February 25, 2014
Ethics and Humor
The posting by Kate Hansen, US Olympic luger, of a video showing what appeared to be a wolf wandering around in the Olympic village went viral and was viewed by close to 2 million times in less than two days.
It was the perfect story. After tales of bathroom design errors, questionable drinking water and stray dogs disappearing, what could be more believable than a lone wolf wandering around the sleeping quarters of American athletes in the Olympic Village?
Many in the media and the public fell for it.
Most found it a harmless amusing prank, some took objection to it.
Jack Marshall, ethicist, lawyer and president of ProEthics Ltd. writes in his blog post, Another Day, Another Web Hoax: The Web Hoax Scale: “It took up thousands of valuable minutes of news broadcasts throughout yesterday which could have been used productively to educate the public about all manner of things they actually need to know about.” He goes further and says: “It made the media a party to a lie. It doesn’t matter about what. It’s a lie.”
Pranks, by definition are deceptive. Deception, also by definition, is unethical.
Is there room for a compromise?
I certainly hope so.
Humor is ubiquitous in our society and culture. Henri Bergson, the French philosopher says that laughter is what makes us human. In his book Laughter-An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, published in 1900, he writes that: “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human.” I guess he must be right. We have yet to find a mammal that laughs at a joke!
Psychologists tell us that laughter (especially about ourselves) is healthy for our psyche. Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D. in development psychologist and a pioneer in humor research says: ”Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.”
Yet, from an ethical point of view, there are lines not to cross in humor.
I believe the essential criteria that determine what is acceptable and what is not is whether our humor is harmful or demeaning to others. As an example, we should never make fun of someone else’s infirmity, unfavorable situation or conditions.
The American author and journalist Christopher Morley wrote:
“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”