Morreall, John. "Humor and Freedom."

Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum 3rd ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen, eds. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1988. 361-71.

John Morreall (b. 1947) is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His academic interests include aesthetics and philosophical psychology, but his abiding interest lies in the philosophy of humor, a subject on which he has written two books: The Philosophy of Laughter and Humor and Taking Humor Seriously in which the following essay appears as Chapter 8 [in the book's 1st edition, State University of New York Press, copyright 1983].



(begins on page 361) Perhaps the easiest place to see the liberating effect of humor is in the political sphere. The person with a sense of humor can never be fully dominated, even by a government which imprisons him for his ability (page 362 begins here) to laugh at what is incongruous in the political situation will put him above it to some extent, and will preserve a measure of his freedom-if not of movement, at least of thought. As Lord Shaftesbury wrote, "the natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be burlesque, mimicry or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged on their constrainers . . . 'Tis the persecuting spirit has raised the bantering one."

It is because of the freedom of thought in humor; and indeed in aesthetic experience generally, that humorists and artists have traditionally been personae non gratae under rigidly controlled political regimes. In Plato's Republic, remember, the arts were to be suppressed, with rare exceptions like certain kinds of music useful in training the young. Laughter, too, Plato frowned upon as weakening the character and confusing the mind. The Soviets today, of course, keep tight controls on all the arts, making sure, as Plato advised, that they are permitted only where they can serve the purposes of the state. Humor, too, is controlled in the Soviet Union, at least to the extent that this is possible. Krokodil, the state journal of humor, was established by the Central Committee to carry out the following task: "By the weapon of satire, to expose the thieves of public property, grafters, bureaucrats, boastful snobs, subservient individuals and rottenness; to react to an international event promptly and to subject to criticism the bourgeois culture of the West, showing its ideological insignificance and decay." It is encouraging that the staff of Krokodil has sometimes gone beyond these announced goals, and on at least one occasion it has become necessary to replace the whole staff. Hitler was so wary of the danger of humor to the Third Reich that he had special "joke courts" set up for, among other things, punishing people who named their dogs and horses "Adolph." As Hermann Goering instructed the Academy of German Law, the telling of a joke could be an act against the Fuehrer, against the state, or even against the whole Nazi Weltanschauung.

A dictatorship requires simple blind obedience, preferably based on hero worship, but at least on fear, of the dictator. And the spirit of humor is incompatible with both hero worship and fear. Even the most powerful of rulers, as the old saying goes, puts on his pants one leg at a time. Political humor is important, of course, not only in resisting or coping under a dictatorship, but also in the day to day workings of a democracy. The relatively open spirit of American political life has in large part been due to our traditions of political cartooning and satire. And it has been when we were afraid to joke about the government, as in the McCarthy years, that we suffered most as a democratic people.

(page 363 begins here) Humor is liberating not only in the face of political constraints, but also with social mores. When we look at our own culture with a sense of humor, we see our customs, which we often take for granted as the natural way to do things, as just one possible way of doing things. Humor can even override moral constraints. The breaking of the rules may occur, as in jokes, merely in the imagination. Indeed, Freud thought that the main function of jokes was to allow us to express morally unacceptable desires. Or the spirit of humor may take the form of a carniva1, which in many cultures involves the suspension of moral rules, particularly those governing sexual conduct.

The freedom which humor brings extends even to the constraints of logic and reason itself. The philosopher Schopenhauer, burdened more than most people, perhaps, by the constraints of reason, suggested that humor amuses us because it violates what is supposed to be inviolable-the rational order of things. "It must therefore be diverting to us" he wrote, "to see that strict, untiring, troublesome governess, the reason, for once convicted of insufficiency." Lewis Carroll, the author of the Alice books and other marvellously [sic] absurd stories and poems, was in real life Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and logician; in his humorous writings he could revel in non sequiturs and other fallacies, could invent new words and change the meanings of words in midsentence, could do all the things that he was forbidden to do in his mathematical and logical work.

None of us would want to be permanent residents of a place like Wonderland. Nor would we want to give up our capacity for rational thought-without it we simply wouldn't be able to live as human beings. But we all need the occasional bout of irrationality and even silliness. If things get too understandable and too orderly, the novelty and surprise goes out of our experience; and then, even if things are going smoothly, life easily becomes "just one damn thing after another."

Another way of approaching the connection between humor and freedom is with the notion of distance mentioned earlier. When we find an incongruous situation funny, we are disengaged from doing anything in that situation. Consider the case . . . of someone groggily pouring the morning coffee over the cornflakes. The person who snaps to what he is doing and breaks into laughter is for the moment detached from his action of making breakfast; he has stepped back from what he has done to enjoy its bumbling absurdity. The person who gets upset in this situation, on the other hand, who curses because of the ruined cornflakes, wasted coffee, and lost time, has not gotten any distance from the practical situation, but is still making breakfast.

Humor is valuable in giving us distance and perspective not only in situations where we are failing, but also in situations where we (page 364 begins here) are succeeding. Reaching the goals we set for ourselves can often blind us to the necessity of evaluating those goals. But approaching our successes with a sense of humor keeps alive the critical spirit, and prevents us from overrating our achievements and getting an inflated sense of our own importance.

Now some incongruous situations are just too heavy with practical consequences for most people to find funny while they are in those situations, though, as we have noted, in retrospect they may seem funny. But the more well developed a person's sense of humor, the wider the range of situations in which he can achieve the necessary distance to laugh. The spirit of humor, as Stephen Leacock put it, "views life, even life now, in as soft a light as we view the past."

To the extent that we can achieve this distance from the practical side of any situation, we are free from being dominated by that situation. In some cases, such as during wartime, humor can become almost a prerequisite of survival. Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and Dachau and later came to incorporate humor into his psychotherapeutic techniques, said of the concentration camps: "Unexpectedly most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew we had nothing to lose except our ridiculously naked lives. . . . Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. . . . Humor more than anything else in the human make-up can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, if only for a few seconds."

Hospitals are another place where the distance provided by humor has a beneficial effect. If looked at from a practical point of view, the emergency room might seem a necessarily grim place, where there would be nothing to laugh about. But in fact this is not the case. In a paper presented at the Second International Conference on Humor, Drs. Douglas Lindsey and James Benjamin explained how humor is indispensable in the emergency room. By distancing themselves through humor from the gravity of the life and death situations they're in, physicians are able to preserve their sanity and to allow their medical skills to operate at peak efficiency. "The efficacy of humor in the emergency room is simply stated: it keeps us going." Diseases are given nicknames - spinal meningitis may be called "smilin' mighty Jesus," or uterine fibroids "King Neptune's fireballs." Most often the joking will be between physicians, but sometimes it may be appropriate for the doctor to joke with the patient. And sometimes humor will arise unintentionally in the treatment of the patient. Dr. Lindsey cites such a case:

. . . the young man (was) brought in with a bullet hole over his heart, (was) admitted in coma, and promptly died. I picked up a scalpel, opened his chest from here to here, put my finger over (page 365 begins here) the hole, and squeezed his heart a few times. It started. So off we go to the operating room, with me walking along one hand in the chest. On the way he woke up, raised his head to see what was going on, comprehended what he saw, and made a remark of high pertinence: "My blood type is A positive." Whereupon the efficient nurse broke in with: "Hey, Jack, before you go back to sleep would you sign the operative permit?" Which he did. In medical circles this is known as "informed consent."

If humor involves a distancing from life's troubles, then perhaps the highest form of this "stepping back" is gallows humor, in which a person is able to achieve enough distance from his own situation of impending death to joke about it. When most states still had the death penalty, a prison warden told of one man who had spent his last dollar on legal advice and law books, in the hope of finding some loophole to save him from being executed. When all his efforts had failed and he was being led out of his cell to face the electric chair, he gave the warden instructions for disposing of his few remaining possessions. "And give those law books to somebody who needs 'em," he said, "give, 'em to my lawyer."

The humorous attitude now begins to sound like what has traditionally been called the "philosophical attitude," and indeed the comparison is enlightening. The person who looks at his life philosophically does not let his emotions color his view; he is distanced, as we have been saying, from the practical aspects of his situation. And this calmness makes his assessment of his situation more objective, more like that of an unbiased observer. In both respects the humorous attitude is like the philosophical: the person who can appreciate the humor in his own situation is liberated from the dominance of his emotions, and so he has a more objective view of himself.

When the person with a sense of humor laughs in the face of his own failure, he is showing that his perspective transcends the particular situation he's in, and that he does not have an egocentric, overly precious view of his own endeavors. This is not to say that he lacks self-esteem-quite the contrary. It is because he feels good about himself at a fundamental level that this or that setback is not threatening to him. The person without real self-esteem, on the other hand, who is unsure of his own worth, tends to invest his whole sense of himself in each of his projects. Whether he fails or succeeds, he is not likely to see things in an objective way; because his ego rides on each of the goals he sets for himself, any failure will constitute personal defeat and any success personal triumph. He simply cannot afford to laugh at himself, whatever happens. So having a sense of humor about oneself is psychologically healthy. As A. Penjon so nicely said, it (page 366 begins here) "frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism on the other by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us."

Humor, then, is not only valuable in human life, but valuable in a way nothing else is. Indeed, I think it no exaggeration to claim that humor is essential to maintaining a healthy outlook on things.

People with severe mental problems usually lack a sense of humor, and, we should note, a capacity for aesthetic experience generally, because they cannot achieve any distance from the immediate practical concerns of the situation they're in. An extremely paranoid person, for example, might not find even [the practical joke of someone's placing a] bowling ball in the refrigerator funny, because he might see it as part of an elaborate plot against him. Someone who views everything as having a practical relationship to himself will not be able to view things from any distance, and thus will not be able to enjoy anything simply as funny. This lack of a capacity for distance often shows up, too, in a person's inability to pretend that the world is other than as he perceives it, or even to imagine it as other than he perceives it. When a schizophrenic is asked, "What would you do if you had wings?" the typical reply is, "But I don't have wings." For such a person there is no possibility of looking at things as other than as they now seem to be; much like an animal, he is trapped in the world as he actually perceives it. And with this loss of the freedom of imagination there is a loss of capacity for humor and for aesthetic experience generally.

When people are working through their mental problems it is a good sign when they become able to laugh about their situation, because this shows that they are now able to look at their problems from a distance instead of from a position locked inside those problems. To the extent that we can laugh about something we have achieved a measure of objectivity about it, and this change of stance makes a big difference in the way we see things. Some psychiatrists have even developed therapeutic techniques based on this insight. One of these, Viktor Frankl calls "paradoxical therapy." When a patient is overwhelmed by some problem so that he cannot get an objective view of it, Frankl tries to exaggerate the problem in the patient's eyes to the point where it seems funny to him. If the person is feeling anxious about something, for example, Frankl will tell him that of course his anxiety is well-founded-in fact, things are far worse than he thought. The repetition of such hyperbole eventually makes the person laugh at the situation that had provoked his anxiety; in so doing he gets some distance on his problem and can begin working toward a solution. Another psychiatrist who uses "paradoxical therapy" tells anxious patients to set aside a certain time of the day to be especially anxious. When that time comes and the person tries to (page367 begins here) be anxious, he feels silly, can't become anxious, and relaxes. This kind of treatment has been successful with a number of different problems, among them depression, insomnia, self-doubting, chronic complaining, sexual difficulties, jealousy, and fear.

(page 367 begins here)In this regard it is interesting to note that humor is one of the best weapons against the procedure known as "brainwashing." The person trying to brainwash another is essentially trying to take away that person's mental flexibility and capacity to think for himself, and implant in the person a single line of thought from which he will not deviate. But if the person can maintain his sense of humor, this will not happen. As psychiatrist William Sargent reported, based on his experience with people in concentration camps, if at any point in the brainwashing procedure the subject laughs, "the whole process is wrecked and must be begun all over again."

If, as I have been urging, humor plays a key role in "mental health," it is also important to physical health. Kant and others have suggested that the movements of the lungs and other internal organs in laughter are themselves beneficial, like a massage perhaps, and that the physical gratification we feel in laughing furthers our sense of bodily well-being. But the connection between humor and health runs far deeper than this. Medical research is finding more and more ways in which our thoughts, emotions, and general outlook on things influence organic processes throughout the body. The person who experiences a lot of frustration and stress on the job, as we all know, shows greater muscle tension, and often suffers from headaches, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Because humor allows us to cope better with stressful situations, it can markedly reduce tension and these other accompaniments of stress. The two emotions specifically associated with heart attacks-fear and anger-are incompatible with humor, as we have seen. And the person who has a sense of humor is not just more relaxed in the face of potentially stressful situations, but is more flexible in his approach to any situation. Even when there is not a lot going on in his environment, his imagination and innovativeness will help keep him out of a mental rut, will allow him to enjoy himself, and so will prevent boredom and depression. He will, in short, have greater internal resources for being happy than the person who lacks a sense of humor; and this is likely to manifest itself in greater physical well-being.

Though the medical benefits of humor are only now being studied in any detail, moreover, there are some interesting cases that suggest that humor is not only healthy, but has actual healing power. The most famous recent case is that of Norman Cousins, the former editor of Saturday Review. On returning from an exhausting trip to the Soviet Union in 1964, Cousins fell sick with a serious collagen disease-the connective tissue in his spine and joints was disintegrating. (page 368 begins here) The pain was intense and the prognosis discouraging; he was given only a l-in-500 chance of fully recovering. Indeed, he was told that the disease was potentially life-threatening.

Refusing to accept this grim prognosis, Cousins took charge of his own treatment. He remembered reading that imbalances in the endocrine system often contributed to arthritis and similar diseases, and that such imbalances could be caused by negative emotions, such as he had been feeling for some time. If negative emotions were in part behind his condition, he reasoned, then perhaps he could cure himself by changing things so that he felt positive emotions.

Cousins checked out of the hospital and into a hotel, where he began his own form of humor therapy. He surrounded himself with humor books, and from his friend Allen Funt, producer of the television program, "Candid Camera," he got some of that show's funniest segments. Within a short time he found that hearty laughter had an analgesic effect-ten minutes of it would allow him to sleep without pain for a few hours. When he awoke and felt pain again, he turned the films back on. After a week of this therapy, he found that he could move his thumbs without pain. And as the weeks went by, his condition improved further; his doctors found that the connective tissue in his joints was regenerating. A short time later he was able to go back to work full time, and though it took years for his condition to fully reverse itself, he knew that, thanks to his humor therapy, he was recovering.

Researchers have begun to study other possible ways in which a sense of humor contributes to one's health. It may well be, for example, that people with a better sense of humor tend to live longer. But whatever details we discover in years to come, I think that it is incontrovertible that humor has psychological and physical benefits that make it an important part of our lives. Wittgenstein said that "the world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man." (Tractatus 6.43.) Somewhat less elegantly, I think we can say that the world of the person with a sense of humor is a different world from that of the person without one.

All our talk of the benefits of humor may have made it sound as though humor is always a good thing, but [with] . . . cruel and derisive humor, this is not the case. Before ending this chapter, then, we might say something about ethical limitations on humor. And the notion of practical disengagement we have been using provides a helpful way of understanding these limitations.

To find some situation funny, as we have seen, is to enjoy the incongruity in it. And to enjoy the incongruity in a situation, we need to be without urgent practical concerns; we need to be practically disengaged from what is taking place. If we see a situation as incongruous but also as dangerous to us, then we won't be amused; (page 369 begins here) instead we'll be concerned with the practical aspects of the situation, and we may well feel fear. Instead of enjoying the situation, we'll be thinking of ways to escape it. Similarly, if an incongruous situation involves another person's suffering, we may feel pity and not amusement; instead of enjoying the situation we may be thinking of ways to alleviate the suffering. So too, anger, resentment, and other negative emotions can block our enjoyment of an incongruous situation and lead us to act to change or escape that situation instead.

Now if we ask what kinds of situations people are in fact capable of finding humorous, I think the answer is that any incongruity whatever might amuse someone. As history shows, even the most horrible disasters and atrocities have amused at least a few people. But if we adopt a moral point of view and ask what kinds of situations people should be able to find funny, we will rule out in the answer those situations which people should not, as moral agents, be able to disengage themselves practically from and simply enjoy.

The most common kind of morally inappropriate humor is probably that in which someone laughs at another's misfortune, when that misfortune is so great that it should evoke the laugher's sympathy and practical concern instead. If you have bumped your head very lightly on a door, say, I may find that amusing, and indeed you may laugh yourself. But if you have been struck by a car, then I should not be able to get sufficient distance from your injury and suffering to laugh. This kind of incongruity should instead engage my practical concern: I should feel sympathy and be thinking of ways to help you. To laugh in such a situation would be to show a callousness that was morally reprehensible. It is this moral insight that is behind the traditional maxim of Aristotle, Cicero, and others, that we laugh only at the minor misfortunes of others. As a claim about what people do in fact laugh at, it is false. But as a prescription for what they should not laugh at, it is sound.

In creating humor, too, it is morally acceptable to cause minor inconvenience or discomfort for the sake of a laugh, but not major inconvenience or intense pain. In playing practical jokes for example, a safe rule of thumb is that the person who is on the receiving end of the joke should be able to laugh too. A flower that squirts water is acceptable; one that squirted sulfuric acid would not be.

Now someone might be prepared to accept my idea of an ethically objectionable practical joke here but not my idea that being amused can sometimes be morally objectionable. In playing a practical joke, after all, we are doing something, and we are morally responsible for our actions, here actions that cause needless suffering or inconvenience. But in being amused we are not doing anything. Amusement, like other forms of enjoyment and like emotions, it can be argued, is an involuntary response to a situation, something that (page 370 begins here) happens to us rather than something which we do. Can we be any more morally responsible for our amusement than for, say, our enjoying the taste of avocado or our feeling fear?

The claim here that amusement is not an action is, of course, beyond challenge. But it does not follow that we can not be morally responsible for our amusement. Though not an action, amusement is often under our control, and we can justifiably be held responsible for what we can control. In this respect amusement is like emotions, which, though they are not actions, are sometimes under our control, and so sometimes among the things for which we can be held responsible. We are sometimes blamed for feeling anger, for example, in appropriate circumstances- not just for expressing our anger in actions but for allowing ourselves to "get so worked up over such a little thing." And such blame is appropriate if we could have prevented our anger by some action, such as leaving the situation or counting aloud to ten, or by some non-behavioral means such as reasoning with ourselves. Other negative emotions like hatred, resentment, and jealousy, can be controlled in similar ways.

Our ability to control our emotions goes beyond our minimizing or preventing inappropriate emotions, furthermore; sometimes we can bring about emotions appropriate to a particular situation. Pity is a good example here, and the one most relevant to our discussion of controlling amusement. If we witness someone's suffering and yet find ourselves initially unmoved by it, we may recognize that something is amiss. Here we may create sympathy and pity in ourselves by focusing our attention on the details of the person's suffering and its undeserved nature, perhaps comparing it to suffering we have experienced, and even talking out the situation with ourselves.

We control amusement in much the same way we control emotions. This control will often involve both the creation of pity and the prevention of enjoyment of the incongruity involved; indeed the two go hand in hand. If we are in a situation where there is an incongruity involving great suffering, and we find ourselves beginning to be amused, we might block this callous amusement by directing our thoughts to the suffering involved so that we feel pity instead of amusement for what has happened to the person. Sometimes, of course, we will not have this control over our amusement; but even then, we may be able to suppress the expression of our amusement, or if necessary, even leave the situation so that our insensitivity won't aggravate the person's suffering.

None of what has been said here should be taken to imply that it is always wrong to enjoy or even to instigate humor that offends people. While we should not hurt innocent people with our humor, some people, such as dictators, have no claim on us not to joke about them or engage in outright ridicule. Jokes about Hitler, for example, (page 371 begins here) gave those he was oppressing some feeling of freedom and kept alive a morally praiseworthy resistance to his regime. On a smaller scale, we might use humor to embarrass a person who is acting out of bigotry, in order to wake him up to what he is doing, and to give support to the people he is mistreating.

So far we have been considering the ethical dimensions of enjoying incongruity in certain situations where suffering is involved; but the topic of ridicule reminds us that sometimes our laughter expresses both our enjoyment of some incongruity and also our enjoyment of another's suffering, failure, or debasement itself, as in hostile or cruel humor. As we saw earlier, though, the latter kind of enjoyment is not essential to humor, nor is it found only in humor. We may enjoy incongruity by itself, that is, and we may enjoy another's suffering, failure, or debasement by itself. (Where there is no enjoyment of incongruity, as in pure scorn or cruelty, there is not humor, even if there is laughter.) An ethical examination of cases of humor which involve this kind of enjoyment not essential to humor, would involve a broader treatment of the enjoyment of other people's misfortune generally. Such an examination is beyond the scope of our present discussion: we might say here simply that cases of humor involving scorn, hostility, and cruelty, would come under an ethics of scorn, hostility, and cruelty generally. Where it is ethically objectionable in general to allow ourselves to enjoy another's suffering, failure, or debasement, it is ethically objectionable to allow ourselves to enjoy such things along with the enjoyment of incongruity.

I have been discussing the moral appropriateness of laughing at another person's situation, but before closing this discussion of the ethics of humor, I should add that it can also be morally inappropriate to laugh about one's own situation, if by doing so we are detaching ourselves from our own moral responsibilities. The person who habitually drives while drunk, for example, may joke about not remembering how he got home, or even about near accidents, as a way of not facing the wrongness of his actions and his need to change. The principle here is the same as before: there are some things we should not disengage ourselves from. If a situation requires our concern and action, we should not treat that situation as humorous as a way of shirking our moral responsibilities.

Humor, then, is a powerful force for liberation in our lives, and is clearly a boon to the human race. Indeed, the person who shares humor with others, especially in times of trouble, can be looked upon as a doer of good works. But as we have seen, there are times when humor can disengage us from what should be our moral concerns, and then it is not appropriate. To be able to stand back and laugh at things is one of the most valuable traits of our species; still, this is not a proper reaction in every situation.


Questions and Ideas to Ponder Regarding Morreall's Article

  1. What does Shaftesbury (paragraph 1) mean by saying, "'Tis the persecuting spirit has raised the bantering one"? Shouldn't his parents have known what an embarrassing name he was given?
  2. According to Morreall, when did American humor and democracy suffer most? Why?
  3. What are the purposes of the Soviet magazine Krokodil? With the views of what ancient philosopher is its program similar? After considering #2 above, what does this tell you about blind, jingoistic patriotism?
  4. What is gallows humor? Does it offer more freedom than choosing which tree they'll hang you from?
  5. In what sense does Morreall compare lacking a sense of humor to being like an animal?
  6. Morreall writes that "a person's ability to laugh at what is incongruous in the political situation will put him above it, to a certain extent." What do you think he means by "put him above it," here? In what ways is this distinction meaningful with respect to a person's place in relation to his or her government or dominant religion?
  7. It would seem that not all humor reflects freedom of thought. Cite examples of humor - jokes, situations in movies, behavior of friends - that rely on clichés and conventional thinking. How can humor also reflect the workings of a mind that is not free?
  8. Morreall draws a distinction between ethical and unethical humor. Recall a situation in which someone made a joke or comment that was uncalled for. How did people react to the remark? Use Morreall's distinctions to guide your analysis.
  9. Consider a movie you've seen recently or a story you've read in which humor is associated with freedom of thought - freedom particularly in the sense of violating accepted constraints of morality or logic.
  10. Consider several examples of gallows humor. Do you find such humor sick? So what?

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