Kant’s Joke: Are Practical Jokes Wrong?
Kant is an unlikely source of humour, one might suppose, given his, by all accounts, reined-in, well-regulated way of life. On the other hand, others report that he could be quite a wit and good company when out convivially eating with others. Be that as it may, the connection with Kant is not with him personally, but with that perhaps even more unlikely joke-source, the Categorical Imperative.
It is not the Categorical Imperative that generates the joke, but rather it allows us to understand a kind of joke, and in such a way, in addition, that we may better understand the disquiet, even revulsion, some feel about that kind of joke, especially if taken too far. But the title is justified, and that it is Kant’s Joke,1 as it is hard to see how the joke and the misgivings we may have about such jokes can be understood properly without understanding the central feature of Kant’s ethics. This is not to say he would have liked the joke; he would not.
I refer of course to the so-called Practical Joke. Practical jokes always involve some kind of deception, either by deliberate expressed falsehood (one may say, lie) or by deliberate omission of some truth that could be expressed. This deception may not be verbal, it may be brought about by some action or inaction. Then, after some supposedly suitable period of time the deception is reversed or at least the initial situation revealed to be something other than it first seemed to be.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
A friend’s exam results arrive, which you know mean a great deal to them. You bowl up to them with the envelope, and open it, or ask them whether you can open it (it doesn’t matter which) and solemnly declare that they have failed, while knowing that they have passed. But then after a suitable pause – how long that is depends on how much you want to screw up the tension – you say ‘no you haven’t, you’ve passed!’
Here you boil some spaghetti, let it cool, and you put it in someone’s bed down at the bottom where their feet go – perhaps you watch them get into bed, though that’s not essential – the point being the alien shock the person feels when they put their bare feet into what appears to be a load of worms, or something else ghastly, that should not be there. The relief comes, as it always does with practical jokes, on realising it is only cold spaghetti.
In both cases, and in all cases in practical jokes, the trajectory of the joke is the shock or an initial bad thing happening being replaced by relief that things are not what they seem. Now for this not to be simply cruel – for sometimes it is when practical jokes ‘go wrong’ – the relief or true realisation has to outweigh in intensity and size the awfulness of the initial shocked feelings, indeed, if joke well done the idea is that the final awareness is better than it would have been otherwise if no joke had been played. Of course, quite how such jokes are pitched will vary from person to person, depending on knowledge of their sensitivity, how they might react, whether, as the phrase has it, ‘they can take a joke’.
A practical joke is also supposed to be funny. The subject – one can easily slip into writing ‘victim’ here – is supposed to laugh with relief or combine that with faux anger at what happened and having been fooled. ‘You swine!’ they declare, whilst also laughing.
Now let us look at how a utilitarian would look at this kind of behaviour, that involved in the practical joke. (Leaving aside any refinements of act or rule utilitarianism.) It’s quite simple really, as it often is with the utilitarian felicific calculus. You put all the bad stuff on one side of the scales and all the good stuff on the other side of the scales, and see which weighs more, and if the good side weighs more than the bad then the behaviour is alright, and if it does not then it is not alright, morally speaking. If it is equal, or too close to know which way it will go, well then you are left with a dilemma, where morally speaking you do not know what to do – though you might apply a general rule of thumb to err on the side of caution and do nothing.
The point of looking at the utilitarian analysis of a practical joke is that it makes it hard to see what the problem could be with them, as long as the good outweighs the bad. But yet many people feel uncomfortable with practical jokes as a form of joking behaviour, and even when the good does outweigh the bad. Some on the margin would say that they would only do it over a trivial matter and only let it stand for a few seconds before being resolved. Otherwise they find them cruel. But this cannot come down to the aforementioned uncertainty of outcome. The outcome may clearly be on the positive side, but still some people will not perpetrate such a joke. Utilitarianism makes this uncomfortable misgiving inexplicable, or at least unexplained, for how could there be any if it is as certain as it needs to reasonably be that one is doing the right thing.
This is where Kant comes to our rescue. It shows us arguably how Kant’s ethical theory penetrates deeply into what is essential in moral matters and accounts for the phenomenology of moral experience. And does so in way that utilitarianism does not. The foundation-stone to Kant’s philosophy is the Categorical Imperative. This states that in all our acts in relation to others we should never use them merely as means to some end but must always on all occasions treat them as ends in themselves.2 To treat them otherwise would be tantamount to treating them as mere things, and that involves a complete denial of them having a will, and what through that will they may choose to do or not do, according to how they judge things to be, being of no importance. In not abiding by the Categorical Imperative in relation to others one is not even beginning to act morally towards them no matter what one does, for one is treating them as a thing. And with things as such the matter of treating them in a moral or immoral manner does not arise. The key to understanding this at the heart of Kant’s thought is that human beings are of supreme value because without them there would be no values, because for values to exist there have to be beings with a rational will that can value by making normative judgements. They are the source of all values and as such are of supreme value above all other values. No valuers, no values.
But the practical joke does exactly that: it treats others as things, as a mere means to some end. It is not the deception, or forms of lying, that is the main issue – though Kant certainly had his oppositional view on this. However it is set up, it involves for some period of time using someone as a mere means and not an end in themselves.
Supporting this claim is the observation that no-one can (unless they are pathologically staggeringly forgetful) perform a practical joke on themselves. Just as no-one can tickle themselves. For the unexpected nature inherent in such acts is psychologically impossible to make exist in oneself. In any case, with a practical joke, for some period of time one is setting aside what the other person would will if they truly knew what was happening. At best, one is hypothesising that they would approve of it – but of course they cannot approve, for the joke would be ruined, if they truly knew what was happening. In either case it involves usurping the will of another in such a way as to give them no chance of a choice, and making what happens your choice. It is the domination of your will over another’s.
Surely it is this, and not outcomes, that makes us uncomfortable with practical jokes, so uncomfortable in fact that some people never feel like doing them. One ends up, for however brief a time – though possibly other things being equal the shorter the time the more benign – treating someone as a mere means and not also as an end. And this is true no matter how well the joke turns out according to a utilitarian calculation – indeed even if it turns out very well, heavily balanced to the good side, the person possibly delighted by the intensity of the relief-filled pleasure of finding out that things are the opposite, or nothing like, what they first thought. Even then, many people would not want to manufacture such a course of events. Kant alone explains what we are really doing, what is going on, when conducting a practical joke in a way unique to his moral philosophy. And that is why the practical joke might be said to be Kant’s Joke. Only he enables us to fully understand it.
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Dr John Shand is a Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the Open University. He studied philosophy at the University of Manchester and King’s College, University of Cambridge. He has taught at Cambridge, Manchester and the Open University. The author of numerous articles, reviews, and edited books, his own books include, Arguing Well (London: Routledge, 2000) and Philosophy and Philosophers: An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014).
- Dr John Shand, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom.
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