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4.3: It Really Is Just a Joke

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    Jokes are funny things. When I tell a joke, I’m telling it because I think it’s funny, and I think you’ll think it’s funny too. Or I think it’s funny, and I don’t care if you find it funny, because I think it’s funny, and telling it will tickle me. Or, I know you won’t find it funny, which I will find funny.

    As philosophers, we want to be very precise about what we mean when we use words, because the way we define words determines whether you and I can agree, and whether you and I are even talking about the same thing. Defining our terms assures both of us that we are talking about the same thing, and mean the same thing, so we can figure out if agree or disagree about that thing. When I say “jokes are funny things”, philosophers the world over roll their eyes and demand that I be more specific. But I don’t really have to be. Jokes are funny things, as I’ll explain, and funny things have no necessary moral value.

    Moral value is a term that indicates that a thing, like punting a baby, can be judged as either moral (good, ethical, praiseworthy, right, just) or immoral (bad, unethical, blameworthy, wrong, unjust). When we say something has a moral value, we mean that it is a thing that we can make moral judgments about. I make a moral judgment when I say that it is bad, unethical, blameworthy, wrong, and unjust to punt a baby, no matter how football-shaped that particular baby might be. This is a particular sort of judgment – a common one, but a specific one.

    Another sort of judgment is a judgment of perception, or a conclusion we decide upon based on sensory evidence. I can judge a chair as green, while you could judge it as blue. When the room is brightly lit, the chair appears green to me. I judge it, that is, decide, that it is green. But when you walk into the room, the room is dark. You see a blue chair. You decide that the chair is blue. We can disagree about our judgments based on the sense data we collected from our experience of the chair at the time we saw it. We can disagree about the color of the chair. We won’t know who is right or who is wrong about the color until we both go back into the room together and turn on the lights and 136 look at the chair. Immanuel Kant called these a posteriori judgments26. These judgments rely on experience to make and disagreements rely on experience or the senses (called empirical evidence) to resolve. Judgments of perception are amoral. This means that they have no moral value at all. I can be factually right or wrong when it comes to the color of the chair, but I’m not morally right or wrong if I see a green chair and you see a blue chair.

    Another sort of judgment are a priori judgments27. These are things we can judge without having any experience of them. I can judge a triangle to have three sides even if I’m not looking at a triangle and even if I’ve never seen a triangle. I can make this a priori judgment because I know that the definition of “triangle” is “a three-sided figure”. I don’t have to ever see a triangle to know that this is true, because I know what the word means. I can use the same sort of judgment to conclude that 2 + 2 = 4. I don’t need to count two things and then two more things to know that the total will be four things; it is logically, obviously, and automatically true, without empirical verification (or, to put another way, without having to use my senses to experience it as true). A priori judgments are amoral. It’s not morally right or wrong for a triangle to have three sides, it’s simply definitionally true that triangles have three sides.

    I can judge, a priori, that jokes are funny things. In order for a joke to be a joke, it must be funny. If it’s not funny, it’s not a joke. I don’t have to hear a joke to know it must be funny – funniness is the bare minimum of what a joke has to be in order to be a joke. It can be defined in more specific ways too, as philosophers of humor do, but the necessary condition for a joke to be a joke is that it is funny, and I can know this without ever needing to hear a joke and without ever having to verify it by hearing a joke. This is why I won’t go further in specifying a definition. Whatever other features you throw in there – that jokes can be verbal or nonverbal, that jokes are told or performed by jokesters – it’s an a priori fact that jokes are funny, whether verbal or non, etc.

    Whatever jokes are, they’re performed by people. Dogs don’t tell jokes. We can find a dog funny, but a dog isn’t going to ever say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one…”. Because people are the only things that can be moral or immoral, we assume that all the things that people do are subject to moral judgement – we don’t say that a tiger is morally bad for stalking and killing a zebra, but we do say that a human is morally bad if they stalk and kill another person. Insofar as jokes are performed by people, it’s common to impose all sorts of moral judgments onto them. But not all the things that people do are either good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral. The way I tie my shoes isn’t a moral action, and it doesn’t have moral value, neither does my preference for purple over pink.

    But, some philosophers argue, when you laugh at a joke, or tell one, you are doing something that has moral value – you’re morally endorsing the ideas of the joke, or signing off on those ideas, or agreeing with those ideas.28 But that’s just as silly as saying that I’m morally endorsing the idea of tying my shoes in a certain way. When I tie my shoes bunny-ears style, I’m not doing it because I think it’s morally right to do so, or that I’m endorsing it as the way everyone should tie their shoes, or because I’m agreeing that this is the moral way that shoes should be tied. I’m simply tying my shoes the way that I prefer. I don’t prescribe that method to you or say you’re bad for not doing it the same way. I’m not even thinking that it’s the only correct, or morally right, way to tie shoes. It’s just the way I tie them. If you told me I was doing something morally wrong in tying my shoes that way, it would be just as absurd as telling me I’m morally wrong for liking purple more than pink.

    Laughing is involuntary.29 It’s a physiological, bodily response to a stimulus. To say that someone has done something morally wrong by laughing at a joke is as silly as saying that someone is morally wrong for sneezing. Saying someone is morally wrong for telling a joke is just as silly as saying that someone is morally wrong for thinking purple is better than pink. The person tells the joke because she thinks it’s funny. You might not think it’s funny, but you might not like purple either. You’re not morally wrong for not liking purple, and you’re not morally right or wrong for thinking the joke isn’t funny. But it’s not the joke’s fault you don’t like it. It’s yours. You just don’t find it funny. So, for you, it’s not a joke. And as soon as you decide it’s not a joke, you change the definition of what you’ve heard from “joke” to “statement” or “claim”, and once you do that you can, and often will, start to impose moral categories onto it.

    Let’s take the following joke as an example:

    What do you call a cow on the floor?

    Ground beef

    This one kills to an audience of five-year-olds. Little kids love punny jokes about animals – likely because they are just learning how language works and they’re learning a lot about the different kinds of animals in the world. This is right in their wheelhouse, and boy, is it a knee-slapper. If you don’t think the joke is funny but can see why a kid would find it funny, you will still understand it as a joke, but just not one that hits your giggle button. But if you can’t see why a kid, or anyone else, would find it funny, then you probably don’t think it’s a joke at all.

    A vegan or an animal rights activist (yes, these can be different categories even though they often overlap) might take huge exception to this joke. Not only does he not think this joke is funny, he doesn’t understand how anyone could find it funny, and furthermore, he doesn’t think you should find it funny either. As soon as he starts thinking in terms of “should”s, he’s taken the joke and shoved it into a moral category and already begun to make moral judgments about it. He does not recognize this as a joke. He might recognize it as a statement, or a claim, or a sentiment, one that perhaps undermines the pain of the cows that are farmed under inhumane conditions and turned into mere products for human consumption.

    This practice of making moral judgments about jokes requires two closely related but distinct moves. First is a category mistake and the second is a mistake in judgment. Let’s take each one in turn.

    A category mistake is when you judge something of one category by the criteria of a different category. When I take something that has no moral value and act as though it does have moral value, I’m making a category mistake. I make the same mistake when I confuse an “is” with an “ought”; when I say that because something is the case, that it 139 ought to be the case. For example, if I say, “There’s nothing wrong with lying, people do it all the time”, I’m confusing categories. What people actually do says nothing about what people should do. In the case of the vegan, he’s taking something that has no moral value (a pun) and judging it by the criteria of something that does have moral value (a statement about the moral permissibility about turning cows into food).

    This is precisely the mistake philosophers and non-philosophers make whenever they make moral judgments about jokes. The above joke is not arguing for the idea that grinding cows into beef is a good thing, nor is it undermining the pain and suffering of animals in industrial farming. And I can assure you that that six-year-old who loves that joke is not trying to slip in any moral implications whatsoever when she tells it. The joke is simple wordplay. It has meaning insofar as words have meanings that you need to understand in order to get the wordplay, but there is truly nothing beyond definitions of words at play here (pun intended).

    Because jokes do require understanding of words in order to make sense, some folks argue that jokes require us to understand norms of cultural morality in order to get a joke. But this is a category mistake. All I need to understand the joke is to understand the meanings, or definitions, of words, not tie those words to cultural morality. I can get a joke and find it funny, or I can get a joke and not find it funny. If I get the meaning of the words and find it funny, I understand it as a joke. If I understand the meaning of the words and I don’t find it funny, and don’t understand why you find it funny, I don’t think it’s a joke. If I understand the meaning of the words and then tie cultural morality to those words, then I’m making a category mistake, whether or not I find the joke funny.

    As soon as I’ve made the category mistake of applying moral categories to an amoral joke, I can immediately (or automatically, or simultaneously) make a mistake in judgment. A mistake in judgment is when I judge something of one kind as if it is of a different kind. For example, if I refuse to believe that triangles have three sides until I’ve seen a large sample of triangles and counted the sides, I’m making a mistake in judgment. I’m using a judgment of perception when I could easily make an a priori judgment that will give me the right answer. By refusing the believe that triangles have 140 three sides until I’ve counted enough of them to prove it, I’ve not only given myself a whole mess of work to do, but I’ve also given myself an impossible task. I’d have to count all of the triangles that have existed or could exist if the three-sidedness of triangles was the sort of thing that could be verified through the senses. No matter how many I count, I would always have to leave open the possibility that one day I could come upon a triangle that has more or less than three sides. Even someone like David Hume, one of the most famous empiricists in the history of philosophy (meaning that he argued that new knowledge could only be accessed through the senses), would say I’m making a mistake in judgment if I judge triangles as if they are the sort of things that can be proven or disproven to have three sides based on empirical evidence.30

    When I place a joke within the moral category and then make a moral judgment about it, I’m making both a category mistake and a mistake in judgment. I’m insisting that a joke is the sort of thing that has moral value, and then making a judgment about what that value amounts to – right or wrong, good or bad. But that has everything to do with me and nothing to do with the joke. I’ve miscategorized the joke, and then I’ve imposed moral judgments based on that miscategorization. The joke isn’t wrong, I am.

    Now of course you’re thinking, “yeah sure, for a joke like that it’s easy to argue that there’s no moral value. But what about racist or sexist jokes? Those ones definitely have moral value!”. Challenge accepted, dear reader.

    “We like our beer the way we like our violence: domestic.”31

    Oooooooo. Uh oh. Is that joke endorsing domestic violence? Is it making fun of people who are physically assaulted by their partners? Is it undermining the seriousness of intimate partner violence? Only if you make a category mistake. This joke requires you to know the meaning of words, but it doesn’t require you to make any moral judgments about the words. It doesn’t require you to defend the plight of abusers or have a moral disregard for their victims.

    Comedian Bill Burr explains in his set that this joke was written on a sandwich board outside of a bar. A customer complained, and the manager said that that was just their sense of humor and to have beer. The customer took a picture of the joke, posted it on social media, and the subsequent outcry led to the firing of both the waitress who wrote the joke and the manager that defended her. As someone who understands jokes as amoral, he argues that firing these employees was completely unjustified. He says that it is a great joke: “there is zero fat on that – you need every word of that joke. You take one word out and it doesn’t work, it’s a perfect joke”.32 He goes on to argue that no one who reads that joke is going to suddenly think it’s morally acceptable to abuse their partner. “What are you telling me? You’re telling me someone who never hit a woman is going to come walking in, read that joke, and just be like ‘Wait a minute!’?”33

    You may object that just because the joke wouldn’t necessarily cause someone to actually abuse another person doesn’t mean the joke isn’t immoral. In other words, your taking the perspective that there is something beyond the actual consequences of the joke that determine its moral value, while Burr is arguing from a consequentialist perspective. Consequentialists argue that the moral value of an action is entirely based in the outcome of the action; if the action does not lead to negative consequences, like the abuse of women, then the action is moral. But you’re making a category mistake. Burr isn’t arguing from a moral position – he’s arguing from the position that jokes have no moral meaning at all. If someone were to read that joke and derive moral meaning from it, they would be making a category mistake, just as someone who objects to it on moral grounds is making a category mistake. Jokes don’t make people abuse people.

    When you find a joke to be morally reprehensible, you’re making a category mistake followed by a moral judgment. But it’s not the joke’s fault that you take moral exception to it – it’s yours. That doesn’t mean that you are at moral fault for your disgust or disapproval, it just means that you made a philosophical error in how you understand jokes. If it’s not funny to you, and you can’t imagine a world in which it is funny to anyone, then you simply don’t recognize it as a joke. If you don’t recognize it as a joke, you can make moral judgments about it so long as whatever category you do recognize it as is an expression of a moral category. But you’ll want to be careful when you do that. Not every expression is an expression of a moral category, and you don’t want to find yourself making moral judgments about my preference for purple or the three sidedness of a triangle. You can be philosophically consistent and say that you don’t like the moral sentiment expressed by a statement, but it would be a mistake to say that you don’t like the moral sentiment of a joke. Jokes don’t make moral sentiment. They make giggles.


    26 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason A7/B12

    27 Ibid B4

    28 I’ve even said this before, in Marra 2019 and 2020! I’m not alone though, and a lot of highly respectable scholars have made similar arguments – see Zaldivar and Julin in this volume, Kramer 2015, and Smuts 2010, among many.

    29 See Provine 2000

    30 Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section 4

    31 This joke is referenced by Bill Burr in his 2014 special “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way”.

    32 Burr 2014

    33 Ibid


    Burr, Bill. Bill Burr: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. Film. Netflix, 2014.

    Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    Kramer, Chris A. “Subversive Humor.” PhD Dissertation, Marquette University, 2015.

    Marra, Jennifer. “Humor, Power, and Culture: A New Theory on the Experience and Ethics of Humor.” Dissertation, Marquette University, 2019.

    Marra, Jennifer. “Toward an Objective Ethic of Humor.” In Ethics in Comedy, edited by Steven A. Benko. McFarland Press, 2020.

    Provine, Robert. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.

    Smuts, Aaron. “The Ethics of Humor: Can Your Sense of Humor Be Wrong?” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 13, no. 3 (2010): 333–47.

    This page titled 4.3: It Really Is Just a Joke is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Marra Henrigillis & Steven Gimbel (Lighthearted Philosophers' Society) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.