When is it okay to feel schadenfreude? It depends.
Schadenfreude is a human emotion — but it’s not morally simple.
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.
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.
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.
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.