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The Morality of Laughter

F. H. Buckley

Publication Year: 2003

“Bravo! I’ll say nothing funny about it, for it is a superior piece of work.” —P. J. O’Rourke “F. H. Buckley’s The Morality of Laughter is at once a humorous look at serious matters and a serious book about humor.” —Crisis Magazine “Buckley has written a . ne and funny book that will be read with pleasure and instruction.” —First Things “. . . written elegantly and often wittily. . . .” —National Post “. . . a fascinating philosophical exposition of laughter. . . .” —National Review “. . . at once a wise and highly amusing book.” —Wall Street Journal Online “. . . a useful reminder that a cheery society is a healthy one.” —Weekly Standard

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xv

This book had its origin in an elevator at the University of Chicago Law School, where I was a visiting fellow. On the elevator with me was Nobel laureate Ronald Coase, a founder of the law and economics movement associated with that school and with the law school where I now teach. The elevator stopped on the way down, and a U. of C. fundraiser ...


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1. Laughter as Superiority: Hobbes and Bergson • The Normative Foundation Laughter as a Signal

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pp. 3-15

What is lighter and more frivolous than laughter? And yet the most serious thinkers have puzzled over what makes us laugh. From Plato to Kant, philosophers have sought to de‹ne the risible, and even made jokes to explain their theories. Henri Bergson had a genuine sense of humor, and Freud’s jokes (often Jewish ones) were delightful. ...

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2. The Elements of Laughter: Sociability • Surprise • Playfulness

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pp. 16-28

Objections to the Positive thesis might take one of two forms. First, it might be argued that superiority is not enough, that something more is needed. This is obviously true, since disdain communicates superiority but excludes laughter. Second, superiority might be thought unnecessary, in the sense that we can laugh without signaling superiority. ...

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3. The One Necessary Thing: Incongruity and Wordplay Relief and Exuberant Laughter • Innocent Laughter The Absurd and Postmodernism • Self-Deprecatory Humor

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pp. 29-46

Superiority is not a suffcient condition for laughter, as we saw in chapter 2. For example, we might fail to laugh at someone in pain because the element of playfulness is missing. But I do think that superiority is a necessary condition. When I examine the different things that provoke our laughter, superiority seems a key that unlocks every door. ...


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4. Objections to the Normative Thesis: The Paradox of Satire • Excessive Laughter The Hobbesian Paradox • Vicious Laughter

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pp. 49-59

Let us turn from the Positive to the Normative thesis, from the claim that laughter signals the wit’s sense of superiority to a butt to the claim that this is a true superiority. We begin, as the Scholastics did, by examining objections to the Normative claim: videtur quod non. It seems not the case that laughter always signals a real superiority, however ...

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5. Comic Virtues and Vices: The Rose-Wreath Crown • The Gay Science Comic Norms

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pp. 60-86

Vicious laughter poses a weighty objection to the Normative thesis, and indeed would be unanswerable if one took it to assert that laughter is always benign and the jester always superior. This version of the thesis must be wrong, since decidedly inferior people laugh. Moreover, the fact that rival groups may trade off laughter against each other ...

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6. The Social Virtues: Integrity • Moderation Fortitude • Temperance

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pp. 87-107

While we laugh at very different things, some defects seem naturally comic, and they provide us with a list of comic vices and virtues. By playing with our intuitions of the risible we may derive a thick set of comic norms whose intrinsic appeal tells us to attend to laughter’s message of the good life. ...

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7. The Charismatic Virtues: Grace • Taste • Learning

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pp. 108-118

The social virtues are acquired when virtuous acts are repeated until they become habitual. By contrast, the charismatic virtues are not a matter of repetition or stable preferences. Instead, they describe the attributes of what used to be known as a “man of parts.” The gentlemanly charieis was graceful, elegant, and clever, favored of the gods ...

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8. Machine Law: Risible Law • Kreimer v. Morristown • The Sick Chickens Case

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pp. 119-128

Several years back I met a lawyer friend who had recently returned from Russia. He had been brought there, along with a good many other experts, to teach the Russians about the legal system that won the cold war. My friend had been asked to draft a new Russian corporations code. Over lunch, he explained the problem to us. “How do ...

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9. Machine Scholarship: Analytical Philosophy • Zombies as Machine Men Machine Political Theory • Baby Selling

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pp. 129-142

The satire of philosophic nonsense is one of the oldest literary forms. Aristophanes mocked Socrates’ otherworldly views by portraying him suspended in the air and worshiping The Clouds. Voltaire’s Candide is an ironic comment on optimistic rationalism and Leibnitz’s jargon of “suffcient reasons” and “pre-established harmonies.” Not so ...

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10. Machine Art and Machine Cities: Machine Art • Machine Cities

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pp. 143-169

Strolling down the Via Marguta in Rome one evening, looking idly at art galleries full of ink-blot paintings, I came across something that stopped me in my tracks—a Virgin from the fourteenth century, in the style of Lorinzetti or Martini. A closer look revealed a poster from Siena, pasted onto another ink-blot painting, like a papier collé. Still, ...


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11. The Battle of the Norms: Judgment Errors • Large Numbers Perverse Norms and Factual Errors • Uncertainty

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pp. 155-163

We have sought to defend the normative thesis by showing how laughter signals a defective life plan or risible scholarship (chaps. 6–10). Through the sting of laughter, we are recalled from comic vice to the path of moderation and comic virtue. But if laughter is such an effective sanction, why do comic vices persist? Where is the failure in comic norms? ...

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12. Resistance to Laughter: Vanity • Acedia • The Cynic The Faustian Bargain • The Puritan

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pp. 164-177

We must all develop a degree of resistance to laughter. Comic norms are always contested, as we saw in the last chapter, and this means that one is always a butt for someone, somewhere. Wherever the golden mean of comic virtue might lie, some will think one excessively virtuous and others insuffciently so. We cannot hope to avoid all laughter ...

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13. The Sociability Thesis: Signaling Trustworthiness A Communitarian Perspective

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pp. 178-190

In part II we examined the claim that laughter offers signaling gains through its message about a superior life. By laughing, the jester and listener communicate to the butt that his life plan is defective. This chapter examines a second benefit offered by laughter. By establishing a bond between jester and listener, laughter permits them to promote ...

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14. Conclusion: Life Considered as a Fine Art The Dream of a Uni‹ed Field

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pp. 191-200

My project has been a very conservative one. Modern scholarship is subversive of meaning and value, but I have argued that laughter signals meaningful and valuable information. The Positive thesis holds that laughter reveals the laugher’s sense of superiority to a butt who is thereby degraded, and the Normative thesis asserts that the message ...


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pp. 201-218


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pp. 219-234


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pp. 235-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780472022724
E-ISBN-10: 0472022725
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472068180
Print-ISBN-10: 0472068180

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 3 tables
Publication Year: 2003