Bioethics Blogs

The Ethics of Humor

Clinton Cards recently apologized for a Christmas card listing “10 reasons why Santa Claus must live on a Council Estate” (sample reasons: “He only works once a year”; “He drinks alcohol during working hours”). Predictably, some people professed outrage over the card (which seems to me mildly offensive, but not enough to get worked up over) and equally predictably some people slammed the reaction as an excess of political correctness (whatever that means). Humor is very often at someone’s expense. In fact, some people have suggested that making the person who laughs feel superior to the butt of the joke is the essence of humor. That theory is rather implausible, but we certainly don’t want a blanket ban on jokes that target other people. When is it okay to tell jokes at the expense of others and when isn’t it?I think the central principle  governing acceptability is this: jokes are offensive when (a) they target members of disadvantaged groups and (b) they turn on stereotypes that play a role in perpetuation of the disadvantage. So jokes that target women and turn on their alleged problems with maths, for instance, are offensive because women belong to a disadvantage group and because their alleged problems with maths have been cited as a reason for excluding them from higher-status professions. They are offensive because they require us to recognize the stereotype. They introduce it is as an presupposition in a language game, as Rae Langton puts it, putting the person who laughs into the position (whether they like it or not) of accepting the presupposition.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.