Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Are offensive jokes more permissible if they’re funny? Written by Raphael Hogarth

This essay received an Honourable Mention in the Undergraduate Category of the Oxford Uehiro Prize of Practical Ethics

Written by New College Oxford student Raphael Hogarth

Three moral agents walk into a bar. They get to joking and, with each round, their banter becomes more risqué. After the second pint, Agent A ventures a humourless and offensive joke about Jews and big noses: Agents B and C scowl and move on. After the third pint, Agent A has another crack with a joke about the holocaust – a more insensitive joke, but also apparently one with more potential to amuse. Agent B can’t help but giggle; Agent C is incandescent with outrage. Agents A and B retort in chorus: “But it’s funny!”[1]

This is a familiar sort of exchange. Someone accused of moral turpitude for a tasteless quip will often reach for its comedic value as a defence. Conversely, witlessness is often seen to add insult to injury with offensive jokes: “It wasn’t even funny!” This phenomenon is surprisingly under-philosophised. There has been some debate about how the moral character of a joke can affect how funny it is (the ‘comic moralism/immoralism/amoralism’ debate),[2] but virtually none about whether how funny a joke is can affect its moral character. This is an important question. We form and nourish many of our personal relationships through jokes; their moral status affects ours. Though my focus here is on ethics, not politics, the answer may also have implications for public life – about proper penance for those who make offensive jokes in official capacities, for instance.

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