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Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 22, Number 1, April 1998
pp. 51-68 | 10.1353/phl.1998.0014

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Just Joking:
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor


The ethics of humor is deeply puzzling. Radically opposed views about when it is morally permissible to find something funny are easy to motivate and render plausible. On the one side of the debate about ethics and humor stands the moralist, who believes that our sense of humor is fully answerable to ethical considerations. The fact that a joke rests on ethically bad stereotypes or expresses a derogatory attitude shows that it isn’t funny. Sexist or racist jokes that previous generations found hilarious are now correctly regarded as positively offensive and in no way funny. Joseph Boskin reminds us of the offensiveness of the “Sambo” stereotype on which many racial jokes have rested, and argues that it was “subscribed to by whites in their attempt to preserve a social distance between themselves and blacks, to maintain a sense of racial superiority, and to prolong the class structure.” 1 Humor has often been used as an instrument of oppression, as a way of expressing contempt towards those outside the privileged group, a way of keeping outsiders in their place. For the moralist, given the importance of humor in the way we relate to others, we must hold humor to be fully answerable to ethical considerations. Humor is subject to the demands of justice: joking must be just joking.

To the anti-moralist, all this smacks of at best humorless priggishness, at worst a doctrine tantamount to thought-control. Humor is essentially anarchic, it is the sphere of free imagination, unburdened by the restraints and repressions of everyday interactions, and in this lies its great value for our lives. As a sphere of free, non-serious play, it is not answerable to the ethical constraints that rule serious discourse, and is [End Page 51] often at its most effective when it subverts our customary responses. Sometimes it is the exquisite, carefully honed cruelty of a joke that makes it so irresistibly funny. Remove its cruelty, and its humor vanishes. Here the anti-moralist may appeal to Freud’s theory of jokes, for Freud holds that the pleasure of “tendentious” jokes derives from a de-inhibition of aggressive or sexual drives: so jokes may sometimes be funny precisely because of their cruelty. 2 For the anti-moralist, then, humor is divorced from the domain of serious constraints: humor is not subject to normal ethical restraints, for we are just joking.

Both these opposing views have much to be said in favor of them: both are based on our common experience of humor, on its anarchic, free-wheeling side, but also on our experience of how wounding humor can be. Yet both views cannot be correct. So we are faced with an apparent paradox; and it is one that it is important to dissolve. A great deal of our normal everyday, face-to-face interaction is woven through with humor, so the ethics of humor forms an important part of the ethics of interpersonal relations. And determining the relation of ethics to humor is also important for aesthetics, for humor is a major (and remarkably understudied) aesthetic mode, encompassing not simply works whose main purpose is to amuse, but also inflecting a huge variety of artworks whose aesthetic effect partly depends on their humorous touches: think for instance of the grim and desperate sense of humor running through King Lear. While it is tempting to think of humor in art as only a property of literary works, it can in fact be found in a wide variety of art-forms: in musical works (Mozart’s A Musical Joke), paintings (most of Roy Lichtenstein’s work), and architecture (a resource sometimes deployed in the pastiches of postmodernist architects). Further, many have thought that jokes are themselves works of art, or are akin to them. 3 The moralist’s view that humor is fundamentally flawed if it is based on ethically bad attitudes is one that entails that works of art incorporating humor are less aesthetically successful (less successful as works of art) if their humor is ethically compromised. Given the importance of humor in art, the issue of the ethics of humor thus...