A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World

Reply to Paul Butterfield on “Taking Humour (Ethics) Seriously, But Not Too Seriously”

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.