A guy working in a car repair shop asked if I’d like to hear a good joke.

Sure, I said.

“Well, yesterday I was in line at the bank waiting to cash a check. The lady in front of me asked me why I was there. I told her. She said she was there to check her balance. So I pushed her over.”

He laughed at his own joke and I shook my head. I got the joke—that’s the problem. It was not funny—it was cruel.

It made me think about the ethics of joke writing.

I doubt the car repair guy wrote that joke, but he passed it on. And, now in this blog, so have I. This blog is not about the ethics of people who hear unethical jokes and laugh. I’m saving that for a future post. This post is about whether whoever wrote that joke knew there were ethical norms in joke writing. The occasional joke repeater can be forgotten. But those who repeat unethical jokes ought to take heed. Far as I know, there is no written code. Good thing; it wouldn’t be funny.

And that is exactly the intersection between ethics and joke writing. Writing anything that is cruel violates the essential core of ethics: concern for the interests and wellbeing of others.

The essential core of a joke is humor. While humor is the very antithesis of seriousness, jokes are often taken seriously, sometimes to a fault. One example might be the serious: a good part of the world reacted to a Danish cartoonist whose cartoons inappropriately depicted the prophet Mohammed. A similar reaction stems from Nazi and Soviet reactions to how humorists were treated for making fun of their regimes.

The ethics of humor are serious. The Journal of Practical Ethics,[1] is serious. One of its authors, David Benatar[2]  wrote an academic paper on the subject; applying real world examples of the danger of telling jokes at the wrong time, to the wrong person, or in the wrong venue. “Ethical questions are typically thought to arise in certain predictable categories of humour. One such category consists of racial, ethnic and gender humour – including jokes about “blacks”, Jews, Poles and women. Another is humour about God, religious figures (such as Mohammed) and other sacred matters. We might refer to this as blasphemous humour. Scatological humour is a third category, which includes jokes about genitalia, sex, urination, defecation, menstruation and other bodily effluvia. Humour about death and suffering – what we might call morbid or tragic humour – includes dead baby jokes, and making light of the Holocaust, famine and disease. Another category of humour that raises ethical concerns is humour about people’s personal attributes – such as their big ears or noses, their short or tall stature, or their mental or physical disabilities. Finally, there are so-called practical jokes (such as the “candid camera” variety) in which the victims are “set-up” without their knowledge in order to provide entertainment for others, and the related phenomenon of comic pleasure from people’s (un-engineered) misfortunes.”

Jerry Seinfeld, arguably America’s most successful joke writer, talked about a related aspect of joke writing and telling: sensitivity and politically correctness.[3] Recalling that he was often outspoken about those issues, he said he’d never apologized about a joke. “No, [I have not]. Jokes are not real. People assume that when you say something that you believe it. It’s purely comedic invention. You know, I do this whole bit about Pop-Tarts and how much I love them. I don’t love Pop-Tarts. It’s just funny. It’s funny to say it, so I say it.”[4]

[1] http://www.jpe.ox.ac.uk/papers/taking-humour-ethics-seriously-but-not-too-seriously/

[2] David Benatar (born 1966) is a South African philosopher, academic and author. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Benatar

[3] “Jerry Seinfeld Says Jokes Are Not Real Life.” NYTimes Magazine, August 19, 2018.

[4] Id, at page 58.