On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part Three)

Preliminary note: I will mention offensive jokes for the purpose of making a philosophical point.  In philosophical parlance, I’ll be mentioning jokes rather than saying them.  If you’re easily offended, you probably shouldn’t continue reading the rest of this post.

In part one, I set up Benatar’s argument by looking at offensive humor through contextual and non-contextual means.

In part two, I looked at Benatar’s argument that introspection is unreliable, and therefore, the prejudiced person can’t be at fault.  I argued that because it is unreliable, the prejudiced person (and others) could be at fault.

In this final post, I want to look Benatar’s focus of three mistakes regarding humor ethics, and some guidelines toward the end.

Common Mistakes in Humor Ethics

Benatar focuses on certain mistakes that we ignore when it comes to the ethics of humor.

1.  Benefits are ignored.  When it comes to the ethics of humor, the focus is usually on the negative effects.  There are great benefits to humor, particularly the pleasure it brings. For example, using humor as a way to make fun of tyrants.  Moreover, the humor undermines the tyrant’s abuse of power.

More than that, humor generally lightens the mood by helping people cope with certain anxieties in life such as disease, disability, and death as examples.  People make the jokes in order to neutralize the stereotype.

While this may be true, jokes can also enhance the stereotype.  How can we tell when the joke does that?  Especially if we accept the contextual framework, it gets trickier to determine when the joke is harmful or beneficial.  For example, Benatar gives two examples of the same variant of a joke:

The Jewish variant reads:

Two Jews are walking down a street and see a sign on a church saying: “Become a Christian and earn $100”. They don’t know what to make of this, but decide that one will convert and will share the money with the other. The prospective convert enters the church. After a while he emerges. His friend says to him:

“Where’s my $50”.

The new Christian replies: “Is that all you people think about?”

The “black” variant reads:

Two “blacks” are walking down a street and see a sign on a building saying: “Become white and earn $100”. They don’t know what to make of this, but decide that one will become “white” and will share the money with the other. The prospec- tive “white” enters the building. After a while he emerges. His friend says to him:

“Where’s my $50”.

The new “white” replies: “Get yourself a job!”

From these jokes, we can recognize the stereotypes given to Jews and blacks.  However, Benatar states that these jokes don’t reinforce the stereotypes of Jews or blacks, but they make fun of people who hold the stereotypes.  Thus, these jokes can subvert a stereotype.

But do they?  I’m sure that these jokes can make fun of those who hold those stereotypes, but I can also see these jokes endorsing the stereotypes.

Going back to the dishwasher joke in part one, the joke does display stereotypes (women are nothing but humans that do household chores around the house; if there is a messy house, it’s the woman’s fault; and that displaying violence towards women keeps her in her place).  But does it endorse these stereotypes, or does it subvert them?  It’s hard to say because what makes them funny or offensive is how the listener interprets these stereotypes.  Thus, I think that in order to make the joke funny, the listener must either endorse or reject the stereotype but must also recognize the stereotype.  But which is it?  It has to depend on the listener (and the speaker).  Benatar’s criterion on when a joke becomes morally impermissible is when the joke causes harm.  But when is that?  It would have to be when the joke is interpreted as harmful (i.e., the joke above endorses the stereotypes).  But how do you know when the joke will be interpreted as harmful?  Benatar doesn’t think there can be clear cut rules here.  One must have practical knowledge to know what the proper context to say the joke.  Like many things that require context, it takes practical knowledge because there are no clear-cut rules on what is considered proper or improper.

I’m not sure Benatar has fully answered the objection.  I think having practical wisdom, or what Aristotle calls phronesis, is correct.  You have to know the proper time and place to say a joke that is potentially offensive.  But saying a joke to a bunch of friends is different than saying it to a bunch of strangers because I know my friends.  The stand-up comedian has a special insight to tell a joke and pushes the bounds of what is appropriate.  But a good comedian will get the audience to laugh rather than getting offended.  Suppose that the joke stipulates stereotypes.  Does the comedian have enough insight to know whether the joke will be interpreted as undermining the stereotype?  I really don’t know, but Benatar’s argument implies that the comedian can have enough insight mainly because the comedian has some sort of expertise.  (I’m imputing phronesis here as one who is excellent at practical wisdom.  Of course, Benatar could mean practical wisdom in another way.)  If my imputation is correct, then comedians are considered experts in their field, namely making people laugh and know which jokes can make people laugh.

2. Contextual Considerations are Oversimplified.  The common view is that jokes about a certain group is unacceptable unless that represented group can tell the joke.  For example, blacks can only tell black jokes, women can only tell women jokes, and the disabled can only tell disabled jokes.  Otherwise, the claim goes, the joke and/or the agent goes “too far.”  This view, however, assumes that the joke tellers from “the inside” can tell the joke without (a) the joke expression from defective attitude, or (b) the joke is viewed as an expression of a defective attitude.  But why should we hold these assumptions?

After all, for part (a) maybe there are blacks who are racist, women who are misogynist, or disabled people who are prejudiced against disabled people, and for part (b) this implies that the insiders can never be wrong when they tell offensive jokes in which they themselves are part of the group.  We can’t assume that group-insiders won’t have these problems, even towards themselves.  Moreover, there are instances where the speaker does not have the negative attitude, and it not a member of a group.  Yet, depending on the context, we can be assured that the speaker (and even the listeners) saying or hearing the joke will not be viewed as a shared expression of the negative attitudes.

Next, consider the audience.  The thought is that if a group-insider tells a joke to an audience of the same group, then the humor is morally permissible.  However, if the joke is told to the audience where the audience is outside the the group being joked about, the humor is morally suspect.  Why?  Suppose person P was a member of minority group M and P tells a joke J where the joke stipulates stereotypes about M.  If P tells J to M, it’s less likely to reinforce anti-M attitudes in M.

Moreover, we should not conclude that it’s always impermissible to say something humorous about a group to those not in the group.  This is because some people can enjoy jokes about others without developing the negative attitude toward those others.

Finally, the conventional wisdom is that it’s ok to make fun of the dominant group, but morally suspect to joke the subordinate group.  For example, making jokes about men would be permissible, but not about women.  Likewise, making jokes about whites would be permissible, but not about blacks.  Benatar sees some truth in this as well.  After all, telling jokes about a subordinate group could cause harm.  However, this does not mean that telling jokes about the disadvantaged groups always harms, or that telling jokes about advantaged groups never harms.  “For example, jokes about “whites” might be more dangerous in Zimbabwe than they are in Sweden, and jokes about male nurses may be more damaging than jokes about female doctors” (p. 38).  What matters is the context.

3.  Offense is given too much weight.  We usually take offense as a weighty moral consideration.  Benatar thinks this is a mistake.  The conventional wisdom is that if saying joke J is offensive, then saying joke J morally impermissible.  Benatar finds the conventional view untenable.  People express outrage to a joke, and that expression signifies that the joke is wrong.  But what is doing the work?  Usually, the sequence is like this: Outrage

The joke is immoral because there is outrage.  However, if we stop there and make outrageousness the reasoning for making things immoral then this loosens up the territory of what is considered impermissible.  In other words, if we make things impermissible because of the outrage, which is just another way of saying “I’m offended,” then, to be consistent, “it would grant a moral veto to the hypersensitive” (p. 39).  Anyone who was offended or outraged could claim that the joke is immoral, which means that we would lose out on the justification as to why the joke was immoral.  This implies that not being offended would be a moral right.  Moreover, this would lead to inconsistent results.  Suppose A told a joke and B was offended.  Say that A was offended by B’s lack of humor.  If being offended is sufficient to determine whether something is immoral, then both A and B are immoral, which is an odd conclusion.

However, we should not conclude that being offended is irrelevant.  We should take into account when people get offended and we should take that into account.  The best example is to not tell a joke where everyone in the audience won’t benefit from it.  If person P is telling an anti-Semitic joke to a Jewish congregation, we can already see that’s a bad idea because of the gratuitous offense it would cause.

Sure, but is this a question of morality, or a question of prudence? Benatar would say that this is immoral, but maybe we could say that it’s just imprudent.

We should instead look behind the outrage:


and see what the reasons are for the outrage.  In the end, they could very well be good reasons.


How do we know whether a joke is appropriate to tell or not?  There is no magic formula to tell us this.  We must use practical reason.  If there are no good reasons to defend the non-contextual criticisms of humor, then contextual criticisms of humor are the focus of moral consideration.  But if the judgement is contextual, then there cannot be a formula to tell us what is morally appropriate or not.  I would offer that we need phronesis, stemming from Aristotle.  However, Benatar offers some guidelines:


In conclusion, Benatar suggests that we must weigh in these factors to determine when humor is appropriate.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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1 Response to On the Ethics of Offensive Humor (Part Three)

  1. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

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