What Is Offensive about Offensive Jokes?

By Bicknell, Jeanette | Philosophy Today, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

What Is Offensive about Offensive Jokes?


Bicknell, Jeanette, Philosophy Today


There is an element of malice in much humor. (That slipping on a banana peel is funny does not make the fall any less painful, after all.) A good deal of our laughter in comedy is directed at misfortune, presented in such a way as to elicit amusement rather than outrage, tears or compassion. One need not be a Freudian to recognize the element of hostility in certain jokes; and Bergson's remark that comedy requires a "momentary anesthesia of the heart" is surely plausible.1 This might tempt one to draw gloomy conclusions about human nature; yet few would insist, I suspect, that we eradicate all of the nastiness from our humor. However even fewer would argue that joking be set completely free from moral restraint. Joking is a social activity; it involves and implicates others whether as audience or as butts.2 It is subject to moral consideration and assessment. Joking, we judge, is sometimes inappropriate, and on moral grounds. Jokes themselves range along a continuum, from those that are totally innocuous from a moral point of view, to those that should probably not be repeated. While we might come to broad agreement over which jokes are morally inappropriate, it is no simple matter to say when a joke is offensive, what makes an offensive joke offensive, and to determine where the moral fault lies when there is one. In what follows I will discuss several attempts to do just this.

In the small philosophical literature on the morality of humor, we can discern two dominant positions: (1) a cognitivist or belief-based position and (2) a consequentialist one. Writers often incorporate elements of both positions, but they can be separated for the purpose of analysis. Worthy of note yet not fitting into either category is (3) Ted Cohen's recent antitheoretical account of the morality of offensive jokes.3 In this essay I argue that the cognitivist position is fundamentally flawed as an account of the immorality of offensive jokes. The consequentialist position is more adequate but ultimately unsatisfactory; the moral deficiency of offensive humor is not exhausted by its consequences or possible consequences. I suggest, contra Cohen, that the ethics of humor is an appropriate area of theorizing, and propose an account of the moral fault of offensive jokes that is broadly within the virtue ethics tradition.4 My account can be taken both as a stand-alone account of the morality of offensive jokes and as a necessary supplement to the consequentialist position. I should say at the outset my conclusions will not be framed in the language of necessary and sufficient conditions. As Aristotle cautioned, precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions. Joking is one of those subjects for which we can indicate the truth only roughly and in outline.5

Why is this topic worthy of philosophical consideration? Is it not trivial, given the problems that usually vex moral philosophers? Philosophers seem to me all too reluctant to address the morality of "everyday life." Yet this is precisely the subject of much ordinary reflection on right and wrong. The tools we use to sort out the morality of weightier and more public topics can be put to good use here. It may even turn out that the morality of smaller everyday issues will illuminate bigger problems. An additional sort of objection to taking the morality of jokes seriously is that offended responses to humor say more about those who take offense than it does about the jokers. Those offended, such an objection runs, should learn to "take a joke," get a "sense of humor," and "laugh at themselves." Yet such an objection is itself a moral claim and as such requires argument. It may indeed be the case that some of those wounded by offensive jokes are inappropriately or excessively sensitive. But I doubt this could be true in every instance or in response to any joke, however malicious.

I am particularly interested here in jokes at the expense of an individual or group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical or cognitive ability. …

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