next up previous
Next: Is the theory circular? Up: Humor is Affective Absurdity Previous: Humor is Affective Absurdity

A (V)iolation of what? The subjective moral order


As pointed out above, N and V represent the most fundamental division among emotional evaluations, between the positive and neutral on the N side, and the negative on the V side. To be as concrete, useful, and clear as possible, I prefer to express V in the theory in terms as constituting a ``subjective moral violation'' (V) in the eyes of the laughing perceiver. What is a ``subjective moral violation''? It is a violation of a moral principle that the perceiver cares about. That is, it violates a principle about which the perceiver believes, ``This is the way things should be'', and which the perceiver backs up with some affective -- that is to say, emotional -- commitment, such as a propensity to anger, offense, or fear when it is violated. These principles define the way things are supposed to be, the right way to do things -- that is, the proper arrangement of the natural and social world, and the proper conduct of behavior. It seems reasonable to refer to this as the perceiver's view of the ``moral order'' of things, or the subjective moral order.5

The scientific study of intentions or mental states is hardly advanced, and we are on slippery ground when talking about such things, as we must do in proposing a theory which posits moral principles in the minds of perceivers. However, to avoid positing such unobservable entities in this theory would require us to make purely formal and ad hoc links between a person's actual laughing behaviors and independent behaviors which establish their degree of affective attachment to violated moral principles. The analysis may be much simplified by positing a unifying, underlying moral attitude or intentionality; this is the reason it is necessary to refer here to internal attitudes and representations which are independent of behavior.

This section explains and justifies this particular way of answering the question in its title: What is violated in a humorous situation? The subjective moral order. Some readers may understand this use of ``moral'' as entirely sensible and fitting with what morality is, while others may instead take it to be a mere circularity, where by a certain implicit definition, ``moral principles'' are simply those principles that are found to be violated in a humorous situation. I believe my usage fits both interpretations, but not by definition: it is not circular. Justifying this requires us to explore what ``morality'' means.

A fundamental force holding society together and enforcing the general conformity and mutual compliance of its members, is a particular form of human activity, namely that of emotionally judging and evaluating things, an activity on which we all expend large amounts of time and energy. By means of this activity, conducted jointly with other people, we construct our views of how the world both is and ought to be. Whenever we care about a situation being a certain way, our reactions reveal our feelings or our stance toward the situation to the people around us, and they, in turn, react to our communicated stance, perhaps most frequently with sympathy and compliance. Much of what people like and dislike, much of the intricate patterning of human conduct, is learned from others through exposure to such reactions. It seems arguable that they are the basis of human community and that their absence is the basis of inter-community disagreement.

These activities would seem to reflect a rich cognitive and emotional system of opinions about the proper order of the social and natural world. It is this system of opinions that I will call, ``morality.'' It is an evolving set of principles that people take more or less seriously in governing their behavior and their views about what goes on around them. It defines the perceived or subjective moral order of things.

Individuals and cultures have extremely different moralities, in this sense. Different people care about different things. People are willing to argue and fight over different kinds of problems; they have very different views of what a ``good life'' is like; they are pleased and offended, attracted and repulsed by non-corresponding sets of things; they praise and condemn different kinds of actions. In short, they have different views of the moral order, backed by different kinds and intensities of affective responses.

Again, using these different moral systems, people continuously construct evaluative interpretations of their own and each others' behavior. Moral systems influence the way that people think and talk about the way things ought to be; they influence the way people exert control over one another to make each other conform to their standards. Further, perceived violations of morality are met with affective responses, such as anger, or desires to restore the situation to order -- or, in this theory, laughter.

Now, if violation of a principle receives no affective response -- if only a galvanic skin response -- it is not a moral principle in this sense. For example if John Doe steps on someone's foot, or spills the milk, or steals a car, these actions may rankle those affected as well as observers, whose affective, often verbally expressed responses demonstrate their moral commitment to principles that John Doe has violated: ``Don't do that!'' or ``You shouldn't have done that!''

Even babies may be understood to have moral systems; they are attached, for example, to the existence of things and people around them. At least it seems that there is an emotional attachment of some kind, since they are so distressed when confronted with their non-existence; and it is a natural inference that babies feel that these things and people should continue to exist, or that their continued existence is part of the natural, moral order of their world.

Many people consider morality to be a rather high-minded thing having to do with formalized and universal systems of ethics, or with philosophical conundrums about what to do when people are dying and some difficult decision or other must be faced, whether to save the village or the child, etc., or with advanced classes in philosophy or theology or somesuch.

The kind of moral theories that moral philosophers and ethicists in the British and American analytical traditions actually work on, indeed, are ones which simple-mindedly assume a general moral consensus, and which elaborate their theoretical complexities around questions such as, for example, the proper way in which ``the greatest good for the greatest number'' may be applied to difficult situations. A universal ethical code may be derived which is taken as a self-evident and universally acceptable, general moral system. Such moral theorists are concerned with the question, What is right?

However, this apparently compelling moral question becomes relatively uninteresting when it is observed that different people's moral commitments are quite different. If moral systems are different from one group or individual to the next, who can take seriously a non-relativistic approach to morality which assumes that we all care about the same things in the same ways? Moral systems are subjective.

An empirical, rather than philosophical and universalist approach to morality asks a number of quite different, and, I think, more interesting questions: What are the different systems of values that different cultures and individuals have? How do these systems relate to their life experiences? What function do they have in the regulation of their social interactions? By what means are these systems constructed and changed? or How does a set of people come to believe in certain values?

The reality of morality, in this relatively empiricist view, is more down-to-earth and interesting than traditional notions of morality found in analytical academic discussions of ethics, theology and complicated situational dilemmas. The basis of this empiricist, comparative view of morality is that different people have different moral views, and thus it is the first thing we notice - and a tremendous source of intrigue and mystery about humanity - that Minnesotans and Californians, Japanese and Mexicans, babies and adults, men and women, even family members who happen to have had different experiences, are all threatened and offended, or amused, or unresponsive, in different ways, to different sets of events.

These differences may be said to reflect their different subjective moral systems. For present purposes, a condition is moral if and only if, first, the perceiver thinks it ought to be a certain way, and second, the perceiver cares about it. While some may disagree with my extremely broad use of ``morality'' here to refer to ``the issues people actually care about'', I believe most people will agree that it is these kinds of affective attachments that constitute the actual, living, moral views that guide us in our constant activities of judging and evaluating the situations that we confront. It is this view of morality which is assumed in the present theory of humor.

Perhaps a better way may be found of giving a unified characterization of ``what can be violated in humor'', but the approach taken here is concrete, well-defined, and so far, quite successful. The subjective moral order is an independently motivated psychological complex of affective opinions, and can therefore legitimately be referred to within this theory's claim that violations of the subjective moral order are a necessary ingredient in humor.

next up previous
Next: Is the theory circular? Up: Humor is Affective Absurdity Previous: Humor is Affective Absurdity
Tom Veatch