Schadenfreude, pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune, was the most searched word on Merriam-Webster, on the 2nd of October.
But is this feeling morally acceptable?
As the revelation of President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis dawned on the world, some parts of the internet experienced a feeling that can be described using an archaic German word. Schadenfreude has origins dating back as far as the late 18th century and it combines the German words for damage (schaden) and joy (freude). Simply put, you feel joy that someone else is suffering some problem (either because you think they deserve it or just don’t like the person).
The word starged trending on German social media as soon as news of the American President’s test spread, and it quickly spread to the English-speaking media.
But isn’t this unethical? The philosophy of Schadenfreude
Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, many shortcomings of the Trump administration in handling the pandemic are evident. But whether that justifies joy at someone’s illness is a completely different story.
Many were quick to point out that in these trying times, we need empathy and to care for everyone. Rejoicing in pettiness is not the answer, argued Dr. Abraar Karan of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Meanwhile, others felt that Trump, benefitting from the best care and treatments in the world, deserves little sympathy. Mary Trump, the president’s niece, tweeted this hours after her uncle’s diagnosis: “I reserve my sympathy, empathy, and despair for those who are sick and for those who have died because they were misled, lied to, or ignored. Wear a fucking mask. #VOTE.”
As Joe Biden and President Obama were quick to wish Trump a speedy recovery, many wondered whether Trump, who has repeatedly downplayed the virus and its effects, would do the same thing for his rivals. Many on social media felt Schadenfreude particularly because of that: because Trump is himself suffering from something he tried to sweep under the rug (and which has killed over 210,000 Americans).
But those who searched what Schadenfreude means online may be quick to learn something else: it’s a fickle feeling with a very sour aftertaste.
The damage that Trump has done to science, climate, and health in the US runs very deep, but even so, most of the philosophers who help define our moral compass see Schadenfreude as morally unacceptable. In other words, whether or not you like Trump, you shouldn’t be happy about his problems.
The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer saw it rooted in pure cruelty — a “diabolical” emotion, he called it. Meanwhile, other philosophers see it as a form of protecting our own vulnerability (he’s sick but I’m not, ha-ha), or rooted in a sense of false superiority.
But there are also exceptions. René Descartes sees Schadenfreude as a quest for justice — we’re happy because something bad is happening to someone bad, so the world is becoming a bit more just. In Descartes’ view, it could be a permissible feeling — but a commendable one it can never be.
It’s understandable that many people feel disappointment or even anger at Trump for the way he handled the pandemic. Many might even consider it just that he got the disease he tried to ignore for so long. We all crave a sense of justice (though we see that justice differently), but harboring negative feelings instead of empathy will only chip away at our humanity. Schadenfreude is a great word to know, but if we look under the hood of what actually causes it, we might not really like what we see.