Funny, right?: Prof. Noel Carroll speaks on morality and humor as Undergraduate Philosophy Conference keynote

On Friday, April 26, students from all over the country filed into Trimble Forum to kick off Puget Sound’s second Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. Noel Carroll, professor of philosophy at CUNY graduate center and one of the leading contemporary philosophers of art, presented a lecture on his upcoming book, The Philosophy of Humor: An Introduction for the keynote address.

“We had the first conference last year and it turned out to be a great success so we decided to have another one this year,” Professor Ariela Tubert of the Philosophy Department said.

Though perhaps not well known on campus, the Philosophy Conference is a unique collaboration between Puget Sound’s Philosophy Department and Philosophy Club that brings students together from all over the country to share their work with each other and receive feedback.

This year, Puget Sound sent out a call for student papers and received 40 submissions. A board of students read the papers anonymously and selected eight to be presented at the conference.

On Friday afternoon and throughout the day on Saturday, April 27, students hailing from everywhere from the Pacific Northwest to Brazil stood before an audience of their peers and presented their papers. Each presentation was commented on by a philosophy student from Puget Sound.

Presentation topics were incredibly varied, ranging from “Distribution, Oppression and Empowerment in Relation to the Suicide Crisis in the Global South,” presented by Travis Dandy from the University of Oregon, to “Knowing That One Knows,” presented by Aaron Segal from the University of Chicago.

Professor Paul Loeb has been teaching Carroll’s work in his classes for about 10 years. Loeb said that Carroll is considered a leading figure in philosophy because he “helped to turn the direction of film studies away from what had been the major influence.”

Previously, Loeb said, “There was a lot of mystification going on,” with little analysis of the details of how films affect people. Loeb said that Carroll was instrumental in helping to create the “vibrant, rich and fertile film studies research program in America.”

Loeb’s reverence for Carroll was apparent, and he said that Carroll’s methods of evaluating films seep into every movie he watches. “What I find myself thinking a lot when I’m watching movies is, ‘Get out of my head, Noel Carroll!’”  Loeb said.

However, in his lecture, Carroll did not speak about films. He covered a topic that is even more ingrained in everyday life: humor. It is hard to deny that many jokes are offensive to either an individual or a group of individuals. Carroll asked whether or not these jokes are moral.

“In recent years the discussion of the ethics of humor has become increasingly prominent, perhaps as a reflection of the ties of political correctness in the larger culture,” Carroll said.

He explored the morality of humor through three lenses, the last of which he defended. Through the first lens, “comic amoralism,” comedy is a “domain where morality has no purchase,” and humor is beyond good or evil.

The second view, which Carroll called “comic ethicism,” encompasses a delicate balance between the immoral aspects of a joke and the cleverness of a joke. If a joke is funny, it is funny because its cleverness outweighs its immorality; if the immoral aspects outweigh its cleverness, the joke is not actually funny.

Carroll said of “moderate comic moralism” (his favored stance) that “sometimes the immorality of a joke or humor-token can render its telling unfunny, or, at least, unfunnier.”

Carroll explained these points by telling several jokes and dissecting them. Many of these jokes elicited genuine laughter from the audience, but the nature of Carroll’s speech prompted audience members to then evaluate the morality of the joke they just heard.

Audience members found themselves asking questions. Was that joke moral? Why did I laugh? In this way, Carroll did for the Philosophy Conference students what he did for Loeb with his writings on film: he got into their heads.