A Short Confession on the Morality of Humour

Many of us know that some of the best jokes are at someone else’s expense. So long as there is a balance, and no one person is being laughed at constantly against their will, this is perfectly acceptable.

For example, there was a Viking King named Hastein in the 9th century who wanted to invade Rome and slaughter its citizens. Since he couldn’t get past the walls of Rome, he lay on a stretcher and had his men act as though he was dying. Hastein claimed that he wished to convert to Christianity before his death, and asked that he be baptized inside the Holy Church.

He was baptized, and fifty cloaked men were allowed to attend his funeral as planned. When they were least expecting it, Hastein burst his way out of the coffin and ripped his way through the rabble until they had plundered their way through as much of the city as their numbers would allow. Overcome  with victory, cheering and shouting, it was only at this point that Hastein realised that he’d just ransacked a vague and unknown city called Luna, 250 miles outside of Rome.

Inevitably, this story will not have you crying with laughter, but it illustrates a point: there is humour to be found at someone else’s expense, and what is wrong with that? I do not think such a story would be less funny today- we always enjoy humour at the expense of people who do stupid things. It’s a natural part of our society that we should laugh at each other. So long as this does not amount to bullying, there’s absolutely no reason why we couldn’t allow this.

But there is more than one type of humour: some people prefer darker, satirical humour. I know some friends that can tell some jokes which make me wince, but they find absolutely hilarious. I don’t have a particular problem with it, even if they do scare me on the odd occasion.

What I am really curious about is what are we not allowed to laugh at? Is it immoral to laugh at certain things?

For example, several of my relatives were laughing while attending a female relative’s funeral. You might say this is disrespectful, but I have every reason to believe that celebrating someone’s life can be humorous and respectful. At my own funeral, I am considering having a headstone made in the shape of a giant “Do not disturb” doorhanger, to reflect my own satirical sense of humour and scepticism about life after death. The reason that they were laughing, in this particular instance, was that the vicar who was giving the reading at the grave side gave off the impression, more than once, that he was about to fall into the hole. No one wished this man any ill will, but his seeming inability to maintain his balance and the sheer improbability of a Vicar falling into a grave whilst running a funeral was viewed humorously at the time.

Let’s apply Ultilitarian ethics and ask ourselves: is it immoral to laugh in certain situations? Or is it just socially unwise?

Based purely upon the consequences (the basis of utilitarianism), laughter provides no physical harm to anyone, nor can much be said for the psychological effects. No one likes being laughed at, but humour is one of our greatest strengths as a species, so it makes sense, if A is laughing at B, to tell B not to take the comments seriously. B will have equal chance to laugh at A at some point in the future, and so very little is lost.

It seems to me to be a great strength to be able to laugh at yourself- for what does the bully have if you take that from them? As someone who experienced bullying, I know it’s not always that simple, but it can be applied on a smaller level. Laughter can be cruel, but not reacting in the way that people are expecting will always be to your advantage.

Let’s go back to the funeral; if someone laughs at a funeral, what are the consequences? Perhaps someone will be offended? Well, first and foremost, I think people would feel confused and feel a little embarrassment for the people laughing.

I don’t think we should presume that people would be offended. And if they are, they can have a quiet word with whoever is laughing, and the person will generally stop or excuse themselves out of kindness to the offended person. But ultimately, the question must be asked, does it have a huge impact if someone is offended? I’m not saying it’s nice to be offended, but if you presume you know the exact reason why people are laughing and presume the worst all the time, then you are going out of your way to be offended. Someone may be upset if they make these assumptions, but most of the time, that’s about it.

What about from a Kantian perspective? Are we using anyone as a means to an end? Quite possibly, but equally possibly not- you would have to get inside the head of the person who was laughing to know if they were using another person as a means to an end (laughter). Would laughter still work if all people at funerals laughed (Second formulation of the categorical imperative)? Absolutely- if all people laughed at funerals, the idea of laughter would remain roughly the same.

However, as a disclaimer, I should say I do not advocate laughing at funerals; it would be very socially unwise. All I am saying is it is not necessarily immoral, nor should anyone presume to know what anyone else is thinking. Please do let me know your thoughts in the comments below; it is something I have been thinking about for a while. Should laughter be regarded in the same light as coughing in most social situations? I would not come down definitively on one side, but I am always sceptical of social norms.


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