Friday, April 1, 2011

The April Fools Post: Some Reflections on the Funny and the Unfunny

Warning: While this post reflects on humor and starts with a joke, it includes mention of a rather gruesome real-life case of Rwandan brutality for the purpose of reflecting on my intuition that finding some things funny is just unfitting. If you're wanting April Fools Day entertainment, this isn't the post for you.

Today is April Fools Day, and I thought about putting up a kind of prank post on this blog (coming out as an atheist or hellist or biblical inerrantist, perhaps). But then I thought about all the April Fools pranks I’ve somehow been involved with over the years—some funny, some duds, some just in poor taste. And that made me think about the issue of humor in relation to the ongoing discussion of objectivity and subjectivity of values on my previous post.

So, rather than put up a humorous post, I thought I’d talk a bit about humor as it relates to the question of whether value judgments are purely subjective (and “that’s funny” clearly is a value judgment). When I think about humor these days, the first thing that comes to mind is my son. One way I know he’s brilliant—other than the fact that he’s seven and reads at a seventh-grade level—is that he has an amazing facility for making up jokes. Here’s one of his most recent:

It’s the first day of school, and two monsters are in the classroom talking.
The first monster asks, “Where’s the teacher?”
“I ate her,” replies the second.
The first monster mulls this over for a minute, then says, “Well, I guess that means there’s only one thing to do.”
“What’s that?”
“Cook with substitutes.”
Now that’s funny.

Or, we might say, I am very amused by it.

Consider these two statements: X is funny. I am amused by X. Is there a difference between them? According to the philosopher Linda Zagzebski, emotions have intentional objects, and to experience an emotion is to attach what she calls a “thick affective property” to that intentional object. If the emotion in question is amusement, the corresponding thick affective property is “funny.” To be amused by my son’s joke is to see it in a certain way, to see it as funny. (See her book, Divine Motivation Theory, especially chapter 2, for a fuller account of these ideas).

This property of being funny is affective because it is directly connected with an emotion that motivates me to behave in certain characteristic ways (to laugh, to encourage my son to tell the joke to his aunt, to ask him if he’s made up any more and listen with interest, etc.). It is thickly affective because so much of what it means for something to be funny is characterized in terms of this motivating emotion. As Zagsebski puts it, "A person who has not experienced the emotion accompanying the concept could not understand the concept, just as a person who has never had the sensation of red could not understand the concept of red." If we were to look at funny jokes and attempt to discern their common “descriptive” features, we might be able to draw some descriptive generalizations. But while we might say, “Funny jokes tend to have these properties,” we couldn’t reduce “funny” to those descriptive properties. We learn what "funny" really means only by experiencing amusement.

But Zagzebski doesn’t want to go the other direction either, simply reducing “funny” to our subjective emotions. She thinks there is an important difference between the attribution of a thick affective property (which clearly involves our subjective states) and the kind of radical subjectivism which would make any attribution of a thick affective property “as good” as any other under any circumstances.

What makes the difference is the concept of “fit.” It is one thing to be amused by my son’s joke. It is something else again to react with amusement when considering the horrific story I heard awhile back, of a woman and her son (I think Tutsi) who were seized by enemy soldiers (I think Hutu). The woman’s leg was sawed off and roasted in a fire, and then—while the woman watched—her son was instructed to eat it. When he refused, he was shot.

I can imagine the soldiers laughing as they did this. Does that make it true for them that these events were funny? Or is there more to the truth of statements featuring thick affective properties than that? I think most of us want to say that their crime is horrible, not funny, and that if the soldiers find it funny rather than horrible, that means their emotional responses have somehow become seriously screwed up. They’ve fallen seriously out of touch with reality, perhaps because of deep indoctrination into an ideology of hate, such that when it comes to fellow human beings on the wrong side of the ideological divide, their emotions no longer “fit” their intentional objects.

Or that’s what I (and Zagzebski, and I believe the vast majority of people) want to say. But to say this, the proper attribution of thick affective properties cannot be reducible to whatever subjective emotional response one in fact happens to have in cases like this. In other words, we must have the resources for distinguishing what is funny from what one finds to be funny—even if we concede that nothing would be funny if there did not exist creatures like us capable of being amused by things. Put another way, we might say that the existence of the emotion of amusement is a necessary condition for things in the world having the thick affective property “funny.” But it is not a sufficient one.

In Zagzebski’s understanding of things, for it to be true of something that it is funny, it has to be the case that amusement is a fitting response to it. In other words, funniness is a relational property between a creature with an emotional palette that includes amusement and an intentional object that is the source of the amusement. But X isn't funny just in case someone is amused by X. While “funny” is a relational property between a subject (one who is amused) and an intentional object (the thing found to be amusing), it is a relational property that obtains only when there is a proper fit between the subject and the intentional object—and the “fit” is going to be a function of the nonrelational properties of both the subject and the intentional object.

Zagzebski notes (rightly, I think) that when it comes to emotions, there is not one univocally fitting emotion for each intentional object. That amusement fits my son’s joke does not mean that everyone must be amused by it or there’s something wrong with them. To use an imperfect analogy, the fact that seeing the duck-rabbit image (discussed here) as a duck is “fitting” does not mean that everyone must see it as a duck—because seeing it as a rabbit is also fitting. But there are ways of seeing it that just don’t fit (for example, seeing it as an enraged Viking attacking a lobster).

In other words, there is considerable room for individual variability when it comes to thick affective properties, but that doesn’t mean that anything goes. There are parameters of fit that our subjective emotional responses can fall outside of—and in such cases, we can be said to be in an unfitting emotional state (the Hutus laughing at their horrific crime against the Tutsi woman and her child).

Much of the variability in emotional response is likely to be cultural. Some of these cultural influences might produce dispositions to be amused by what it is unfitting to be amused by (a racist culture might truncate the scope of empathy towards members of other races such that depictions of them being degraded in various ways are seen simply as amusing). But in most cases, these cultural variances will simply be that—variances that fall within the parameters of what is fitting. What this culture finds funny may not be what another culture finds funny, but in neither case is there anything unfitting about being amused by the intentional objects at issue.

Also, since fittingness is not subjectively determined, individuals and cultures can make mistakes in their judgments on these things. A culture can think that amusement over certain jokes is fitting when it is not. (Suppose the jokes reinforce cultural stereotypes about women, stereotypes that help to covertly perpetuate patriarchal subordination). In such cases, a process of cultural enlightenment can lead societies to look askance at jokes that used to be shared with innocent delight.

Having grown up in such an evolving culture, you might find yourself trying not to laugh at one of these jokes (at once amused and convinced that you ought not to be). I certainly have had this experience—and I suspect other readers of this blog have as well. But the experience makes no sense without a notion of “fit” between emotional responses and their intentional objects. If “funny” just applies to whatever you happen to be amused by, it becomes hard to make any sense of the thought, “I really shouldn’t be amused by this, but I am.” Is that thought (which I confess to having) simply nonsense? It seems to me it would be nonsense (at least given what I mean to say when I say this to myself) in the absence of some nonsubjective standards by which subjective responses can be said to fit or not fit their intentional object.

But, of course, this point calls attention to the elephant in the room: On what basis is an emotion fitting? What makes it fit? What are the standards, and where do they come from? If the standards of fittingness are determined subjectively, then the Hutus can avoid any taint of impropriety at laughing over their deliberate shattering of two human lives: they can simply adopt a subjective standard of fittingness such that their amusement becomes fitting. So long as they avoid any internal conflict within their own subjective emotional dispositions and responses, on what basis could we attribute unfittingness if "fit" is defined subjectively? In short, a standard for the fittingness of subjective emotional responses that is rooted in nothing more than subjective emotional responses is not much of a standard.

But is there anything else that can serve as such a standard? And if so, what is it? These are some of the key questions that students of ethics wrestle with. And as my previous post helped make clear, I think, these are questions that have been put into sharp relief by the rise of empiricist epistemologies and physicalist metaphysical systems—theoretic frameworks which, to put it simply, don’t quite know what to do with the idea of nonsubjective standards of value, standards that could make affective responses to the world—value judgments of various kinds—fitting or unfitting.

But that certain theoretical frameworks don’t know what to do with the idea of fitting and unfitting affective states doesn’t mean that the notion of fittingness has to be discarded. The questions raised here are really an invitation to pursue a quest of sorts. My own career has been in large measure shaped by a passion for this quest—the quest to see if we can characterize a nonarbitrary standard by which at least some of our value judgments might be measured—not for the sake of identifying the one right way to engage with the world (thereby stifling human diversity), but for the sake of undergirding the recurring and pervasive intuition that some affective responses to the world, some evaluative ways of seeing it, fit the world as poorly as some factual beliefs. That is, they’re just wrong.

So, can a joke be in poor taste? Can an April Fools prank be unfunny, even as the perpetrator laughs at his victim’s humiliation? The answer cannot be separated from a broader investigation into the nature of value. Off and on in the months to come, I will be posting things on this blog that reflect my struggles, my questions, and my tentative conclusions about these issues.


  1. Hi, Eric-

    I think you are groping towards a subjectivity / relativity that dare not say its name.

    How popular does something have to be in order to be objective? How many people have to laugh for a joke to be objectively funny? You seem, via "fitness" to be trying to dredge up virtue ethics, which isn't so bad as long as it is recognized to have a subjective basis.

    But if one tries to wave one's wand and say that virtue X is objective because everyone in their right mind says it is good.. it just doesn't work. The criterion has not changed. However easy the case.. torture, holocausts, etc., our degree of revulsion doesn't change the category of the judgement.

  2. Hi Eric

    Sometimes the word subjective appears to shift meaning ever so slightly. The broad fittingness envelop may well be defined biologically. I've just returned from watching chimps at the local zoo and my sense of what makes for fitting behaviour is slightly different from theirs, it seems.

    Hence, your gruesome example may move us very close to the edge of our biological limits. It may well be that even the perpetrators could, in times of reflection, removed from the distorting influences of violence and war, have a sense of disquiet. I don't know. Certainly, post World War Two, there was genuine remorse for many of the atrocities. And which of us hasn't, one step removed from the immediate influence, looked back on an event and reset our moral compass?

    But, you seem to have something else in mind here. A sort of absolute right and wrong that transcends our biological imperatives. I still can make no sense of this. Does that mean the grizzly bear that eats young cubs in order to bring a potential partner back to fertility is acting immorally? That seems an odd view to me.

    Perhaps you mean there is a set of rules that only apply to humans. Or only adult humans, who are sober, and fit into 'normal' patterns of mental function, or are middle class and safe from the pressures of war, or are, you know, of blond hair and blue eyes... This gets very tricky very quickly. You will note my scepticism regarding your ability to bring this one home, but I am fascinated to see how you go about dealing to the elephant.


  3. Eric,

    You write of the “intuition that some affective responses to the world, some evaluative ways of seeing it, fit the world as poorly as some factual beliefs. That is, they’re just wrong.

    And also: “But that [naturalistic metaphysical systems] don’t know what to do with the idea of fitting and unfitting affective states doesn’t mean that the notion of fittingness has to be discarded.

    I think that the notion that the world is such that some affective responses to it fit and some don’t can and should be discarded by naturalists. After all, it seems to me, your example does not produce a problem for the consequent naturalist, who, I take it, will respond as follows: “Naturalism explains why the Hutus acted like they did, explains why they laughed at the results, and explains why they thought it fit to laugh. It also explains why Reitan doesn’t laugh, and why Reitan thinks it unfit to laugh. It also explains why both Reitan and the Hutus have the intuition that the world is such that some affective responses fit and others don’t. So there is no problem whatsoever for naturalism, as it accounts for all facts of the case

    (Incidentally, above I substituted “physicalism” with “naturalism”, for I think that in our context the distinction is irrelevant, and naturalism is a more flexible view. With Adams I understand by “metaphysical physicalism” the idea that all facts can be described using physical terms and explained by physical laws. By “metaphysical naturalism” I understand the idea that all facts can be described using mechanistic terms (including perhaps non physical ones, such as universals, or some conscious substances) and explained by mechanistic laws.)

    [continued bellow]

  4. [continued from above]

    My point is that our widespread intuition that there must exist a fit between values and reality produces no conceptual problem for naturalism. Why then do naturalistic ethicists work hard trying to develop some realist theory of metaethics? I think the reason is that they feel that when one considers naturalism from an agnostic point of view then that intuition is so strong as to deliver a good reason for rejecting naturalism. It does look for all the world absurd to hold that there is not something intrinsically/objectively/reality-unfitting wrong with the Hutus’ actions. Thus the fact that naturalism does not know what to do with objective standards of value is not a problem for the (consequent) naturalist, but a problem for one who is evaluating naturalism.

    I understand that even though many naturalistic philosophers have tried to produce a realist theory of metaethics none has succeeded in overcoming Hume’s is/ought distinction. So it’s a good bet that it can’t be done within naturalism. Mackie agrees and has proposed his argument from queerness. I think a similar argument can be given thus: Consider any naturalistic realist metaethical theory. Without loss of generality we may assume that according to that theory the Hutus’ affective states do not fit reality and that Reitan’s do. But whence that property of Reitan’s affective states which Hutus’ affective states lack? After all, Reitan’s and Hutus’ affective states are produced in exactly the same way, namely caused by humanity’s common sociobiological past as modified by cultural influences and one’s individual life experiences. The only possibility is that in Reitan's case these causes possess some property which the corresponding causes in the Hutus’ case lack. But here we arrive at a regression of causes which leads to a contradiction. For ultimately the causal chains that mechanistically produce Reitan’s and the Hutus’ affective states have the same root, namely the state of the universe at some point in the past, which cannot both possess and not possess that required property.

    Anyway, I wonder about this: Given that ethical realism looks hopeless within naturalism, does it make any practical sense to work on your project about objective value outside of theism? If not, why not start with theistic metaphysics and discuss how objective value can exist in a theistic reality? Wouldn’t this simplify things?

  5. Hi Dianelos

    Of course, for some of us, the lack of a metaethical framework is no problem at all. Indeed, it presents mighty opportunities to create a world that celebrates many of the values you and I would both agree upon as good and worthy.

    Again, here is a highly subjective, personal response, which you insist upon presenting as some baseline fact about the world. I know you were called on this in another thread, but it appears to provide the foundation for all of your philosophy (consciousness, free will, morality, mathematical elegance...) You start from the assumption that the way you feel about something is not only correct for you, but is the correct starting point for any philosophical investigation.

    Which makes me wonder, why not just cut to the chase and embrace fundamentalism?


  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. FYI: After sleeping on it and going back and forth a bit, I removed an anonymous post because, in my judgment, the author was not making any attempt to add to the discussion but was motivated by something less savory (although I may be wrong, it seemed like a veiled expression of a racist sentiment, which I don't want to provide a forum for here).

    The one thing that might be of substantive significance from the comment is the fact that there are people who are amused by jokes that are not at all "politically correct," so I restore that feature of the content since the idea of political correctness in humor (and its relation to the concept of fittingness) may be worth reflecting on.

  8. Wow, Bernard, you're really right on the money here. I too read Eric's post and thought, "You know what he really sounds like here? A NAZI." And it would terrible to sound like a Nazi, because the Nazis did things that were just awful. From a certain point of view.

    And yeah, you're right, Dianelos seems just a step away from being a raving fundamentalist. His methodology is really terrible, I much prefer, "I am a high school teacher and know some stuff about science, therefore I can pronounce confidently on all philosophical topics and insult anyone who disagrees with me without really studying the issues at all or putting in any effort or understanding what the other side thinks or why or really even knowing anything about philosophy except that I read a book by Daniel Dennett one time that confirmed what I already thought."

  9. Hi Dustin

    An interesting response, although parody has a way of turning on itself sometimes.

    It may well be that my last comment was poorly phrased, and fair enough for calling me on that. Apologies to any who were offended.

    The issue of objective morality continues to interest me, however, so if you have something to contribute to that discussion, I'd be most interested.