A Sneaking Schadenfreude



Even as the curtain fell on Broadway mainstays like Wicked, Rent, and Hairspray, the puppets of Avenue Q have continued to belt out hits at the diminutive John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street. One of the show’s most popular numbers is “Schadenfreude,” in which the musical’s protagonist, Nicky, and the superintendent of Avenue Q, Gary Coleman, sing of their joy at the misfortunes of others.

According to Social Comparison Theory, developed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, the theory behind schadenfreude is simple: humans evaluate themselves not so much by objective standards as by comparison with people around them. Thus, when those around them fail-from “CEOs getting shackled” to “Straight-A students getting Bs”-people feel better about their own position in the world. As Gary Coleman tells Nicky in the musical, the fact that he feels happy because Nicky is down is not his fault. Indeed, Coleman riffs, schadenfreude is “human nature, there’s nothing I can do.”

In an article about schadenfreude, published in the August 22, 2003 edition of the New York Times, one Australian researcher noted that people were happiest watching individuals fall from grace that “were seen not to deserve their status” in the first place. Harvard students are often the targets of others’ schadenfreude, since there is a widespread perception that we do not deserve of the opportunities the world bestows upon us simply because of our affiliation with this University. The less-than-surreptitious use of the Harvard name by its students and alumni, which has become so universally maligned as to constitute its own phrase in the lexicon of the Urban Dictionary-“dropping the H-Bomb”-only adds to the public’s joy at watching Cambridge’s finest descend into debauchery.

In normal times, individual Harvard alumni, such as Eliot Spitzer ’84, invariably commit public gaffes that make society squeal with glee at the sight of an exposed, Ivy League overachiever. However, such scandals are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, the majority of the privileged alumni of this University are somewhat immune to downturns in the overall economy.

These, of course, are not normal times. In recent weeks, Harvard Law 3Ls, formerly secure in six-figure firm jobs, have received letters from their employers asking them to delay their start dates, or, increasingly, not to report for duty at all. In the words of the Office of Career Services, which hosted a panel discussion about how to survive the recession on Thursday, March 12, “virtually no organization has escaped the downturn unscathed.”

I must admit, that upon hearing this news, it is easy to slide into the trap of schadenfreude. I can blame part of this hideous response on the latent uncertainty, stress, and frustration of being a still-to-be-employed, public-interest-from-the-get-go 3L. I can also blame the sneaking sense that the law firm world, like the investment banking community before it, deserves the pain of falling profits for simultaneously defending corporate misdoings against consumers with a fraction of the bankroll and for paying insufficient attention to the plight of millions of Americans who cannot afford legal assistance.

Ultimately, there is no good excuse for schadenfreude. Such emotions must be resisted, not because the underlying moral condemnation of the actions of others need necessarily be muted, but rather because of the pernicious effect that taking happiness at the misfortune of others and pleasure in others’ pain has on one’s capacity for love.

Reverend Peter Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in The Memorial Church at Harvard College, in a sermon earlier this year, placed schadenfreude and love in oppositional terms. Gomes said that while he does not like all people, he seeks to love all whom he comes in contact with. To love another person, Gomes said, is to “wish the best for [him].” In other words, we cannot possibly wish the best for our classmates if we simultaneously take pleasure in their comeuppance, even if we believe that the choices that led them to face such a comeuppance were wrong.

That said, there is a suffocating silence at Harvard Law School about the morality of our professional choices. The inevitable result of silence is that none of us-students, faculty, or staff-hold each other accountable for our decisions or make each other question the underlying values of our professional choices.

Thus, the argument for firm work is almost always spelled out with the same tired pros and cons: longer hours, less client contact, but more money to pay off pesky loans. Likewise, the arguments for and against public interest work are similarly described in financial terms.

Students continue to use the refrain of “paying off loans” as a rationalization for choosing firm work over non-profit work despite the unrivaled support provided by HLS via the Low Income Protection Program (LIPP) and the Public Service Initiative. There are many students, of course, who choose not to rationalize their choices away, but instead view the work of corporate firms as important and intellectually stimulating labor that pays in accordance with the scarcity of skills available in the marketplace.

The former position is far worse than the latter because it evades moral responsibility for one’s choices. Given that LIPP will pay all of your loan debt if you make the median personal income for the U.S. ($42,000), the claim that the firm choice is based on a need to pay off debt is a sham. Instead, what the choice is based on is a moral ordering of values. Instead of obscuring our moral choices and evading responsibility, we need to be honest with ourselves about the motivations and values inherent in our decision-making. And we need not only scrutinize our “big” professional choices, but also our day-to-day decisions that invariably project our understanding of the world onto others.

Many HLS graduates surely struggle with the decision to forego a career in public service in return for financial security that benefits their families. These choices are complicated, individual decisions. Struggle alone, however, cannot silence our conscience-a companion that is always prepared to second-guess our choices, even when we would rather forge ahead, reflection be damned. Only by thoughtful assessment and frequent reassessment of our own values can we quiet Jiminy Cricket and be confident we are living a life that is consistent with those values.

Unfortunately, there are many times during a law school career when we are wont to find happiness watching someone else squirm in the teeth of a struggle. Sometimes a classmate is not prepared for class and at other times an opposing attorney is unprepared for an objection or counterargument you throw their way. Sympathy and love, not smug schadenfreude, ought motivate our reactions in each of these instances, as well as when we hear of classmates being laid off from jobs they had yet to start.And yet, while schadenfreude is juvenile at best, evil at worst, we need not conceal our moral opposition to the choices our classmates, friends, and family members make. Instead, a conversation must be developed, on this campus and on others around this nation, about what moral imperatives are imposed on us by spirituality and society.This conversation must not be confined to initial choices about professional options. Instead, it must encompass the role of the law in a still-developing democracy. We have strayed far from the days of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who was well known for interrupting oral arguments with the fundamental moral questions, “Is it right? Is it good?”These questions need not, and quite possibly should not, form the basis for judicial decisions. However, to demand that morality be extracted from law is to ask both the impossible and the undesirable. Law is the encapsulation of the values of a people. Just as we cannot separate our personal decisions from m
orality, we cannot shield the law from our vision of what constitutes a just world in the abstract.

In the end, no person can be certain that his moral vision of what is right and good is, in any global sense, correct. What he can be sure of is that only by testing his moral vision in the cauldron of conversation and debate will he be able to contribute to a discussion about what is right and good for our world and how each of us can contribute to its improvement. When we choose to shroud our own choices in a cocoon of moral neutrality, we cease to be able to offer anything of value to the conversation that our law school, and others like it, so urgently requires.

Andrew L. Kalloch is a 3L and Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Law Record

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