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Ethical Episodes

Forbidden Fruit

by Joel Marks

You will think I am teasing you, but honestly I do not mean to. I want to talk about something that I am not going to reveal to you. In fact part of what I will be talking about is why I don’t want to reveal it. Read on!

The other day I was looking over the website from the signature of a person who had sent me an email. Nowadays people include all sorts of things on their websites besides professional information, and this particular one contained a link to “The Funniest Thing I’ve Ever Seen.” Well, it was hard not to click on that, which took me to a short video of an apparently actual occurrence. As I began to watch, what transpired was ordinary enough; but it also contained a very sad, even tragic element.

All of a sudden something happened that made one of the people giggle. The person immediately stifled the giggle so as not to offend or hurt anyone’s feelings, given the situation. I instantly realized where this was going to lead, and I at once clicked ‘pause’. I absolutely did not want to watch this. I knew the video would portray an incident that was at one and the same time extremely painful because hurtful to some of the people and equally painful because so embarrassing to the giggler. Sheer empathy put me into anticipatory pain on behalf of all of them.

However … being human, oh so human, I was drawn to this like the moth to the flame. Before long I had clicked the ‘play’ button to resume watching. As expected, the event that had provoked the original giggle kept repeating, so that it became more and more difficult for the giggler to keep it in. In a desperate attempt to forestall disaster he turned away, only to be confronted by another provocation from an unexpected quarter, at which point he totally lost it. His giggling erupted into a guffaw, and the poor man’s fate was sealed.

As painful as all of this was to observe, my own reaction was even more painful to me. I experienced what might be called a moral stain; for part of both the appeal and the unbearable tension I felt was sharing in the giggler’s perception of the humor in an objectively tragic situation. One’s heart goes out to the giggler precisely because one can so readily empathize with his impulse to giggle and finally guffaw – indeed, one guffaws right along with him. (I continue to laugh now every time I think of this video.)

Of course it is no news that humor also partakes of cruelty … that it may even be of the very essence of humor to gloat at another’s misfortune. But we might have supposed we could cut the cord to humor when the misfortune is actual and not a mere story. This video puts the lie to that fond hope. It is like the difference between watching a murder mystery movie and a snuff film.

I do feel genuine pity for all of the people involved, but, curiously, especially for the giggler as opposed to the unfortunates at whose expense he was giggling. This is because I was sharing in the fun more than I was in the victims’ pain; and so my sympathetic understanding extends more to the giggler. As much as I would wish to live in a world without tragedy, I would not want to live in a world without humor, even of this sort. But then: There (with the giggler) but for the grace of sheer happenstance go I. Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel called this ‘moral luck’, when one’s moral guilt or innocence is determined by factors beyond one’s control. I am ‘innocent’ only because I happened not to be in the giggler’s shoes, because if I had been, I might well have cracked up.

It is, however, within my control not to victimize the butts of the giggling still further by abetting the broadcasting of their victimization with a web link to it. I feel that this video is a pure case of forbidden fruit: it would corrupt anybody who watched it, because you would find yourself laughing at the expense of others’ misery. I will not be Eve to your Adam.

But now an about-face. (My constant readers know by now to wear a seat belt.) What I really take away from this episode – not only the content of the video but also the watching of it – is something quite at odds with what I have written above. In fact I reject the moral agonizing and puzzlement. My decision not to share the video is based on my desire for a kinder world and not on my conscience. Indeed if anything I take the video to constitute a kind of Argument from Humor … analogous to the Argument from Evil against God’s existence. The latter holds that the existence of awful things in the world, especially massive suffering of the innocent, refutes the belief in an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful deity. I now submit that the possibility of humorous tragedy is equally incompatible with a benign creator of the world.

And more to the point: since even in the video there were many people who did not find the situation humorous at all and even held the giggler in contempt, I see in this an argument for the relativity of not only humor but also morals. For I can just as easily imagine a Zen master laughing his head off in the same situation and even ridiculing those who kept a straight face as either prigs or self-pitiers, who help no one not even themselves. There is no God or other source of objectivity to decide between these responses.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2012

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He hopes you will not guffaw at his new book, Ethics without Morals, from Routledge. By the way, the video in question turned out to be a staged comedy sketch. Is it okay to share it now? Another silly question!

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