A Journal of Philosophy, Applied to the Real World


The Journal welcomes letters relating to articles published in the Journal. These will be reviewed by an editor. If you are considering submitting a letter, please send a letter of introduction to jpe-editor@philosophy.ox.ac.uk, prior to writing it, indicating your name, institutional affiliation (if any), and intention to submit.

Recent political discourse has brought the debate regarding statues to the forefront of the public’s mind and sparked a broader discussion about how we should relate to statues that depict problematic people. In a recent issue of this Journal, Helen Frowe argues that being a serious rights violator is a sufficient condition for a state to be justified in removing statues depicting that person (Frowe 2019, p.1).

This letter presents an alternative model on which there is a moral duty to remove statues of serious wrongdoers if two conditions are met. Condition one is that the statue causes harm. Condition two is that the serious wrongdoing committed by the person being commemorated is sufficiently severe to become a key feature of that person’s moral record. I will argue that each condition is necessary but not sufficient to justify removal and that the two conditions are jointly sufficient; both conditions being met means that we have a moral duty to remove the statue of the serious wrongdoer.

The letter will focus on how Frowe could critique the second condition of my model by arguing that it is wrong not only to honour serious wrongdoers but also to honour people despite their serious wrongdoing. In refuting this argument, the letter highlights the weighty moral considerations in favour of sometimes honouring people despite their wrongdoing and sets out how my model allows for this nuance while Frowe’s model does not. The letter then briefly considers what a sensible approach to determining whether the second condition has been met could look like.

Condition one: harm

Harm is a suitable first condition because it provides prima facie reasons for removing statues. The act of not removing statues can cause harm because statues can degrade and alienate people by being expressive of a disrespectful ideology or perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies such as those in racist ideologies (Schulz 2018, p.183). Consequently, if a statue degrades or alienates a person, then that person is being harmed and the first necessary condition of the model proposed in this letter is met. Frowe rejects this harm condition and presents the example of a theoretical genocide to explain why (Frowe 2019, p.23). In her example, group A has committed genocide and killed all members of group B. She posits that if group A were to commemorate this genocide through a statue, then group C who were not harmed by the genocide would have no legitimate claim to being harmed but would still be wholly justified in wanting the statue to be removed which would therefore point out how harm is not a suitable criteria. However I would argue that this misses the mark because I think group C could still convincingly claim that they have been harmed on my definition. On my definition of harm, statues can harm by perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies and it seems clear that genocide of any group of people is obviously perpetuating wrongful social hierarchies which we would all be harmed by, even if we did not belong to the group being killed.

Hooker argues that something is good for well-being if a life with more of that element is always better than a life that is otherwise the same but has less of it. He goes through a list of things that come to mind as valuable in themselves and determines whether or not these things are actually intrinsically good using that simple test. While we agree with Hooker’s positive assessment – that innocent pleasure, significant achievement, important knowledge, autonomy, and friendship are distinct, valuable elements of life – we disagree with his negative assessment – that appreciating beauty and living a morally good life are not. Instead, we argue, both of these elements make a life better, independently of the other five values, and thus pass his test.

We first consider the appreciation of beauty. We believe that a life that contains appreciation of beauty is better than a life that is similar in other respects but does not contain appreciation of beauty. Appreciation of beauty thus passes Hooker’s initial test for an element of well-being, i.e., something that improves one’s life, a point with which Hooker agrees. The next question is whether it does so independently of the other valuable elements. Hooker considers two options: either appreciation of beauty is subjective or objective. If the former, he takes it to be instrumental in adding pleasure or friendship; if the latter, he takes it to be a type of important knowledge. In reply, we argue that appreciation of beauty could be an independent element of well-being, even if it is subjective, and not merely valuable for its contribution to pleasure or friendship. For example, one can appreciate beauty in a piece of artwork that makes us feel sadness, awe, shock, or horror. These are all emotional reactions that are not necessarily identical to pleasure or happiness, nor valuable for their contribution to pleasure or happiness, but can still improve a life.

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.