When I learned that the price of stock in CCA and GEO Group, the world's two leading private prison companies, had plummeted (25% in one report, 35% and 50% in another), I felt a rush of glee. Then, oops, schadenfreude, I noted. It's not good to take pleasure in someone else's pain. It's the reason we don't lick our fingers after flicking out drops of wine for the ten plagues at Passover. It's a value I genuinely hold.
And then I began to wonder, What is the difference between taking joy in someone else's pain when the someone else is a stockholder in a private prison company, and a victim's bitter satisfaction in hearing that an assailant/robber/killer is going to jail?
Ethical subtleties matter; the world is full of gray. We stumble about within our limited vocabularies and worldviews to try to make sense of things that are similar but different, because not to make this effort leads to lazy, shallow conclusions like, "There's no difference between the political parties." Or, "You do the crime, you do the time." So I thought about this a lot.
There is an important distinction between a natural consequence of an event, and suffering purposely imposed on another being. We often mistakenly use the word "consequence" in the latter sense, as in "If you do that, you'll suffer the consequences." What we actually mean in that case, however, is "You will incur a punishment." Here's the difference: If I drop a lamp, the consequence is that it breaks. Another consequence may be that I've distressed the owner of the lamp, who valued it. Imposed upon my by some outside force might be a requirement to clean up the broken lamp, or pay for the lamp, or replace the lamp. But none of these last is a natural consequence of my original act. They are punishments, consciously determined and purposely inflicted. Punishments are not natural consequences.
So there is a difference between taking pleasure in seeing a person suffer at the hands of another (or several others, in the name of the state, which means in our name)--which is avoidable and therefore to be avoided--and the pleasure one might take in seeing a corrupt regime collapse. A decline in the price of a stock suddenly deemed less valuable thanks to an external event is a genuinely natural consequence of that external event. In other words, it is unavoidable. It's not a punishment for bad behavior but a consequence of it.
Not all bad behavior has negative consequences (i.e. unavoidable results). But when it does, i.e. when the creation and operation of private prisons with the goal of making money results ultimately in a corporation's stock losing value because of a policy shift (and the policy shift itself stems from the feds' recognizing a faulty product), we might feel some compassion for the individuals who lost money, while celebrating the larger event. And perhaps that's not schadenfreude after all but rather a natural, even morally intelligent, response to seeing a lessening of harm in the world.