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Only Joking?

Last year Laurence Goldstein stepped down from his post as head of the ever-turbulent Philosophy Department at the University of Wales Swansea, following a battery of allegations made by three of his colleagues and a complaint that he had told jokes ‘with sexual overtones’ at a departmental Christmas party. He, and other colleagues who left at the same time, were unwilling to continue working in a department where, for years, brutal hostility has prevailed. On the plus side, however, the experience did inspire him to write this article.

On Glasgow Central Station the other day, I caught sight of a large billboard showing a photograph of a youth, his face horrendously bruised and zipped together with two long lines of suture. Under the picture was the message “Sectarian jokes can leave you in stitches.” A joke about jokes, although you weren’t really supposed to laugh. The primary intention of the poster was, evidently, to make a serious point.

It is unclear, however, just what the local council (or whoever funded this advertisement) intended to convey. Was the youth in the photograph someone whose head had been kicked in as a result of his making a religious joke in the wrong quarters? That is what I assumed, and understood the message to be that it is prudent to avoid telling sectarian jokes. However, if one takes the photograph to be of someone who had been assaulted as a result of jokes made against a religious group of which he was a member, then the quite different message is that there are occasions on which the making of such jokes is immoral. If this is the sense in which the advertisement was intended, then the point should have been made unambiguously, for it is an important one. And the harm that humour can cause is not just physical harm. Individuals, or groups of individuals can be emotionally scarred by cruel humour, they can be offended, demeaned, degraded, or can come to be poorly regarded.

Jokes can be assessed along several dimensions, one of which might be called the roughness dimension, ranging from mild to strong. Groucho Marx said that outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. This strikes me as a paradigm of gentle humour at the ‘mild’ extreme, and such jokes are decisive counterexamples to Hobbes’ theory that all humour has a nasty edge, a matter of putting someone down. By contrast, I can think of an unprintably strong joke which manages, in a very short compass, to touch upon homosexuality, death, bodily function and includes also wordplay and incongruity – all features that are classic elements of humour. Why these things are found funny, nobody knows; but they are. The same joke also features sodomy and cannibalism, which many people find it amusing to talk about, if not to practise. Equally, however, many people find reference to such practices upsetting, offensive, unamusing and certainly no laughing matter. This particular joke is found hilarious by some but disgusting by others including people whom one would independently assess as being rather ‘broad-minded’. It is hard to see how one group could talk the other out of its viewpoint. What are our moral obligations to those – perhaps a small minority – who strongly dislike such jokes? Should we censor?

The legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin argues, in a recent book, that people have such deepseated and diametrically opposed views on abortion that legislation is as inappropriate in this area as it would be in the matter of religious faith. Some critics of Dworkin claim that reason will ultimately disclose the moral truth about abortion, so that the search for well-justified legislation should not be abandoned. As an example, humour suits Dworkin’s argumentative strategy better than does abortion. Certain jokes disgust some and delight others. It is fatuous to suppose that reason will ultimately deliver a principled ruling on which jokes are morally permissible and which are not.

It does not follow that the telling of any joke, under any circumstances, is morally permissible. Even if cutting up the flesh of dead animals is not in itself morally unacceptable, it would be insensitive, bad manners, and simply wrong to prepare raw meat in front of a vegetarian friend, and to do so repeatedly, knowing the disgust it caused, would constitute sarcoid harassment. Likewise, it may be wrong to tell a joke about death to a friend who has been recently bereaved. Contrariwise, it may be morally acceptable, under certain circumstances, to tell strong jokes exploiting negative stereotypes – when, for example, the joke-teller and audience belong to the stereotyped group or are known to despise the negative values embodied in the stereotype. If we are interested in the question of the moral permissibility of instances of humour, it seems that what we should be looking at are not just the words used, nor their sense and reference but, in J.L. Austin’s phrase, “the total speech act in the total speech situation.”

There is a thin line dividing a healthy liberal commitment to pluralism, and a cowardly and irresponsible adherence to relativism. Perhaps on some occasions, one should refrain from engaging in a form of humour when in the company of people who one knows will be offended by it, even though one cannot begin to understand why they are offended. This would be in civilised recognition of the fact that others’ values may differ from one’s own but are deserving of equal respect. On the other hand, there may also be occasions when it is legitimate, because morally proper, to tell jokes with the clear intention of shocking or offending. Perhaps one’s particular audience needs to be jolted out of prejudice or complacency; perhaps treating a subject with humour may help loosen the grip of stifling taboos or the unquestioning perpetuation of traditions and cultural values that might be revealed, by fair examination, to be pernicious. The intentions of the joker and his or her sensitivity to circumstance seem to be all-important (though a joker might be accused of negligence if he or she, without intending to harm, nevertheless did so).

It might be thought that legislation over the matter of humour is de trop – let those with strong opinions on the matter write articles, stick up posters etc., but do not try to bring the matter within the embrace of law. But, although it may be silly, for the Dworkin-type reason already advanced, to try to legislate on which jokes are rude or on which topics are unsuitable targets of humour, it may be useful or desirable to lay down guidelines on what kinds of humour are permissible in certain ‘total speech situations’. One thinks, for example, of the deplorable practice of ‘sledging’ on the cricket field, a practice that, on the evidence of a recent test series, the Sri Lankan players seem to have acquired, probably from their English and Australian counterparts. Sledging – heaping abuse on an opponent – typically occurs when the fielding side is trying to unnerve one of the opposing batsmen. To seek to gain unfair advantage by this tactic bears comparison with the widely condemned practice of athletes using performanceenhancing drugs to gain an unfair advantage; the two seem pretty much on a moral par (actually, I think sledging is somewhat worse).

In my experience, ribaldry and the use of robust language are rife among sportspeople; one might go so far as to say that these things are sometimes integral to the enjoyment of a sporting activity. Now just imagine that you, as a fast bowler, send down a good delivery – the ball moves away late, gets a fine top edge off the bat and, instead of presenting first slip with an easy catch, flies over his head to the boundary. As you come to the end of your follow through, you shout to the batsman “You jammy bastard!”. It is quite compatible with this being a genuine expression of exasperation, that it should also be good-humoured, intended and understood as such. By contrast, it would be cruel and clearly wrong for you to mutter to the batsman “Your innings isn’t going to last much longer than your mum’s”, in the knowledge that he is currently devastated by the recent premature death of his mother. Although this is humour (of a Hobbesian sort), one would be right to attempt to legislate against such nastiness. And as the case illustrates, it is fairly easy to distinguish right from wrong. What is wrong is intending to cause undeserved hurt, and umpires ought to be issued with the instruction that players who do this should be warned, or thrown off the pitch, depending on the gravity of the offence. Appeals against such rulings could be permitted at the end of the day’s play.

If it is objected that giving umpires this responsibility would place too heavy a burden on them, because interpreting the intentions of players is just too difficult, the answer is that, on the contrary, in most cases it is all too easy. And although one certainly would wish to avoid legislation that can be cynically exploited to persecute innocent people, it is incumbent on us to formulate legislation that protects the vulnerable against the harm that, in many circumstances, the use of humour is intended to cause. Posters, such as the one I saw on Glasgow Central Station, are unlikely to make a lot of difference, but stiff penalties might.


My colleague, John Porter, after reading this piece wrote to me about an occasion when he was watching a Wales v France rugby international at Cardiff Arms Park: “A lovely Gary Owen from a Welsh forward and underneath it, waiting for the catch, a rock solid French back (I forget who). From behind me came ‘Dai, you speak French. For Christ’s sake tell him his mam’s just died.’ I, for my sins, laughed.” Right – very funny indeed. But, of course, there is all the difference in the world between a humorous suggestion not intended to be implemented and the actual implementing of it. The total speech situation on the terraces is totally different from the one down on the pitch.

© Prof. Laurence Goldstein 2001

Laurence Goldstein is Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language at the University of Hong Kong. His latest book is Clear and Queer Thinking: Wittgenstein’s Development and his Relevance to Modern Thought (Duckworth and Rowman Littlefield, 1999).

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