Ethics of Humour

Posted: March 4, 2009 in General

This year, I decided to take an Applied Ethics course as my elective. For the next couple of months, I will be diverging some of the course material (the interesting parts at least), and hopefully engage in various discussions (with you, or maybe the next person). The first topic (as the title suggests) deals with the ethics of humour – particularly focusing on racial humour.

What makes a joke racist? According to Michael Philips (Racist Acts and Racist Humour, 1984) there are two ways of accounting for this. The first (which I am in favour of) is the Agent-Centred Account: a joke is racist only if it is told by a racist – i.e someone who holds racist beliefs or feelings. In other words, a joke cannot be racist if the agent has no such inclinations. The second is the Act-Centred Account: a joke is racist if it is likely to cause someone harm, regardless of the intent behind the teller of the joke.

My problem with the Act-Centred view is that it is far too limiting, and does not account for the context in which the joke is told. Not all ethnic based humour is racist or morally objectionable. In fact, most of them are merely good-natured interlays between groups of friends. Even if someone gets slightly offended by terms such as ‘rice picker’ or ‘knee grow’, the harm is insignificant because the intent is to make laughs, and not to cause hurt. Therefore, supporting the Act-Centred Account is likely to breed a society of over-sensitive individuals who get offended by the smallest things.

However, the falsification of the Act-Centred Account does not (by default) make the Agent-Centred Account true. There are drawbacks to the Agent-Centred view as well. The most obvious one being it is almost impossible to measure someone’s intentions. Therefore, we cannot reliably conclude whether a joke is racist or not based on our judgement of the person telling the joke. Nevertheless, we can use our discretion (coupled with knowledge of the context) in determining the reasonableness of the joke.

(To be continued…)

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Comments
  1. Tricky says:

    Personally, ethics-wise, I prefer the idea that we do our best to never allow people to come to harm as a result of our actions.

    Ie, never tell a joke that *could* be offensive to someone you don’t know won’t take it badly.

    On the other hand, I feel that it is also bad to actually discriminate between racial groups on any level, bad to even *recognise* that “only” muslims wear turbans, that only “native Africans” have darker skin, that almost all Mandarin-speakers are Chinese. Such is obvious unless you’re completely blind to discrimination.

    Racial and religious differences bring people together but I believe that this is only because it also pushes those who are different apart, how do we say it: birds of a feather flock together.

    Thus, I believe even those on the moral high ground discriminate, even if only because their eyes don’t deceive their psyche.

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