Friday, 25 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #151. Humour in the Holocaust: Does Laughter Relieve Our Suffering or Diminish Our Objections to the Suffering of Others? (6 of 7)

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999.


CHAPTER 6: Conclusion. (Free will versus determinism). 

(Note: This dissertation has been posted in seven instalments)

List of contents

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is laughter?
  • What is comedy?
  • What is humour?
  • Aesthetic judgments
  • Simple Objectivism (Recognizing the rules of composition).
  • Simple Subjectivism (I know what I like but do I need to know why?).
  • Simple Relativism (Is one judgment as good or as bad as another?).
  • Sophisticated Objectivism (All in the imagination?).
  • Sophisticated Subjectivism (Colours and aesthetics - 'seeing red'?).
  • Pragmatic Relativism ('Local' truths).

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is the superiority theory of laughter?
  • What is the incongruity theory of laughter?
  • What is the psychic release theory of laughter?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Where in the body is the impulse to laugh located?
  • Is there a 'laughter centre' in the human brain?
  • Is laughter voluntary or involuntary?
  • What philosophical models exist to explain the mind/body axis?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • Life is Beautiful (Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997) - A case study.
  • Laughter! [Auschwitz] (Barnes, 1996) - A comparative case study.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


  • What is determinism?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *



*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

CHAPTER 6: Conclusion. (Free will versus determinism).

In our introduction we showed that comedy was an eclectic genre of non-homogenous texts, humour was a production of meaning involving taste and judgment and laughter was an autonomous neurophysiological response to a comic stimulus which may or may not be terminated voluntarily, rendering it a deterministic ambiguity. We examined and critiqued various modes of aesthetic judgment before deciding on a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective from which to debate questions of taste and judgment.

In Chapter 2 - An Incongruity of Theories we showed how laughter is a necessarily brief interregnum (an interval of disorder between ordered states) whether this brevity be in a sudden superiority, a sudden incongruity or a sudden psychic release. We also demonstrated how these brief disordered states are located interstitially between theories of the physiological, psychological and sociological states of the subject. At this point we entered an epistemological cul-de-sac: are all theories of laughter inherently flawed by their specific cultural context and choice of metaphor?

In Chapter 3 - The Mind/Body Axis we developed our theories on the neurophysiological state of the subject and debated whether the impulse to laugh was voluntary or involuntary contingent upon a model of consciousness. Here we were forced to concede that, without a sound theory of consciousness, we did not have any valid theory of humour. Instead, it became necessary to adopt a Wittgensteinian approach, investigating the language games arising from comic texts from a sophisticated pragmatic relativistic perspective.

In Chapter 4 - The Lord of Misrule we showed how the inversion of carnival is enfeebled as a social catalyst or moral corrective and may even be vitalised as an instrument of moral defection.

Lastly, in Chapter 5 - Humour in the Holocaust?, we made a comparative case study between two comic texts with radically different philosophies on comedy's redemptive power.

These treatments do not amount to a Grand Unified Theory of laughter (a gargantuan undertaking in which this entire study might at best serve only as a footnote to an introduction). However, we can speculate about some of the problems such a theory would have to overcome. The main problem identified by this treatment is that of volition: to what extent do we have any control over when we laugh and what we laugh at? If we are, in some way, biologically programmed to laugh at particular types of stimulus then, even if our laughter is hurtful to others, should we be held morally accountable? The problem here is one of determinism versus free will.

What is determinism?

Determinism is a metaphysical doctrine which asserts that '...the state of the universe at any particular time is linked by way of causal laws to the states of the universe both before and afterwards.' (Young cited in Singer, 1991).

Roger Scruton (1994) rejects 'hard' determinism on the grounds that we are unable to deduce the future from the past, only to make probable guesses. The real problem is not a predictive model but one of responsibility. To what extent should we be held responsible for our actions given that they be caused or affected by phenomena outside of our conscious control?

Scruton proposes an 'interpersonal' approach based on attitudes which are appropriate to the situation:

'The conflict, therefore, is not between actions that are free and actions that are caused: our science of human nature applies indifferently to both and denies the reality of the contrast. The conflict is between attitudes that require us to overlook causality and attitudes that require us to attend to it, and to define what we see in terms of it.' (Scruton,1994, p.234).

For the purposes of our study, if the impulse to laugh is determined by a state in our neurophysiological programming which is synonymous with our minds then we do not have free will. That is, we cannot control the impulse to laugh, we can only attempt to suppress the impulse with our higher cognate functions. If this Freudian perspective is true, then we cannot be held morally responsible for the impulse to laugh, only for whether or not we choose to 'block' the laugh (depending on the rules of the language game that we are playing, the sociological context). 

However, the impulse to laugh (barring pathophysiological states) is not usually spontaneous. It usually requires a stimulus which, in our dramaturgical treatment, is the comic text. The comic text is an intentional stimulus to laugh. While its creation is the product of preceding neurophysiological states it is not in itself a neurophysiological phenomenon. The comic text is the result of higher cognate functions which can choose to release or repress thoughts which may be considered morally reprehensible by the extrastitial culture. The burden of moral responsibility therefore lies with the comic authors rather than the audience who do not have the same luxury of time to check and censor their thoughts.

By this line of logic we argue that:

  • the impulse to laugh is deterministic, involuntary and therefore immune from moral censure;
  • the decision whether or not to suppress the laugh is semi-voluntary depending on whether the individual's higher cognate functions are educated, refined and quick enough to vet the impulse in time;
  • the creation of the comic text is not predetermined as it does not rely on a momentary impulse but on a prolonged series of conscious neurophysiological states which may be compared by their subject and censored according to whatever moral codes prevail in their culture.

The comic author can be held responsible if s/he manipulates an audience to laugh in a way that diminishes the suffering of others.

The question we asked ourselves at the beginning was: does laughter relieve our suffering or diminish our objections to the suffering of others? We have seen how laughter makes the subject feel better, either through superiority, tension-release or psychic release of a repressed thought and how the production of endorphins during the act of laughing can make the subject feel better and has an analgesic effect. We have also seen how laughter can be used as a weapon of invective, a means of social control and even persecution.

The answer to our question is therefore an affirmation of both propositions. Laughter relieves the suffering of its subject (albeit temporarily and possibly preventing the subject from acting to remove the causes of their suffering). Laughter, by its diminution of suffering, also diminishes the suffering of others. Laughter is truly the most morally ambiguous of the human emotions.


  1. 'Philosophy will be the key that unlocks artificial intelligence' by David Deutsch,, Wednesday 3 October 2012


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe