Thursday, 22 September 2011


Laughter might be the strongest indication of a Cosmic Spirit operating in the universe.  The central feature of comic experience, as I wrote earlier, is cognitive disengagement.  In the moment of enjoying a joke, a spontaneous one-liner, or a scene from a comedy, there is nothing going on other than pure amusement.  We are, in a way, standing outside of our normal selves, having no agenda, intending no action, surrendering all control, suspending all desires; instead occupying a viewpoint of choiceless yet playful awareness of some unexpected aspect of existence and bursting forth with the staccato sounds that could easily be understood as laughter at the entire universe.  In such moments, what is there that is not absurd?  The comic viewpoint is not even personal:  who is that laughs?  There is just that laughter, emanating from nowhere in particular and so, in principle, accessible to any rational creature that allows itself to surrender all shred of self-regard and practical concern to the pure enjoyment of a crack in the normal, tedious order of things.  Perhaps that is why laughter is contagious.  Start one person laughing, and often everyone will be laughing even if they missed the original joke.*  The comic viewpoint, therefore, is also the cosmic viewpoint, that of the Laughing Buddha, the pure but penetrating Witness to the absurdities of existence.

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
* Many years ago, I attended a meditation retreat in Vancouver led by Joshu Sasaki, Zen Master of Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California.  During the ten days he spent at our center in Vancouver, he decided his students were becoming all too serious about their practice.  So he instructed us to gather in the zendo early in the morning before meditation and laugh.  After experiencing some awkwardness at first, we soon learned to do this easily, one person initiating the laughter - sans benefit of any joke - the others joining in soon after.  Before long we were all doubled over and slapping our knees, laughing at ourselves, at nothing, at everything.



  1. I too laughed like crazy at the black guys joke, and had the multi-layer internal reaction Cohen so exhaustively explored. So I have a question: when a lawyer joke is told, how come I don't have the same layered reaction? Am I socialized to this difference? Certainly, the initial whoopee! experience is the same - delight in the existence of some whacked-out point of view or tension-relieving suspension of the rules of the universe. No answers here...

  2. I think your first answer is right, Patrick: we are socialized to refrain from nasty joking about groups that have been victims of discrimination. Lawyers don’t qualify. As a class they are among the privileged of our society, so no one feels the need to spare them the barbs of our humor. They know this too and often enjoy lawyer jokes just like the rest of us.

  3. "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?"

    For the most part, I think that jokes, for various reasons, make light of things. This is great when it's lifting people up and giving them something to share. However, I believe it can also have negative effects.

    When someone tells a racist joke, it is perpetuating a stereotype and stereotypes are harmful and a step towards dehumanizing. As you laugh at that joke, consciously or not, you are in some ways confirming the validity of the joke and, at the very least, giving a message to the joker that racist jokes are acceptable.

    To be frank, that's not cool with me.

  4. Alex has articulated a good reason for not telling racist jokes. It is probably the reason people like you and me don’t do it. Still, it’s tricky to say exactly how the telling of such jokes would have negative effects. If a racist told the joke about the black guys and the basketball, would that cause him to become more of a racist? Doubtful. If his listeners were also racists, would they become more so by laughing at the joke? Again, doubtful. If a non-racist tells an occasional joke like this one, would that incline him to become a racist? Maybe, but do we have any actual evidence for that? Suppose a black person tells the joke to a black audience? to a mixed-race audience? (Black comic Larry Willmore does this all the time in his routines.)

    On the other hand, racist jokes aimed at people who are not in a position to object and are in fact humiliated by the joking really does cause harm (Frank Sinatra and his cronies used to joke about Sammy Davis Jr. to his (black) face for years and were astonished to learn later that Davis had actually suffered from the joking.) Another case might be that of a redneck father who tells demeaning jokes about blacks in front of his young children, reinforcing the kids’ assumption that black people are inferior.

    So it seems we can imagine situations where the joking would probably be harmless and others where it would be harmful. How about the other half of the equation – laughing at racist and sexist jokes? That’s a harder case to make. Many such jokes are undeniably funny. Can we be sure that to laugh at them is wrong? If so, why exactly? Would that be true in all circumstances? When we laugh at a racist joke, are we really, as Alex thinks, confirming the validity of the underlying stereotype? Or are we merely confirming that the joke is funny? If we laugh at a Polish joke,for example,are we really implying that we believe that all Poles are stupid?

    We laugh at all kinds of situations where humans do foolish things or get caught in embarrassing situations or even when something really bad happens to them. Mel Brooks once said, “For me to cut my finger is tragedy; comedy is when you fall into a manhole and die.” Should we agree with Plato, then, that humor is mostly hostile or demeaning to people and is therefore bad?