German Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

While in the U.S., I had a few conversations with friends about Schadenfreude, the German — and English — word that describes a feeling of satisfaction in seeing an enemy (or, sometimes, even a friend) beset with adversity.  Schadenfreude is literally "damages-pleasure" or "harm-joy."  Pronounce it SHAH-den-FROY-duh. 

I have several questions for the moral philosophers who read this blog (you know who you are):

(1)  Is Schadenfreude a sin?

(2)  If so, is it more sinful to feel pleasure in the downfall of enemies, or of friends?

(3)  Can Schadenfreude be healthy?

(4)  Is Schadenfreude really just a form of envy?

Discuss!

12 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Schadenfreude

  1. Slightly off-topic: I heart the German Word of the Week!
    My favorite German words are “selbdritt” (which most people, even native German speakers, don’t know at all) and “Duldungsstarre”.

    On the topic of Schadenfreude, we were talking recently about how Schadenfreude is one of those German concepts and words that has no English equivalent, and my friend Silvia said, “What about gloating?”

    And I’ll have to sleep on your questions about sin and healthiness of gloating.

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  2. I would doubt whether *having* an emotion could be morally wrong in itself, at all (or even a “sin”, as you call it, though that would be a question more suitable for your theologian readers).
    So my answers to your questions would be: 1. no, 2. does not apply (3 and 4 do not concern moral philosophy, so I’ll leave them to psychologists or people with common sense).
    If, however, with “Schadenfreude” you mean the *display*, or gleeful cultivation, of said emotion, I would say: 1. certainly, 2. the latter (because, one might argue, you have an obligation to not express or cultivate unjustified negative feelings towards friends, but no such obligation concerning enemies).

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  3. No moral philosopher here, but nevertheless you’ll get my 2cts:

    I do not think that schadenfreude is a FORM of envy,
    but occurs frequently as a CONSEQUENCE (and thus, also symptom if you choose) of envy plus the real or imagined failure of the person in question. But then any sort of resentment against that person suffices, it does not necessarily have to be envy.

    As to schadenfreude towards friends vs. foes,
    I would like to note that in German (no idea about English)
    simply being amused about a funny embarrassing situation
    a friend has walked into does not really qualify as Schadenfreude. Perhaps some folk is going to contradict me now, but anyway it may be misleading to discuss both at the same time.

    Now have fun, philosophers.
    😉

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  4. According to Friedrich August Carus (1770-1807), Schadenfreude is rooted in the natural instict of self-preservation:

    “Der allgemeine und ursprüngliche Grund für die Schadenfreude liegt im Selbserhaltungstriebe. Das Kind, ursprünglich schwach, muss jede Nichtverletzung oder jede Schonung seiner selbst als Vermehrung seiner Kraft fühlen und sich als Geretteter freuen. Der besondere und abgeleitete Grund ist aber stärkeres Selbstgefühl in verschiedenen Graden. Im Knaben ist das gesunde Selbstgefühl und die daraus hervorgehende Selbstliebe bei dem Anblicke fremder Gefahren, welcher er entgeht, rege (daher auch die Schadenfreude eitlen Weibern eigen ist). Im Jüngling folgt auf das Gefühl bei Schwierigkeiten, die Andere finden, er aber besiegt hat, das Gefühl, durch fremdes Unglück sein eigenes Glück befestigt zu sehn.

    Wie aber jedes Gefühl nicht auf die äußere Erscheinung geht, so ist auch nicht die Schadenfreude darauf gerichtet; nicht auf den Schaden, sondern auf die Affektion unsers selbsteigenen Zustandes. Auch der Wilde, der den gefangenen Feind langsam zu Tode quält, freut sich nicht über dessen Schmerz, sondern darüber, daß er ihn verursacht hat und dass die Wirkung dieses Schmerzes ein erreichter Selbstzweck ist; er freut sich also über die Erreichung seines Zwecks.”

    (Friedrich August Carus, Psychologie (Band 1), Leipzig, 1808)

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  5. @Elke Sisco:

    My favorite German words are “selbdritt” (which most people, even native German speakers, don’t know at all)

    Of the … what do you call them, collective pronouns? with the prefix selb-, selbdritt is probably the most well-known today because of the common expression “Anna selbdritt”, which describes a religious motif – St. Anne with her daughter Mary and her grandson Jesus. Other than that it doesn’t stand out from the succession of ordinal numbers: selbviert, selbfünft, etc. On the other hand, selbander also incorporates the slightly obscure ordinal “ander” (second), and used to be a rather common expression.

    ***

    Schadenfreude seems to have undergone a slight change in meaning in English. My impression is that it is more used to describe an inadvertent, instinctive lightening of the mood when you witness someone else’s misfortune, as nicely explained in this song from the Broadway musical “Avenue Q.” I wouldn’t condemn anyone for it, but as far as “sin” is concerned, if you are Catholic it would probably be better to consult with your priest.

    In German, on the other hand, my feeling is that the word describes a conscious, sustained malevolent approval and enjoyment of someone else’s plight, i.e. delight in a case where a decent human being would feel pity. This can only lead to bad things.

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  6. Personally, i’ve always interpreted ‘Schadenfreude’ as the joy, or rather relief, you feel when you witnes something bad happen to someone else: The bad thing didn’t happen to YOU and that is what one is glad about.

    Of course, if the bad thing happens to someone we don’t like to begin with, then it might also encompass the much less savoury feeling of satisfaction that your enemy ‘got what he deserved’.

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  7. One day, I would like to look my friend in a local hospital. I’m not alone, but with my friends, many friends. So because of our noise disturb the medical patient, the security wish us silent.
    While we are sitting down in the park, a friend ask us he tell why the nurses, their uniforms is different each other and different in work hours. So how many uniform they have? Another friend then stands up and said, if they have many different uniforms, it means they spent much money to buy it. That’s why their have high salary. I cut the speaking automatically then said, they buy the uniforms in big scale. I ever heard that they buy it through internet. The prices are very competitive but the online store is lower.
    To improve my statement, a friend comes to a nurse and ask her that where they buy the uniform. In a moment, a nurse was surprised but later she answered that she didn’t know exactly but she also heard that their management buy from the online store, is that name. The store is leading on the medical uniform supplied, the nurse said. She continues their uniform design is great I am being cute by this uniform. My friends also fell like me. Our doctors also like the uniform because of simple, soft and air circulation.
    When we back home, I browse in internet, to find where the Cheap Scrubs. The nurse is right. I have to see before believe. http://www.squidoo.com/cheap_scrubss The store sell medical product, especially uniforms. The first time I have to find is price. I was surprise that the price average is lower then $ 10 USD. The second one is the design. The nurse is also right.
    Many people including me, find hospital to be a rather cold and creepy place. I always feel uncomfortable when I am in the hospital. When my mother-in-law was admitted to a private hospital for her surgery some time ago, I can’t help but notice the uniforms worn by the staff at the hospital. Their attire was in lilac instead of the all-white uniform which we were familiar with. It is such a nice change to see the hospital staff in this colourful uniform. They certainly brighten up the whole hospital. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who works as a nurse in one of the hospitals, she told me that their colourful uniforms are from ..
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  8. Childhood memory is always so sweet and memorable. I still remember lots of things during my kid days. I almost can recall every bits of happy moment on those days. Having a wonderful childhood, whereby I have my parents simply provided what I need. Although we are not so rich, but we live happily and contented.

    After a full diagnose by the doctor, I need to admit hospital for further monitoring and check up. Doctor checked me and sends me to x-ray room to scan my head bone. The result shows that my bone have a slight crack and need extra careful in order to recover and not being knock down again to hurt the brain.

    Those friendly nurses wear different color of medical scrubs always come and talk to me and try to entertain me. They are so caring, patient and friendly to all kids. During that time I’m not so understand how come those nurses need to wear different color of medical uniform. They are some dress in full white, some in green and some in pink. Later only I know that, those color are represent different position. How nice if the children ward nurses can dress in colorful printing scrub. It truly can bright up the sick mood too.for great medical scrubs check out http://www.cheapscrubset.com

    make sure you visit http://www.cheapscrubset.com

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  9. Schadenfreude

    (1) Is Schadenfreude a sin?

    The short answer; it depends.
    In my opinion, a sin is dependent upon your moral context, and all moral contexts are relative to the cultural/religious/philosophical foundations of the individual. But I think that it is a form of envy, and that envy can be positive or negative, and the emotion is a relic of our evolutionary history. The best description I’ve seen is on the History Channel’s new series “The Seven Deadly Sins: ENVY”. http://www.history.com/genericContent.do?id=61484

    (2) If so, is it more sinful to feel pleasure in the downfall of enemies, or of friends?

    To take pleasure in the destruction of another is evil. But if that downfall is just, because the person is doing evil, then the pleasure is just. Just and wrong. It would seem to me that when we mature, and grow enlightened, we leave such petty feelings behind, and recognize that even the defeat of the evil, although just, means that evil was done, and this destruction propagates like a wave in a pond, causing negative effects on the whole universe. Better that we do good, and thus have no need to bring down the evil to do justice.

    (3) Can Schadenfreude be healthy?

    Not sure? Envy can be healthy: if you envy the intellectual and it motivates you to study and learn it is a good thing. If you laugh at the intellectual who trips up because he lacks some power, then you do no good.

    (4) Is Schadenfreude really just a form of envy?

    yes.

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  10. Schadenfreude, I would not call it a sin if its against your enemy or over somone doing something extremely dumb, at your enemy if you really hate him, why not enjoy when he gets in your opinion “pwnd”, for the dumb its the same like facepalming.

    Against your friend is something really ambivalent, if not extreme it is funny for both of you, or even a kind of irony-packaged sympathy expression.
    When its extreme, it leads mostly to a serious argument. There are exceptions, I know some guys which throw the most bitter Schadenfreude against each other, even when one is seriously hurt but they stay friends.
    Seems to be all about types of humor.

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