Humour as Motivation

Some people think that seeing that action x is right is ipso facto motivation to do x. Of course there are caveats needed. The motivation may be overridden by other things. If you’re depressed, or otherwise practically irrational, there might be moral opinions without motivation. And really the picture is more plausible in the negative case – seeing that something is bad is motivation not to do it. It’s kinda rare I think that there’s exactly one right thing to do, so the motivational force of seeing that some action is among the morally good actions is not that motivating. Seeing that something you’d otherwise be motivated to do is immoral, however, might have more motivational force.

Even with all the caveats, the idea that there is an internal connection between moral opinions and motivation is contentious. But I want to (for now) take that internal connection for granted and see how far we can extend it. In particular, I’m interested in the following question: for which positive evaluative features is there an internal connection between seeing something has the feature and being motivated a certain way?

Modulo some worries about just what doxastic action amounts to, epistemic properties seem to produce clear cases of this. There is an internal connection (modulo kinds of irrationality) between seeing that it would be irrational to believe p and being motivated to not believe p. One doesn’t have to be independently motivated to be epistemically rational in order to be moved away from belief that p by seeing that belief that p in your situation would be irrational. Rather, it’s constitutive of rationality that to believe that believing p is irrational provides motivating reason to not believe p. So this is a nice paradigm of the kind of internal connection we’re talking about.

What, then, about the broadly aesthetic virtues? In particular, is it the case that seeing that it would be funny to phi is in itself motivation to phi for the practically rational? Certainly seeing that it would be funny to phi is often correlated with motivation to phi in practically rational people. But perhaps this is because those people have a standing desire to do what is funny, and it is this desire, coupled with the belief that it would be funny to phi, that produces the motivation.

(At least I think there’s a correlation here. Daniel Nolan suggested that really what happens is that seeing it would be funny to phi leads (perhaps internally) to being motivated to get someone else to phi. I think we need a large research grant to check just what the facts are here.)

I’ve been asking a few people about this over recent weeks, and the (tounge-in-cheek?) answer is normally that there is an internal connection. But it would be nice to have arguments to this effect, or to the opposite effect. Taking the arguments from the moral case and changing a few words has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, so let’s try that.

Michael Smith (well really Michael Smith’s counterpart in meta-aesthetics, but it’s funnier in the untrue version) argues that if we don’t posit an internal connection, then we’ll have to say that genuinely funny people are humour fetishists. They just do funny things because they have a de dicto desire to do what is funny. But that’s implausible, because truly funny people are at most motivated by a de re desire to do what is funny. That is, they are motivated to do each funny thing that becomes available, not to do the humourous whatever that turns out to be.

For the other side, David Brink (again really his counterpart Brink*) brings up the case of the ahumourist, the person who sees that certain actions are funny but simply doesn’t feel any motivational force towards doing them. This is not because she is depressed, or practically irrational, she just isn’t moved by comedic considerations. The standard response to Brink*, which seems right to me, is that the ahumourist doesn’t really see that actions are funny, but merely that they satisfy “funny”.

There’s a danger this post is outstaying its welcome, so let me just note the three ideas I had for how to make a paper out of this question.

First, I could do what I’ve been doing so far and see how the arguments from the moral internalism/externalism debate work when transposed into the key of funny. The motivation wouldn’t be to understand humour, but to get a better insight into the workings (and strengths) of those arguments.

Second, I could do just that but really with the intent of working out whether internalism about the comedic (or the beautiful) is plausible. That seems like an interesting question to me, though perhaps not to anyone else. (There’s a certain conception of philosophy on which meta-aesthetics is absolutely central, since it requires discussion of normativity, intentionality and modality, the three central issues in philosophy. The fact that there aren’t many meta-aestheticians in top philosophy programs does undermine this conception of philosophy just a little bit.)

Third, I could try writing up the internalism/externalism about the comedic debate just for laughs. When I started thinking about this that was certainly the plan, though I’m now thinking the question deserves a little more serious thought than that.

(Thanks to Daniel Nolan and Ralph Wedgwood for helpful suggestions about this, neither of whom should be held responsible for the resulting insane proposals.)

10 Replies to “Humour as Motivation”

  1. I completely agree with you about the concepts of epistemic evaluation (like ‘rational belief’, ‘justified belief’, etc.): necessarily, any rational thinker who believes ‘It would be irrational for me not to believe p’ will also believe p (although I would only accept this as a claim about the concepts of epistemic evaluation, not as a claim about the properties or relations that those concepts stand for).

    (I’d also be willing to argue that every thinker must have at least some general disposition to comply with the requirements of rationality that apply to them. So I’d also be willing to argue that every thinker who believes anything of the form ‘It would be irrational for me to believe p’ must have at least a general disposition to believe whatever they believe themselves to be rationally required to believe.)

    There is an analogy with the aesthetic concepts, like ‘funny’, I think. But it’s not a direct analogy, because whereas it is possible to reason our way into beliefs and intentions, it is not possible to reason our way into being amused by things (the attitude of amusement can’t the conclusion of any process of reasoning, in the way that a belief or an intention can).

    The analogy, I think, is this: it is constitutive of the concept ‘funny’ that the canonical way of coming rationally to believe that something is funny is by basing your belief that it is funny on your being disposed to be amused by it. In general, I think it is a constitutive feature of every aesthetic concept F that the canonical way of coming rationally to believe something of the form ‘x is F’ is by basing that belief on one’s being disposed to have the appropriate sort of aesthetic attitude towards x. (It is also a constitutive feature of the concept ‘funny’, I think, that if you believe ‘x is funny’, that commits you to thinking that it is appropriate to be amused by x.)

    Most of us in fact base our beliefs about what is funny directly on our attitudes of amusement. But I think that there could be cases where thinkers rationally base their beliefs about what is funny on their disposition to be amused, even if that disposition isn’t actually manifested. This was the point of my story about Alice and the Three Queens.

    Alice, who is a normal Oxford 10-year-old after all (even after she goes through the Looking Glass), bases her beliefs about what is funny directly on her attitudes of amusement. The White Queen, who has absolutely no disposition to experience amusement on any occasion whatsoever, simply cannot possess the concept ‘funny’ at all (no more than a congenitally blind person can possess the concept ‘red’ — at least not the concept that I possess and express by that word).

    The Red Queen and the Trojan Queen both have the disposition to be amused by things; but the Red Queen always stifles her disposition to be amused by anything (because she disapproves of all humour as disgraceful frivolity), and the Trojan Queen’s disposition to be amused (e.g. by her murderous captors’ jokes) is blocked or inhibited by her overwhelming grief. Both the Red Queen and the Trojan Queen can possess the concept ‘funny’, I think. The difference between them is that the Red Queen may think that it is never appropriate to be amused, in which case she would be committed to thinking that (strictly speaking) absolutely nothing is funny, whereas the Trojan Queen may continue to believe that things are funny even though they don’t amuse her.

  2. The analogy between humor and morality breaks down at a crucial point, with the consequence that the fetishism claim doesn’t get a grip on the humor case. Right now, given your motivational set, you’re motivated to right a funny paper. You’re not motivated by the de re content of the jokes; its funniness you’re after. Its plausible to think that morality is not like that; practically rational people aren’t motivated to phi because it is de dicto moral. Given you’re attracted to your third option, you need to rethink the analogy.

  3. That’s an important point that we can’t really reason our way to aesthetic conclusions. (If the joke has to be explained etc etc.) In this context it means, at the very least, that we can’t use Smith’s analogy of the person changing their mind about who to vote for to illustrate fetishism.

    And I agree too that the reductio ad comic fetishism doesn’t really work, for comic fetishism isn’t too bad. But…

    It’s not ever so obvious that moral fetishism is as bad as Smith says either. (I thought Halvard Lillehammer’s discussion in Analysis of this point was fairly persuasive.)

    And, to really try and drive home the analogy, it isn’t clear what Smith thinks the good agent is doing when she tries to figure out what the right thing to do is. Sometimes it takes work to figure out what one should do, and not just because of questions of application. And sometimes good agents take this effort. What could be motivating them, if not a desire for the good as such? What’s relevant here, and in the case of working on jokes, is that even the Smithian internalist has to allow that when you know you don’t know how to be good (funny) then being motivated by a de dicto desire to do the right (funny) thing can be appropriate. I assume this point is made somewhere in the literature (I haven’t really followed most of the commentaries on Michael’s book) but it seems like a nice way of drawing it out. (So he says trying to desperately save a flailing analogy.)

  4. Yes, I think Smith’s fetishism argument turns out in the end to be more or less hopeless. So I wasn’t really worrying that much about whether an analogue of that argument could be constructed with respect to the funny.

    For the record, I think that the biggest problem with Smith’s argument is this:

    1. Smith assumes that whenever one desire is explained by another mental state that can, even in an extremely capacious sense of the term, be called a “desire”, the former desire counts as a “derivative desire”. E.g. suppose that you have a general disposition to respond to your believing something of the form ‘The right thing for me to do is X’ by acquiring the corresponding desire to do X. Now, this disposition is quite different from an occurrent desire; it’s also quite different from the conscious plan ‘I will always do the right thing’. But still, in a sense, this disposition can be called a “desire” — a general “desire to do the right thing”. If, in addition, one is not guaranteed to have this (purely dispositional) desire by the mere fact that one believes that the right thing for one to do is X, then we must mention this disposition in explaining why your acquiring the belief ‘The right thing for me to do is to give at least 300 to Oxfam’ led to your acquiring the desire to give at least 300 to Oxfam. So if this is how you acquired the desire to give to Oxfam, the latter desire counts as a “derivative desire” in Smith’s sense.

    2. Smith also assumes that if your desire to give to Oxfam is in this sense a “derivative desire”, derived from a desire that can be ascribed by the de dicto ascription “You desire to always do the right thing”, then this would entail that you aren’t really concerned about the plight of impoverished people threatened by malnutrition for their sake, but fundamentally you are just narcissistically concerned with the morality of your own conduct.

    But if the only content of the notion of a “derivative desire” is that given by the first assumption (1), the second assumption (2) is simply not plausible. After all, alleviating the plight of those threatened by famine is the end that you are aiming at: it is the causal result that you are adjusting your actions to bring about (if you found out at the last minute that all of Oxfam’s funds were being diverted to enrich Bill Gates, you would switch to a different charity immediately). It may very well also be the case that you believe that what makes your action right is not any intrinsic feature of your action itself, but rather its causal consequences for the lives of the impoverished.

    In short, once we realize that the distinction between “derivative” and “non-derivative” desires does not line up with the distinctions (i) between what is aimed at as a means and what is aimed at as an end, or (ii) between what is regarded as having intrinsic value and what is regarded as having extrinsic value, the accusation of fetishism just loses plausibility.

  5. We do sometimes reason our way to a judgment of funniness. Imagine the eventual appreciation of a fairly complicated pun.

    I think this is a really interesting set of questions.

  6. In the cases that Jonathan is referring to, what I think we reason our way to is a belief about the linguistic (e.g. semantic, syntactic, phonological or pragmatic) features of the pun. Our attitude of amusement is a sort of emotional reaction to that belief. It’s surely not any kind of inference from our beliefs about the pun!

  7. Jay Wallace just gave a paper on the fetishism objection in Canberra. He compared it to sexual fetishism. The sexual fetishist invests an inappropriate object with an erotic charge – shoes, or whatever it may be (Karl Kraus: Pity the foot fetishist who is forced to settle for a whole woman). The obvious objection, if that’s the charge, is that there is no such thing as an erotic object, apart from people’s responses. In any case, Andy Egan pointed out that the analogy didn’t work. The moral fetishist doesn’t invest inappropriate objects with moral force. That kind of fetishism would be thinking that morality was concerned with height, or whatever. Instead, the moral fetishist is moved by the idea of the moral. The analogy in the realm of the erotic would be being turned on by the idea that something is sexual, rather than by its intrinsic properties. All this just to motivate Brian: erotic internalism is an even less explored region than aesthetic. You claim not to have a speciality – now’s the time to prove it.

    BTW, it certainly isn’t necessary to postulate a de dicto desire to be moral to explain moral deliberation. I might know that moral goods (de re) are at stake in a particular situation, but not know where my obligations lie.

  8. Jay Wallace gave the same talk in Oxford a few weeks ago. I thought that he was endorsing Smith’s argument that if I had a “non-derivative desire to do what is right”, then this desire would be “fetishistic”, because it would involve my treating something that has only extrinsic value (e.g. the outward behaviour that constitutes my actions) as though it had intrinsic value.

    This is why I thought that my reply would undermine the argument. (Having a “non-derivative desire” for something need not imply regarding it as having intrinsic value.) I also had the vague impression that he conceded that my objection undermined his argument, but obviously he was happy to restate the argument a few weeks later in Canberra. Probably he and I were both misinterpreting what the other was saying. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay as long as I would have liked to talk to him afterwards. Such is life, especially in Oxford…)

  9. Well, Jay said that he had completely rewritten the paper in the past few days, so it may be that he thought he had seen a way around your argument. I can’t do the paper justice, since I was very unwell at the time. Outside the context of Smith’s work, however, I don’t see the force of the objection. As you say, the desire to alleviate poverty is compatible with the desire to do the right thing (de dicto). But the claim in question (as I understand it) is that according to the externalist we don’t normally have a desire to alleviate poverty (or whatever), so all the work has to be done by the de dicto desire. Its not that we have a derived desire to do the right thing (de re), its that we don’t have such a de re desire at all. So there’s still room for a fetishism objection (though it may be that nothing counts as non-fetishistic, on this view, except a particularism which responds case-by-case).

  10. It seems like humor internalism has its psychology backwards. I recognize things as humorous because they amuse me. It never works the other way around. The mere fact that someone explains a joke correctly can’t compel me to find it so. I can’t truly judge something to be funny unless I feel the amusement. Otherwise, I’m just theorizing about what other people might find funny, or what might have been funny to me under counterfactual circumstances.

    Aesthetic and moral judgments are supposed to be universalizable, at least to some extent. If I judge that it is right to phi, I’m not only motivated to phi, also I’m motivated to endorse phi categorically. I can judge phi to be funny without thereby recommending it to anyone.

    For an interesting internalist account, “funny” can’t just mean “amusing to present company”, or “amusing to assessor X at time T.” Talking about judgments implies that there is a fact of the matter to be settled. We don’t ordinarily use “funny” as if we were picking out a class of objectively funny things. We accept that people’s assessments of humor will differ depending on their emotional state, their background knowledge, their idiosyncratic sensibilities, etc. Nobody says “That stand up comic was in fact funny, despite the fact that he didn’t amuse me, I just hadn’t had enough to drink yet.”

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