Of course, not everything is funny. We can joke about death in the abstract, as in Woody Allen's quip, "I'm not afraid of death. I just don't want to be around when it happens." But we do not, perhaps cannot, laugh at the death of any particular person. The bell tolls for us, too, and the image of ourselves in a casket is not usually a trigger for amusement. Social norms also impose constraints on humor. We call jokes about the disabled "sick." Joking about bodily functions is frowned on in polite company. Poking fun at a religion may earn you a fatwa. Are some forms of humor morally wrong?
Most current philosophical thinking on this question centers on racist and sexist jokes. At our September 14 meeting, I told this one:
Q: How does a passerby dissuade a group of black guys from gang raping a teenage girl?
A: He throws them a basketball.Most people laughed at this at first, but the laughter was followed immediately by some groans and grimaces. People who are not racists do not feel comfortable with jokes like this, even though we cannot help but laugh at them. Is that wrong? Should we train ourselves not to laugh at such jokes? Is it wrong to tell racist jokes? Always, no matter what the circumstances? It is not easy to answer these questions in any thoughtful way. In his book Jokes: Philosophical Thinking About Joking Matters, Ted Cohen interrogated himself from a dozen or more angles in search of a moral theory that would show that such joking is wrong. Eventually he gave up and advised his readers to hang on to their negative feelings, if they need to, but not to lie to themselves about whether the jokes are funny - they are.
There are two aspects to examine here: the telling of the joke and the enjoyment of it, the amusement. First, the amusement. Some people think it's wrong to laugh at jokes that demean minorities or ethnic groups or even an entire gender. I suppose we could train ourselves to be super-alert for such joking and stifle our laughter the moment we sense one coming our way. But most of the time we don't worry about this. If a questionable joke is told, we laugh, maybe groan and wag our finger at the joke-teller, and move on - but we enjoyed the joke. Is our amusement wrong? This question reminds me of the long-running debate among moral philosophers about the intrinsic value or disvalue of pleasure derived from evil acts. A sadistic Nazi prison guard, for example, enjoyed brutalizing Jewish inmates. His actions were reprehensible, but must we also say that the pleasure he derived from performing them is evil also? Tough question. Considered in themselves, pleasures seem to admit only of degrees of intensity but not of qualitative differences that would make a moral difference. If the Nazi guard could experience the same pleasurable feelings by watching a violent movie, would we have the same objection to his enjoyment?
Similarly, it is not clear that enjoying a racist or sexist joke is wrong or bad in itself. If you think it is, what moral principle or theory brings you to that conclusion? Am I a racist if I laugh at the joke about the blacks guys and the basketball? Not necessarily. Can I enjoy the joke and still disapprove of the negative stereotyping that it presupposes? I don't see why not. Do such jokes incline me to believe the stereotypes? Certainly not, just as jokes about God do not cause me to believe that God exists and does foolish things. John Morreall argues that jokes do not make claims or assertions at all. Joking is a form of play; it is, let us recall, disengaged from all cognitive or practical concerns. We should not be bothered if a joke consists entirely of wild fantasies or falsehoods about anybody or anything. To joke is to play with ideas and when the play works, the appropriate response is amusement.
So the mere enjoyment of jokes seems to have no moral significance in itself. The telling of jokes, on the other hand, is a different matter. As Morreall points out, making a habit of joking at serious matters may lead us to disengage too often, to become cynical and irresponsible. Laughter at someone's suffering or disaster also can block compassion and morph into outright cruelty. Some people claim that racist and sexist humor promotes prejudice. That may be true, although it is not clear how joking might do that. It is sometimes said that joking aestheticizes serious issues, which has the effect of depriving them of their due seriousness. Certainly racist and sexist humor do nothing to weaken prejudice, and our common sense intuition that it may reinforce socially harmful attitudes seems like a pretty good reason not to indulge in it.
When I first began to research this topic, I was surprised to discover what a rich subject for philosophical investigation it is. Humor has usually been thought of as a minor aspect of human life, perhaps an object of some psychological interest, but philosophy is serious business and can't be bothered to dwell for very long on the silly side of life. This attitude has changed in the last hundred years or so, and the literature on the philosophy of humor has become quite extensive. Naturally, such works are sprinkled with lots of examples of jokes and cartoons, so they make for enjoyable reading. I hope this brief and woefully inadequate introduction to the topic will lead you to sample some of the literature. I recommend especially the books by Cathcart and Klein - listed at the end of Part I of this essay. Contrary to the widespread view that philosophy and comedy dwell on different planets, the authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Tavern and Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates demonstrate not only that philosophers can recognize and enjoy humor and use it for teaching philosophy, but also that some of them are pretty accomplished jokesters themselves.
Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so.- Bertrand Russell