Trump’s COVID-19: Schadenfreude is neither Right or Wrong

Update 04 October: since publication, Prof Siegel left a brilliant reply in the comments.

Susanna Siegel wrote a great piece on why feeling schadenfreude is the wrong reaction to the president’s contraction of COVID-19. First, I highly suggest you read it as it is a very amazing argument. Of course, anyone who acknowledges the dangers of COVID-19 knows that Trump et al “had it coming”. Yet should one feel rejoice at this? Siegel asks, “Would you sign up for a cooperative venture with someone who celebrates your pain? Probably not. Well, society is a cooperative venture. So when schadenfreude pervades politics, politics is in trouble.”

Schadenfreude was Merriam-Webster’s most searched on Oct 2nd. Image: Screenshot Merriam-Webster

For Siegel, the end-result of schadenfreude is political instability and moral cynicism. The first because the people sharing a society don’t see themselves as sharing a common purpose nor any reason to cooperate, and the second because pervasive schadenfreude in the political sphere promotes the abandonment of moral concern. Finally Siegel says that “Rather than indulge, endorse, or retweet the feeling, there are better reactions. Acknowledge how natural it can feel, and how easily it can be amplified and propagated, and how damaging this emotional economy is to democracy. Remember that falling ill is not a way of being held accountable.”

Yet somehow I am not convinced by Siegel’s argument, which seems to work something like this:

  1. Schadenfreude is a natural feeling, but has pernicious effects.
  2. Such effects include the deterioration of society, of morality, the economy, and of accountability.
  3. Therefore, do not promote the feeling of schadenfreude especially if we wish to hold Trump accountable.

I agree with Siegel that feeling schadenfreude is natural. We all experience it. However, the prohibition of engaging with it—to share one’s experience of schadenfreude is a denial of one’s self. I am reminded of Nietzsche (p127) who wrote, “Is there, then, anything immoral in feeling pleasure in the pain of others?” Interestingly enough, Nietzsche takes the opposite approach to Siegel. He says that “All pleasure is, in itself, neither good nor bad. Whence comes the conviction that one should not cause pain in others in order to feel pleasure oneself? Simply from the standpoint of utility, that is, in consideration of the consequences, of ultimate pain, since the injured party or state will demand satisfaction and revenge. This consideration alone can have led to the determination to renounce such pleasure.”

Nietzsche circa 1875. Photo: Wikipedia

Just as Nietzsche posits, Siegel is only looking at the consequences of engaging in schadenfreude. If we are only looking at the consequences, then we must look at all the consequences. If Trump were to pass away or be incapacitated to govern, then a backlash to schadenfreude may never occur. Thus we can reply to Siegel with:

  1. Schadenfreude is a natural feeling, but only has pernicious effects in the form of backlash by the one suffering pain.
  2. Schadenfreude may cause the deterioration of society, of morality, the economy, and of accountability if such decay did not exist prior to schadenfreude entering the political sphere. Political schadenfreude is not the cause of society’s collapse, but rather a symptom of political polarisation. In other words, we already refused to cooperate with each other even before schadenfreude entered the political sphere.
  3. Schadenfreude has no bearing on whether Trump will be held accountable. There very well could be the scenario that Trump not only survives COVID-19, but goes on to win his reelection. In such a scenario, Trump will not face accountability. It could be argued that this scenario will produce more harm (on an exponential scale) than if he were to succumb to COVID-19 because he will be emboldened to continue his policies.

First, let me clarify that I am not arguing for Trump’s passing. On the contrary, I want him to recover in order to be held accountable. This, I believe, is the only way the country can heal after his deliberate divisiveness and hateful tenure. However if we are looking only at the consequences of schadenfreude, then I must disagree with Siegel that it is the wrong reaction to the President’s COVID-19. It is, in the words of Nietzsche, neither good or bad.

Finally, to conclude this post, readers let me posit some questions to you: do you think that viewing the phenomenon of schadenfreude through its consequences is the right thing to do, or do other ethical systems provide better insights? Do you agree (or disagree) with Siegel or me? Let me know in the comments!

Cover Photo: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash