When Bad Things Happen to Other People

When Bad Things Happen to Other People

When Bad Things Happen to Other People

When Bad Things Happen to Other People

Synopsis

Although many of us deny it, it is not uncommon to feel pleasure over the suffering of others, particularly when we feel that suffering has been deserved. The German word for this concept-Schadenfreude-has become universal in its expression of this feeling. Drawing on the teachings of history's most prominent philosophers, John Portmann explores the concept of Schadenfreude in this rigorous, comprehensive, and absorbing study.

Excerpt

The Sometimes Sweet Suffering of Others

WE SUFFER. IN VARIOUS WAYS AND TO VARYING DEGREES, WE SUFFER.

Do we deserve to suffer? If not, then why do we suffer? And what, if anything, does our suffering mean?

Though answers to these perennial questions elude us, we have not stopped wondering if we are to blame for our hardships. For many centuries very different kinds of people have believed that God, or some allknowing cosmic force, causes us to suffer after we sin. Not long ago Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to assure us that God does not operate like this: it is not because we are bad people that we suffer, for bad things can happen even to good people. Much suffering happens randomly, Kushner urged us to accept, and has nothing to do with cosmic justice. Kushner's message, by no means an original one in the late twentieth century, landed his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People on the best-seller lists.

What about the bad things that happen to other people? The doubts we have about our own goodness pale in comparison to the doubts we entertain about the goodness of others. Especially when we think about others with whom we have nothing in common, skeptical thoughts colonize our minds. We are more likely to view the misfortunes of others as deserved than we are our own. Even when we do not genuinely believe that someone else deserves his suffering, we may try to convince ourselves he does.

This book concerns how we feel about the bad things that happen to other people, not what we do about them. As such, this book concerns character, not conduct. Curiously, some moral philosophers have insisted that a person's character and emotions don't merit much attention. Kant and his many followers tend to see conduct as all-important. It's not how we feel about other people that matters, it's how we treat other people. I

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