Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

J. Clerk Shaw

Committee Members

J. Clerk Shaw, David Palmer, Michelle Christian


You walk past a crowd of people at a bar, grouped around one person. He’s in the middle of telling a joke, the kind you wouldn’t tell your parents but is often told in the amenable company of close friends. You realize that the butt of the joke, the punchline, assumes that people of color are lazy and entitled. This is not an assumption you agree wit, but you find yourself with a feeling of mirth while scoffing at the comedian. His timing is well executed, and the turn of phrase is witty. The joke was racist, and yet emotionally you found it funny. You did not laugh, but you felt mirth. One way a person may respond to such a joke, and such an emotion, is by exclaiming that it is not funny. This response may be thought to commit the moralistic fallacy, for example, it might be thought to conflate the question of whether mirth is a fitting emotional response to a joke with the question of whether it reflects badly on one’s character, whether it is immoral.

In this project there are a pair of responses to the situation detailed above, a pair of thoughts that might be held in response to it. First, that because the joke is morally objectionable, it is not funny; and second, that because the feeling of mirth is not under your immediate control, you cannot be morally responsible for it. I will argue against both claims. It seems obvious to us that telling a racist joke is harmful, and therefore unethical. We usually chastise or refuse to patronize comedians who use racism as the crux of their comedy, or rather, it is generally uncontroversial when we do this in circles where racism itself is considered abhorrent. Certainly, it is true that many people do still support racist comedians knowing full well their views. It is less apparent that you are committing a moral wrong simply by feeling the emotion of mirth at a racist joke. I argue that you are morally criticizable for the manifestation of the vice of racism in this feeling of mirth which takes as its object a racist joke, but it is only appropriate for others to hold you morally responsible once you fail to acknowledge that the feeling is immoral and respond to it using a counteractive emotion, such as shame. Essentially, a feeling of mirth can be immoral but not necessarily blameworthy. I show this by describing two distinct types of harm associated with racist comedy. There is one type, which is direct, and another which is more like vice, in that it is internal and creates a positive reinforcement of racism within oneself, which is indirect. The telling of a racist joke might introduce or reinforce racist ideology in the audience. Even when in the sole company of other racist people, the joke is directly supporting their ideology, which causes direct harm to others. However, when we reinscribe the vice of racism in ourselves, through feelings of mirth which take as their object racist humor, while we are directly harming our character, we are also indirectly, or diffusely, contributing to systemic racism.

In my final analysis, I note two things; (i) it is noble of us to lie to ourselves about the fittingness of a joke to mirth if it means mitigating the indirect and diffuse harms of racism, and (ii) if we refuse to acknowledge and counteract racist mirth with other habituated emotions, it would be appropriate for others to hold us morally responsible for our racism.

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