Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blame and Schadenfreude

I want to say that envy and schadenfreude are essentially irrational, in that these emotions involve implicit normative misjudgments. Envy involves responding to something good (for another person) as though it were bad, and schadenfreude involves responding to something bad as thought it were good. In general, I hold, emotions involve implicit judgments, and can be rationally assessed according to whether those judgments are themselves rationally warranted. But might this approach be used, by moral responsibility skeptics, to argue that blame is never warranted?

Someone might suggest that the reactive emotions associated with blame (resentment, guilt/shame, etc.) involve an implicit claim to the effect that the target deserves to be punished, or that it would be a good thing if this were to occur. But many people are skeptical of such retributivist claims. We may instead think that for a person to suffer is never good in itself (even if the person in question is bad). Does this then commit us to the view that people are never blameworthy?

Well, only if we accept their initial suggestion about what implicit judgment is contained in the emotion of blame. And I don't see any reason to accept that. Of course, many folk are retributivists, and so would be happy to see the people they consider blameworthy suffer. But this seems a merely contingent connection. As I see things, moral emotions like resentment or moral indignation merely involve, in the first instance, a kind of negative judgment or moral disapproval. Roughly, as per Nomy Arpaly's account, to hold someone blameworthy for an action is to hold that they manifested a "deficiency of good will" in so acting. It is this normative judgment that is implicit in the negative moral emotions, or so it seems to me, not any stronger claim to the effect that it would be a good thing for this bad person to suffer. How we should respond to the identified deficiency is a strictly further question.

It's important to distinguish here between blame and outward expressions of blame (e.g. vocally berating the person). To express blame is an action -- a form of punishment -- that may be advisable or not as the practical reasons dictate. All else equal, we may think there is a pro tanto reason not to so act, namely that it's unpleasant for the recipient. We shouldn't want people to suffer unpleasantness (unless it's instrumental to some greater good, e.g. deterring future wrongdoing, that can outweigh this consideration). This is the standard anti-retributivist point. But even if expressing blame is inadvisable, it doesn't follow that blame itself is unwarranted. (Just as one may be warranted in feeling fear, though it may be inadvisable to scream or otherwise express this emotion if that may trigger panic in others.)

This is the crucial point. While expressing one's moral disapproval may be an act of 'punishment', and (pro tanto) inadvisable for that reason, the same simply isn't true of feeling moral disapproval in the first place. Emotions aren't actions, and so a fortiori aren't acts of punishment. They may be practically fortunate or unfortunate, but those aren't the kinds of considerations that determine whether a given emotion is rationally warranted (just as practical considerations aren't relevant to rational belief). Rather, what matters is whether the implicit judgment in the emotion is warranted. So it all comes down to the question whether the moral emotions involve implicitly judging punishment to be desirable. Do they? (How, exactly, could we go about settling this question one way or another?)

P.S. For a somewhat different take on what blame consists in (which I'm also sympathetic to), see my old discussion of Scanlon's view.


  1. I'm curious about the case of envy. It seems to me that there's a weak sense of envy which has more to do with basic desires than with judgement of any kind - the envy we feel when we see someone else with something we wanted for ourselves. We needn't know anything about them in order to feel that - let alone have an opinion about whether they deserved it or even if it is in fact good for them.

    And it seems to me that this sort of envy is just as rational an emotion as being disappointed or frustrated in the absence of any external prompting. It's just a dissatisfaction with the thing you wanted going to someone else instead and this seems reasonable, especially if the someone else is the cause of that undesired distribution of the object of desire...

    So do you want to say that disappointment is irrational as well, or is this kind of envy different in some way from the one you want to talk about?

  2. Disappointment is certainly fine. But I'm not convinced that there's any sense of 'envy' that is nothing more than 'disappointment caused by an external prompt'. (Emotions are typically individuated by their internal qualities, so we would call this 'disappointment' -- albeit caused by an external prompt -- rather than 'envy'.) I take it that envy essentially involves comparative rather than absolute desires: it could be satisfied by depriving the other of their good, no less than by giving you a good of your own. It is this 'leveling down' aspect of the desire that I consider irrational. (Put another way: envy involves thinking it's bad for the other person to have the good thing, over and above the badness of your not having it.)

    This isn't too essential for present purposes; you can just turn to schadenfreude if you don't like the example of envy. But I guess it does serve to again highlight the problem noted at the end of my post: how can we settle disputes about the implicit contents (e.g. desires or judgments) of emotions?

  3. To avoid ambiguity, that should read: "envy involves thinking it's bad that the other person have the good thing..."

  4. hmmm, points taken Richard. My notion of envy was a bit weak. And I guess I'm just not reading your analysis and seeing 'envy', but there's also more than a semantic point to be made here.

    Here's another go at the objection.

    Rival analysis: The judgement envy is in the business of making (if any) is thinking it bad that someone else has something good and you do not. Being envious of someone means resenting them for having something you want instead of you... it's directed at a comparative state of affairs involving yourself, the other person and the good; and all three fall under the scope of the judgement.

    This is not the same as the judgement you describe. The state of affairs that this emotion/judgement is directed toward implies that the other person has the good. But the emotion & thought operating on this does not imply thinking it bad that they have it simpliciter, as it applies specifically to the smaller set of possible worlds where they have it and you don't.

    At least that's a possible moral emotion. The second part of the objection is the empirical claim that this is a more psychologically realistic emotion then the one your analysis picks out. I.e. no-one really hates the fact that other people have good stuff, the fact they have good stuff is one necessary condition of the object of a genuine envy emotion but it's not sufficient and not what the emotion is primarily about. I agree with you about the problem of determining the implied content of judgement, so I'm not sure how to argue this other than by appeal to a vague intuition that envy has something to do with selfishness.

    Third part of the objection is that this emotion-implied judgement is not irrational. But perhaps there's something to say against that. For example the choice of scope here might be irrational in the first place: even for a complete egotist you ought to be worrying about the state of affairs of you not having the good, the overlap where someone else has it instead should be accidental and irrelevant to the emotion... so envy might be an accidental emotion in this sense.

    Anyway the objection is that you're attacking a straw emotion, as it were. I'm not sure if I'll end up standing by it but I'd be interested to hear what you think.

    Schadenfreude... not sure if a similar line would work. Would have to think about it. Thanks as usual for the stimulating discussion.

  5. "it applies specifically to the smaller set of possible worlds where they have it and you don't."

    Yeah, that seems right -- I agree my earlier description was slightly sloppy. But I still think the resulting emotion is irrational. Again, envy (even so understood) implies that it would be better to "level down", i.e. for us to both have nothing, rather than for you to have something good when I don't. This is unreasonable. It's unfortunate if I don't also have the good (hence the reasonableness of disappointment). But that's all.

  6. Okay good. But perhaps the nature of the good in question might matter here. E.g. if it's not the case that there's as much and as good of the good after someone else has it then it's not a simple case of levelling down. The paradigm case would be romantic jealousy, but also someone else getting the job or reward that you were after. It's not just that they have got something of the kind of thing that I wanted, they've got the very thing that I wanted so now I can't have it.

    I guess what I'm just trying to redescribe the content of the judgement away from simple

    And again it's a problem of the comparison class. You keep using the comparison between them having it and no-one having it but I'm not sure that's necessarily implied. It could be that it's between them having it and you having it. It could also be an undifferentiated dissatisfaction with them having it without preferring another state, but that might be of dubious rationality I guess.

    Another tack: surely it's possible to think it bad that some other person gets something good, if they don't deserve it? It would certainly be worse for an undeserving person to get a unique good than a deserving one (i.e. me). Nothing irrational there if we grant the desert judgements.

  7. Hello,

    I just had a thought about this sentence:

    "In general, I hold, emotions involve implicit judgments, and can be rationally assessed according to whether those judgments are themselves rationally warranted."

    I'm wondering whether it would be possible for a meta-ethical non-cognitivist to hold emotions are implicit judgments. My worry is that perhaps it would some sort of circularity. If moral judgments get are some sort of emotive attitudes and emotive attidudes themselves involve implicit judgments (I'm guessing these are value judgments most of the time), then isn't the non-cognitivist back where he started?


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