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Dr. John Capps, Rochester Institute of Technology - What Jokes Say About Society


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. John Capps of the Rochester Institute of Technology looks at what the jokes we find funny reveal about our values.

Dr. John Capps is an associate professor of philosophy and senior associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology where his research focuses on issues within epistemology and the philosophy of science. He is co-author, with his father, Donald Capps, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, of You've Got to Be Kidding!: How Jokes Can Help You Think.

About Dr. Capps

Dr. John Capps - What Jokes Say About Society

Often what makes a joke funny is that someone does something that's really irrational, and once we put our finger on what that is, we can try to avoid making the same mistake. In real life, no one wants to be the butt of a joke.

You've probably all heard the one about the lawyer who's defending a man a man who's killed his own parents and so the lawyer begs for mercy, and the lawyer says, "Your honor, may I remind you that this poor fellow is an orphan?" Well, what's irrational here is that the lawyer is making what philosophers call an "appeal to pity." It doesn't matter that the man is an orphan because, after all, he's the one responsible for it. But more generally, we need to be careful that we don't let our feelings get in the way of both thinking clearly and doing the right thing. And this joke is a pretty vivid way of making that point.

Also, when we laugh at jokes it shows that we have a lot in common, that we agree that some things are just true or false, or rational or not. So jokes can be important social glue, reminding us of things we all agree on. So there's the one about the new mother, and she can't sleep and she goes to the doctor and she tells him she's worried. She's worried she won't hear if her baby falls out of the crib and she asks what she should do. And the doctor says, "Easy, just take out the carpeting." Now that's kind of a funny joke because we all know that what the doctor is saying is so deeply immoral and unprofessional and so it reminds us that we really do agree on lots of things.

So jokes say a lot about us: they highlight our standards of rationality and morality, and they can function as a sort of social glue. Aristotle said that humans are rational animals, but you could also say that humans are joking animals, and it would mean about the same thing.

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