Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Are offensive jokes more permissible if they’re funny? Written by Raphael Hogarth
This essay received an Honourable Mention in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize of Practical Ethics
Written by New College Oxford student Raphael Hogarth
Three moral agents walk into a bar. They get to joking and, with each round, their banter becomes more risqué. After the second pint, Agent A ventures a humourless and offensive joke about Jews and big noses: Agents B and C scowl and move on. After the third pint, Agent A has another crack with a joke about the holocaust – a more insensitive joke, but also apparently one with more potential to amuse. Agent B can’t help but giggle; Agent C is incandescent with outrage. Agents A and B retort in chorus: “But it’s funny!”
This is a familiar sort of exchange. Someone accused of moral turpitude for a tasteless quip will often reach for its comedic value as a defence. Conversely, witlessness is often seen to add insult to injury with offensive jokes: “It wasn’t even funny!” This phenomenon is surprisingly under-philosophised. There has been some debate about how the moral character of a joke can affect how funny it is (the ‘comic moralism/immoralism/amoralism’ debate), but virtually none about whether how funny a joke is can affect its moral character. This is an important question. We form and nourish many of our personal relationships through jokes; their moral status affects ours. Though my focus here is on ethics, not politics, the answer may also have implications for public life – about proper penance for those who make offensive jokes in official capacities, for instance. For simplicity, I focus here on straightforward cases of jokes about groups, not individuals. Unscientific as this is, any reader who doubts there is widespread appetite for such jokes might inspect the below graphic.
First, we must examine the “only joking” defence (OJD). A joker using the OJD says “I was speaking in jest only” – this does not necessarily mean she does not believe what she says, but it means the listener may not assume that the speaker means what she says from the fact that she says it. The speaker was speaking, if you like, as an actor in a play: she might in fact believe her character’s lines, but her utterances are no clue one way or the other. If the OJD is legitimate, then the “it’s funny” defence (IFD) might be considered an irrelevance: funny or not, the joke was permissible, because it was a joke. Additionally, our response to the OJD will inform our response to the IFD. Why might the OJD be a defence? Carroll translates the intuition as “I am not morally accountable because I was not speaking seriously”, which I think is accurate. But what does the joker mean by “not speaking seriously”? The utterance itself might be non-serious insofar as the speaker does not intend it to be taken literally (e.g. as a genuine discussion of how many Jewish mothers would be required for a lightbulb change), but there is no reason the decision to utter a certain expression which is unserious in that sense should itself be regarded as an ‘unserious decision’. When a joker cracks an offensive joke, she makes a number of serious decisions. She could have (1) chosen not to joke, (2) chosen to joke about a different group, (3) chosen to deploy a different stereotype, (4) chosen to make a different joke, (5) chosen a different audience. If she is asked to supply reasons for the decisions she made on each count:
(a) She could be thoroughgoingly non-serious and give her answers in jest. She is either deliberately dodging the question out of laziness, for which she will attract condemnation, or is literally unable to consider the matter seriously, in which case she withdraws herself from the moral discourse and can provide no moral defence for her decisions.
(b) She could answer seriously but simply say “I thought it was funnier this way”, and nothing else. She thereby implies that humour is the only consideration that comes into play when she considers how to act and what to say. She exposes herself as a very abnormal sort of person, a sort of amoral comediopath.
(c) She could answer seriously, and discuss a decision calculus which involves humour but is not limited to it; she weighed the comedy against other factors in deciding what to do.
(d) She could answer seriously, and discuss a decision calculus which does not involve humour. She has not “made an offensive joke” in the normal sense; rather she has uttered some words which she intended to be construed as an offensive joke, but for reasons that have nothing to do with their status as such. Presumably, she has just sought to offend.
How attractive will each of these options be to an offensive joke-maker who seeks to use the OJD or the IFD? If the joker opts for (a), then she is in a sense entitled to the OJD, that is, to saying she was not speaking seriously – she really is a very unserious sort of person. But in taking it, she exposes herself to moral condemnation or defencelessness; anyway, if all she does is joke then nobody will feel bound to listen to her OJD. She could try the IFD, but there is still no reason we should listen. If she opts for (b), she could still reach for the OJD insofar as she thinks joking is the only thing relevant to decision making, but again, she will expose herself to condemnation in so doing. Strong proponents of the IFD will prefer this option, putting funniness front and centre as it does, but they will pay the same moral price for it. If the joker opts for either (c) or (d), the OJD is not an option – she wasn’t only joking; her deliberation was partially or wholly constituted by other considerations. The IFD is obviously precluded by (d), but allowed, in some sense, by (c).
The OJD, therefore, is either closed off to a joker or carries too high a price. I therefore turn to the IFD as it may be used in approach (c). At first glance, this approach seems a reasonable way to think about joke-making. The joker, endowed with a faculty of practical reason as we hope jokers are, weighs up pros and cons, and decides whether and how to joke on the basis of various competing considerations.
Is the joke’s funniness relevant to this deliberation? Yes. Here are some ways in which funnier jokes are more worth making (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Funny jokes make people laugh. Laughing makes our lives go better.
- Funniness is a marker of aesthetic quality in the genre of jokes. That is, where (for instance) nuanced character development improves a novel qua novel, or tunefulness improves a song qua song, so funniness improves a joke qua joke. Aesthetically valuable things are valuable.
- Funny jokes beget more funny jokes, and in a culture of good humour, people are more able to satirise and be satirised, laugh and be laughed at, profit from humour both as a weapon and shield.
Here are some considerations which might weigh against making an offensive joke (this is not an exhaustive list):
- Those present may, if they are a member of the group which is stereotyped in the joke, be insulted. Worse, they might feel threatened or aggressed. This is horrible, and makes our lives go less well.
- Offensive jokes which draw on, or in particular are funny because they draw on, negative stereotypes, may reinforce those stereotypes, with pernicious indirect effects that may not be easily detectable. In Morreall’s words, “black people, women and homosexuals have endured [harm] because of the stereotypes circulated about them […] they have suffered discrimination in voting, in buying real estate, and in the courts. Racist and sexist stereotypes cost them money, respect, status and power.”
Each of these considerations provides a pro tanto reason to make or not to make the joke. I do not see why any of them should provide an all things considered reason, one way or the other. We established above that it would be a funny sort of moral agent – indeed not really a moral agent at all – who cared only about comedy. It would also be a funny sort of moral agent who cared only about something or everything else: they would thereby eliminate considerations of their own and others’ pleasure, of aesthetic goods, and of a good-humoured society, insofar as comedy could contribute to or constitute those things.
A ‘big’ normative objection to this framework accuses it of a consequentialist bias. Perhaps there is some deontic constraint that makes weighing up all these different ‘harms and benefits’ (broadly construed) irrelevant. For instance, jokes that trade on a negative stereotype might be thought to instrumentalise members of a group for comedic purposes, failing to respect them as persons. This would, the objector might say, make the list of benefits associated with funniness irrelevant.
This is not the place to resolve grand disputes between consequentialists and deontologists, but I do have four rejoinders. Firstly, I believe my account is faithful to the reality of practical reason, particularly in speech: an approach which annihilates all considerations but deontic constraints is not well suited to the subtleties and complexities of live conversation. Secondly, even a deontologist who considers the disrespect of an offensive joke a binding constraint could say: where the constraint forbids a witless joke, the world has lost nothing, but where the constraint forbids a funny joke, a little has been lost, though it was quite right for it to be lost. To put it another way, deontologists need not fetishise constraints even if they prioritise them. Thirdly, as has been pointed out, jokes can stand in many different relations to negative stereotypes: they can be funny because of them, funny in spite of them, funny in a way that has nothing to do with them, rely on their comprehension, rely on their acceptance, etc. All of those can be funny, but not all of them obviously instrumentalise, so we must watch the scope of such constraints. Fourthly, if the concern is not to be lax about offence, we can condemn many or all offensive jokes within this framework, where funniness remains relevant – indeed, I would be inclined to do so. We simply need to make a lot, empirically, of the harms: funniness is a relevant defence, we can say, but overwhelmingly outgunned.
There are also objections to each of my described pros and cons. I haven’t the space to deal with them, but so long as the reader reckons there is at least one funniness-related pro and at least one offence-related con of an offensive joke, they can accept the thrust of the argument. This argument is also affected in complex but, I believe, not very significant ways by the comic moralism/immoralism/amoralism debate; therefore I omit discussion of these dynamics.
So “it’s funny” is a defence, but not a conclusive defence. It is a move in the argument, but does not end the argument. This is an uncomfortable conclusion insofar as it implies that the moral status of jokes is a function of sense of humour, which varies between persons, making humour ethics necessarily relative. But again, this is true to our experience and the way we talk about jokes, so is a bullet worth biting. “Only joking”, by contrast, is a defence itself not serious enough to be part of a moral argument, or if it is, it is too morally costly. Much more needs to be said here – particularly on the differences between the morality of jokes and of jokers, and the complex semantics and pragmatics of joke-making – and once philosophers are done changing lightbulbs, they should get onto these questions as a matter of urgency.
Benatar, D. (2014). ‘Taking humour (ethics) seriously, but not too seriously’. Creative Commons.
Carroll, N. (2014). ‘Ethics and Comic Amusement’. British Journal of Aesthetics, 54(2), 241–253.
Cohen, T. (1999). Jokes: Philosophical thoughts on joking matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Morreall, J. (2009). Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
Nannicelli, T. (2014). ‘Moderate Comic Immoralism and the Genetic Approach to the Ethical Criticism of Art’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 72(2), 169–179.
Smuts, A. (2009). Do Moral Flaws enhance Amusement? American Philosophical Quarterly’, 46(2), 151–162.
Woodcock, S. (2015). ‘Comic Immoralism and Relatively Funny Jokes’. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 32(2), 203–216.
 The reader can supply their own examples or find plenty of specimens online (reader discretion advised). The publishing guidelines of this blog prevent me from including any. I’ve kept my implied targets to my own creed; available online resources are much more inclusive…
 See Smuts, Woodcock, Carroll, Nannicelli.
 Screenshot retrieved 22nd January 2016. Google’s third suggestion surely warrants an essay of its own.
 Carroll, 242.
 Morreall, 110.
 See Cohen, Chapter 6.