A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World

Comment on “Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously, But Not Too Seriously”

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).

Benatar claims that “non-contextual criticisms of humour…make more expansive claims than contextual criticisms do. More specifically, they say that all humour of a particular kind is morally wrong”  (p.32). This is not the case, however. Joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour make much less expansive claims than this. In particular, they make claims like the following:

Joke J is a morally bad joke. Not all jokes that belong to the category that J belongs to are morally bad, but J is. Some jokes are only morally bad in certain contexts, but J is morally bad regardless of context.

This would be a minor complaint if Benatar had simply miscategorised the above claim as ‘contextual’ rather than ‘non-contextual’. But there is no place for joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour in Benatar’s description of contextual criticisms. He writes that contextual criticisms take the view that “we should not be evaluating types of jokes but rather particular instances of a joke to determine whether they are morally permissible” (p.32) [emphasis added]. Thus, his category of contextual criticisms of humour does not include joke-specific non-contextual criticisms. This oversight is problematic, because this kind of criticism of humour is in common use, and it is resistant to the arguments Benatar makes against category-level criticisms.

It is neither rare nor obviously unsound to criticise some jokes without regard to the context in which they were told. When debates have occurred in reaction to jokes by comedians such as Daniel Tosh and Frankie Boyle, it has usually been considered sufficient for informed discussion that one knows <i”>what was said, without necessarily needing to know howor whereit was said. We can reasonably expect to undertake an informed analysis of the morality of at least some jokes, even if we are unaware of the context in which they were told, and unconcerned with the general category of humour they belong to. In The Rhetoric of Racist Humour: US, UK and Global Race Joking, Simon Weaver (2011, Ashgate Publishing) discusses a great number of racist jokes, for which it certainly seems plausible that one might criticise the joke regardless of context, even if one didn’t object to racial (or even racist) humour generally. So one might make no moral criticism of the first racial joke (cited by Benatar, p.29) below, but nevertheless have a moral problem with the second (cited by Weaver, p.79):

  1. A Jew, a Scot and an Englishman have dinner together at a restaurant. After the meal, the waiter approaches them and asks to whom he should present the bill. The Scot says: “I’ll pay”. The headline in the newspaper the next morning reads: “Jewish ventriloquist found dead in alley”. 
  2. Q: Two black guys decide to jump off a building, who lands first? 

    A: Who cares?

Now, would it matter, for our moral assessment of the latter joke, what context it was told in? Plausibly, it would not. After all, as Benatar himself notes, “it is possible for group-insiders to share defective attitudes about the group”. Thus, even if this joke was told between black Americans, in a context in which black Americans were in the majority, that might not be enough to remove its negative moral effects. It seems doubtful, in fact, that a joke so plainly trading upon negative attitudes towards black Americans could be told in a benign context at all.

This fact helps to explain some ways in which joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour can be resistant to the arguments Benatar gives against joke-unspecific non-contextual criticisms. Particular jokes can be malicious in ways that entire categories of jokes cannot. For instance, Benatar rejects the idea that jokes including racial stereotypes necessarily require us to endorse these stereotypes, pointing out that we could find these jokes funny merely because we recognise the stereotypes. For the joke found in The Rhetoric of Racist Humour above, however, it seems impossible to truly tell the joke without endorsing the negative attitudes implicit in it. One can reference the joke (as this letter has) in a value-neutral way, but that would not be the same thing as telling it. 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.

Similarly, it cannot be said of certain specific jokes, as Benatar says of certain categories of jokes, that “it is precisely because of [people’s] sensitivities or anxieties about the sufferings and misfortunes that they seek relief in lightheartedness about these serious matters”. It seems impossible that someone sensitive or anxious about racism against black people could seek relief in the lightheartedness of the above joke, for the same reason that it is impossible to enjoy it while merely recognising, rather than endorsing, the negative racial attitudes implicit in it.

The abstract of ‘Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously…’ claims that “non-contextual criticisms…are rejected” in the article (p.24), but given that not all kinds of non-contextual criticisms are considered, this is premature. A rejection of joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour is required to justify a rejection of non-contextual criticisms of humour generally. Furthermore, a rejection of joke-specific non-contextual criticisms of humour will require an argument other than the ones that Benatar gives in this article. If such an argument can be made, that will be an even greater contribution to considerations of the morality of humour than ‘Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously…’ offers.

Paul Butterfield, University of Glasgow