Thursday, March 08, 2007

Coulter and the Moralistic Fallacy

Ann Coulter recently had a moment of rediculousness, and the ensuing controversy has provided an opportunity for philosophers to step in and clear something up.  Whether or not her joke was funny is irrelevant to its morality.  This is D'arms and Jacobson's version of the "moralistic fallacy."  They rightly point out that the "comic moralist" is mistaken when they find a joke objectionable and infer that the joke wasn't funny.  

Many of the commentators who've stepped in to say that Coulter was out of line have simply said that this kind of hateful joke isn't funny, but this is just wrong.  I actually think it was a bit funny.  If Bill Maher had said it about Ken Mehlman (the slightly effeminate former RNC chair) all the liberals would have loved it.  But thinking that it was funny doesn't stop me from thinking that it was a highly innappropriate and obnoxious thing to say given the context and the audience.  

Her defense has basically been to say that all those who've complained just don't have a sense of humor.  But this is even more rediculous!  Just becuase your joke is funny doesn't give you free reign to say it whenever and wherever you want.  I have a sense of humor, and I even think it was funny (if just a little), and I also think she's a hateful witch who shouldn't have said it in public.

So for those who worry that philosophy has nothing to add to the affairs of laypeople, I offer this point.  The moralistic fallacy is pretty common, and recognizing the problem could allow people to debate the actual issues, and not whether or not the joke was funny.


  1. This just in:

    "Rediculous" is not a word

    "Ridiculous" is, however.

  2. I don't get it. Who had to go to rehab for calling someone a "fag?"

  3. Isiah Washington went to rehab... he's on Grey's Anatomy (seriously, I only know this from my wife... please believe me). He called a co-star a fag and was in rehab within a week or so to deal with his "issues"

  4. I agree with Arthur. It was totally inappropriate, annoying,and just plain mean. I won't defend Coulter for shooting her mouth off in a bid to be the republican version of Howard Dean.

    However, what if she were using the speech as a way of protesting the idea that if you say something inapropriate and mean you have to go to rehab in order to be "taught" and re-educated as Washington did? In other words can we separate not only the funny from the mean but the mean from the relevant? She could have made her point about 40,000 different, more articulate, and intelligent ways, but I admit, she has a point: I don't want to put bigots in rehab, I want to fire them.

    Why not just fire the jerk! I'm sorry Isaiah: "Your not the kind of person we want here. bye" instead of "Go get re-educated so you can be on our multi-million dollar show"
    Here's another question what makes it mean? Is it that J.E. isn't (as far we know) Gay? is it the term is demeaning to Gay people or is it that she is maligning someone on the otherside in an unfair way so that Limbaugh is just as mean to call J.E. "The Breck Girl" which I think is also slightly funny but inappropriate.

  5. I looked into that incident. It seems like it's blown way out of proportion. There is a gay guy on the show, and he wasn't the one that was insulted. If he had been the target of the slur then I think some offense might have been taken.

    How does that moralistic fallacy work here? I don't really get it. Maybe I'm still in spring-break fog, but it seems to me that comedy is a very subjective thing. If I am so offended by a joke that the intended punch line doesn't make me laugh, then I think I have a perfect right to say that the joke isn't funny. I might not have liscense to say that someone doesn't have a sense of humor, but I can certainly say that their joke wasn't funny on account of its offensive nature. Can't I?

  6. J,
    I think that the point is that Washington wasn't being a bigot when he tossed that word out there. He wasn't saying "I think you like men, and I think that's wrong/evil." It was a school-yard name-calling thing as far as I can tell. Like I said, if he had been arguing with an actual homosexual then it would have been biggoted. As it was, it was ill advised and inflamatory, but I don't think he's a bigot because of it.

  7. I'm not really interested in labels such as "bigot" because I don't exactly know what has to be true of you to qualify. I do think that one should be very careful when using inflammatory words historically associated with bigotry. Of course, this is highly contextual. But I firmly believe that using such words in anger, for instance, as Washington did, hints at an underlying problem. Using the words in a joke is more complicated and opaque. I tend to think that the appropriateness of joking with such loaded words follows an in-group / out-group paradigm such that if I can reasonably be thought to belong to a group the word describes, it's more excusable for me to use it. I could assert this as a prescription, but in fact I think it's descriptively true - it's just how people respond to such language.

    Anyway, matteson, about the moralistic fallacy, I agree with you that humor is very subjective. D'arms and Jacobson's paper lays out a specific theory of rational sentimentalism in which it is fitting for you to be amused at "the amusing" and disgusted at "the disgusting," etc. Strictly speaking, in their terms, the moralistic fallacy is when one judges amusement to be unfitting for moral reasons (when according to them some things are inherently amusing, and therefore merit amusement). One does not need to buy into their specific theory in order to see the force of the moralistic fallacy, however. I certainly do not believe in all this fittingness talk.

    But maybe we can agree on this much: in English the expression "that wasn't funny" has a different connotation than a purely subjective expression such as "I didn't find it funny," or "I'm not amused." It could be that the two kinds of expressions turn out (on some theory) to have the same content because we find that nothing is objectively amusing. But even on a subjectivist picture, it should be familiar that sometimes we judge something to be funny (or disgusting, or shameful, scary) without ourselves feeling the associated emotion (amusement, disgust, shame, fear). We can also feel the associated emotion (say, fear) without making the judgment that something is scary.

    If this is true, than even on a subjectivist picture it seems like a mistake to hear a joke, find oneself offended for moral reasons, and jump to the conclusion that "it wasn't funny." I won't argue if you say "I'm not amused," but since we use objectifying terminology I think we should use it in a pattern pretty much symmetrical with D'arms and Jacobsons framework (though I think their picture is more metaphorical than actually true).

    If one wanted to do away with all objectifying language, then the problem evaporates. A pure subjectivist could just jettison all claims of things being funny or disgusting, etc. This way one could not possibly breach the moralistic fallacy. But if you go for that kind of objective language, you're participating in a social language game, and I think the moralistic fallacy breaks the rules of that game. I'll wager that we all play that game even if we don't believe in "the disgusting" or "the amusing"

  8. You really think that we can judge something to be discusting or frightening without experiencing that emotion at least a little? That sounds odd to me.

  9. My claim is that the judgment CAN come apart from the emotion, and yes I think this is possible, even if it's rare. People who believe in objective properties of "funny" and "fearsome" and "disgusting" certainly claim this all the time, and while I may disagree with them of the actual existence of the properties, I don't think that they're conceptually confused.

    Think of a joke that once made you laugh, but after the fifth telling, loses its luster. A strict subjectivist should say "it used to amuse me and doesn't anymore." If you go in for objectifying language (as I do, even if I think it's mostly metaphorical) you could say "it used to be funny, but it isn't anymore," but I think it's a bit more natural to say that it's still a funny joke, it just doesn't amuse me anymore.

    Anyone who uses this objective language would have to explain themselves if they denied that the judgment could come apart from their sentiment. Why would something actually being disgusting depend on my particular response to it? I think you should hold that it wasn't disgusting to begin with (it just disgusted you) or it could be disgusting even if you weren't disgusted (say, if it seems to disgust everyone else)

  10. I think that your last paragraph is just right. When I utter the sentence "That is disgusting." I really mean "That is disgusting to me right now." If I become inured to the "disgusting factor" of something then when you say "That's disgusting!" I can say "I know" but what I mean is that I recognize the reason that you are disgusted because I was once disgusted by it. (The same holds for the joke example I think.)

    The objective usage of words like disgusting and funny just doesn't seem valid to me. Would you say that someone who saw kittens cleaning each other in a meadow and said "That's disgusting!" was just wrong? Surely that's not true. You might disagree with them because you experience it as a "cute thing that kittens do," but would you say that they have somehow misapprehended the objective cuteness of the scene?