“In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments – there are only consequences.” This dictum, which we owe to Robert Ingersoll – the American agnostic and freethinker – might well have been invoked by Archbishop Léonard when he was explaining why he had used the phrase “a sort of immanent justice” in talking about the early spread of HIV/Aids. The problem was caused, as happens to our Pope from time to time, by overestimating the sophistication of his audience.
Actions have consequences, and few will deny that in both developed and developing countries, widespread incidents of freely chosen sexual behaviour made, and make, a major contribution to epidemic Aids.
But what interests me here is schadenfreude, which roughly means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Our first, instinctive, reaction is to lay the blame at the Aids sufferer’s door. After all: “If you will behave in that way, what would you expect?” Whether or not that sounds cruel the psychologists describe it as a defence mechanism. Because we are threatened by the presence of the disease we take comfort from knowing that we do not behave in such reprehensible ways. We do this in many areas, for example: blame for being overweight, blame for provocative behaviour in questions of rape, blame for carelessness in mislaying a credit card. As long as the sufferer can be seen to have shared the blame we, the faultless, are safe.
More recent studies, described by Emily Anthes in the December issue of Scientific American Mind, show that envy is processed in the brain area that deals with pain, while schadenfreude is processed in the area that deals with rewards: “Thinking bad thoughts can feel good…a satisfaction comparable to eating a good meal.”
There are plausible evolutionary reasons for schadenfreude. A major dynamic in the human race is competition, whether this is for the best mate, or the most land, or the greatest material success. At one level we would want everyone to be successful. At another we know that places at the top table are few. Thus, even while we commiserate with the losers, we rejoice internally at their fall. All the more room for us!
The hopeful idealists who, for instance, try to eradicate competition in schools to save the losers from a sense of failure, are swimming against the tide. Children are innately competitive, as every parent knows. If we were to eliminate competition from our society we would ensure long term decay.
The principle which Karl Marx popularised: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” has proved, and will always prove, incompatible with human nature as a whole.
This competitive characteristic can often be more powerful between groups than between individuals. And, while individuals might be somewhat ashamed at displaying schadenfreude, groups are less likely to be inhibited. While this may be a useful boost to cohesion and determination in, say, a rugby team, it can also take the form of racial contempt and other forms of prejudice. In wartime this characteristic will be deliberately intensified. Not only will the enemy be given deprecating and dehumanising nicknames, but we can find ourselves admiring the behaviour of “our side”, while deploring the similar behaviour of our opponents. Our victories are magnified, while our defeats are minimised – or even converted into a form of victory. Dunkirk is an obvious example.
It has been suggested that such atrocities as the Rwandan massacre and the Holocaust may, at least in part, be attributed to schadenfreude. For instance a strong current of antisemitism in the German population could arguably have allowed them to welcome the Jewish persecution while denying responsibility for it at the same time. And anyone who thinks that the recent Church scandals have not given secret pleasure to many people, even to some within the Church, knows little about human nature. “I told you so” is a cry of victory not of compassion.
There have been several recent studies which confirm that people with a high sense of power are less compassionate than others. They are more likely to see the mass of people as inferior and of little consequence. This tendency is so indurated that I imagine that the medieval clergy – with most of the power, the money and the education – must have found it hard to avoid despising the laity.
Conversely, a recent study shows that when someone in a high position (particularly one which we feel is undeserved) slips on a metaphorical banana skin, it is likely to be our sense of inferiority which triggers our pleasure.
Clearly schadenfreude, like so many of our lower instincts, is the opposite of virtue. How would we like to be treated ourselves? For my part, I would like you to describe me in terms of any good qualities I might have, leaving my shortcomings in the background. And indeed I have to hope that God will judge me in a similar way.
But I find it only too easy to spot other people’s bad qualities first, and to suspect that they are largely to blame for their own misfortunes. I must remind myself continuously that the forgiveness of my trespasses must be matched by my forgiveness of the trespasses of others’. Not of course – now that I realise that your virtues are abundant and your vices few – that there is much that I need to forgive.