Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Joke Morality

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Joke Morality

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "What Is Offensive About Offensive Jokes?" by Jeanette Bicknell, in Philosophy Today, Winter 2007.

IT'S PERFECTLY OK TO TELL lawyer jokes, musician jokes, or almost any joke about a rich guy. But jokes about race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or physical or cognitive ability are considered morally offensive. Why?

Philosophers have advanced two theories. "Cognitivists" say that jokes made at the expense of minority groups carry the suggestion that the jokester, deep down, believes them. "Consequentialists" argue that certain jests are morally suspect because they cause harm, or are likely to. But neither theory adequately explains what's offensive, argues Jeanette Bicknell, a philosopher at Carleton University, in Ottawa. It is quite possible, she suggests, to tell a joke without embracing it as a truth--nobody believes that an elephant actually walked into a bar--but we suspend disbelief for the sake of a laugh. And almost any joke might cause harm to someone, sometime.

The main determinant of whether a gibe is morally offensive is the "vulnerability of the group or individual joked about," Bicknell argues. …

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