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Against the Moralistic Fallacy: A Modest Defense of a Modest Sentimentalism about Humor

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In a series of important papers, Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson argue that all extant neo-sentimentalists are guilty of a conflation error that they call the moralistic fallacy. One commits the moralistic fallacy when one infers from the fact that it would be morally wrong to experience an affective attitude—e.g., it would be wrong to be amused—that the attitude does not fit its object—e.g., that it is not funny. Such inferences, they argue, conflate the appropriateness conditions of attitudinal responses with the fittingness conditions of the associated evaluative properties. Further, they argue that moral considerations are irrelevant for determining if amusement fits its object. We agree that a strong moralizing of humor is wrongheaded and that jokes can be quite funny even in cases where we have a compelling moral reason to not be amused. However, we argue that pace D’Arms and Jacobson moral considerations can be relevant for property ascription. On our view, in order for a joke to be funny, a properly sensitive agent must take herself to have a contributory reason to be amused, and in some cases that she lacks such a reason is best explained by appeal to moral considerations. We use this constraint as the basis of what we call our modest proposal for a modest sentimentalism.

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  1. Still, we do not believe that it is either irrational or unreasonable for her to not be moved by these considerations. We think that in the case of amusement, there is space for what we often refer to as taste. That one does not find slapstick humor all that amusing, despite the fact that those who do can justify their amusement, renders one neither irrational nor unreasonable. Still, we think that there are legitimate characterological assessments to be made of us in light of our sense of humor. For example, our sense of humor might be crass or juvenile, and in such a case the reasons that we cite to justify our particular instances of amusement will tend to be inadequate. In some cases, one might lack a sense of humor altogether, in which case she will be insensitive to just about anyone’s reasons for amusement. Such individuals are properly criticized as humorless.

  2. Some may still question whether it makes sense to talk about reasons to be amused. For instance, they may think that amusement is merely caused or occasioned by various events. Still, the idea that there are reasons for amusement seems to be common ground between us and D’Arms and Jacobson.

  3. D’Arms and Jacobson (2000a) also provide an example that focuses on envy (p. 71). They ask us to consider that envying our newly tenured colleague might be imprudent since it might lead us to act in ways that undermine our relationship with our colleague whose support we will need in an upcoming vote. So, we have a reason that counts against feeling envy, a reason which may be strong enough to outweigh all the other reasons, including reasons of fit, but it does not follow that her tenure is not enviable.

  4. It is worth noting that there are some inappropriateness inferences that will go through. On their view, it will be perfectly legitimate to infer from the claim that it would be fit-inappropriate to experience amusement to the claim that the object lacks the associated evaluative property, in this case ‘funny’. This is the point in claiming that ‘appropriate’ is ambiguous.

  5. See also, (2000a, p. 69, n. 8).

  6. In contrast, a property with a moral shape, like anger, is such that moral considerations can play both a moral role and a fittingness role. If something is unjust that is a moral reason to be angry, and it is also a fittingness-relevant reason to be angry.

  7. For more on contributory reasons see Jonathan Dancy, Ethics without Principles, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 38–45.

  8. For more on enabling and disabling see Dancy (2004, pp. 38–52).

  9. If you skeptical are about this point, imagine what you would think of your friend, who upon visiting you in the hospital, says “but you promised to go to the movies.” The utter strangeness of such a claim suggests not that it is a reason that was outweighed, but that citing it as a reason at all is simply confused.

  10. One candidate solution is to claim that any putative contributory reason for amusement only gains its status as a reason once the joke as a whole has passed a certain threshold. For instance, the creativity of a joke may only be a reason to be amused in the case where other considerations are at play that operate jointly to make the joke funny, say its being well-timed. If this is right then at least for some evaluative concepts, contributory reasons come only in clusters, so that if one has a contributory reason for being amused, then one has met the sufficiency threshold. Of course, the sufficiency condition faces other challenges, like how to rule out evil demons scenarios. See, for example, Wlodek Rabinowicz and Toni Rønnow-Rasmussen, “The Strike of the Demon: On Fitting Pro-Attitudes and Value,” Ethics 114, (2004), pp 391–423.


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Correspondence to Stephanie Patridge.

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Jordan, A., Patridge, S. Against the Moralistic Fallacy: A Modest Defense of a Modest Sentimentalism about Humor. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 15, 83–94 (2012).

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