How being good is like being funny

(This is an updated version of my post Subjective Does Not Mean Trivial. I changed the title because it has become a bit broader.)

Those who believe that morality is objective often claim that a subjective account of morality  makes right and wrong trivial or without an adequate foundation, using phrases such as “makes right and wrong a popularity poll”, “reduces morality to a matter of opinion”, “what you ought to do is no more than a fashion”, “might is right” etc.  This small piece tries to show, by comparing morality with humour, how a subjective view of morality can also be one which makes morality important to us all, and provides us with justifications, arguments and foundations for our moral positions.

First l want to confirm what I mean by “objective”. I don’t think it is necessary to have a long and subtle debate about this. The truth or falsity of a statement is objective if it is independent of the opinions or reactions of the people involved. For example, the statement “there is currently life on the mars” is objective; whether there is life or not is independent of our opinion or reaction. It would be just as true or false if there were no people on earth to have opinions. On the other hand the statement “this book is interesting” is subjective. It is true or false in virtue of readers’ opinions.

Now consider an example of a subjective judgement “this film is funny”. In one context this might be completely trivial. Perhaps two friends who saw it on different occasions are discussing it over a meal. One found it funny. The other did not. That is the end of the story. Now put the same judgement in a different context. Perhaps it is a pair of producers deciding whether to invest in a new film and they are assessing the director’s previous work. They only want to invest in what they consider good films. The investor who found it funny might be deeply convinced that his partner doesn’t understand why the film is funny. If only he could show her, then she too would want to invest in this director. Conversely she thinks that he is seduced by the obvious jokes which are not really funny if you understand how obvious they are.

There are several key features of the second case.

1) This is no longer a trivial judgement. It is not just a matter of fashion or opinion. A major decision rides on the judgement. The judgement is inextricably tied to action. The issue cannot be avoided by saying it is only a matter of opinion.

2) It matters to both parties not only that their own assessment is right but that the other party makes the same assessment.

3) Both parties are able to produce arguments and evidence to support their position.

4) Both parties believe that if they could only get the argument right they could persuade their partner to see their point of view. They believe that their partner is deep down similar enough to them that they can be brought round to their way of thinking. This is the foundation for their judgement that something is funny.

I propose that moral judgements have these characteristics and it is these characteristics that give them an objective flavour.

1) Moral judgments are not trivial. If you judge using animals for experiments to be wrong you are making a commitment to prevent or discourage that activity. Moral judgements are tied to action.

2) If you judge something to be wrong it also matters to you that others agree and do not perpetuate that thing. Not only will you refrain from animal experiments. You want others to recognise that, and refrain as well, and for them to encourage others to refrain.

3) You can use logical arguments and evidence to support moral judgements e.g. what are the consequences of animal experiments? Is your position consistent with being a meat-eater?

4) If you think animal experiments are wrong then you believe that most, if not all, people would see things your way if only they knew all the facts and were not blinded by something such as prejudice or a desire for profit. This is the foundation for their opinion that animal experiments are wrong.

Thus in the right context a subjective issue can have all the importance of an objective issue and take on many of the characteristics of an objective issue. There is no need for an ultimate objective moral standard to have a reasoned debate about what is right and wrong – just as there is no need for an ultimate objective standard for what is funny to have a reasoned debate about what is funny.

An interesting objection is that a subjective account of morality implies that something that is morally wrong can become morally right simply by changing the majority opinion.  So if Stalin persuades enough people that mass starvation is right then a subjective account of morality would imply it is right.  The analogy with humour can throw light on this as well. If I claim that something is funny I don’t mean that most people find it funny. I might well describe something as funny that no one other then myself has witnessed or ever will witness (an incident at home perhaps).  I mean I believe it has (or had) the potential to make most people laugh based on my understanding of human nature. This is a claim that is true or false independently of the current state of human opinion which may or may not have realised that potential. For example, I believe that Hedda Gabler is a play with much humour. I think it has the potential, given the right information and a good performance, to make people laugh. I would guess most people who have heard of it would think that it is a play without humour because they have only seen poor productions of the play or other plays by Ibsen.  But that does not make my claim false – because to claim it is funny is not to claim that most people do in fact find it funny – only that it has that potential.  Similarly if I assert that animal experimentation is wrong I am not claiming that most people in fact find it wrong.  I am claiming that it has the potential for most people to disapprove of it.  The fact that most people do disapprove of it would be evidence for this, but it is not what is being claimed.


4 Responses to “How being good is like being funny”

  1. 1 kairosfocus December 11, 2010 at 12:17 pm


    Kindly compare response at UD, here. (And, I do believe MF is not currently in moderation, is that not so?)

    GEM of TKI

  2. 2 Mark Frank December 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm


    I apologise. For some reason WP took your comment as SPAM. Yes, as stated in my header I am no longer in moderation on UD and do not intend to put anyone in moderation on this blog.

  3. 3 Toronto December 12, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I see the term, “Morality is objective”, as all the license a group requires to allow itself and it’s followers to influence the behaviour of others.

    A “subjective moral code” is personal and out-of-reach to those groups and that’s why an absolute moral code is necessary.

    At UD, the issue of homosexuality is considered to be “bad behaviour” and therefore requires “correction”.

    To see it as anything else means the group’s prime mandate, the Bible, is wrong.

    By forcing gays through the use of church, family and social pressures, to marry heterosexuals is just setting up future disasters, for both the gay partner and the straight one.

    This makes “absolutely”, no sense.

    By letting gays marry each other, you will save many botched lives that living a lie causes.

    Nobody wins when groups force their views on individuals.

    There is no such thing as a “moral code” that exists outside of us.

    We define our morality from within ourselves and in concert with others at a peer level, not as subjects of a king.

  4. 4 Mark Frank December 14, 2010 at 5:50 pm


    I couldn’t agree more of course. This leads directly to a favourite theme of mine – the difference between “top-down” morality and “bottom-up”. Some people feel they know the rules and then apply them to our behaviour to determine what is right. If the rules end up leading to bizarre or upsetting consequences such as opposing contraception then so much the worse for the behaviour. A bottom-up approach treats ethical rules as descriptive not prescriptive. It is based on our human emotions such as passion, fair-play etc. We may study certain behaviours and ask ourselves why that seems right or wrong and work out rules to describe our reactions. But if the rule then contradicts our strong feelings about a situation then it is the rule that is wrong.

    Top-down ethics is not limited to religious movements. The same applies for example to interpreting Marxism to justify mass starvation or slaughter.

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