considered a morally appropriate emotion.
Whether or how often people are actually motivated by a pure sense of justice still remains open to interpretation. It does seem that there is often just a wish to boost one’s self-esteem behind it. After all, we often see other people’s misfortunes as deserved, but when it comes to our own failures we are far more likely to view ourselves as mere victims of unfortunate circumstances.
Heidy Meriste is a PhD student of philosophy at the University of Tartu.