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When Bad Things Happen to Other People Paperback – July 13, 2000
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Does taking pleasure in the pain of another always represent malice? Or can this emotion reflect a thoughtful respect for justice? And what about humor, which often revolves around a "comeuppance" that those who laugh see as trivial (though the laughter's target may disagree)? These are the sorts of questions Portmann takes on in his nuanced analysis of schadenfreude. The subject has been debated by philosophers over the generations; Portmann engages with them, from Kant and Freud to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He draws on literature, too, exploring the positions of Kafka and Dickens, Umberto Eco and Toni Morrison, and applies his normative notion of schadenfreude to current debates on subjects such as capital punishment, media violence, and the cult of celebrity. Portmann defends schadenfreude but urges attention to its basis in "power structures and social forces through which our characters both take shape and shape the lives of those around us." A demanding but productively provocative analysis. Mary Carroll --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
...a valuable addition to moral philosophy because it points up some of the conundrums associated with a careful consideration of Schadenfreude. -- Philosophy and Literature
...strongly recommended as a stimulating and perceptive examination of issues and questions relating to our attitudes toward the misfortunes of other people with which all of us are familiar in our moral lives. -- The Virginia Quarterly Review
[The book] is praiseworthy for taking up the frequently neglected topic of the ethics of emotions and for pointing out why discussion of emotions has been shunned by many philosophers...the book's style is quite readable... -- The World
...fine nuggets peppered through the text... -- New York Times
A demanding but productively provocative analysis. -- Booklist
...lucid and engaging. -- The Wall Street Journal
Schadenfreude is a fascinating emotion, much neglected but obviously of great importance for practical ethics and moral psychology. Portmann's book cuts across the intersection of current emotion theory, psychology and ethics and invites philosophical interaction with some classic literature on some of the nastier emotions. The author is obviously well-read and has a rich store of literary and philosophical examples. -- Robert C. Solomon, University of Texas at Austin
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But, the fact is, that really is the content of the book, and fascinating and delightful it is. The prose style is crystal and orderly, almost like a serious dissertation that went through a top-notch editor (although there is a typo here and there, but who's counting?).
This emotion that has no proper English name is dissected not only in a variety of ways, but also at a variety of angles, revealing unexpected relationships between this pecadillo and our construct of justice. For example, Do we take pleasure in the justice that is served when one who "deserves" it gets his/her comeuppance? Or is it that we take pleasure in the knowledge that we were lucky enough to have been spared the same nasty spill of fate? Is Schadenfreude the same thing as malice? What about the element of anticipation? Even if we may not consciously wish any person any harm, but still find it somewhat pleasurable to discover that so-and-so was laid-off or demoted, are we guilty? Why is that some tiny little part of us "dies" when our friends succeed, and do better than we do?
How is Schadenfreude different from envy, malice, jealousy, and resentment?
Questions such as these and many more are carefully examined by cross-referencing Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and modern scholars of ethics, including John Rawls. Complex theme but Portman is a gentleman scholar, goes out of his way (albeit effortlessly) to make clear all his references.