Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Noel Carroll

Committee Members

Miranda Fricker

Nickolas Pappas

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | Applied Ethics | Epistemology | Ethics and Political Philosophy | Philosophy | Philosophy of Language


Humor, Ethics, Speech, Language, Moral Philosophy, Jokes, Comedy


In this dissertation I set out a theory of humor ethics and, in particular, I establish what difference humorousness makes to an instance of speech’s moral value. I set out by making the case for this approach to the topic, demonstrating that focusing on how humorous speech differs, morally, from non-humorous speech allows us to avoid getting caught up in prior ethical debates that are not strictly about humor itself – a shortcoming that is common to many treatments of humor ethics in the existing literature. I show that, in cases of humorous speech, we typically do not assert the literal content of our speech, and that this is morally relevant, since it grants us the ethical liberty to say things, as a joke, that it would be unacceptable to say seriously. I observe that instances of humor generally play some incongruous element off against a context or occurrence that is congruous, and that, as a result, we are able to say that an agent’s epistemic set will help to determine what she finds funny, since our perceptions of what counts as congruous or incongruous rely upon what we really believe and expect. This sets up the possibility of a relationship between believing, e.g., racist things and being amused by certain jokes.

I then make the case that humor can be the site of agreement and fraternity between agents with unacceptable epistemic positions. Jokes can manifest, e.g., racism when a joke-teller intends for her joke to have special appeal to audiences with racist beliefs, or when there is uptake, on the part of the joke’s audience, based on just such an appeal. I distinguish between cases in which a joker means for her joke to manifest condemnable epistemic items, and cases in which she manifests those items while intending merely to amuse her audience. Cases in which a joker deliberately expresses some unacceptable sentiment are straightforward cases of morally bad behavior, which do not require any special, humor-specific observations to be accounted for. In cases in which a joke manifests bigotry without its teller so intending, I identify the potential wrongdoing as involving callousness. A joke-teller may not intend to communicate any offensive idea through her humorous speech, but she can nevertheless demonstrate that she cares too little for the reputation of her joke’s target if, for the sake of getting a laugh, she is willing to bear a sufficiently likely risk that her audience will internalize a disrespectful message about them as a result of hearing it.

In the final two chapters of the dissertation, I add to my theory by noting two important ethical quirks of humor. The first of these is that one’s social identity is of greater moral relevance, when one is speaking humorously, than when one is speaking non-humorously. I make the case for the existence of this discrepancy, and explain it in terms of our social identity being a useful contextual clue as to our intentions and beliefs, which can help settle ambiguity about what we are really saying via our humorous speech acts. When we speak non-jokingly, no such ambiguity obtains, and, as a result, the contextual clue of social identity does less ethical work. In the final chapter I investigate the relationship between humorous communication and hermeneutical injustice, and propose the existence of comedic hermeneutical injustice as a distinct form of hermeneutical injustice.