Berys Gaut

Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor

Philosophy and Literature 22.1 (1998) 51-68


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 has wide-ranging repercussions for aesthetics. So the puzzle of whether the moralist or the anti-moralist is correct is an important one, and each side in the dispute can make out a plausible case for its view. How are we to determine the truth? [End Page 52]


The dispute just outlined requires clarification, for it is more complex and nuanced than may at first appear. It is sometimes put in terms of the question "When is it wrong to laugh?" 4 But as well as expressing amusement, laughter can express anxiety, derision, embarrassment, or nothing at all, as when it is induced by nitrous oxide; and even when laughter does express amusement, it may sometimes be wrong to laugh, even though it is morally permissible to be amused: if Joe is prone unintentionally to do funny things, but has a fragile ego, it may be entirely proper to be amused at his antics, even though one ought not to laugh at them. So the dispute ought to be cast not in terms of laughter, but of amusement. (I will speak interchangeably of the humor, funniness or amusingness of jokes.)

So at a first pass, the moralist claims that if a joke manifests ethically bad attitudes, it isn't funny. 5 This prompts the objection that jokes only manifest attitudes in a context, depending on who is telling them and for what purposes. It is, for instance, striking that jokes told by Jews and blacks about themselves sometimes employ similar stereotypes to those that racists employ. 6 Yet the attitudes manifested in the two cases are very different: sly self-deprecation or subversion of racist sentiments, as opposed to the expression of racist views themselves. Novels can confidently be ascribed a set of manifested attitudes, because of their length, which gives the opportunity to gather a great deal of evidence for these attitudes. But jokes are generally very short, giving very little scope to build up a pattern of evidence for attitudes manifested, and moreover are designed to be performed, so that what attitudes are manifested is dependent on the tone and type of performance. A performer can build up a pattern of manifested attitudes by stringing jokes together, and so can transform our understanding of the attitudes manifested by the individual jokes. The attitudes thus manifested may owe more to features of the performance than to the nature of the individual jokes.

Thus we should talk at the most basic level not of joke-types, but of the production of joke-tokens in a context (that is, of joke-utterances, not of jokes as abstract texts). So it seems that the moralist should claim that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token, then the joke-token isn't funny (a rather humorless way of stating a rather humorless thesis). However, someone might tell an innocuous joke in a way that manifests ethically bad attitudes: it might [End Page 53] be told in a very loud tone of voice, knowingly disturbing the people next door, even though the joke might be a perfectly innocent one. Here the problem is that the bad attitudes manifested have nothing to do with the content of the joke-token. Thus, as a further refinement, the moralist should hold that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying (aspects of) its content, then the joke isn't funny. Hence the person who manifests a derogatory attitude towards blacks by employing jokes involving blacks is a target of the moralist's condemnation.

Formulation in terms of joke-tokens may seem to create its own problems: after all, we do sometimes speak of jokes as racist or sexist, not simply jokes-in-a-context as being such. However, there is no need to deny this; talk of a joke-type as sexist can be captured by holding that the attitude manifested by the implicit utterer of the joke is sexist, where the implicit utterer is the utterer we would on reasonable epistemic grounds assign to the joke, if we lacked knowledge of the actual utterer and context. (This is not to be confused with the idea of the utterer as a merely fictional being, the analogue of the implied author on a common understanding of that notion.) So we can continue to speak of jokes as being racist or sexist, but have available the more precise terminology to allow for cases where utterers, by providing a radically new context for the joke, subvert the attitudes which would be manifested in the implicit context.

What counts as manifesting an attitude? As construed here, it involves actually having the attitude concerned: to manifest racism, one must really have a racist attitude. But to manifest an attitude it is not sufficient merely to have it, for one might have an attitude without it ever being detectable. So the utterance in the context must also provide evidence that the person has the attitude: manifestation requires one to show that one has the attitude concerned.

Attitudes are either pro-attitudes, approving of things, or con-attitudes, disapproving of things. They can be manifested in a wide variety of intentional states: wants, likings, preferrings, emotions, etc. One should be holistic about them. When an attitude is attributed to a speaker, one needs to examine whether there are conflicting attitudes that should be ascribed as well (I may both like ice cream, because it is tasty, and also not like it, because it is unhealthy), and also whether any higher-order attitudes are present, i.e., attitudes that take other attitudes as their objects: I may want to do drugs, and also want not to want to do them. 7 What matters for purposes of moral assessment is the attitudinal structure [End Page 54] manifested in a context: unless one takes account of conflicting and higher-order attitudes, one may lose sight of significant features of jokes. Someone might apparently manifest an attitude towards a situation in telling a joke, but also manifest higher order attitudes that show the hearer is supposed to fall into accepting the lower-order attitude, only to find it undercut from him. Some shaggy-dog stories are like this, where an attitude of accepting the conventions of joke-telling is undercut at the end, when the conventions and the hearer who accepts them are exposed to ridicule.

Moralism is a strong thesis: ethically bad joke-tokens are not funny. A weaker claim is made by ethicism about jokes: the ethicist holds that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying (aspects of) its content, then that counts against the humor of the joke. The humor of the joke is flawed. But the humor might still be present to some extent, perhaps because great ingenuity is displayed in the joke, involving clever puns and sophisticated subversion of normal expectations, or whatever. Thus the intuitive moralist considerations deployed can be refined into two theses, one stronger than the other.

Anti-moralism can also take two different forms. Amoralism is the view that the ethical and the humorous do not interact at all. This may be for two reasons: either because (a) an utterer cannot manifest ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by employing its content, and hence these attitudes cannot determine the joke-token's funniness; or because (b) the utterer can manifest such attitudes, but even if one does, that is irrelevant to the funniness of the joke-token. Immoralism, in contrast, is the thesis that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying (aspects of) its content, then that counts towards the funniness of the joke. 8 It is the immoralist who holds that a joke can be funny partly because it is so cruel, whereas the amoralist holds either that jokes can't be cruel, or that if they are, that has nothing to do with their humor or lack of it.


One kind of amoralist claims that (a) an utterer cannot manifest ethically bad attitudes in producing a joke-token--or to put it in terms of joke-types, jokes cannot manifest ethically bad attitudes. Why might one hold this?

One possibility is that the attitudes are never actually possessed by the [End Page 55] joke-teller, at least in respect of telling a joke. Thus the amoralist can hold that attitudes are only ever entertained in the context of jokes, never actually possessed. Jokes involve the employment of imagination and invention; and not just the represented situation of a joke is imagined, but also the attitude which is purportedly manifested in it. Consider, for instance, the 'dead baby' genre of jokes: "What is red, bubbly and scrabbles at the window? A baby in the microwave"; "How did the dead baby cross the road? Stapled to the chicken." Some people find these plain offensive; but some find them hilarious, and some of these are loving parents. When they tell these jokes are we really to believe that they are manifesting the attitude of commending the torture of babies? And when they laugh at them are they really covertly adopting such an attitude? Rather, it seems that they are imaginatively participating in such an attitude--imagining what it would be like to respond to the world in this way--rather than manifesting, and therefore actually possessing, the attitude.

A second possibility is that though joke-tellers and their hearers actually do possess the attitude in question, this attitude is directed to fictional contexts only, which carry no implication for attitudes to real life people and situations, and therefore are not ethically bad. Consider those genres of jokes which have to do with stupidity: in British jokes it is the Irish who fill the role of the stupid; in the U.S. it is Poles, or Californians; in Canada, the "Newfies" (Newfoundlanders). Whatever historical roots these may have in real attitudes, surely now they have become detached from any actual attitudes to these groups: the terms are now mere stand-ins for stupid people. So even though one may have an attitude of humorous contempt towards these fictional characters, it carries no implications for how one actually feels about their real-life counterparts.

It would be a mistake to deny that the amoralist has a great deal of truth on his side in how he handles the above examples. The jokes suggest that any moralist is going to have to be careful in judging the morality expressed in jokes, for it is indeed plausible that in the first case the attitudes concerned are entertained, not actually possessed, and in the second case are largely insulated from real-life attitudes towards the named groups by virtue of the conventionalized roles of these groups.

Consider the first kind of grounding for amoralism. Against this view, it is a mistake to pursue the line that Ronald de Sousa, a moralist, takes. De Sousa holds that to find a rape joke funny, one has actually to share [End Page 56] the sexist attitudes it endorses, rather than merely imagining sharing them; indeed, he holds that it is impossible merely hypothetically to adopt attitudes (de Sousa, pp. 240-41). Yet the latter claim is false: I can imagine what it is like to adopt the attitudes characteristic of a desperate person, a Republican, or a maniac, and I can do so because imagination in these cases minimally involves the non-doxastic representation of the attitudes concerned, and such representation is clearly possible. Moreover, merely imagining an attitude may in some cases be all that is necessary to find a joke funny: de Sousa himself agrees that it is possible that an anthropologist should find the jokes of the natives he is studying funny, even though he does not share their attitudes (p. 242). And I can hold to be funny jokes told by Jews about themselves, even though as a non-Jew I cannot share the self-directed attitudes on which they depend for their self-deprecatory humor. So the amoralist is pointing to something correct about the cases considered.

Nevertheless, despite de Sousa's hyperbolical rejection of the possibility of imagining having an attitude, it should be clear that real attitudes are often manifested in jokes: racists can and do tell racist jokes, sexists can and do tell sexist jokes. Indeed, even those who do not acknowledge themselves as racists or sexists may discover that they are such by their joke-telling and responding propensities: we often let our guard down where humor is concerned, and reflection may reveal that we are doing more than imagining the world from an odious perspective: we may discover that this perspective is really our own.

This point should be obvious. That the amoralist should resist it can be explained by noting an ambiguity in the notion of the serious. In one sense of the term, to say that I am serious is simply to say that I am not joking. In this sense, no joke is serious. But in a distinct sense of the term, I am serious about an attitude if I am committed to it, if it is an attitude that is my own, and I do not disavow it. In this sense of "serious," I can joke in a way that is serious--I actually do possess the attitude that the joke and its context make natural to ascribe to me. When I am joking about people's failings, I may be telling them that they really do possess those failings, and doing so in an indirect fashion designed to defuse their potential resistance. This was one of the functions of the court-jester: to reveal to the king what people really thought and felt, but did not dare to say directly. Sometimes humor may convey attitudes about which we are so serious that they can be safely conveyed in no other way.

Now consider the second grounding to which amoralists might [End Page 57] appeal. They point out that certain jokes about ethnic groups may carry no implications about attitudes actually possessed towards those groups, since ethnic characters may merely be conventionalized embodiments of some other quality, such as stupidity, or greed. But it is a mistake to conclude from this that no attitudes towards actual people are implied by the joke. For attitudes towards stupid or greedy people are implied by the joke, since it is precisely the thought of the stupidity or greed of the fictional characters that motivates the humor. These cases show that the apparent target of the joke may not be its real target: one may need interpretative subtlety to understand who is the butt, as well as what is the point, of the joke. In fact, attitudes towards fictions will generally imply attitudes towards real people, since jokes usually engage with stereotypes and generalities, and therefore with kinds of characters and situations, kinds that typically have real instances. Indeed, if these kinds lacked real instances, it is hard to see how the jokes could be funny (imagine trying to make jokes about hypothetical superintelligent beings, whose life-style and thought-processes were utterly dissimilar from our own). Further, those jokes that do engage directly with particulars are generally aimed at named, actual individuals, so that in these cases there is no doubt that attitudes towards actual individuals are revealed. Hence, though in some cases the actual target of a joke may be different from its ostensible target and this may well affect the ethical assessment of the joke, this does not show that attitudes towards real-life situations are generally not conveyed by attitudes manifested towards fictional contexts.

The other option the amoralist may pursue is (b) that even though actual attitudes towards actual people are sometimes manifested in jokes, the ethical badness of these attitudes has nothing to do with the humor of the jokes. Finding something funny involves feeling something, and we are not responsible for our feelings. But the latter claim is not true: we are responsible for our feelings, as Aristotle noted, because we can train ourselves to feel one way or another over a period of time. 9 More promisingly, the amoralist may hold that though we are responsible for our feelings of humor, their appropriateness has nothing to do with the ethical features towards which they are a response. Consider a parallel: people may express ethically good or bad attitudes in their speech, but this may have nothing to do with whether what they say is boring or not. However, the same does not hold true of humor. Recall the dead-baby jokes genre: in the right context, told by a decent parent, they may be funny, but imagine exactly the same [End Page 58] joke-types being told by a child-molester, or in the context of the evening news about dying children in Africa. Here the reality of the attitudes concerned and of the situation described undercuts any humor the jokes may possess. Recall too the importance of the way jokes are told and strung together in determining what attitudes are manifested, and evidently these features of performance are important in determining how funny the jokes are in the context ("It's the way I tell them"). Clearly the attitudes manifested may greatly affect our response to jokes.


The amoralist has failed to show that the humorous and the ethical do not interact. One explanation of this failure is that they do interact, because the badness of attitudes manifested actually enhances the humor of jokes. This is what the immoralist holds, drawing support for the position from both examples and arguments.

Many jokes, or more broadly humorous remarks, depend for their humor on the viciousness of the attitude manifested. Consider Dennis Healey's famous remark in the House of Commons on being questioned by Geoffrey Howe, that Howe's attack was "like being savaged by a dead sheep." Or the British comedian Les Dawson's endless, extraordinarily inventive abuse of his mother-in-law. Or Mr. Bennet's sarcastic remarks to Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; for instance, this exchange in the first chapter: (Mrs. Bennet) "Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves." (Mr. Bennet) "You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."

The immoralist has no difficulty with explaining why humor can be enhanced by viciousness, for each of the traditional three theories of humor seems to lend itself to providing such explanation. Incongruity theories hold that the funny depends on a perception of an incongruity. So the immoralist may hold that since in a broad sense the unethical is a form of incongruity (it does not "fit" with our normal ethical responses and expectations), the unethical can be the vehicle of humor. Superiority theories hold that humor rests on finding ourselves superior to others, so that a joke is, as Aristotle said, "a type of abuse"; 10 [End Page 59] so it is no surprise if the abusive attitudes of the vicious person should be the source of humor. And finally, relief from restraint theories, such as Freud's, hold that humor is fueled by the de-inhibition of sexual or aggressive tendencies, which are expressed in jokes: thus, as noted earlier, it seems that Freud too should hold that we may laugh because of the viciousness of attitudes manifested in jokes. The immoralist is not lacking for supporting arguments. 11

The jokes cited above are certainly all types of abuse, in the sense that there is a butt of their humor, a person who is attacked in and by means of the joke, and can reasonably be expected not to enjoy them. And it is also part of our enjoyment of the joke that we relish the attack. But it does not follow that their humor rests on their viciousness. Jokes that are grounded on an attack can misfire, and so be unfunny, because they are inappropriate to their target. What makes Healey's remark so amusing is that he exactly captured the ineffective nature of Howe's attack on him, the sense that Howe wanted to wound him, but did not have the wherewithal to do so, and that he did so by adverting to Howe's rather impressively woolly head of hair. And likewise Mr. Bennet's spoofing of Mrs. Bennet's nerves is dead on target: Austen tells us, shortly after the passage quoted above, that Mrs. Bennet "was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous." Certainly, none of these attacks are kind (which is not to say that they are cruel), but they are just: they give each person his or her due, for each deserves the witty attack received (only if we held an untenably strong version of the unity of the virtues could we fail to acknowledge this possibility). Here relishing the appropriateness of the attack involves appreciating its justice. Change the character of the butt of the jokes--Mrs. Bennet breaks into tears for she is a sensitive soul, or Howe is deeply wounded by Healey's joke, because he is not the thick-skinned (or woolly-fleeced) politician that he actually is--then we have good reason to think that the remarks are now at best flawed in their humor: they now become unjust and cruel. So it is not the viciousness, i.e., the fact that the jokes display the vices, that we relish in these cases: it is the fact that they hit their target, and the target deserves to be hit. These jokes display not immorality, but a tougher, less tender-hearted, kind of morality than the one we often like to think we believe in.

This may look like a desperate maneuver against the immoralist. Even if we do enjoy the appropriateness of the remarks, surely we also enjoy their aggression? But the immoralist's opponent can agree with [End Page 60] that: after all, aggression is not always a bad thing, it too is sometimes justified; and in any case aggression is not the same as viciousness. With this point is connected the failure of the traditional theories of humor to support immoralism, despite appearances to the contrary. Relief from restraint theories, even if true, only show that we enjoy having our aggressive instincts de-inhibited, they do not show that it is the viciousness of the attack that we appreciate, for that is at best contingently connected with our inhibitions (consider a happily uninhibited evil person: on Freud's view, this person will not enjoy vicious jokes). Nor do superiority theories support immoralism: indeed, while Aristotle believed that jokes are a type of abuse, he does not hold that all jokes are immoral (the Poetics does not suggest that there is anything wrong in amusement directed at the low characters whose representation is the business of comedy). Abuse is sometimes ethically justified. Nor do incongruity theories support immoralism: immoral attitudes are congruent with the immoral persona that the joke-teller builds up if he tells these kinds of jokes; so in certain respects vicious jokes exhibit congruence. (I do not mean, of course, to imply that any of these traditional theories are correct: indeed, as claims about the formal object of humor, they all seem to me to be false.)

Still, the immoralist may reply that even if the theories are flawed support, the plain fact is that we very often do laugh at vicious jokes and find them funny, and when we do so it is often their viciousness, and not some contingently related feature, that explains why we find them funny. But, interestingly, this need not be denied. For the notion of the funny is distinct not just from the object of laughter, as noted earlier, but also from that which people as a matter of fact find funny. Maybe the ancient Romans found the sight of slaves being torn apart by animals in amphitheatres wildly amusing, but that does not mean that it really was. The notion of the funny (or amusing, or humorous) is a normative one: it is not simply what causes humorous reactions that makes it funny, it is what merits or makes appropriate such reactions. The normative aspect of humor is also displayed in the fact that we give qualitative assessments of humor. Humor can be coarse, crude, obvious, clumsy, hackneyed, or on the other hand refined, surprising, elegant, revelatory, even profound (as in Groucho Marx's famous remark that he would not belong to any club that would have him as a member). The normativity of humor can easily be lost sight of, since affective terms (e.g. the boring, the disturbing, the moving, etc.) may seem merely to report the effects of objects on people's sensibilities. But, in [End Page 61] fact, the terms in this class are all normative: people can intelligibly argue about whether a book is really boring or not, and do so not by conducting a statistical survey of its effects on people, but by citing the cognitive virtues of the work (pointing out that it makes some original points about topics that are explanatorily important, and so forth). So the mere fact that some people find truly vicious jokes amusing does not show that they really are such. (This is not to deny that reactions of amusement are irrelevant to determining what is funny, but the reactions will be those of observers satisfying certain normative descriptions, rather than simply those of actual people.) Given this normative dimension of humor, we can dig in our heels, stick out our necks, and insist that racist and sexist jokes are flawed in their humor.


The moralist holds that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying (aspects of) its content, then the joke-token isn't funny. The argument so far has shown that this claim is more tenable than might have first appeared. One objection to moralism mentioned in the first section is that we are sometimes amused by a joke precisely because of the viciousness of the attitudes manifested. In replying to the immoralist, we saw how to resist this: either what we are responding to is the justice of the witty abuse, or we can hold that the joke is flawed. And the offensiveness of racist and sexist jokes gives the moralist good support for the stress on morality. The moralist, it was also objected, has a priggish attitude towards humor, calculated to drain the humor out of most jokes. But in discussing amoralism, we conceded that in the case of many jokes, attitudes were not actually possessed, but merely entertained in telling them, and also that one cannot simply assume that the apparent target of a joke is its real target, so that interpretative subtlety may be required to assess whether a joke is really racist or otherwise reprehensible. These concessions mitigate the priggishness objection to moralism, for many jokes that the moralist might seem to hold not to be funny turn out not to fall into the domain of the moralist's criticism. Further, many kinds of jokes are ethically innocent, being based on word play, a subversion of expectations they generate, and so on. And many of the attitudes endorsed by "off color" jokes, or jokes at the expense of others, need not be ethically bad. Consider "How many Southern Californians does it take to change a light bulb? Five. One to replace [End Page 62] the bulb; four to share the experience," or "How many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb? None of your damned business." 12 The attitudes of thinking Southern Californians absurdly self-obsessed, and New Yorkers aggressively rude may be incorrect, but they need not be vicious: the holder of these attitudes need not be exhibiting an ethical flaw. And members of these groups may sometimes tell these jokes against themselves, as revealing an aspect of the truth. Hence the moralist will not have to go around darkly intoning to most jokes "that's not funny," like a particularly gross example of Aristotle's boorish person. So the moralist can claim to make sense of our reactions towards racist and sexist humor.

However, a more effective objection may be brought against the moralist. This is against the strength of the thesis: the claim that ethically bad jokes are not funny. Humor is a complex response: we respond to many aspects of a presented joke or situation. Broadly, we can separate the objects of our response into two aspects: an intellectual and an affective one. The intellectual aspect of humor consists in the display of cleverness, manifested in puns, a complex deconstruction of the assumptions implicit in jokes (often the target of shaggy dog stories), construing one thing in terms of something strikingly dissimilar but oddly analogous, and so on. It is this aspect of humor that makes the application of "witty," i.e., the display of wit or intelligence, most appropriate. The affective aspect of humor is displayed in those aspects of jokes that engage our passions or feelings in some way, and which can enhance the humor of the joke. Consider the bad-taste joke: "What did the leper say to the prostitute? Keep the tip." The intellectual aspect of humor here is displayed in the pun on "tip"--if you don't get that, you miss the point. The affective aspect rests on the disgustingness of the imagery of bodily disintegration, which stiffens the humor: without it, the pun would sag. 13 Given these two aspects of humor, it seems possible that a joke should be sufficiently clever in its puns, its undercutting of expectations, and so forth, that it could still retain some humor, even though the attitudes manifested are vicious. Consider a very smart Irish joke told by someone deeply prejudiced against the Irish: we might appreciate the humor, while decrying the racism shown. Or recall John Cleese goose-stepping around the room in mockery of Germans: even if we came to believe that he was serious in his views about them, we might still be tickled by the manic precision of his militaristic march. Given these possibilities, the moralist thesis is too strong: it is not true that these jokes and activities are simply not funny. [End Page 63] Rather, they are flawed in their humor. 14 And since there seems no way to foreclose on this possibility, we should admit that what we have shown is that it is not moralism, but ethicism, that is the best candidate for a correct theory about ethics and humor.


Ethicism about jokes holds that if an utterer manifests ethically bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying (aspects of) its content, then that counts against the humor of the joke. That is, ethically bad attitudes tend to diminish or undercut the funniness of a joke: the joke is flawed. This weaker claim is consistent with holding that in many cases the ethical badness of the attitudes displayed is sufficient completely to remove the humor of the joke: that is, the case on which the moralist insists is simply the limiting case for ethicism, and can be subsumed under it. But ethicism also allows for the possibility of the joke retaining some humor, despite its viciousness. So it possesses the advantages of moralism, while avoiding its salient problem. The considerations adduced in favor of moralism in the last section thus carry over to the defense of ethicism, but ethicism avoids the third objection to moralism.

Further, the ethicist can deploy a theory of error to explain why the other views about humor have some plausibility. The moralist correctly notes that the viciousness of jokes undercuts their humor, but overstates her case; the amoralist correctly notes that in many cases real attitudes are not manifested in jokes, but fails to see that in other cases they are, or does not recognize the significance of this; and the immoralist correctly notes that jokes can be funny because they are aggressive or abuse people, but confuses this with the claim that they are vicious, and ignores the importance of the fact that humor is a normative notion. Hence ethicism can explain why competing views have a degree of plausibility.

So it is ethicism that makes best sense of our sometimes conflicting intuitions about ethics and the humor of jokes, avoiding the problems with other accounts and providing a theory of error about the plausibility of these accounts. The claims supporting ethicism about jokes also generalize naturally to support ethicism about humor--indeed, some of the examples discussed earlier were of humorous remarks that are not perhaps strictly speaking jokes (e.g., Healey's remark about Howe), and of humorous actions. The reason for concentrating on jokes was [End Page 64] partly because of their great interest, but also because immoralism is at its most seductive with respect to them, and so it is here that ethicism about humor is most likely to forget itself and succumb to temptation.

Ethicism can be broadened beyond humor. Elsewhere I have argued for a more general thesis, ethicism about art, which we can here put like this: the ethical assessment of attitudes manifested by works of art is a legitimate aspect of the aesthetic evaluation of those works, such that, if a work manifests ethically reprehensible attitudes, that counts towards it being aesthetically defective, and if a work manifests ethically commendable attitudes, that counts towards it being aesthetically meritorious. 15 One pressing objection to this thesis concerns jokes: they are, or are strongly akin to, works of art, can be funny precisely because they manifest vicious attitudes, and humor is the salient aesthetic feature of jokes. Thus the present essay, besides tackling the ethics of jokes directly, also provides support for this more general thesis about art.

Of course, one might in any case argue against using the example of jokes in respect of the general thesis: jokes are not really works of art, and therefore do not fall under the domain of ethicism about art. Jokes can be elegant, expressive, complex, original, an exercise of creative imagination, etc., which count towards their status as art. On the other hand jokes do not constitute an established artistic genre (in the way painting or music do), they are generally one-shot affairs, which do not repay the detailed analysis and attention we give to works of art, and they do not usually support the multiplicity of interpretations which works of art generally allow. 16 So it seems that jokes are at best a borderline case of art (or perhaps a few jokes are works of art, but most are not), and therefore it is indeterminate whether ethicism about art applies to them. And on the legal principle that hard cases make bad law, borderline cases shouldn't be used to generate counterexamples to a thesis concerning ethicism about art. This point is true: but what has been argued here is that even if one gives the nod to jokes as fully-fledged works of art, they would still not provide a counterexample to ethicism about art. Moreover, we have shown that ethicism also applies to jokes, a genre which, it can plausibly be maintained, at least rubs shoulders with art.

However, the appeal to ethicism about art may appear problematic. So far I have defended ethicism about jokes only in the version that vicious attitudes undercut humor. But ethicism about art also claims that the manifestation of virtuous attitudes counts towards the aesthetic [End Page 65] value of a work. While it may be conceded that vicious attitudes undermine humor in a joke, it seems plainly false that manifesting virtuous attitudes can make a joke funny. Jokes displaying relentlessly virtuous attitudes may be squirmingly unfunny. Why saddle ethicism about jokes with the additional burden of the problematic positive thesis? Now it is of course true that ethicism about jokes need not embrace the positive thesis: the at best borderline status of jokes as works of art would mean that such a restriction would not pose a counterexample to ethicism about art. But in fact the positive ethicist thesis about jokes can be defended. Note that the positive claim is that manifesting virtuous attitudes counts towards the humor of a joke. It does not claim that such attitudes can alone make a joke funny: that really is false. There has to be some element of humor present for it to be enhanced, just as there has to be some element of humor present for it to be undercut by vicious attitudes.

However, even that claim may seem false: surely the ethical worthiness of a joke can't enhance its humor. But in fact it can. As we saw earlier, a joke is funny partly because it is targeted accurately, being precisely appropriate to its object. Since the ethical is a kind of appropriateness, this will enhance the quality of the humor of the joke. The fact that its humor is ethically merited can lend a joke a depth and appropriateness which it would otherwise lack, it can rule out coarseness or crudity, it can make the joke revelatory, emancipating its hearers from the narrow bonds of prejudice, getting them to see a situation in a better moral light and respond accordingly, and this being so, we should hold that the quality and power of a joke's humor can depend partly on the virtuous attitudes it displays. Lenny Henry, the black British comedian, once remarked that "Enoch Powell wants to give black people a thousand pounds to go back home, which suits me fine--it only costs me 20p on the bus." Here the effectiveness and resonance of the joke centrally depend on its subversion of racist attitudes and assumptions. Or consider the true story of how Richard Sheridan, manager and owner of the Drury Lane theatre, sat drinking with friends as he watched his theatre burn to the ground in 1809. One of his friends remarked on Sheridan's calm, to which he replied "A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside." The force and depth of the humor here depend very much on the courage and extraordinary ability to rise above adversity which Sheridan's remark displays. Finally, recall the example mentioned earlier of a clever Irish joke told by someone deeply prejudiced against the Irish: if [End Page 66] that same joke were told by someone sympathetic to them, we would judge the joke's humor to lose its flaws, being now cleansed of the crudity and callousness it earlier possessed.

What is funny is partly dependent on what is ethical: the ethical badness of attitudes manifested counts against the funniness of a joke, and their ethical goodness counts towards it. The notion of the funny is a normative one, and is partly dependent on what is ethically good or bad. The moralist, who insists that vicious jokes are not funny, has overstated a truth; both kinds of anti-moralist confuse other features besides viciousness with those that promote humor, or fail to take seriously the normativity of what is funny. And the defense of ethicism about jokes also has an analogue in a defense of ethicism about artworks. It has turned out that when we joke, for our jokes to be unflawed in their humor, we must joke as the virtuous person would.

University of St. Andrews, Scotland


A shorter version of this essay was read at the Asilomar conference of the American Society for Aesthetics in April 1997, and I am grateful to the participants, particularly my commentator Robert Solomon, for their comments. I have also benefited greatly from comments by Jerrold Levinson and Alex Neill.

1. Joseph Boskin, "The Complicity of Humor: The Life and Death of Sambo," in John Morreall, ed., The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), pp. 261-62.

2. For a discussion and critique of Freud's theory of humor, see Noël Carroll, "On Jokes," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 16 (1991): 280-301.

3. See for instance, Ted Cohen, "Jokes," in Eva Schaper, ed., Pleasure, Preference and Value: Studies in Philosophical Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983),

p. 120.

4. See Ronald de Sousa, "When Is It Wrong To Laugh?" in Morreall, The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor.

5. The notion of the funny evidently embraces more than jokes: actions and remarks other than jokes can be funny. The focus of this essay is on jokes, since these are perhaps the most promising aspect of humor to which the anti-moralist can appeal, and it is in terms of jokes that I will formulate the moralist and anti-moralist positions. But the claims generalize naturally to other aspects of humor, and the theses could be reformulated in terms of humorous remarks or actions, rather than merely jokes.

6. Carroll, "On Jokes," p. 297.

7. See Harry Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" in Gary Watson, ed., Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).

8. Strictly speaking, to preserve symmetry with moralism, the immoralist would have to hold that if an utterer manifests morally bad attitudes in the production of a joke-token by deploying its content, then the joke is funny. However, this is so clearly false (there are such things as unfunny jokes that are just plain insulting), it is more charitable to ascribe the weaker thesis to him.

9. See Aristotle's remarks on feelings and habituation, Nicomachean Ethics 2.1-4.

10. Nicomachean Ethics 4.8 1128a30.

11. For a useful overview of theories of humor, see Jerrold Levinson, "Humor," in Edward Craig, ed., Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (forthcoming).

12. Cited in Cohen, "Jokes," pp. 127-28.

13. Incidentally, I do not believe that this joke is ethically bad: leprosy is now so rare (at least in the West), that actual attitudes are unlikely to be displayed here. To say that a joke is in bad taste is not, of course, to hold that it is vicious.

14. If we were to interpret Pride and Prejudice so that Mr. Bennet's attitude towards Mrs. Bennet really is unjust, then his humor at her expense would also fall into this category.

15. Berys Gaut, "The Ethical Criticism of Art," in Jerrold Levinson, ed., Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

16. See Carroll, "On Jokes," p. 294.