Berys Gaut

Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor (1998)


1.      Main positions

         a.      Moralism: ethically bad jokes are not funny

         b.      Ethicism: ethically bad attitudes in jokes count against the humor of the joke (weaker than moralism)

                   i.       Humor is flawed

                   ii.      Humor might still be present to some extent (e.g, great ingenuity is displayed–clever puns)

         c.      Anti-moralism

                   i.       Amoralism: ethical and humorous do not interact at all

                            (1)    Because utterer of joke can’t manifest bad attitudes in producing the joke (and so can’t affect its funniness)

                                      (a)     Jokes can’t be cruel

                            (2)    The utterer can manifest a immoral attitude, but even so it is not relevant to the funniness of the joke

                                      (a)     That a joke is cruel has nothing to do with its funniness

                   ii.      Immoralism: if manifest ethically bad attitudes that counts toward (for) the funniness of the joke

                            (1)    Joke can be funny partly because it is so cruel


2.      Humor often used as instrument of oppression

         a.      Way of expressing contempt toward those outside privileged group

         b.      Way to keep outsiders in their place

         c.      Example of racist jokes

                   i.       Subscribed to by whites in their attempt

                            (1)    to preserve a social distance between themselves and blacks,

                            (2)    to maintain a sense of racial superiority

                            (3)    to prolong class structure


3.      Moralist: Immoral jokes aren’t funny

         a.      Sense of humor fully answerable to ethics; demands of justice

                   i.       Given importance of humor in way we relate to others

         b.      Humor fundamentally flawed if it is based on immoral attitudes

         c.      Fact joke rests on ethically bad stereotype or expresses a derogatory attitude shows that it isn’t funny

         d.      Sexist/racist jokes earlier generations found hilarious are now correctly regarded as offensive and no way funny


4.      Anti-moralist (amoralism and immoralism)

         a.      Moralism is humorless priggishness (smugly self-righteous and narrow-minded)

         b.      Humor is a domain of free imagination, unburdened by restraints of everyday interaction

         c.      Not answerable to ethical constraints that rule serious discourse

         d.      Often most effective when subverts our customary responses

         e.      Cruelty of a joke sometimes what makes it so funny


5.      Humor has aesthetic dimension

         a.      Lots of art works (music, architecture, plays) include a humorous dimension

         b.      Some believe that jokes are themselves works of art

         c.      Are jokes art?

                   i.       Can be elegant, expressive, original, exercise of creative imagination

                   ii.      Not an established art genre, one-shot affairs do not (usually) support detailed analysis or multiple interpretations that works of art often do

                   iii.     At best borderline cases, a genre which “rubs shoulders with art”


6.      *Importance of context and performance of the joke

         a.      Example: A black or jew telling a joke about blacks/jews is very different from a racist telling the same joke

         b.      The former may express attitude of “sly self-deprecation or subversion of racist sentiments”

         c.      The latter is expressing/manifesting racist/derogatory attitudes


         d.      What is important is that the immoral attitude is manifest in the performance of the joke

                   i.       Cases where an attitude is manifest in the joke but a higher order attitude undercuts that attitude, so it is really not the attitude of the joke?/person telling the joke?


7.      AMORALISM ONE: Jokes can’t manifest bad attitudes

         a.      Ethical and humorous do not interact at all because utterer of joke can’t manifest bad attitudes in producing the joke (and so can’t affect its funniness)

         b.      Jokes can’t be cruel

8.      1) Amoralist arguments: bad attitude entertained not actually expressed/manifested in joke

         a.      Attitude is never actually possessed by joke teller, but entertained only; both the situation of the joke and the attitude which it supposedly manifests are just imagined.

         b.      Jokes example: Dead baby genre

                   i.       What is red, bubbly and scrabbles at the window?

                            (1)    A baby in a microwave

                   ii.      How did the dead baby cross the road?

                            (1)    Stapled to the chicken

         c.      Loving parents who tell this joke and laugh are not manifesting the attitude that it is good to torture babies

         d.      Only imaginatively participating in such an attitude (imagining what it would be like to respond to world that way)

                            (1)    Not actually possessing the attitude.

         e.      Gaut thinks merely imagining an attitude may sometimes be all necessary to find joke funny

                   i.       Rejects idea can’t hypothetically adopt attitudes

                   ii.      Non-Jew might find jokes told by Jews about themselves funny though can’t share the self-directed attitudes on which their humor depends

                   iii.     Not clear can imagine attitude of rape joke funny?

9.      But 1st amoralist mistaken in claim that real attitudes are never manifest in jokes:

         a.      Racists/sexists can tell racist/sexist jokes and they manifest those attitudes

10.    Jokes can reveal unknown attitudes: We may not think we are bias and then realize we are because of our joke-telling and joke-responding behavior

         a.      Let our guard down with jokes and discover we are doing more that just imagining the world from an obnoxious perspective–it really is our own.

         b.      Humor can convey attitudes about which we are so serious they can be safely conveyed in no other way

11.    2) Attitude is possessed/expressed but aimed only at fictional contexts and not attitudes for real life people/situations (so not bad)

         a.      Joke examples: Stupidity genre

                   i.       British use Irish as stupid; U.S. it is Poles or Californians

                   ii.      May have historical roots in real attitudes, now are actually detached from actual attitudes to these groups

                   iii.     Mere stand ins for stupid people

                   iv.     Attitude of humorous contempt toward fictional characters no indication for how one actually feels about real people

12.    Gaut reply

         a.      Mistake that no actual attitudes are implied by the jokes

         b.      Only shows that apparent target of joke may not be real target

         c.      Aimed at stupid or greedy people, after all–for that is what motivates the humor


13.    AMORALISM TWO: Bad attitudes irrelevant to humor

14.    Amoralism type two: actual immoral attitudes toward real people expressed in the joke have nothing to do with its humor

         a.      Why? Because finding something funny involves feeling something and we are not responsible for our feelings

                  b.      Reply: False: we are responsible for our feelings since we can train ourselves to feel differently over time

         c.      Why, because the attitudes expressed in the jokes have nothing to do with their funniness,

                   i.       Just as the morality or immorality of a long statement has nothing to do with whether or not it is boring

                   ii.      Reply: But the moral attitude expressed does affect the humor

                            (1)    Imagine a dead baby joke told by child-molester or while watching dying children in Africa on TV

                            (2)    In this context the attitude undermines the humor



16.    Immoralism: Badness of attitude manifest actually enhances the humor of jokes (rejects amoralist idea that there is no interaction humorous and the ethical)

         a.      Many jokes depend for their humor on the viciousness of the attitude manifested


17.    The three theories of humor

         a.      And how they might explain why humor can be enhanced by viciousness

         b.      Gaut explains this away p. 60 original

18.    Incongruity theories

         a.      Funny depends on perception of incongruity

         b.      Since unethical is a form of incongruity (it does not fit with normal ethical expectations), it can be a vehicle of humor

19.    Superiority theories

         a.      Humor rests on finding ourselves superior to others

         b.      A joke is a type of abuse

         c.      So abusive attitudes of vicious person should be source of humor

20.    Relief from restraint theories (Freud)

         a.      Humor fueled by the de-inhibition of sexual or aggressive tendencies, which are expressed in jokes


21.    Gaut rejects idea that for many (all?) Jokes it is their viciousness that motivates the humor

22.    Gives examples abusive but just jokes

         a.      A person is a butt of the joke, reasonable to think won’t enjoy it, and part of our enjoyment of joke is we relish the attack

         b.      Joke not kind (but that doesn’t mean they are cruel)

         c.      Not the immorality of the attack that motives the humor

         d.      But rather the jokes are just, right on, the attack is appropriate

         e.      We don’t relish the viscousness but that they hit their target and target deserves to be hit

         f.       Yes, aggressive and abusive, but sometimes this is warranted

         g.      Example: (In response to being questioned by another politician, Denis Healey says his attack was like “being savaged by a dead sheep” (the ineffective attacker had “an impressively wooly head of hair”)



24.    To the immoralist who simply insists it is true that we do laugh at vicious jokes, find them funny, and do so because of their viciousness

         a.      Gaut says this may be true: We do laugh, but that does not show they are funny.

25.    Fact that some people find truly vicious jokes amusing does not show that they really are

26.    The funny is a normative concept:

         a.      What we ought to laugh at

                   i.       Not simply what causes humourous reaction

                   ii.      But what merits or makes appropriate such reactions

         b.      Not what we in fact laugh at, what as a matter of fact people find funny

                   i.       Example: Ancient Romans may have found sight of slaves being torn apart by animals in amphitheaters as wildly amusing, but that does not mean it really was funny

         c.      That we give qualitative assessments of humor –coarse, crude obvious, clumsy, or refined, surprising. elegant, etc–supports its normativity

         d.      Funny, like the boring, disturbing, the moving–all normative although many not seem like they are on surface

                   i.       People argue intelligently about if book is boring

27.    Gaut digs in his heels, stick out his neck and insist that racist and sexist jokes are flawed in their humor.



         a.      Ethically bad jokes are not funny

         b.      If utterer manifests immoral attitudes in his joke then it isn’t funny

29.    Summary considerations that support moralism

         a.      In response to idea it is viciousness of the joke that makes it funny, moralist can say we are either

                   i.       Responding to the justice in the witty abuse

                   ii.      Or hold joke flawed

         b.      That racist/sexist jokes are offensive supports moralism

         c.      Many jokes that might seem to be objectionable on moralist grounds, really are not because

                   i.       The offensive attitudes are only entertained not possessed

                   ii.      The apparent target of a joke may not be the real target and so subtle interpretation may be needed to determine if joke is really reprehensible

                   iii.     And many of the attitudes expressed by “off color” jokes may not be ethically bad

                            (1)    Examples of jokes

                                      (a)     How many (a) Southern Californians/(b) New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb

                                                (i)     A 5 one to replace the bulb; for to share the experience

                                                (ii)    B: None of your damned business!

                            (2)    Attitudes of thinking Californians absurdly self-obsessed and New Yorkers aggressively rude may be incorrect, but need not be vicious–those with these attitudes are not exhibiting an ethical flaw

                            (3)    Members of these groups may tell these jokes against themselves as revealing an aspect of the truth


30.    Effective objection to the moralist: Thesis is too strong

         a.      Claim that “ethically bad jokes are not funny” ignores complexity of humor

31.    Humor is complex

         a.      Respond to may aspects, including intellectual and affective

                   i.       Intellectual: display of cleverness as in puns, or construing one thing in terms of something very different but oddly analogous–wittiness of jokes (display of wit or intelligence)

                   ii.      Affective: aspects of jokes engage our feelings and can enhance the humor

         b.      Example of bad taste jokes: “What did leper say to the prostitute? Keep the tip.”

                   i.       Intellectual aspect, pun on tip

                   ii.      Affective: disgustingness of the imagery of bodily disintegration which stiffens the humor, without it the pun would sag.


32.    Possible a joke is sufficiently clever in its puns or in undercutting of expectations that could retain some humor even if attitudes manifested are obnoxious

         a.      Very clever Irish joke told by someone deeply prejudice against the Irish

                   i.       Might appreciate the humor while decrying the racism


33.    Gaut: Moralist thesis is too strong: Not true that these jokes are simply not funny

         a.      They are flawed in their humor

         b.      Not moralism but ethicism that is best candidate for correct theory of ethics and humor



         a.      Ethically bad attitudes manifested by the utter in the joke counts against (always!) the humor of the joke (weaker than moralism)

                   i.       Undercut/diminish the humor, funniness

                   ii.      Joke is flawed

         b.      Sometimes, but not always, the immorality is sufficient to completely remove humor

         c.      But joke can retain some humor despite its viciousness.


35.    Ethicism’s criticisms of other theories (good summary)

         a.      Moralist notices that immorality undercuts jokes humor, but overstates case by claiming none can remain

         b.      Amoralist correctly notes that many times jokes do not manifest real attitudes, but fails to see that other times they are or fails to see the significance of this

         c.      Immoralist correctly notes that jokes can be funny because aggressive or abuse people

                   i.       But confuses this with claim they are vicious (immoral) and ignores that humor is a normative notion


36.    Ethicism about art (not just humor)

         a.      Ethical assessment of altitudes manifested by works of art is a legitimate aspect of aes evaluation of those works

         b.      If work manifests reprehensible attitudes that counts towards its being aes defective

         c.      Positive thesis: if work manifests ethically commendable attitudes, that counts towards its being aes meritorious



38.    Positive ethical attitudes in jokes count towards their being funny

         a.      Manifesting virtuous attitudes counts towards the humor of a joke

                   i.       E.g., joke are funny partly because they are targeted accurately and appropriate toward their objects

                   ii.      E.g., someone deserves to be made fun of

                   iii.     That the humor is ethically merited can lend a joke a depth and appropriateness which it would otherwise lack

                   iv.     Can make the joke revelatory: get them to see situation in better moral light

                   v.      ‘Quality and power of joke’s humor can depend partly on virtuous attitudes it displays

                            (1)    I though his ethicism was not that morality can affect aesthetics but that it does (always?)

         b.      Example: Black comedian “The racists want to give blacks $1000 to go back home, which suits me fine-it only cost me $3.00 on the bus”

                   i.       Resonance of joke depends on its subversion of racists attitudes and assumptions

         c.      Example: Theater burning true story--Owner of a theater sat drinking with his friends as it burned to ground: friend noted his calm and he replied “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside”

                   i.       Depth of this humor depends much on courage and extraordinary ability to rise above adversity displayed


39.    Not the claim that if a joke has a positive ethical attitude it is funny:

         a.      Jokes displaying relentlessly virtuous attitudes may be squirmingly unfunny

         b.      Not claiming that such positive attitudes alone can make a joke funny–that is false

                   i.       Has to be an element of humor present for it to be enhanced

                   ii.      Just as has to be an element of humor present for it to be undercut by vicious attitudes


40.    Conclusion:

         a.      What is funny partly depends on what is ethical

                   i.       Ethical badness counts against funniness

                   ii.      Ethical goodness counts towards it

                   iii.     For our jokes to be unflawed we must joke as virtuous person would

         b.      Funny is normative and partly depends on what is ethically good/bad

         c.      Moralists who says vicious jokes not funny overstated a truth