Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Humor: A Moral Compass

While reading the excerpts on the philosophy of humor, I found myself encountering questions of morality as well as the role of pain or malice in various philosophers’ theories on what defines humor. While some approached the ethics of humor from a more light-hearted standpoint of sheer amusement, others seemed to adopt a more pessimistic view on what people find funny. Both Plato and Hobbes maintain this latter position, defending the idea that amusement stems from both vice and the complex of superiority. Kierkegaard, however, introduces an additional layer to the morality of humor: the element of incongruity that both the tragic and the comic share. To me, the concept that humor stems from the exploitation of human vice and borderlines tragedy was a huge downer. However after reading further I formed an understanding that each philosopher’s point of view accounts for an aspect or instance of humor, and are not mutually exclusive or all encompassing individually.

Hobbes details the Superiority Theory of laughter, which is evident in many different forms of humor, including the model we discussed in class relating to blonde jokes. But Hobbe’s theory went further to claim that humanity is in a constant power struggle, and as a result, laughter is an “expression of sudden glory when we realize that in some way we are superior to someone else” (19). He claims that in this comedy man compares the target’s qualities with his own, illustrating the difference and perceived superiority of his own abilities. But in stating, “Men laugh at mischances and indecencies, wherein there lies to wit or jest at all,” it seems Hobbes is a “kick them while they’re down” type of superiority comic, rather than one who magnifies the illusion of superiority through exploitation of a semi (or quarter, or one-percent) truth (19).In Plato’s dialogue he similarly displays the vice of man in that man laughs at the ignorance of the powerless, thereby expressing malice through this evil act. In the dialogue Socrates claims, “the malicious man is pleased at his neighbor’s misfortunes,” which implies that humor, defined as laughing at the powerless, is a malicious form of pleasure (10). Kierkegaard claims that one is often justified in ignoring the pain aroused by malicious humor in contradictions that are on the brink tragedy because it isn’t essential. But despite these occasions of humor at the expense of pain or humiliation, “it is no more immoral to laugh than it is immoral to weep” (89). The irony of contradiction lies in the instance of an event that evolves contrary to our expectations, in which the incongruity with the norm or the expected is comedic. This displays a person’s reaction to humor that depicts something immoral or something that goes against society.

Kierkegaard advises, “remember you are ethically responsible for the way in which you use your comic powers” (89). But to what extent is humor a moral fallibility of man through which he expresses superiority, malice, and pain? As a function that induces laughter and joy, such a disheartening definition just doesn’t fit. I believe humor incorporates aspects of all of these philosophers’ theories, but cannot be tied wholly to man's qualities of questionable morality, or nailed down to a single definition at all.

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