About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The ethics of humor

by Massimo Pigliucci

Plato and a platypus walked into a bar. The bartender gave the philosopher a quizzical look, and Plato said, “What can I say? She looked better in the cave.” The relationship between humor and philosophy has been explored for a long time, with the authors of the popular Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, Daniel Klein and Thomas Cathcart, arguing that good jokes are structurally similar to good philosophical arguments: they start with a familiar, apparently non-threatening, situation; lead the listener toward a path he thinks he can see; and then they suddenly take a sharp turn to deliver either the punchline or a surprising conclusion.

But I was reminded of a different connection between humor and philosophy this past semester, while listening to a fascinating (and funny!) talk by my colleague at CUNY’s Graduate Center, Noël Carroll (who, interestingly, holds not only a PhD in philosophy, but one in cinema studies). Carroll set out to explore the ethics of humor, and particularly to examine what he called the “skeptic’s” position that humor is a-moral, i.e. that jokes have no moral content of their own, and that applying ethical reasoning to humor is a category mistake (something akin to asking about the typical smell of triangles).

As Carroll immediately pointed out, historically humor and ethics have often come into contact — and conflict. Puritans of all stripes have always objected to humor on moral grounds, which famously prompted American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken to quip that puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

But setting aside puritanism, the skeptic has to deal with the fact that some jokes do appear to cross an ethical line that ought to (and often does) make people uncomfortable. For instance, one thing is to make fun of a privileged group, and an altogether different one is to laugh at the expense of a disadvantaged one. Consider the increasingly less popular (at least in liberal urban centers) ethnic jokes along the lines of “an Irishman enters a bar...” If you are not Irish, you really ought (morally, not just as a politically correct precaution) to stay away from that stuff. But self-deprecation is okay, so that usually we don’t have a problem with Irish, Scots, Italians, Jews, etc. making jokes — even to non-members of their group — about themselves.

[And now, a joke about philosophy, which can only be told by philosophers: “The First Law of Philosophy is: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.
The Second Law of Philosophy is: They're both wrong.”]

Carroll brought up an interesting point in this respect: some malicious jokes are indeed funny, if ethically objectionable. Is one therefore morally complicit if he laughs at one of these jokes? It depends on which theory of humor you subscribe to. Understanding and laughing at a joke obviously requires a certain cultural background on the part of the listener, and according to  the attitude-endorsement theory, if said listener is laughing at racist or misogynist jokes, he must be at least somewhat racist or misogynist himself.

But this conclusion may be a bit too quick, since it presupposes the existence of only one viable (i.e., funny) interpretation of a given joke. It is possible, for instance, that an apparently misogynist joke could instead be interpreted as being, say, about hypocrisy. This response, according to Carroll, can only go so far, because jokes — like any other type of text, and pace the postmodernists — are not open to an infinite number of interpretations. But it is also true that we can entertain possibilities in which we do not actually believe: I can laugh at a joke about Santa Claus without this somehow implying that I believe in Santa Claus. Similarly, one could laugh at a racist / misogynist joke without being racist / misogynist. As Aristotle famously put it, “it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

[Aristotle had other things to say about humor, for instance: “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” Umberto Eco’s famous book The Name of the Rose is all about a fictional — and lethal — controversy generated by Aristotle’s views on humor among medieval puritans.]

Another possibility raised by Carroll is that the “funnyness” of a joke cannot be measured simply by how many people laugh at it, because there is a normative (as opposed to just a descriptive) component to humor. This would imply that that some jokes are not funny because they are immoral, regardless of how many people laugh at them. Carroll didn’t seem to buy this idea, and I think he is correct. For one, he pointed out that if true this would imply that adding moral content to a joke would make it funnier, something that is in flagrant contradiction with empirical (if anecdotal) evidence... Indeed, a position called “comic immoralism” maintains that spicing jokes with a bit of immorality helps them. Think of the latest funny joke about cannibalism, which made you laugh without necessarily implying that you find cannibalism an ethically acceptable habit.

Nonetheless, Carroll concluded his talk (at least, according to my notes), with the interesting observation that moral imagination can stop the humor in its tracks in ways similar to which, say, a highly disgusting situation may block the enjoyment of a joke. Both physical and moral disgust can cause alienation from the humor — something in agreement with recent research showing the neural commonality between moral and physical disgust.

So, may I go back now and enjoy this week’s Jon Stewart with a clear conscience?


  1. "Is one therefore morally complicit if he laughs at one of these jokes? It depends on which theory of humor you subscribe to. Understanding and laughing at a joke obviously requires a certain cultural background on the part of the listener, and according to the attitude-endorsement theory, if said listener is laughing at racist or misogynist jokes, he must be at least somewhat racist or misogynist himself."

    I always thought that this was an interesting conundrum. I'm inclined to say that simply *laughing* at a joke doesn't make you complicit, for four reasons:

    1) Laughter can be somewhat involuntary. I've (rarely) laughed at jokes while simultaneously finding them morally offensive. My (subjective, introspective, highly suspect) guess about why this happened is that the process in my brain that was looking at the comedic content of the joke was simply faster that whatever process was looking at the moral implications, and therefore I started to laugh before the moral process was able to inhibit that response. But there are also mental disorders that can induce laughter, or "nervous" laughter, neither of which necessarily involve even the subjective feeling that something is funny, other than in the sense that it produces laughter.

    2) Sometimes people are simply not sure why something is funny to them, which I think undermines the attitude-endorsement theory on a conscious level.

    3) Sometimes people laugh at jokes about things that they would regard with abject horror if confronted with them in reality. Maybe the extreme example would be the dead baby joke, which (one hopes!) is not generally told by people who delight in the slaughter of infants, but which apparently is told simply because of the visceral feeling of shock or taboo it generates. That is, I'd agree with the immoralists that in some cases jokes are funny *because we regard their content as morally objectionable*, at least as long as we do not actually feel a sense of urgent anger or disgust (e.g. because the situation being described is too ludicrous to regard as a real risk). In my mind, this undermines the attitude-endorsement theory more generally.

    4) If the laughter is not actually *taken* as an endorsement of a particular view by anyone, it seems a bit difficult to condemn it on naive consequentialist grounds, although perhaps you could still regard inappropriate laughter as a defect in someone's character.

  2. A case of particular interest to me, as a feminist, would be the rape joke. The typical rape joke is not funny, past its reliance on the tropes of victim blaming and slut shaming, with a liberal dash of wishful thinking on the joke-teller's part in some particularly horrifying cases. At the same time, given the problems that rape awareness faces (the misconception that rape is a rare event, for example, or the unwillingness to allow certain forms of rape to be named thus) makes it extremely hard to tell a moral rape joke, let alone a good one.

  3. Ha. Fascinating topic. I agree with Sean that laughter needs to be left out of the moral evaluation of a joke. It's not the laughing, but the telling that bears the moral burden. "Why is this funny?" is not a moral question. "Why is this a joke?" however, is both a moral and a sociological question. Talking about the jokes told during the Nazi era, Rudolph Herzog, author of "Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany," says, "they reflect, as all old jokes do, what truly occupied, amused, and annoyed the people of their time." He admits that these jokes are not even remotely funny to us today. He also rightly questions the idea of humor as rebellion. Certainly humor plays a big role in repressive regimes (witness all the Russian "anectdoty" that proliferate even today) But these jokes may function as more of a relief valve or normalizing activity than true rebellion. John Stewart, in other words, keeps us home and out of the Occupy camps. Jokes about prison rape normalize what aught to be an utterly unacceptable thing. My mother in law just sent me an email list of "oxymoron" type jokes. This supposed exploration of "The Philosophy of Ambiguity" contained a blatant straw-man attack on Evolution. "4. IF MAN EVOLVED FROM MONKEYS AND APES, WHY DO WE STILL HAVE MONKEYS AND APES?" It doesn't matter if this is funny, does it? It's a political attack masquerading as a joke. This one email chain has probably set NCSE back further than anything that's come out of the Discovery Institute. Seems in line with Freud's (I know, I know) definition of humor as "masked aggression." I'm guessing that if we were to find the transmission vectors for racial stereotypes, humor would be the most infested pond.

    As someone who has made a lot of money with jokes, I've been acutely aware of who is writing my checks. When I was doing stand-up, my funding came from the sales of booze. Now that I'm writing television, I get paid by advertisers, because my jokes deliver eyeballs. Is this immoral? Well, I'm cashing the checks, but I do feel a twinge when I think about how much more money I make than educators or even all my friends who work at JPL.

  4. Why has the text recently changed from black to grey? Grey on white background gives inadequate contrast for easy reading!

    1. I, too, feel that conversations about morality should adhere to a black and white paradigm.

  5. Quote: "If you are not Irish, you really ought (morally, not just as a politically correct precaution) to stay away from that stuff. But self-deprecation is okay..."

    I think the devil is in the details for this entire subject.

    Even if you ARE Irish, I don't think it is necessarily okay to tell anti-Irish jokes. It may not be a case of a person "having a sense of humor" and willing to "be a sport" in order to entertain his friends. Rather, it may be a pathetic and desperate attempt by a put-upon minority to win approval from wider society by the only means open to them. For example, imagine an "Uncle Tom Negro" in the 1920's telling jokes that reinforce racist stereotypes in order to have a few coins flung at him -- benefiting himself at the expense of his ethnic group. Would THAT be okay?

    Politics is filled with Quislings who are willing to benefit themselves by accepting a "token" spot in a political party whose policies will result in the subjugation of a particular minority. Certain Jews even financed and aided Hitler. Bottom line: members of an ethnic minority don't have blanket amnesty for crimes against that particular minority.

    I don't mean to be humorless. I understand the very human impulse to laugh at certain things, how it can be somewhat involuntary, how laughter doesn't necessarily mean approval. But, I am uncomfortable with a blanket approval. Certain types of jokes have a great danger of tending to erase aversion to rape, violence, ethnic prejudice etc. As OneDayMore has noted, a joke can be a masked political attack.

    We should think carefully about this before saying it is okay. Even if it is a very human impulse and everybody does it, and a member of the ethnic group in question participates, it may still not be okay.

    P.S. Great comments by everyone here.

  6. Isn't this all about context? My wife and I make jokes and comments about everyone and everything, the more horrible the better, from the holocaust to rape to murdered babies to slavery. Part of the humor is the roles we're adopting when we make these comments, a comment on the stereotypes, and part of the humor is making fun of our own liberal selves. If someone I didn't know well made any of these jokes though I'd be horrified. I doubt that the jokes themselves have any moral weight outside of the way they are told and to whom. The fact that holocaust victims told jokes about CC camps hardly means they approved of their treatment.

  7. The best way to tell if a joke is inappropriate is to wonder why other people think it's funny.

    But what do I know, I'm Irish.

  8. Footnotes / corrections (fun facts to know and tell?)

    “As Aristotle famously put it, ‘it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.’”

    “Aristotle had other things to say about humor, for instance: ‘Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.’”

    Both of these “quotations” are very popular, as Google will attest. In fact, neither is to be found in Aristotle’s writings.

    The first -- “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” -- is a very garbled version of an important (and, in some circles, famous) statement in Bk. I of the Nicomachean Ethics (1094b24):

    “…for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.” (Tr. W.D. Ross)

    See http://publicnoises.blogspot.com/2009/02/aristotle-and-accuracy.html

    Credit for the second of these popular “quotations” belongs not to Aristotle but to Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713). In his 1709 essay / published letter Sensus Communis: An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour, Shaftesbury pushes a theme that recurs elsewhere in his writings: jokes and a sense of humor are the best weapons against fanaticism. In Part 1, Sec. 5, he writes:

    “'Twas the saying of* an ancient sage that humour was the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour. For a subject which would not bear raillery was suspicious; and a jest which would not bear a serious examination was certainly false wit.

    "* Georgias Leontinus apud Arist. Rhetor. lib. 3. cap. 18… which the Translator renders, Seria Risu, Risum Seriis discutere”

    What we actually find in the passage Shaftesbury refers to (Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1419b5): “As for jests, since they may sometimes be useful in debates, the advice of Gorgias was good — to confound the opponents' earnest with jest and their jest with earnest.” (Tr. J.H. Freese; the comment of Gorgias Aristotle quotes = Gorgias fragment B 12 in Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker)

    Citation of these false quotes – instances of what I would label “fake erudition” – raises interesting questions. Does attribution to Aristotle make the “quoted” statements any truer or more worthwhile? Or does the attribution really serve to bolster the authority of the person who cites these “quotes” (and, hence, the worthiness of his argument)?


    Thanks for the philosopher jokes.

    Can’t help remembering something one of my teachers once said: It is part of the business of philosophy to explain jokes. This always ruins them, even for other philosophers.

  9. Thanks for the scholarly footnotes, they are appreciated. Of course, one's argument does not depend on one's authorities, but on the content of the sources. Careful, however, about throwing around words like "fake" too lightly. I assure you that even scholarly publications are full of errors. That doesn't make them fake.

    p.s.: While clearly not required, I appreciate when people don't present themselves simply as "anonymous." It's hard to quote them properly...

  10. Since humor often depends on sidestepping expectations, it's no surprise that moral or amoral standards can be great material for jokes. I think many people have laughed hard at a joke while at the same time trying to get a word in about how wrong it was. And there are certain jokes, probably different for everyone, that are simply offensive, and not funny or enjoyable.

    I think that in order for something to be "all in good fun", I have to make a genuine effort to actually make it fun for everybody, Jokes can be illustrative, and therefore they can be cruel, and they can be moral.

    I wish I could find the source of this: it was an essay about people in very isolated, very violently opposed groups, and it mentioned their humor: "I heard a joke about the blue clan. But since you are a blue, I will make the joke about the yellow clan instead. I tell the joke, and you laugh hysterically. 'Man,' you say 'those yellows are such idiots.' "

  11. Are you saying that it is ethical to enjoy certain types of jokes though it is unethical to make those jokes?
    The act of laughing at a joke encourages the jokester to make more jokes of the same type.
    So, how can encouraging an unethical act be ethical?


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