In a recent defense of strong comic immoralism, CU Boulder philosophy student Connor Kianpour argues for the aesthetic value of immoral humor
A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar and … have a lovely evening of conversation and libation, because we’re not supposed to tell those kinds of jokes, right?
You know the ones: the jokes we laugh at and then immediately look around to check whether anyone saw us laughing. The jokes that are just wrong, that maybe indicate we’re terrible people for laughing. The jokes that dare not speak their name, that there’s just no defending.
Or is there?
In a recently published defense of strong comic immoralism, Connor Kianpour, a PhD student in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Philosophy who studies the philosophy of humor, argues that strong comic immoralism—that is, the view that humor involving a moral defect that is aesthetically enhanced by that defect—is true. This does not mean that immoral jokes are always OK to tell, he emphasizes, but it does mean that people are not mistaken for finding them funny.
He further argues that laughing at strong comic immoralism does not mean accepting that all immorality in all art makes art better, or that morally defective jokes are always more funny than jokes without moral defects. The argument is just that immoral jokes are funny in ways that “clean” jokes are not.
He recently elaborated on the philosophy of humor and the intellectual value of studying the humor that we’re not sure we should laugh at.
Question: Humor and philosophy don’t immediately seem like natural partners; how did you arrive at this intersection?
Kianpour: In terms of how I got interested in philosophical questions about humor, the first thing is: I have a funny dad. He loves bathroom humor and I’ve always appreciated that. As a philosopher, I also recognized that there is a similar sort of thing that happens in people when they realize that an argument works and when they realize that a joke is successful. There’s a sort of recognition, an aha moment, when you get a joke and when you get an argument and I always found that really fascinating.
I also noticed there are a lot of comedians—George Carlin comes to mind—who seem to approach comedy from a philosophical perspective. They use jokes to indirectly construct and build arguments about attitudes that people should have about certain practices and the way that the world is.
I started really looking into questions about humor, what it is, what makes things funny. A lot of philosophers have had a lot to say about humor, but one thing missing from all of these discussions was a defense of strong comic immoralism. In the late 20th century, the consensus in philosophy seemed to be that moral defects in jokes make them less funny. But in “In Praise of Immoral Art,” (author) Daniel Jacobson takes the position that moral defects in jokes can sometimes make jokes funnier. I am of the mind that moral defects in jokes might always make them funnier, and I think there’s been a silence on this position that strikes me as utterly plausible.
Question: But as a society we don’t always sit comfortably with immoral humor. For a lot of people, there’s the sense that, “If I laugh at this, I’m a bad person.”
Kianpour: There are two ways to analyze that kind of quandary. On one hand, it’s important that we uphold a distinction between moral value and aesthetic value. It could be the case that by laughing at an immoral joke maybe you are a worse person, but it doesn’t mean that by laughing at an immoral joke you were wrong to think it was funny. That’s at least one thing to keep in mind—it’s possible for us to live in this space where something could be aesthetically very virtuous, but morally not so.
A good example of this is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Many people recognize the book is a literary masterpiece, but at the same time acknowledge there are a lot of morally fraught things going on in it. There’s also moral value in being able to recognize the immorality in a joke. So, if we come to realize that people, when they laugh at immoral jokes, are laughing precisely because they recognize something is immoral, in a sense we could say that the telling of the joke educated people about something that’s wrong. Jokes may provide us with a low-stakes arena to point out moral problems that people might not be comfortable talking about in earnest.
Question: How do you even get your head around strong comic immoralism when morality itself doesn’t have a universally agreed-upon definition?
Kianpour: I think there are two ways that somebody could conceive of the strong comic immoralist position. The first way is to say that a moral defect in a joke only counts as a moral defect when the joke traffics in something objectively wrong, when we know somebody’s been offended with objectively good reason. But I don’t subscribe to that position. I say that a moral defect in a joke counts as a moral defect when the society in which somebody resides has come to the consensus that the thing that’s being joked about is immoral. I think it’s very presumptuous for somebody to say they know everything that morality demands of us. When we laugh at a joke that our society tells us is an immoral one, we are recognizing something our society has told us is not good thing to do.
My defense of strong comic immoralism focuses on what the empirical psychological literature tells us about amusement and offense as emotions. We have a lot of reason to believe that it is impossible to be at once amused and offended by the same thing. So, if the whole point of comedy and making jokes is to induce amused states in the listeners of the jokes, but the listeners are being offended when they hear the joke, they’re essentially being impaired in their ability to judge the merits of the joke. You could compare it to presenting a sound and valid argument to someone who’s drunk. That someone who is drunk cannot recognize that an argument is a good one does not speak against the argument; likewise, that someone who is offended cannot recognize that a joke is a good one does not speak against the joke.
Question: Humor is so subjective and people’s senses of humor vary so widely; how does that affect addressing humor as a philosopher?
Kianpour: I agree that people have different tastes when it comes to humor, 100% that’s just a fact. I think we could compare this to people’s judgments about the culinary arts. There might be some whose personal tastes don’t allow them to enjoy umami flavor profiles and I don’t think that those people are doing anything wrong or they’re not virtuous for not enjoying those foods. But I also don’t think that somebody who is able to appreciate umami flavor profiles would be mistaken to say that those who can’t enjoy the flavor profile are missing out on something special. Likewise, I completely accept there are people who do not have a taste for dark humor or immoral humor; they do no wrong for lacking this taste. However, I also think it is consistent to claim those people who don’t enjoy immoral jokes are potentially missing out on something special because they don’t.
Question: Are you worried about getting “cancelled” or people thinking you’re a jerk for making a philosophical case for strong comic immoralism?
Kianpour: I have thought about that, yes. The norms of academia and of society might prevent us from being able to fully explore the philosophy of humor to its fullest extent. In academia and in society, we are encouraged to think constantly about audience and optics, and in some cases, this prevents us from getting at the question of what is it that makes a joke funny. In some ways, we’ve gotten to a place where talking about why something is immoral is itself considered immoral, and that limits intellectual inquiry. People don’t really take humor seriously, no pun intended, and I wish they did.
Regardless, having conversations about immoral humor is extremely timely given that every two years Dave Chapelle gets cancelled for something he says in a Netflix special. People all have very strong opinions about whether he should have his platform. That polarization, in addition to fact that we can’t really talk about issues in way that’s authentic to the issue, can make it nearly impossible to get to the bottom of what makes humor funny. However, I still feel it is extremely important to think about and discuss these issues, which is why I have tried in the ways I have to do so.
Question: Do you ever run the risk of studying a joke too much and it stops being funny?
Kianpour: I do think there’s a risk of maybe not being able to enjoy jokes as much when you study them closely. However, in my own case, I feel like I’ve gotten to a point where I have two modes of navigating the world. The first is as a philosopher, and the second as somebody who just exists in the world. I think that I’m very unlikely to find jokes funny when I’m writing about them in papers, but I can still really be blown away by a surprisingly good comedy set. The reason for that is because when I go to comedy shows, I’m not trying to analyze the jokes; I’m just trying to laugh.