A Duty to Laugh at Oneself and the View from Nowhere

by David L. Duffy

[T]he main ideas of the European Enlightenment [include]…practicing irony and especially self-irony.” –Karl Popper (1)

I hope my thesis is self-evident from the title: that laughter (especially directed against yourself) is a good and requires some level of distancing. I exclude “low humor” involving various types of aggression to the butt, where “taking the joke” on the part of the target involves social diminution or degradation. I will further assert that in many cultures, there is a (positive) social expectation that you can sufficiently distance yourself to see the joke that is on you. In parallel to the case of moral excuses, so too the constitutionally humorless are excused.

The “point of view of the universe” (Sidgwick) or the “view from nowhere” (Nagel) has always come in for a certain amount of dissing.  (2) But of course seeing the world as absurd (as for instance in Nagel’s essay, “The Absurd” (3) requires precisely that kind of distancing. The laughter of the gods, to whom we “are as flies to wanton boys,” can only be shared if one has a pretty distanced frame of mind.

I was drawn to this recently by a discussion of the work of Harsanyi, who baldly states:

Bayesian rationality postulates are absolutely inescapable criteria of rationality for policy decisions; and …these postulates, together with a hardly controversial Pareto optimality requirement entail utilitarian ethics as a matter of mathematical necessity. (4)

Some readers may find this as amusing in its own right as I did. Moehler has recently argued that the incorrect assumption that Harsanyi makes is “the impersonality constraint.” namely that “agents…base moral decisions on the public interest.” (5)

Harsanyi argues that in key social interactions (his example involves members of a jury) that we have an expectation that others will take a “disinterested” or “objective” stance with respect to judgments that involve us. This is obviously one of those mutual knowledge setups beloved of games theorists and believers in Bayesian reasoning. (6)  We have not only the social expectation but the belief that we can recognize disinterested reasoning on the part of the jury or the judge as far as it affects us. And this continues further up a recursive chain (I recognize your that you share the same concept of objectivity that I do, etc).

In the idealized case, we will accept the court finding against us, if it seems that it has been reached in a fair manner. And our last resort is to appeal to the community and point to those aspects of the decision that strike us as less than objective, again under the assumption that others share our concepts of fairness. One flavor of moral outrage occurs when we perceive that others share our concepts, and go and do the wrong thing anyway.

I claim the famous distinction between “laughing with” and “laughing at” is another example of such mutual knowledge. This moves one step beyond a utilitarian framework, where the globally amusing will arise from possibly strongly independent individual rankings of what is funny, extending, for example, the approach seen in McCarthy, et al. (7)

Turning first to a simple case of self-aimed humor, if I fall into an open sewer, narrowly avoid drowning and crawl out foul and stinking, I suspect I would not be the only person to start laughing at the image I present to the world. (8) To me, this is the only mechanism by which I could find this amusing, and it is irrational on its face. Is the current pleasure I feel anticipated pleasure in others when I recall this as an anecdote? But why would I anticipate that friends (as opposed to enemies) would find this amusing? Because I would be in their shoes. I would also like to think the humor of the situation is at a “meta” level; e.g. I have instantiated a figure of speech that has deep emotional significance (badness of shit, etc), but have to admit a six year old will find it funny too.

And if I drowned in raw sewage, this too would be funny, but if I survived in a vegetative state, not so funny. (I am checking my intuitions here, is it perhaps more ironic?) I can contemplate the irony of such an end to my life in advance.

So, do friends need my permission to laugh at me? No, because they know that I know that it is funny, and it would be churlish on my part not to accept this. Unfortunately, even if I was humourless, most people I know would laugh anyway, and this would make it even funnier to them. This thought experiment is where it seems that this implies a duty to distance oneself from amusing adverse events, that the humorless are congenitally incapable of fulfilling. As a result, we excuse them from this duty, but feel sorry for them. This is also funny.

The straight man is amusing in this way, but is funnier still when he can’t keep a straight face, moving up one further recursive level of mutual knowledge.

The main counterarguments here are to point to wide cultural variation in humor, variation in what it is acceptable to make jokes about, the importance of transgression in humor, and the case where individuals use humor aggressively and hide from retaliation using the defense that the target “can’t take a joke.” After all, defamation traditionally induces hatred, contempt and ridicule. If I was pushed into the sewer, it would be less funny, precisely because the act involved hostility, which renders distance ineffective, though perhaps some practical jokers see their art as higher than this.

One might also consider the use of the term “duty” here as being a bit loose. Am I just using it as shorthand for ephemeral cultural norms? No, I started from the question of possible attitudes arising as a response to existential issues which I take as reasonably universal. I feel the spirit of the statement of Popper that I chose as an epigram is intuitively obvious, though I might place a duty to be ironic fairly low down a Rossian ladder. But it still feels to me to be something like an epistemic ethical maxim.  Like memento mori or nosce te ipsum, but funnier.

Is it foolish to conflate humor and morality in the way I seem to be doing? When Erasmus wrote Julius excluded from Heaven, Voltaire Candide, and Swift A Modest Proposal, surely they were making a moral point via satire addressed to others, rather than anything of intrinsic worth to themselves? But what did they expect from the targets of their barbs? I suggest it is not retaliation (though Erasmus at least would have expected it, if his authorship was confirmed), but appropriate self-knowledge. Not that the targets are being ridiculed, but that seen from a suitably distant viewpoint they actually are ridiculous, in a way that any of us can be. Speaking of Enlightenment derived liberalism, Sklar has it that “only the challenge from nowhere and the claims of universal humanity and rational argument cast in general terms can be put to the test of general scrutiny and public criticism.” (9) And jokes.

I should finish then with a joke from a different culture. In view of the earlier example, it has to be How Abu Hasan Brake Wind. (10)  My interpretation is that the joke works for someone from my cultural background, and that I can successfully imagine the importance of the events to the protagonist. I can also see the protagonist doesn’t get the joke qua joke, which makes it doubly funny, but this also evokes pity in me in the manner of a Fawlty Towers. (11) For him to escape his distress, he must do more than physically distance himself.

David L. Duffy is a research scientist who works on the statistical genetics and genetic epidemiology of traits ranging from cancer to personality.  As a result, he feels qualified to have an opinion on everything. He practiced medicine sometime back in the previous millennium, and has read far too much science fiction. You can see lists of publications and other stuff (even a couple of pastels) at https://genepi.qimr.edu.au/Staff/davidD/, and some of what he’s been reading (or doing) lately at http://users.tpg.com.au/davidd02/


(1) Karl Popper, “The unknown Xenophanes. An attempt to establish his greatness,” in Popper K, Petersen AF (ed). The World of Parmenides. Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment (1998), p. 35.

(2) Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, (New York: Oxford University Press), 1986 // H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, (London: Macmillan, 1907)

(3) Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” The Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971), pp. 716-727.

(4) J.C. Harsanyi, “Bayesian Decision Theory and Utilitarian Ethics,” The American Economic Review 68 (1978), pp. 223-228.

(5) M. Moehler, “Contractarian Ethics and Harsanyi’s two Justifications of Utilitarianism,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics 12 (2013), pp. 24-47.

(6) See for example R.J. Auman, “Agreeing to disagree”,  (1976). Annals of Statistics 4 (1976), pp. 1236-1239. http://projecteuclid.org/euclid.aos/1176343654

(7) D. McCarthy and K. Mikkola, “Utilitarianism with and without Expected Utility,” (2016). https://philpapers.org/rec/MCCUWA The straightforward move from utility to laughability is left to the reader.

(8) Mel Brook’s quip: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

(9)  J.N. Sklar, “The Liberalism of Fear,” in N.L. Rosenblum, ed., Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). Obviously an article of the liberalism of fear will not spend much time on humour.

(10) http://www.mythfolklore.net/1001nights/burton/brake_wind.htm Maybe you won’t find it funny at all, or maybe just a bit lame.

(11) Basil Fawlty seems completely to lack any insight.






9 responses to “A Duty to Laugh at Oneself and the View from Nowhere”

  1. David,
    I wasn’t able to access the link to Abu Hassan’s historic flatulence, but I did find others; my preferred is the version at http://www.wollamshram.ca/1001/Vol_5/tale100.htm, which elaborates his heroic efforts to return home and his poetic fatalism on learning that he is best remembered for his fart.

    I thought this an amusing essay, and pretty much on the money. I know I should take myself less seriously, I struggle with it every day. On the other hand, my dog generally finds me rather boring unless she’s hungry, so living with her does somewhat leverage against any tendency to self-aggrandizement.

  2. Some of those links (notes 7 and 10) don’t seem to be working?

  3. They should work now.

  4. A rich, complex piece.

    Being able to laugh at oneself is certainly a good thing: endearing, socially useful etc.. And it does require distancing (flexible perspective). I would be surprised if the Enlightenment has a lot to do with it, however. Also I don’t see it as a “duty”. There is a moral dimension to laughing, but any duty would relate in my mind to not hurting others. To me it doesn’t make sense to talk about a duty to be self-deprecating etc..

    “… Unfortunately, even if I was humourless, most people I know would laugh anyway, and this would make it even funnier to them. This thought experiment is where it seems that this implies a duty to distance oneself from amusing adverse events, that the humorless are congenitally incapable of fulfilling. As a result, we excuse them from this duty, but feel sorry for them. This is also funny.”

    Though I don’t agree with your use of terms like duty here, you catch the complex, recursive nature of the matter. It reminds me of an incident in which I joined others in laughing at a humorless fellow who had invited us to dinner and who for after-dinner entertainment played the banjo. Badly. It made it funnier that he couldn’t see the funny side. Both funnier and more cruel. I felt bad about joining in the laughter, but couldn’t help it.

  5. Of course, duties of non-maleficence are just one of any number of types of duties we have, so being able to take a joke might very well be one.

  6. I wrote: “…but any duty would relate in my mind to not hurting others.”

    I meant any duty relating to the matters under discussion (laughter, etc.). Of course there are many different kinds of duty. But I don’t see duty as a term which applies in a natural way to such things as being able to take a joke.

  7. I would have thought there was a duty not to be a supercilious prig. Being able to take a joke seems to me as being a part of that.

  8. davidlduffy

    Hi Mark.

    I think humour takes some of its power from skepticism, so one can have practical or radical flavours. In the case of the pratfall, it is perhaps skepticism about one’s own dignity (or whether there is such a thing as dignity) in an indifferent or even hostile world. Some dismiss Vonnegut’s satire as lightweight (suitable for sophomores), perhaps along the lines that radical skepticism about meaning, truth, goodness and human dignity is not as ethical as “commonsense” skepticism that just takes us down just one peg. (Being shallow, I still think Cat’s Cradle is funny). I feel easy with the terminology that a scientist or a philosopher has a duty to be skeptical, so saying we have a duty to see the joke (in, say, how we live) isn’t too big a leap.

    My essay lost a footnote about Rorty’s [1989] Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, which talks about “liberal ironists” He takes his epigraph from Kundera’s The Art of the Novel:

    The agélastes [Rabelais’s word for those who do not laugh, [DLD: but as agelast is perfectly good English]], the non- thought of received ideas, and kitsch are one and the same, the three-headed enemy of the art born as the echo of God’s laughter, the art that created the fascinating imaginative realm where no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be understood.

    Rorty has little to say about jokes here, as he

    use[s] “ironist” to name the sort of person who faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires – someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance. Liberal ironists are people who include among these ungroundable desires their own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may

    I’d be happy to be called a liberal ironist, if one was still allowed to laugh at being humiliated by non-human processes.

  9. collin237

    That’s assuming that the existence of time and chance is one of those central beliefs. 🙂