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What Moral Virtues are Required to Recognize Irony?

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  1. The Onion, “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex” (May 18, 2011).

  2. Brett Smiley, “Congressman Alerts Facebook Followers to Onion Story about $8 Billion Abortionplex” U.S. News and World Report (February 6, 2012).

  3. The Onion, “Kim Jong-Un Named The Onion’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012” (November 4, 2012); Seth Cline, “The Onion Fools Top Chinese Newspaper” U.S. News and World Report (November 27, 2012).

  4. Arwa Mahdawi, “Satire is Dead because the Internet is Killing It” The Guardian (August 19, 2014).

  5. Oxford Dictionaries Online, Retrieved November 15th, 2013 from; For the purposes of this article, “irony” will refer to verbal irony rather than Socratic, dramatic, situational or any other type of irony.

  6. For more on irony and indirect communication, particularly in the thought of Kierkegaard, see John Lippitt, Humor and Irony in Kierkegaard’s Thought (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

  7. Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal and Other Satirical Works (Dover Publishing, 1996 (1729)), pp. 52–60.

  8. Heather LaMarre, et al. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report” The International Journal of Press/Politics 14(2) (2009): 212–231.

  9. Jerry Palmer, Taking Humor Seriously (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 103–110.

  10. M. Shibata, et al., “Neural substrates of irony comprehension: A functional MRI study” Brain Research 1308 (2010): 114–123; Nicola Spotorno, et al., “Neural evidence that utterance-processing entails mentalizing: the case of irony” Neuroimage 63(1) (2012): 25–39.

  11. M. A. Creusere, “A Developmental Test of Theoretical Perspectives on the Understanding of Verbal Irony: Children’s Recognition of Allusion and Pragmatic Insincerity” Metaphor & Symbol 15(1–2) (2000): 29–45; E. Winner, et al., “Making Sense of Literal and Nonliteral Falsehood” Metaphor & Symbolic Activity 2(1) (1987): 13–32; A. De Groot, et al., “Understanding versus Discriminating Nonliteral Utterances: Evidence for a Dissociation” Metaphor & Symbol 10(4) (1995): 255–273.

  12. Laura Moneta, et al., “Irony comprehension and theory of mind deficits in patients with Parkinson’s disease” Cortex 45 (2009): 972–981.

  13. P. Shammi and D. T. Stuss, “The Effects of Normal Aging on Humor Appreciation” Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society 9(6) (2003): 855–863.

  14. S. Dews, et al., “Children’s Understanding of the Meaning and Functions of Verbal Irony” Child Development 67(6) (1996): 3071–3085.

  15. Ronald De Sousa, “When is it Wrong to Laugh?” in The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor. John Morreall, ed. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 226–249.

  16. David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay Books, 1997), p. 81; see also Christy Wampole, “How to Live without Irony” New York Times (November 18, 2012).

  17. Reinhold Niebuhr, “Humor and Faith” in Holy Laughter: Essays on Religion in the Comic Perspective (New York: Seabrook Press, 1969), pp. 134–149.

  18. John Morreall, Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

  19. Berys Gaut, “Just Joking: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humor” Philosophy and Literature 22(1) (1998): 51–68; Aaron Smuts, “The Ethics of Humor” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13 (2010): 333–347; Noel Carroll, “On Jokes” in Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 317–335.

  20. Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

  21. I should emphasize that these virtues are “akin” to those of the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. I am not claiming that they are exact replicas, but only approximations.

  22. Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

  23. Leonard Freedman, The Offensive Art: Political Satire and Its Censorship around the World (Westport: Prager Publishers, 2009).

  24. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 108.

  25. In humor, though I believe it applies to discussion of irony generally, Robert C. Roberts argues that the ability to laugh at oneself contains an element of self-transcendence, and “character transcendence is basic to the very concept of moral virtue” in “Humor and the Virtues” Inquiry 31(2) (1988): 127–149. For more on the intersection of humor, virtue and self-transcendence, see John Lippett’s reply to Roberts, “Is a Sense of Humour a Virtue?” The Monist 88(1) (2005): 72–92.

  26. Conrad Hyers, “The Comic Profanation of the Sacred” in Holy Laughter: Essays on Religion in the Comic Perspective (New York: Seabrook Press, 1969), pp. 9–27.

  27. John Morreall, “Humour and the Conduct of Politics” in Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humor. Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering, eds. (Palgrave Publishing, 2005), pp. 63–78; Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  28. Simon Critchley, On Humour (Routledge Press, 2002), pp. 80–82, 87–88.

  29. Bryan Turner, “Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism” Theory, Culture and Society 19(1–2) (2002): 45–63, especially 55–60.

  30. Of course, one could object that the virtues of charity, moderation, wittiness and liberal toleration are (liberal or Judeo-Christian) tradition-specific virtues rather than universal and, therefore, a member of another tradition of virtues is not compelled to accept the characteristic required to recognize irony as virtues. This is a substantial argument, but one that involves an examination of an entire tradition of moral thought, which cannot be done here. For the sake of the present argument, it is enough that they are widely acknowledged virtues.

  31. Michael Billig, “Comic Racism and Violence” in Beyond a Joke: The Limits of Humor. Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering, eds. (Palgrave Publishing, 2005), pp. 25–44.

  32. A critic of irony could also argue that the ironist’s intended meaning is not what matters, but only the consequences. Therefore, people should refrain from saying things they do not literally mean when it runs the reasonable risk of doing harm. I will only acknowledge this criticism and not rally a counter-argument, since it is beyond the scope of this article on moral character.


I want literally and sincerely to thank Corinne Gartner and Helena de Bres of Wellesley College and the philosophy faculty at the University of New Hampshire for their helpful comments. Second, this article grew from class discussions in my Special Topics in the Humanities course on humor. My thanks to my students. Lastly, my thanks to the anonymous reviewer for this journal for their recommendations.

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Deen, P. What Moral Virtues are Required to Recognize Irony?. J Value Inquiry 50, 51–67 (2016).

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  • Ironic Statement
  • Moral Belief
  • Moral Virtue
  • Intended Meaning
  • Moral Outrage