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In responding to my paper “Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously, But Not Too Seriously”, Paul Butterfield claims that there is a crucial oversight in my discussion of humour ethics.

I had distinguished between non-contextual and contextual criticisms of humour, arguing that the former were criticisms of types of jokes, whereas the latter were criticisms of tokens (or particular instances) of jokes. Mr. Butterfield believes that there are in fact two kinds of non-contextual criticism–what he calls “joke-unspecific non-contextual criticisms of humour (those concerned with categories of jokes)” and “joke-specific non-contextual criticisms (those concerned with particular jokes themselves)”. He claims that I consider only the former and not the latter.

Before the implications of this purported oversight can be considered, we should clarify some terminology. Here is a summary of our respective taxonomies:


David Benatar’s Taxonomy:

  • Non – contextual criticism→Types of Jokes
  • Contextual criticism→Tokens (or instances) of Jokes


Paul Butterfield’s Taxonomy:

  • Non-contextual criticism→Categories of Jokes

        →Particular Jokes

  • Contextual criticism→Instances of Jokes

Speaking about “types” of jokes, as I do, is ambiguous because the term can refer to types of varying scope. For example, we might use the term to refer to:

  1. All jokes that turn on any stereotype of any group.
  2. All jokes that turn on any stereotype of a particular group.
  3. All jokes that turn on a particular stereotype of a particular group.
  4. All instances of a particular joke (that turns on a particular stereotype of a particular group).

In drawing a distinction between “categories” of jokes and “particular” jokes, Mr. Butterfield is distinguishing between 1-3 on the one hand, and 4 on the other. That is a reasonable distinction, but it is only worth making if what is said of 1-3 cannot also be said of 4. Mr. Butterfield thinks that this indeed the case. His argument for this is that there are some particular jokes that are wrong irrespective of the context.

He cites the following joke:

Q: Two black guys decide to jump off a building. Who lands first?
A: Who cares?

He asks whether “it would matter, for our moral assessment of [this] joke, what context it was told in?” His answer is “Plausibly, it would not”. (Note, the cautious qualifier.) All he really offers in support of this conclusion are the assertions that:

a) it “seems doubtful … that a joke so plainly trading upon negative attitudes towards black[s] … could be told in a benign context at all”;
b) the “humour of this joke–if there is any–rests pivotally on negative attitudes regarding Black people, and will only be successful if both the humourist and her audience hold such attitudes”;
c) it “seems impossible that someone sensitive or anxious about racism against black people could seek relief in the lightheartedness” of this joke; and
d) “it is impossible to enjoy it while merely recognizing, rather than endorsing, the negative racial attitudes implicit in it”.

It is noteworthy that his reasons for thinking that we can offer successful non-contextual criticisms of particular jokes (that is, types of joke in the fourth sense above) are the very reasons that others have offered or might offer in criticism of what he calls “categories” of jokes (that is, types of jokes in the first three sense enumerated). In other words, he has not said anything to explain why (a) to (d) apply to particular jokes but not to categories of jokes.

For this reason, it should not be surprising that the very things I said about (a) to (d), apply not only to categories of jokes but also to particular jokes–or, in other words to types of jokes in all senses of “type”.

I shall not rehearse those arguments here, but it may be worth looking at the particular joke Mr. Butterfield uses to illustrate his point. (Those who, for the purpose of contemplating this joke, wish to substitute “black guys” with “Jews”, “women”, “homosexuals”, “Poles”, “Irishmen”, etc, may do so.) I can well imagine contexts in which this joke would not be morally wrong.

One such context would be that in which two good friends who do not share the negative attitudes about some group (of which they may or may not be members) are chaffing with one another, humorously playing the role of a person who does have those outrageous attitudes. Nobody else is present, and they themselves will not become more amenable to the attitudes as a result of playing with them. In their exchange they trade jokes of the kind Mr. Butterfield mentions. They are playing the part of the racist, anti-Semite, misogynist or homophobe, for example. The humour might lie in the shocking incongruity of the punch line or in the even more scandalous incongruity of playing the part of the bigot. Alternatively or in addition, it might lie in mocking the bigot, whose attitudes might, in some cases, be exaggerated by a negative attitude that extreme. (There are lesser bigots and “bigger” bigots and not all bigots would be indifferent to the deaths of individuals in those groups to which they have negative attitudes.)

Now Mr. Butterfield may want to deny that people who do not share the negative attitude could possibly derive any humour from such a joke, even in the context I have mentioned. Alternatively he might claim that some other feature of the suggested context is impossible. However, that is an a priori assertion, not an argument. He is saying that there can be no context of the kind I have mentioned. But it is a contextual question whether there are any such contexts. In other words, we would have to look at a particular context to know whether the claims made about it were or were not true. For this reason, any criticism of the joke in question would have to be contextual even though the joke would be wrong in very many contexts.

In summary, then, Mr. Butterfield has not shown that there is anything (morally) distinctive about particular jokes that differentiate them from categories of jokes. More significantly, his argument that some particular jokes are wrong irrespective of the context is flawed. Nevertheless I am grateful to him for raising an objection that others might also have in mind, thus affording me the opportunity to reply.

Please note this letter contains examples of jokes featuring explicit racism.

David Benatar’s article ‘Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously, But Not Too Seriously’ (Journal of Practical Ethics. Volume 2, Issue 1) offers thoughtful and articulate analysis on the current state of moral discourse about humour. In the section ‘Common Mistakes in Humour Ethics’, Benatar does this discourse a service by bringing to light some popular—and addressable—omissions and errors.

With regard to his distinction between contextual and non-contextual moral criticisms of humour, however, Benatar has made an oversight. He considers joke-unspecific non-contextual criticisms of humour (those concerned with categories of jokes), and he considers joke-specific contextual criticisms of humour (those concerned with instances of joke-telling), but he fails to consider joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour (those concerned with particular jokes themselves).

Jeff McMahan raises some valid concerns about the paper, and I am grateful both for his taking the time to do so, and for the opportunity to clarify my central argument. Rather than attempt a blow-by-blow defence, I’ll just concentrate on three major points, before summing up.

I elliptically misattributed to McMahan the Walzerian view that intentional killing in war is justified only when the target is liable to be killed. However, throughout McMahan’s work (until recently) the role of lesser evil justification has been radically circumscribed, confined to situations where intentionally killing the nonliable is necessary to avert an unusual catastrophe, of the sort that justified war does not typically aim to avert (of course Walzer too thought intentionally killing the nonliable permissible in supreme emergencies). Throughout his oeuvre, McMahan has argued that most combatants on the unjust side are sufficiently responsible for unjustified threats to be liable to be killed. I intended to target this thesis. In ordinary wars (which are not fought to avert supreme emergencies) many combatants who are intentionally killed are not liable to be killed, so if killing is justified, it is as a lesser evil. Since we do think that wars can sometimes be justified, even if not to avert an unusual catastrophe, this suggests that lesser evil justification must play a greater role in just war theory than Walzer, and until recently McMahan have thought. McMahan’s recent move towards a similar view is a welcome evolution, but an evolution nonetheless.

Seth Lazar’s “Associative Duties and the Ethics of Killing in War” is an original, rich, challenging, and intricately argued contribution to our understanding of the ethics of war. Its main aim is to explain how fighting in a war can be permissible when warfare inevitably involves the killing of people who are not liable to be killed—a problem that is more extensive than it may seem.

Civilians are almost inevitably killed in war and Lazar accepts that few if any civilians are liable to be killed in war. In principle, of course, a war could be fought without killing civilians, and certainly without killing them intentionally. Yet it is scarcely possible to fight a war, or at least a war in the familiar sense, without intending to kill enemy combatants. Lazar believes, however, that many combatants are not liable to be killed. As I and others have argued, those who fight for a just cause in a just war (“just combatants”), and by permissible means, do nothing to make themselves morally liable to be killed—that is, they do nothing to forfeit or lose their right not to be killed. And Lazar himself has argued, in previous work, that many combatants who fight in wars that lack a just cause (“unjust combatants”) are also not liable to be killed. This is because the harm that, as individuals, they threaten to cause is insufficiently great or because the degree to which they are responsible for the harm they threaten is too low. I think he is right about this, though I think the proportion of unjust combatants who are not liable to be killed is in most cases lower than he thinks it is.

Like Mele and Shepherd, I don’t believe that the news coming out of the cognitive sciences is as bad as some prominent scientists have claimed. The situationist literature on which they focus, for instance, demonstrates only that autonomous agency is sometimes constrained in ways we might not have suspected, not that we are never autonomous agents at all; much the same message is appropriately drawn from work on nonconscious biases and priming. Moreover, I agree with Mele and Shepherd that the same sciences that deliver us this moderately bad news also deliver good news, in the form of findings about how negative influences on our behavior from situational forces and nonconscious biases may be counteracted. However, I think the news is overall less good than they think, and our capacity to counter the negative influences through education (in particular) is more restricted than they claim. I will briefly explain why education is less powerful than Mele and Shepherd believe, before ending with some good news of my own

After outlining the ways in which situations can exert an unexpectedly large influence on behavior, Mele and Shepherd argue that we can counter these effects when we are aware of them. If I know about the bystander effect, for instance, I can wonder if it is at work in reducing my motivation to help in a particular case. By imagining how I would react were I the only witness, I might counteract the effect and produce better behavior in myself. I do not deny that this might sometimes work. But I think there are a number of reasons to doubt that educating people about the bystander effect will have any significant effects. First, there is a great deal of resistance among ordinary people (including educated people) to believing findings like these. Second, and worse, even among those who accept the findings there is little acceptance that these kinds of influences affect them (the great majority of physicians, for instance, accept that gifts from pharmaceutical companies influence their colleagues, but most deny that it influences them).