Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sweet Poetic Justice

My favorite philosopher blogger, Steve Gimbel of Philosophers' Playground, has occasionally queried about the ethical and moral issues involved in justice, irony and Schadenfreude.

For example, in Does Size Matter When It Comes To Virtue Ethics?, he explains that generally speaking, from a "virtue ethics perspective there is something vicious about Schadenfreude. Being the sort of person who delights in the pain of other humans." On the other hand, as he notes in the context of baseball, relishing a team's loss is hardly the stuff of great suffering -- unless you are my husband, whose Dodgers just lost to the Phillies & who is enduring great quantities of Schadenfreude from all of his Philly friends (and our daughter, of course).

In other words, does the particular circumstance matter whether you can enjoy someone's misfortune without experiencing undue guilt about it? As Steve inquires:

Does this lack of moral import obviate, even to a degree, the moral problem with Schadenfreude?

Utilitarianism sees the overall effect as morally relevant, but what about questions of virtue? Does being a jerk about something unimportant excuse you at all for being a jerk? Does it make you less of a jerk if people know that morally they can count on you to be serious and upstanding when the chips are really down?
I would certainly like to think so. Of course, sometimes it's difficult to discern where to draw the line. Obviously, in some cases (as with my husband & his Dodgers), it's easy. It certainly wouldn't be OK to cheer merrily when the grumpy old man down the street, who chased the neighborhood kids away, is run over by a car.

In another discussion on the topic, Me and My Uncle: Justice, Irony, and Schadenfreude, Steve ponders:
[T]he relationship between irony and justice? Indeed, we often hear such ironies referred to as "poetic justice." So is there a connection between poetic and moral justice? Further, when we see someone get their comeuppance, we are often delighted by their suffering, we experience Schadenfreude. How does that figure into the mix?
I tend to think of "poetic justice" as the mere observation of the factual underpinning of what has occurred, without the emotional factor added in. As an example we all can relate to, he observes:
When you see that jerk who passed you on the shoulder doing 85 get pulled over a few miles up the road, there's a guilty sort of pleasure and maybe even a saccharine wave as you pass. Schadenfreude is the pleasure we take in the suffering of others -- say, each time the Yankees lose. . . . We had a student a few years back argue that Schadenfreude was a legitimate delight in justice coming to be. You see someone getting what he deserves and you think that the universe is now a better, more just place, a joy in seeing the cosmic balance restored. Kerry, on the other hand, argued that it was a negative emotion, a sense of antipathy that dehumanizes the other person. I found both arguments compelling, but at least one has to be wrong.
The joy or pleasure -- the emotional reaction to the situation that has occurred -- is what begets Schadenfreude, in my mind. To some degree, I'm not sure whether we can completely control the reaction in the appropriate situation. It's almost a spontaneous emotion that arises without forethought. We can, of course, try to control whether we express the feeling openly or suppress the thoughts. That, however, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Although I am hardly a philosopher, this is a topic about which I have also given some thought. Mainly, because I admit that I have engaged in the sweet satisfaction of enjoying the misfortune of some deserving fool now & again.

I think the distinction (at least for me) depends upon what has befallen the sufferer before I would feel it was inappropriate and cruel to find joy in the misfortune that has occurred. To the extent that it was deserved, based upon prior conduct, the "poetic justice" aspect still applies. If the end result is devastating, there should be no sweet delight. That would be akin to the "I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy" concept.

My latest foray into the realm of Schadenfreude relates to the lot behind our back yard (see picture above). I've written before about the loss of a number of trees the summer before last, when a developer purchased the home behind our house and removed them, see Don't Look Down (which shows before & after pictures). As I said then, not only did he tear down an old stone house to built two big homes on the lot, he also cut down over a dozen trees on the lot, many of which were 100 plus year old. He also cut the branches on the trees on my property that grew across the property line.

As I've also mentioned, the tree loss was also annoying because we have a large back yard, which was enclosed on three sides with foliage from the big, old trees surrounding the area. Our back porch has a beautiful porch swing and I love sitting on the swing on a warm summer night, enjoying the peaceful evening, with the trees providing privacy. We also have a hottub on a deck off the porch, so the privacy was useful for that as well.

I recently noticed some workers cleaning up the property and then saw the "For Sale" sign appear (see picture below for shot from the street, with our back yard beyond the fence). With the downturn in the economy -- and the housing market -- it's obviously not feasible for him to develop the property. I admit that I felt a sense of joy in his misery and only hope that he took a major financial loss in his investment and that he won't be able to recoup it in the sale of the property (and there is a good chance of that in this real estate market). It made my day.

(By the way, for a truly interesting discussion of these issues, read the essays and comments at Steve Gimbel's blog, here and here.)


Steve Gimbel said...

First, let me express my membership in a mutual admiration society. Love your writings and I would not agree that you are "hardly a philosopher" except in the sense that you are gainfully employed...

Schadenfreude is difficult because we are not in control of what we feel, we don't choose our emotions, they happen to us, not from us. But, we can choose to enjoy them (as in the Dodgers case) and it is this second-order pleasure that things get interesting.

It seems like it matters whether the emotion arises from pettiness or a sense of just desserts. In the developer case, I think it is the latter because the suffering is the result of despoiling something wonderful out of greed. sometimes you do have to love seeing the universe stick it to the Man. While I may not buy into the Buddhist worldview, it is true what they say about karma.

JudiPhilly said...

Thanks for the kind words, but I'm not too sure about the "gainful" employment part -- I am a lawyer, after all.

Also, as my blogging buddy Susan says, I suppose I'm a secular humanist, if anything, but I do love the concept of karma. If there is a god or other spiritual being, he (or she) definitely has a sense of humor -- or is it poetic justice?