22 March 2005

When Bad Things Happen to Good People?

Could everyone be getting this wrong? If so, that would give me no pleasure.

Here’s the passage I have in mind:

Righteous indignation is intermediate between grudging ill will and malice, all of these having to do with pain and pleasure at things that happen to one’s neighbors: the person who tends towards righteous indignation is distressed at those who do well undeservedly, while the grudging person exceeds him, being distressed at anyone’s doing well, and the malicious person is so deficient when it comes to being distressed that he is even pleased (Nicomachean Ethics 2.8.1108b1-5, Rowe and Broadie translation).

[1108b] (1) ne/mesij de\ meso/thj fqo/nou kai\ e)pixairekaki/aj, ei)si\ de\ peri\ lu/phn kai\ h(donh\n ta\j e)pi\ toi=j sumbai/nousi toi=j pe/laj ginome/naj: o( me\n ga\r nemeshtiko\j lupei=tai e)pi\ toi=j a)naci/wj eu)= pra/ttousin, o( de\ fqonero\j u(perba/llwn tou=ton e)pi\ (5) pa=si lupei=tai, o( d' e)pixaire/kakoj tosou=ton e)llei/pei tou= lupei=sqai w(/ste kai\ xai/rein.

Pleased by what?

By the misfortunes of others, as Rowe and Broadie explain in their comments, “Whereas the other two attitudes involve pain at others’ good fortunes, malice involves pleasure in their misfortunes” (309). In this they follow the common opinion.

I suppose this interpretation is based on an etymology. ‘Malice’ renders e)pixairekaki/a, which looks like it should mean ‘taking pleasure in the bad’—what we call Schadenfreude.

The problem is, the interpretation hardly makes sense of how the Doctrine of the Mean works here. How is Schadenfreude an extreme deficiency, and therefore a contrary opposite, of the excess that is spite or envy? I don't see it. Maybe they're not? “The extremes of this triad,” Rowe and Broadie say in their commentary, “are not mutually exclusive, and in fact at Rhetoric II.9, 1387a1, they are said necessarily to coincide.” I’m not sure about that Rhetoric passage, but I am sure that in the Nicomachean Ethics contrary vices are not meant to coincide.

I think I see a way out of the difficulty. Does anyone else? Let me know your thoughts, in the comments box, and I'll add my own two cents later.


Anonymous said...

Considering the virtue in question is "righteous indignation", which is distress "at one who does well undeservedly". Perhaps, then, the extremes would be concerned with a sense of injustice as regards the situation of another.
The excessive man is distressed at the apparent injustice of anyone doing well. For he thinks all men are guilty compared to himself, and therefore deserve to be distressed. The deficient man, however, is pleased by the injustice of an innocent man suffering. The mean, then, would be the man who is distressed only when one who ought be distressed is not - in other words, at a true injustice.
So the excessive man sees all men as guilty or undeserving, and desires their distress. The deficient man sees innocent men and desires their distress as well - in fact, he enjoys it. The virtuous man desires only distress for those who truly deserve it.

John Henry