Skip to content

The Ethics of Humor

Clinton Cards recently apologized for a Christmas card listing “10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council Estate” (sample reasons: “He only works once a year”; “He drinks alcohol during working hours”). Predictably, some people professed outrage over the card (which seems to me mildly offensive, but not enough to get worked up over) and equally predictably some people slammed the reaction as an excess of political correctness (whatever that means). Humor is very often at someone’s expense. In fact, some people have suggested that making the person who laughs feel superior to the butt of the joke is the essence of humor. That theory is rather implausible, but we certainly don’t want a blanket ban on jokes that target other people. When is it okay to tell jokes at the expense of others and when isn’t it?I think the central principle  governing acceptability is this: jokes are offensive when (a) they target members of disadvantaged groups and (b) they turn on stereotypes that play a role in perpetuation of the disadvantage. So jokes that target women and turn on their alleged problems with maths, for instance, are offensive because women belong to a disadvantage group and because their alleged problems with maths have been cited as a reason for excluding them from higher-status professions. They are offensive because they require us to recognize the stereotype. They introduce it is as an presupposition in a language game, as Rae Langton puts it, putting the person who laughs into the position (whether they like it or not) of accepting the presupposition. People who live on council estates are disadvantaged, on average, and the jokes on the card turn on claims that play a role in perpetuating that disadvantage (they’re lazy, alcoholic, and so on). So the card is offensive.

That’s not the end of the story, though. The context in which the joke is told and the teller makes a big difference too. Jewish comedians may tell Jewish jokes, even ones that play on stereotypes about Jews, without risking offense (similarly, there are racial slurs that black people in the US may use about themselves but which are highly offensive when used by others). I think the principle governing acceptability in these cases has to do with the relative power of the groups to which the teller and the butt of the joke belong. It is offensive for the member of a more powerful group to tell a joke that turns on a stereotype about members of a less powerful group.

One reason why this is so is because the more powerful group very often has benefited from the exploitation of the less powerful. That’s clearest in the case of black and white relations in the United States, with its legacy of slavery, and in the case of male-female relations everywhere, with males benefiting from the unpaid domestic labor of women, and their emotional support which has often been ill-reciprocated. It is less clear in the relation between the middle-class shopper and someone living on a council estate, but even here a case can be made. Though the middle-class does not directly exploit lower SES groups, we benefit from the very same systems which help to reproduce inequality, generation after generation. This indirect relation helps to explain why the immigrant, say, who has not benefitted from the historical exploitation of one group in her new country, nevertheless cannot joke about the exploited group without giving offence.

That leaves lots of hard cases, of course. Though it is very clear that different groups have more or less power (for instance, even now women get paid 15% less than men in the UK for the same work), these statistical averages hide a lot of individual differences. Some women are much more powerful than some men. There is also the question of jokes by members of one historically disadvantaged group that target members of some other, equally or even more disadvantaged group (sexist jokes told by black men, say). Offensiveness in these cases may differ from one context to another, depending on how salient group membership is in the context, how much currency the stereotype is, and the degree of disadvantage of the targeted group. Rather than solve these difficulties here, I will leave you with a Jewish joke, one which makes nice play with the stereotype of the Jew as money-lover:

Sol and Abe are walking past the church when they notice a sign: “$1000 cash paid to anyone who converts to Christianity”.

“$1000!”, says Sol, “I’m gonna do it!” And he enters the church.

He walk out 20 minutes later. Abe can hardly contain himself. “Is it true, Sol?”, he asks. “Did they give you the money?”

“Money,” says Sol, shaking his head sadly, “is that all you people think about?”


Share on

8 Comment on this post

  1. Hello Neil, thank you for this interesting post which I enjoyed reading very much. I think your conditions (a) and (b) go in the right direction, but may I sugges that you amend (b) a little bit?

    Here is my beef with (b). “Turning on seterotypes that play a role in perpetuating a group’s disadvantage” seems to me too strong if you don’t distinguish between (i) the content of the presupposition — the proposition it tacitly expresses — and (ii) its illocutionary force — the mode under which it is introduced. (b) seems to me too strong without the distinction because many jokes (i.e. the one you mentioned at the end of your article) would not be funny unless they did indeed introduced presuppositions that play a role in perpetuating a group disadvantage — at least in the sense that you cannot identify the presupposition, hence understand the joke, unless you understand that this presupposition is usually asociated with the group in virtue of some negative property that this group is usually taken to exemplify (i.e. greed) and that might have been cited as a reason to oppress the group.

    But that’s where the distinction is useful. You can now say that that’s ok if you introduce the presupposition (no matter how demeaning or derogatory its content might be) in a way which does not manifest wholehearted acceptance of it. In other terms, you can say that accepable jokes conveying derogatory suppositions are ok if the way the suppositions are introduced manifests an attitude that does not prescribe endorsing them. What marks off this acceptable-making attitudes could be simply that speaker associates his joke with verbal or non-verbal cues that draw the addressee’s attention to the fact that she is not prescribing to endorse the derogatory presupposition.

    Thus modified, the view would not entail that Cinton Cards are unacceptable. Quite the contrary if the hyperbolic metaphora used in the sentences on the cards are appropriately construed as verbal cues that the author does not prescribe the audience to believe that derogatory presuppositions conveyed.

    1. I think the suggested amendment is helpful; thanks. I’m not sure that it works in the way you suggest with the Clinton Cards case, though. That’s an interpretive issue: as I understand the way the jokes are meant to work, finding them funny requires accepting that they are close enough to the mark to be accurate. But the issue is really tricky: I don’t think there are clear markers of when we find ourselves forced to accept presuppositions in jokes in virtue of laughing at them and when laughing entails only something like recognizing the stereotype.

      1. I don’t think there are clear markers of when we find ourselves forced to accept presuppositions in jokes in virtue of laughing at them and when laughing entails only something like recognizing the stereotype.

        Well, I am not saying that *we* (the audience) are forced to accept presuppositions in jokes *in virtue of laughing at them*. We can laugh whether or not we accept the presuppositions — laughing requires merely understanding the presuppositions. The idea is rather that the teller/speaker might manifest an attitude that *prescribes* accepting the presupposition as opposed to merely understanding or assuming it — “assuming” in the sense in which you assume propositions in inferences but not accept them (cf. reductios ad absurdum).

        How does this type of attitude manifests? I agree that in general it’s tricky since it depends on pragmatic factors. But in the case of jokes targeting groups markers that typically indicate that the speaker is prescribing the audience to accept and not merely assume the presuppositions which constitute the negative stereotype, are figures of speech that create a confirming effect on the presuppositions introduced in the joke. If such figures are used in a way not strictly required for making the audience aware of the subject-matter of the joke, for instance if the figures are used in sentences implying that the target group has negative properties not entailed by the negative properties associated with the corresponding stereotype, it’s pretty easy for the audience to see that the speaker is going beyond the game of make-believe.

        1. I wonder if you’re using “accepting” in the sense I am? To “accept”, in the sense I have in mind, is the sense at issue in “accepting for the sake of argument”. To believe a proposition is to accept it, but not conversely. It is crucial to my account that laughing entails accepting the truth of the proposition, but does not entail believing it.

          1. In my last post I am indeed using “accept” as a synonym of “regarding as true”. But it does not matter — we can agree that laughing does not entail believing, but that sometimes the teller has an attitude that prescribes her audience to believe — which is not ok when what is to be believed is demeaning or derogatory.

        2. The idea being, of course, that “adding” negative to a stereotype produces on the hearer a cognitive effect of confirming the stereotype.

  2. I don’t like the idea of judging the acceptability of humour relative only to group (dis)advantage. As with other attempts to see people’s live solely in terms of a series of the clubs we happen to be in, it seems to me to be way too blunt. One of the points right-wing commentators have made for years is that at its most valuable, “political correctness” is often just good manners coupled with some awareness of history and sensitivity.

    Imagine a beautiful, intelligent woman makes fun of an ugly, unintelligent man. On the account you propose either this is fine (since women are disadvantaged relative to men); or it is debatable (because we have to tally up some relative disadvantage accounts before we can ascertain whether it’s ok to laugh – specifically we need to weight the privileges beauty and intelligence bring against the gender thing). That’s quite hard work, isn’t it? I struggle to find a comprehensive, authoritative list of relative group disadvantages, with associated weights, that I can use to filter content (a website would be useful, and perhaps a spreadsheet). But I think the thing that seems most obviously missing is that humour that’s plain mean or nasty can be deemed fine, as long as the politics is acceptable. That strikes me as unconvincing (and likely to lead to bad consequences).

    (Also, I’m intrigued to know what you think follows from humour being deemed unacceptable. What’s the punishment?)

    1. I didn’t mean to imply that group disadvantage is the only factor that’s relevant, Dave. Clearly it isn’t.

      It is a commonplace in ethics that judging something unethical doesn’t entail that it ought to be prohibited, let alone punished. Some people use a distinction between ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’ to mark a distinction between what ought to be judged wrong and what infringes significant enough norms to carry sanctions. Lots of things are unethical but shouldn’t be punished. Some cases of adultery, for instance, of lying, and so on.

Comments are closed.