Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 333–347 | Cite as

The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor be Wrong?

  • Aaron SmutsEmail author


I distill three somewhat interrelated approaches to the ethical criticism of humor: (1) attitude-based theories, (2) merited-response theories, and (3) emotional responsibility theories. I direct the brunt of my effort at showing the limitations of the attitudinal endorsement theory by presenting new criticisms of Ronald de Sousa’s position. Then, I turn to assess the strengths of the other two approaches, showing that that their major formulations implicitly require the problematic attitudinal endorsement theory. I argue for an effects-mediated responsibility theory, holding that the strongest ethical criticism that can be made of our sense of humor is that it might indicate some omission on our part. This omission could only be culpable in so far as a particular joke could do harm to oneself or others. In response to Ted Cohen’s doubts that such a mechanism of harm is forthcoming, I argue that the primary vehicle of the harmful effects of humor is laughter.


Humor Laughter Ethics of humor Merited response Emotions Jokes Racist jokes Sexist jokes Harm 



I thank Heidi Bollich for reading an early draft of this paper. Noël Carroll made many useful suggestions for improving an earlier version of my position. In addition, I thank an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful suggestions.


  1. Aristotle (1990) The Nicomachean ethics. Trans. David Ross. Oxford UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  2. Baudelaire C (1956) The essence of laughter and more especially of the comic in plastic arts. Trans Gerald Hopkins. In: Quennell P (ed) The essence of laughter and other essays, journals, and letters. Meridian Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  3. Benatar D (2002) Prejudice in jest: when racial and gender humor harms. In: Benatar D (ed) Ethics for everyday. McGraw Hill, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  4. Bergman M (1986) How many feminists does it take to make a joke? Sexist humor and what’s wrong with it. Hypatia 1(1):63–82Google Scholar
  5. Buckley FH (2003) The morality of laughter. Michigan UP, Ann ArborGoogle Scholar
  6. Carroll N (1996) Notes on the sight gag. In: Carroll N (ed) Theorizing the moving image. Cambridge UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Carroll N (2000) Art and ethical criticism: an overview of recent direction of research. Ethics 110:350–387CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carroll N (2001) On jokes. In: Carroll N (2001) Beyond aesthetics: philosophical essays. Cambridge UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  9. Cohen T (1999) Jokes: philosophical perspectives on laughing matters. Chicago UP, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  10. de Sousa R (1987) When is it wrong to laugh? In: de Sousa R (ed) The rationality of emotion. MIT, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  11. Descartes R (1985) The passions of the soul. In: Cottingham J, Stoothoff R, Murdoch D (eds) The philosophical writings of descartes, vol 1. Cambridge UP, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  12. Epictetus (1983) Handbook of Epictetus. Trans. White N. Hackett, IndianapolisGoogle Scholar
  13. Gaut B (1998) Just joking: the ethics and aesthetics of humor. Philos Lit 22(1):51–68Google Scholar
  14. Gaut B (2007) Art, emotion and ethics. Oxford UP, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Goldstein L (1995) Humor and harm. Sorites 3:27–42Google Scholar
  16. Hobbes T (1999) Human nature and DeCorpore Politico. Oxford UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  17. Kagan S (1994) Me and my life. Proc Aristot Soc 94:309–324Google Scholar
  18. Morreall J (1983) Taking laughter seriously. SUNY UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  19. Morreall J (1989) The philosophy of laughter and humor. SUNY UP, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Nilsen AP, Nilsen DLF (2000) Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor. Oxry Press, PhoenixGoogle Scholar
  21. Philips M (2002) Racist Acts and Racist Humor. In: Benatar (ed) Ethics for the Everyday. McGraw Hill, MadisonGoogle Scholar
  22. Provine R (2001) Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. PenguinGoogle Scholar
  23. Roberts RC (1987) Humor and the virtues. Inquiry 31:127–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Ryan KM, Kanjorski J (1998) The enjoyment of sexist humor, rape attitudes, and relationship aggression in college students. Sex Roles 38(9/10):743–756CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Sankowski E (1977) Responsibility of persons for Their Emotions. Can J Philos VIII(4):829–840, DecemberGoogle Scholar
  26. Smuts A (2006) Humor. Internet Encyclopedia of PhilosophyGoogle Scholar
  27. Smuts A (2007) The joke is the thing: ‘in the company of men’ and the ethics of humor. Film Philos 11:49–67Google Scholar
  28. Smuts A (2009) Do moral flaws enhance amusement? Am Philos Q 46(2):151–163Google Scholar
  29. Smuts A (2010) Grounding moralism: moral flaws and aesthetic properties. J Aesthet Educ (forthcoming)Google Scholar
  30. Soll I (1999) On the Purported Insignificance of Death. In: Malpas J, Solomon R (eds) Death and philosophy. Routledge, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  31. Solomon R (2002) Are the three stooges funny? Soitainly! (or When is it OK to laugh?). In: Rudinow J, Graybosch A (eds) Ethics and values in the information age. Wadsworth, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTemple UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA

Personalised recommendations