I.  Introduction

        In response to the question “Is the telling of rape jokes morally problematic” we will argue that while rape jokes are morally problematic the use of them can be morally permissible. First we will argue that the central moral dimension of this case concerns humor and its application specifically to rape jokes in modern culture. Second, we will argue (from a form of utilitarian perspective) that while rape jokes are often tasteless and offensive, they can aim produce the greatest level of happiness even when they include sexual violence.  And lastly, we will carefully consider and respond to several relevant objections to our arguments and in the process clarify our answer.

II. Identification of the Central Moral Dimension(s) of the Case Study

        Before anything can be discussed we must first define the subject which we intend to base our decisions on. The most important aspect of this case is the concept of humor, as it applies to social and societal interactions.        

III. Arguments that Justify Position Regarding the Central Moral Dimension(s)


There are two applicable theories of humor; submitted by Hobbes is Superiority theory, which would propose that we laugh (a response to humor) at the things we feel superior to. When faced with an incongruity we evaluate it as it relates to ourselves. Things that we personally deem a threat we do not view as funny. Things we are not personally threatened by we find to be humorous.

        The other is called Relief theory, the most recent definition of which includes a nod to evolutionary psychology in that we laugh at things that we personally perceive as non-threating and out of the ordinary. That we laugh more at things that involve any sort of sexuality or violence fits due to the way that sex and violence are both taboo subjects, so taboo that their discussion itself is considered out of the ordinary.

The most important thing about these humor theories is that they maintain a singular point of subjectivity. The recipients of the joke: They are the ones who judge the joke against their individual humor to determine the jokes value as it pertains to comedy. Regardless of what system of humor they use to determine their view, humor is in itself a personal experience and attitude.

Comedians make their living by appealing to what they consider to be humorous. Their job is to effectively appeal to the largest number of people, using theories of humor to provoke a response to the majority of their audience’s individual humor Rape jokes match these theories on  very specific levels.  

Superiority theory states that we laugh at things we perceive ourselves to not be threatened by. Rape is certainly a threatening idea, however where the jokes are told there is often a sense of safety. Hearing a rape joke in a prison would be considered foreshadowing and including of a threat. A rape joke told in the comfort of a comedy club, or surrounded by friends does not have the same environmental stimuli that would make the idea of rape at that moment threatening. The response is to laugh at something we feel we cannot be threatened by. Combined with relief theory, where an individual acknowledges that rape is violent, it is threatening and it is not going to happen to them where they are. It is certainly more rational to no longer view it as an active threat, and to express that relief through laugher.

The important aspects of the previous statements are as follows. Humor is an individual’s  experience and perception of a joke. For something to be humorous, it must be viewed by multiple people to fit their personal views of humor. The ways that individuals can find something to be in humor vary, and environment and history play a role in this. Because Humor is individualistic in nature, it is not universal, so appealing to the ideal of Humorous is the surest way to get a positive reaction. If you are NOT seeking a positive reaction, you are NOT being humorous. When a joke offends more than it causes humor it becomes a threat.

B)- guidelines using ethical theory for jokes.

Our claim for this case is that the telling of rape jokes is ethically acceptable in so much as the intention of the person telling the joke aims to increase the overall level of happiness through the use of humor.

        The ethical theory that we will be using is “Rule Utilitarianism.” Rule Utilitarianism is a theory that the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This would imply that the telling of a rape joke is morally acceptable in so much that it aims to produce the most amount of happiness for the most amount of people. In deciding whether or not a rape joke is morally permissible or impermissible the intent of the joke teller must be taken into consideration. If the individual telling the joke does not have the intent or is not aiming to produce the most happiness for the most people then the telling of that joke is morally impermissible.

The individual that posted the joke, “You know she’s playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway,” thought that it was humorous. We can reasonably derive that his intent was to share this joke in order to increase the happiness of those who read it, because he thought the joke was funny. Had he not found humor in the joke, himself, it would not be reasonable to assume that he intended to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the most amount of people because he had a negative experience with it and would assume that other people would as well.

The structure of a joke matters greatly in this aspect of ethical permissibility. Not only does the joke teller have to appeal to the greater number of people but he or she cannot appeal to the greater number of people at the same time that he or she is harming or threatening a specific person. At that point in time the joke is no longer simply to produce humor, but in addition to hurt a specific group or individual.

        Female Comedian Wanda Sykes demonstrated an ethically acceptable joke during one of her stand-up routines. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? She says. Some guy jumps out the bush all like “Aaah” and you’re like “uh-uh left it at home.” This joke demonstrates all the qualities of an ethically acceptable joke. She doesn’t attack a particular person, she doesn’t mean to offend anyone, and she tries to get the crowd in attendance to laugh which in turn demonstrates her sticking to within the rule-utilitarian guidelines.

 Elayne Boosler also has an excellent example of an ethically acceptable rape joke. She says “I’m walking in New York with my boyfriend and he says “Gee what a beautiful night, Lets go down by the river” I replied “What are you, Nuts?! I’m not going down by the river its midnight, I’m wearing jewelry, carrying money, and…..my vagina is with m.” This is ethical for the same reasons as the Wanda Sykes joke. Granted both of these jokes are mild in regards to some jokes but these examples fully embody the characteristics of an ethically acceptable rape joke.

The joke that was posted on Facebook, the jokes written and told on 2-Broke girls and written on the fronts of TV shirts are ethical too as long as they conform to the rules of rule-utilitarianism.

        An unethical joke is one that is either meant to hurt someone or doesn’t look to provide the most level of happiness to a greater number of people. If the joke on Facebook was written “You know Katie is playing hard to get when you’re chasing her down an alleyway.” The joke is no longer ethical because while you are trying to make the greater number of people happier and laugh, you are doing it to intentionally insult a specific person. This is no longer a joke but an attack on a specific person and when you attack someone you don’t have the intention to make that person happy.

        Another “joke” that embodies the characteristics of an unethical rape joke is shown in the recent Daniel Tosh controversy. Daniel Tosh was onstage at the Laugh Factory asking what they should talk about. Upon the suggestion of “rape” by a fan, another fan/audience member said rape wasn’t funny and it was hurtful. Daniel Tosh chimed in and made the comment “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like 5 guys right now……like right now.” This is an example of a morally impermissible or unethical joke because he targets a specific person and uses her to portray a violent act. It shows that he is trying to make people laugh but he is doing it in a context that threatens a specific person, making it morally impermissible

IV. Consideration of and Response(s) to Possible Objections

        Objection 1)

Consequentialism- the moral justification for the act is based on the consequences of the said act.

The intent of the individual has no bearing. The reason for this is because it is the result from the act in which an action is deemed morally permissible or morally impermissible. This is to say that an act is morally permissible if a person is not offended by the action and is morally impermissible if a person is offended. People that would argue this point would say that it is morally impermissible if the greater number of people are affected negatively, and would also deem it morally impermissible if anyone would be offended.


Response to Objection 1)

        In response to the objecting viewpoint we say that the moral dimension of the act cannot be judged on the basis of how people react to a certain thing, in this case a rape joke. The reason that we make this claim is because each individual can interpret a specific subject matter their own way. To simply judge on the basis of the results of a certain joke does not give an accurate representation of the person telling the joke but merely the individuals listening to the joke. A more accurate way to decide whether or not an action is morally justified is on the basis of intent. If an individual tells a joke that happens to offend someone and he meant to offend that person, then the joke didn’t have the intention of providing the most happiness for the most people. This individual meant to hurt or threaten the butt of the joke. This would in turn make the individual unethical in regards to the telling of joke.


Objection 2)

Increased rape proclivity- Making light of a certain subject matters increases the “its ok” attitude in regards to rape


        The telling of rape jokes decreases the sensitivity of such a serious subject. This in turn causes individuals to view rape as a less serious offense, and in return could cause rape victim numbers to increase and desensitize the criminal act in the eyes of criminals. With the decrease in seriousness it could cause individuals to think that it is more acceptable to rape people because of the jokes regarding it.

        Response to Objection 2)

        In regards to the objection that making light of such a serious subject causes people to view rape in a more acceptable manner we would argue that on the basis of Relief theory, as it applies to humor, it is feasible that since an individual has to acknowledge the severity of such a subject in order to laugh that the rates of rape should actually decline. In theory these people with higher rape proclivity would have to acknowledge that the topic of rape is so severe and sensitive that they would know that it is not acceptable behavior to rape. These individuals would know and understand this, on the basis of Relief Theory, because it would have the individual laugh, not at the joke, but because of the uneasiness causes by the joke. This uneasiness is the acknowledgement of something being sensitive/serious.

Furthermore, This objection works from the assumption that a person who finds rape to be acceptable is working from a position of sound judgement. That is to say, The use of rape in humor did not cause the person to have this viewpoint, it was something they already held, and would continue to hold regardless of the joke.

V. Conclusion

        “In response to the question “Is the telling of rape jokes morally problematic” we have argued that while rape jokes are morally problematic the use of them can be morally permissible. First we argued that the central moral dimension of this case concerns humor and its application specifically to rape jokes in modern culture. Second, we will argue (from a form of utilitarian perspective) that while rape jokes are often tasteless and offensive, they can aim produce the greatest level of happiness even when they include sexual violence.  Lastly we covered some possible objections to our argument and in the process further clarified our answer. Thank you for your attention.