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.
Kant is an unlikely source of humour, one might suppose, given his, by
all accounts, reined-in, well-regulated way of life.
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, 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
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.
Here you boil some spaghetti, let it cool, and you put it in someone’s bed down at the bottom where their feet go.
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.
Now let us look at how a utilitarian would look at this kind of behaviour, that involved in the practical joke.
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. 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.
Supporting this claim is the observation that no-one can (unless they are pathologically staggeringly forgetful) perform a practical joke on
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
◊ ◊ ◊
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).
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