When is it okay to feel schadenfreude? It depends.

John Portmann, author of When Bad Things Happen to Other People, has long mulled over the implications of schadenfreude, and how the word has been perceived over the centuries. It’s a common feeling, but not always a morally clear one.

Schadenfreude is a human emotion — but it’s not morally simple.

President Donald Trump boards Marine One at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after receiving treatment for coronavirus in Bethesda, Md. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File) (AP)

When U.S. President Donald Trump caught COVID-19, suddenly a lot of people wanted to know a lot more about the word "schadenfreude."

Merriam-Webster noted that on Oct. 2, 2020, the word's popularity had shot up more than 30,000 per cent as people reacted to the American leader's newly discovered illness.

Schadenfreude is a German loanword coming from the words schaden, meaning "harm" or "damage" and freude, meaning "joy." It means happiness at the suffering of others. 

However, the dictionary can't answer the moral question: How much joy is it okay to feel, when someone else suffers?

John Portmann has long mulled over the implications of schadenfreude, and how the word has been perceived over the centuries. 

"I take schadenfreude to be value neutral," said Portmann, a religion studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of When Bad Things Happen to Other People. 

A complicated emotion

Some philosophers and moralists have argued that schadenfreude is a malicious pleasure, and reflects something damning about the person feeling it. 

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th Century German philosopher, believed that "to feel envy is human; but to indulge in such malicious joy is fiendish and diabolical. There is no more infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart," than schadenfreude. 

(CBC/Getty Images)

But by the end of that century, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was arguing the opposite — that it was a natural part of being alive.

"Schadenfreude originates in the fact that … everyone feels unwell, is oppressed by care or envy or sorrow," wrote Nietzsche, noting that we're bound to feel it eventually by the nature of our relationships to others. It is a feeling that we innately have as social beings.

Portmann agrees with Nietzsche's assessment of schadenfreude. 

"Anytime that you make an allegiance to a political party or to a religion or even to a group of friends, you're going to root for your team. You're going to take some satisfaction from the hard times or the defeats of those who aggress you or oppose you or your team," said Portmann.

John Portmann believes that schadenfreude is an emotion influenced by its circumstances — whether you're punching up or down can make a moral difference. (Submitted by John Portmann )

Beyond competition, comedy is a natural outcome of schadenfreude in Nietzsche's eyes — we laugh at the pratfalls of characters, good and bad. In that way, Nietzsche argues, we take turns giving happiness to each other. Today a person might trip and a stranger might laugh, but tomorrow, the scenario could be reversed.

"So, yes, I do think that it's inevitable. It's inescapable," said Portmann.

While the exact nature of the feeling might be morally neutral, how we interpret that feeling may not be. 

Justice and schadenfreude

Schadenfreude, for example, can come out of a search for justice. When a man is imprisoned for a crime he committed, Portmann argues that a person might feel a righteous schadenfreude — pleasure knowing that justice is being fulfilled. 

This understanding from schadenfreude is similar to how Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas viewed heaven. He imagined a heaven where its denizens could witness the suffering of those in hell, and that in doing so, they could appreciate God's divine judgement. 

(Getty Images/CBC)

But the flip side of that is feeling pleasure because of someone's explicit suffering, not for justice's sake. 

Portmann ran into this conundrum when Trump became ill. Portmann noted that Trump had downplayed the COVID-19, encouraging people to go outside and ignore public health procedures. 

"I thought that people who pledged allegiance to him and they are legion in the United States would take COVID more seriously," said Portmann.

But that feeling also came with another. 

"It did make me feel base and it did make me think that a more evolved person would not have felt that. I definitely did feel both of those at the same time."

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.