Philosopher mines the ethical line in caustic wisecracking

Needling your pals and teasing your loved ones not only bonds people together, according to David Shoemaker, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Life Sciences. It also seals moral cracks.

In his new book, “Wisecracks: Humor and Morality in Everyday Life,” published April 2024 by the University of Chicago Press, Shoemaker explores the need for spirited, sometimes prickly humor and the ethics that distinguish an innocent gibe from an offensive insult.

Shoemaker spoke with the Chronicle about the book.

Question: Tell me about the origins of the book. How did you hit upon the idea that humor and morality were deeply connected?

A: Some of the most wonderful days in my life have been those spent with friends or family, just cracking each other up. But on a few of those occasions someone wound up with hurt feelings or stomped off in anger. Our amusement clearly flirted with a moral line, a line that was occasionally crossed. My first instinct as a philosopher was to try to analyze and understand this phenomenon. I quickly discovered that there’d been no real previous scholarly work on it, so I took it upon myself to create some.

Q: Your book notes the difference between joke-telling and wisecracking. In a nutshell, what is the distinction and why are wisecracks the more interesting, morally pertinent subject?

A: Jokes are canned, prepackaged bits of humor typically involving familiar set-ups and punchlines (“Did you hear the one about...?). Jokes are monologues, interrupting the flow of conversations. Wisecracks, on the other hand, are part of conversations, and they include improvised bits of back-and-forth banter, teasing, leg-pulling, pranking and mockery. Wisecracks generate most of the amusement in our lives, in contrast with jokes. We make wisecracks with each other, but insofar as they are thus ways of treating each other, they can make moral trouble. They sometimes include deception (in leg-pulling), meanness (in mockery) and the exploitation of stereotypes (racial and gender humor). Jokes on the page do none of these things, so wisecracks are where I think all of the interesting moral action is located.

Q: What role does empathy play in balancing humor and morality? Why can too much empathy be a bad thing?

A: Empathy is the mechanism by which we discover the line amusement shouldn’t cross, the line beyond which people can be seriously hurt. Psychological studies have revealed that those with empathic impairments – psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellians (known as the Dark Triad) – have what I argue are terrible senses of both humor and morality. They tend to think that all human distress is funny, even though it’s not. But another way to have a bad sense of humor and morality is to have too much empathy, to be someone for whom no human distress is ever funny, even though some is. Empathy has to strike a Goldilocks balance between these extremes in order to do both its humor job and its moral job correctly.

Q: We often hear about the contrast between humor that “punches up” and “punches down.” What do you make of these categories? Is there anything faulty in this kind of framing?

A: Some people (especially those on the political left) appeal to this contrast as a kind of gospel. It’s immoral, they insist, to deploy humor (like mockery) that punches down on members of social identity groups without power, privilege or authority, whereas it’s morally OK if the humor punches up at those in power, etc. But as it turns out, how people designate who’s “up” and who’s “down” depends almost entirely on where they stand on the political spectrum. In addition, “power,” “privilege” and “authority” are all contextual comparatives: People have “power,” say, only relative to some comparison class in certain contexts. Indeed, we all have power (and privilege and authority) in some respects and contexts but not others, so there’s simply no definitive answer to the question of who’s really “up” or “down.” I much prefer instead the metaphor of “piling on,” according to which it’s morally prohibited to mock someone, say, in a way that contributes to a burden that no one should reasonably have to bear, but where the burdens aren’t necessarily a function of anyone’s social identity.

Q: Can something be immoral but also funny? When is using “immoral” humor justified?

A: The term “immoral” is ambiguous: It might mean “something one should never do” or instead it might mean “something there are moral considerations against doing.” If we mean the latter (which I do), then yes, something can be immoral but also funny; indeed, I argue for something stronger, namely, that sometimes it’s precisely the immoral properties in a wisecrack that help to make it funny. For example, when I pull your leg, its funniness depends on whether I successfully deceived you, on whether I got you. But there are moral reasons against deceiving people. Nevertheless, I argue, the values of amusement in some such cases can easily outweigh that immorality. The same goes (sometimes) for delivering the sting of mockery and the exploitation of some racial and gender stereotypes.

Q: You advocate for developing a finely honed sense of the absurd as a way of sometimes seeing “one’s own life, and the lives of everyone around one, as without a point, as not mattering.” Lighthearted stuff! What is the value here?

A: Start with the fact that first responders and ER staff have notoriously morbid senses of humor, making light of the gruesome events they encounter daily. What they are doing is focusing their attention on the absurdity found in the disparity between human ambitions and grim reality. Their humor has two valuable results. First, it helps them to cope with these horrors, by dampening their emotional distress. Second, it actually helps them do their job better. Humor distracts emotionally but not cognitively, so they are able to focus much better on the task at hand by making those morbid wisecracks. I think the rest of us can get similar valuable results too, by occasionally reflecting on our lives (and the lives of everyone) from the timeless perspective of the universe, to see that none of what we’re pursuing may matter in the end – life itself may be laughably absurd. If we manage to take up that perspective, we may be much better able to cope with life’s curveballs, as well as focus better on the tasks at hand. Sometimes it’s good to be a little psychopathic.

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Abby Kozlowski