Monday, June 09, 2014

Comic Schadenfreude and the Schadenfreude of Grace (by Jason Gray and Eric Schwitzgebel)

There isn't a lot of philosophical (or even psychological) work on schadenfreude -- the pleasure people sometimes feel at witnessing or hearing about (but not personally causing) the suffering of others. But the most prominent analyses treat it as a type of pleasure one feels seeing someone get their comeuppance. John Portman calls schadenfreude "an emotional corollary of justice" (2000, p. 197*). Aaron Ben-Ze'ev suggests that a typical feature is that the sufferer deserves the misfortune (1992, p. 41). Frans de Waal suggests that schadenfreude "derives from a sense of fairness" (1996, p. 85).

We could define schadenfreude as involving just deserts, for the sake of philosophical analysis. But doing so misses, we think, central cases that should be within the term's scope and which give it its uncomfortable moral coloring.

Consider that staple of "America's Funniest Videos", the groin shot:

And the trampoline accident:

It doesn't seem that these are instances of justice delivered. We are laughing at -- seemingly enjoying -- pain, indifferent to whether it is deserved. If we stipulate that schadenfreude requires desert, we would need a different name for this interesting phenomenon. But rather than do that, let's acknowledge that there are at least two different types of schadenfreude: just-deserts schadenfreude, when the bad guy finally gets what's coming to him, and the comic schadenfreude of America's Funniest Videos and FailBlog. Comic schadenfreude seems to require not justice but rather a kind of absurdity involving pain as an integral component. And unlike the schadenfreude of just deserts, where pleasure can sometimes be found when inexpiable wrongdoing is met with severe pain, comic schadenfreude might require that the injury (or pain) not be too serious.

Still another species of the genus seems to involve neither comic absurdity nor justice: the schadenfreude of grace.

Here's Lucretius:

Sweet it is, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to gaze from the land on another's great struggles; not because it is pleasure or joy that any one should be distressed, but because it is sweet to perceive from what misfortune you yourself are free. Sweet is it too, to behold great contests of war in full array over the plains, when you have no part in the danger (On the Nature of Things, Book II.1ff., Bailey trans.).
And Hobbes:
from what passion proceedeth it, that men take pleasure to behold from the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest, or in fight, or from a safe castle to behold two armies charge one another in the field? It is certainly in the whole sum joy, else men would never flock to such a spectacle. Nevertheless there is in it both joy and grief. For as there is a novelty and remembrance of own security present, which is delight; so is there also pity, which is grief. But the delight is so far predominant, that men usually are content in such a case to be spectators of the misery of their friends (Human Nature, IX.19).

Evidently, people throughout the ages have found great pleasure standing atop the bluff in a storm, watching sailors below die on the rocks. Lucretius and Hobbes suggest, plausibly we think, that for many viewers an important part of the the pleasure derives from how salient another’s suffering makes your own safety by comparison. Similarly, perhaps, reading a history of war and genocide can put into perspective one's own complaints about the erroneous telephone bill and the journal rejections.

Indeed, the very fact that the suffering of the others is undeserved lends the schadenfreude of grace its particular bittersweet flavor. If the sailors or soldiers were fools or villains then it's maybe just harsh justice to see them die from their bad choices, and we have something closer to the schadenfreude of just deserts; but if they did nothing wrong or foolish and it could just as easily have been you, then it's both more a shame for them (the bitter) and also more vividly pleasing how lucky you yourself are (the sweet): There but for undeserved grace go I.

The schadenfreude of just deserts, comic schadenfreude, and the schadenfreude of grace do not exhaust the list of schadenfreudes, we think. There are at least two more: the schadenfreude of envy, and pathological forms of erotic schadenfreude (not to be confused with consensual play-acting sadism). We also suspect that these different types of schadenfreude can sometimes merge into a single complex emotion.

Probably no unified analysis of the psychological mechanisms suffices to cover all types, and they differ substantially in what they reveal about the moral character of the person who is moved by them. Comeuppance is only the start of it.


* Though comeuppance seems to be Portman's take-home message, his overall view is nuanced and anticipates some of the points of this post.


G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric and Jason, very nice piece. This is something I find very interesting, and which I explored at some length in an article called Naturalizing Cruelty (Biology and Philosophy.)

I don't know if you want to incorporate this into your typology, but in thinking of cruelty/schadenfreude as pleasure resulting from the suffering of others, I found it useful to distinguish between two type of individual. One, which depends on a theory of mind and cognitive empathy, is actual enjoyment from knowing that a person is suffering. The schadenfreude of justice or revenge seems to require this.

The other, more basic I claim, is pleasure that simply results from the suffering of another, but with no particular knowledge of the mental state of the sufferer. For example, we take great pleasure in winning a game, and in eating game, which is the result of the suffering of another being, though we do not take actual pleasure in contemplating this suffering. In fact, for most of us,it robs us of the pleasure to think about this. I'm thinking that your examples of comic schadenfreude fits nicely into this latter category.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Randy -- we'll have to check out your paper! I think there's a difference, though, between simply eating meat, possibly entirely ignorant of the suffering involved, and comic schadenfreude. My view (not sure about Jason's) is that there's probably a sweet spot in comic schadenfreude. If there's no awareness of suffering at all, it's just simple clowning. (Some of the trampoline videos might be not much more than that.) If there's too acute an awareness of serious suffering, that also ruins the mood. But I'm inclined to think that in the groin-shot videos get funnier, for most viewers, as the person continues to squirm around and as their awareness of the suffering rises -- at least to a point.

howard berman said...

Is Jesus a good example of schadenfreude of grace?
Not that I have anything against him, though.

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Eric, You might be right about that. Kidding and friendly put-downs have that property. They aren't fun if you don't think they sting a little, but they stop being fun (at least for non jerks) when you think you've really hurt someone's feelings. But here's a future test of your view. Do we laugh as hard when it happens to robots? I think we might. But we might also get the schadenfreude of justice when bad robots get their comeuppance, too.

Callan S. said...

It'd be interesting to run a test of whether they find it funnier due to what. For example, suppose we make a fake groin shot video and we somehow after awhile bring in pooling blood. Would humour suddenly drain from the situation, perhaps?

While someone squirming - well squirming takes function and health to do. Which might be being communicated to the viewer that the person is generally healthy and this is essentially someone suffering a great deal, but we don't really need to lend any real gravitas to the moment because it has no consequences (to our primitive minds - who knows whether it might actually make someone infertile or not. But to our default mind as long as theres no blood, there's no real foul). No gravitas == levity (or perhaps excitement + lack of gravitas = levity)

Which all sounds like an excuse for the funny home videos, when I really dislike them and avoid them like the plague.

Rolf Degen said...

There is always a certain amount of just desert around. Because we all hide in everyday life a wealth of weaknesses and imperfections and feign more self confidence and serenity than there is there. But, at the same time, we buy the facades of everybody else. This self deception makes us shout with joy when the seemingly superior goes to rack.


Misery Has More Company Than People Think: Underestimating the Prevalence of Others’ Negative Emotions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

Howard: Maybe so! The psychological uses of the crucifixion are diverse. But on the face of it, it doesn't fit with the account of the schadenfreude of grace Jason and I give above, since we don't imagine ourselves as similar enough to Jesus that it's lucky that we weren't crucified.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Randy: The robots case is interesting. I think you're right -- but maybe because "System 1" (as it were) still treats the robot as capable of suffering. I think here of video game bad guys, especially.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: The pooling blood case is interesting. I suspect that the audience would divide -- some might find it even funnier (but in a more painful way), while others might find the humor to have left. It wouldn't surprise me that there's a bit of empirical research on this somewhere, which Jason and I haven't notice. If not, it seems like a fruitful topic!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Rolf: Thanks for the link to that very interesting-looking article! Looking through the abstract -- no time to read the full-length version now -- it seems pretty plausible to me.

Callan S. said...

Thanks, Eric! :)