Ethics of April Fools

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So is it lying to pull an April Fools joke? It's clearly deception. If deception is always wrong, then April Fools jokes are wrong. But I don't think deception is always wrong. I don't even think outright lies are always wrong. I'm not sure if deception always counts as a lie either, because deception can be unintentional (though that won't distinguish between April Fools jokes and lies, because April Fools jokes are intentional). It may be that April Fools jokes are deception but not lies. It may be that they're lies but morally ok lies.

So I'm curious what people think about the ethical status of April Fools jokes. If they're not wrong, why? What distinguishes them from lying that is wrong? If you take lying to be generally wrong and accept these as ok, it's good to have some account of why April Fools jokes are ok. If April Fools jokes are wrong, why? If there's a good distinction between April Fools jokes that are ok and ones that are wrong, what is the moral difference?

I have my own thoughts on this, though I wouldn't say that I've got a fully fleshed-out view, but I'm curious what others think, and perhaps I'll have more to say in interaction with comments.

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15 Comments

I don't see anything wrong with April Fool's jokes, so long as they are not meant to hurt people, physically or emotionally. I recognize that sometimes we hurt others without intending to.

I think a lot of it depends on the "audience" - if a person takes themselves too seriously, they won't appreciate being the "April fool".

Kind of falls into the same category as surprise parties.

So what does it have in common with surprise parties that makes it ok to deceive in both cases? Or is the reason slightly different but similar in the two cases?

The intent - and the reciever.

You could say, "the punch line". If there's no punch line, it's not a joke.

But the punch lines are very different. In one case it's "surprise!" and in the other it's "April Fool's!" The first is a pleasant surprise of someone doing something nice for you. The second is someone taking delight in your gullibility. I wouldn't think the similarity in punchline would bring them morally closer to each other. This is part of the intent as well, so I would say the same about that.

The differences in who is on the receiving end should play a role, I would assume. What about the receiver makes a difference and why?

their sense of humor. I get more of a kick out of playing the "fool" role than I do the other. I'm a good sport about when the joke's on me and I don't "do" April fools on other people very much.

And "mean" April fool's jokes are off the table for me. It's only jun when the person you're fooling laughs too. And if you're playing the joke out of meanness, that's not April Fools - that's just mean.

April fool's is supposed to be like getting a snowball thrown at you.

Well, one of my questions is whether it's even possible for it not to be mean. After all, taking advantage of someone else's gullibility for your own enjoyment sounds mean when you put it that way, but isn't that all these jokes are? So am I just misdescribing them when I say it that way?

I don't know - I know that when that kind of a prank is played on me (by people that I know like me) I don't feel like they're being mean.

Parts of speech like hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, and the like are taken for what they are depending on the formal or intuitive education of the reader or listener. Any "speaker" has a moral obligation to consider the gullible and the effect their words may have, yet the "receiver" also has the obligation of any learner to first give the benefit of the doubt.

Our natural born tendancy is to believe the testimony...I use the word as a far reaching speech-act...until we get caught out. I've often thought there is a certain element of "look how smart I am" i.e. pride, in showing off our ability to deceive even for "fun", when in fact, it is the easiest thing in the world to do. My heart has often swollen with satisfaction at having "gotten one over" on someone, while the other "knowing" heads nodded and winked. Even if the "butt end" of our humour takes it well, what seed has pride sown in our own heart?

Paul, in Romans 3, connects the "venom of asps" with deceit as basic to unrenewed human nature. That should give us pause when using in form of speech that is less than transparent, if we have the least doubt about our motive.

Unfortunately, what is humour, "just a bit o' fun" to one, may be humiliation to another. If we make a mistake, I lean toward the side of mercy and restraint. Confessions of a fool :)

I'm just thinking about Martin Laller's comment above. Why should the intention matter any more than the consequence? Why not just say that a deception is ok as long as it doesn't actually hurt someone? After all, we only generally learn by our mistakes, so a good test of whether the joke went over the line would be to check the actual consequence to the tricked person. If they are hurt, then perhaps your benign intention will not be worth much.

I agree with everyone on the importance of circumstance. Bonhoeffer in his Ethics does a great job of talking about the importance of social roles in ethics, so that who you are plays a big role in what is good or acceptable behavior towards other people. The role the other person has is important also. Thus I didn't play any tricks on my children because they are too young to understand such things. If my kids were 8 and 9 years old, I might try to trick them for fun and educational value.

Intentions generally matter for moral issues. At least that's what non-consequentialists believe, and I'm certainly one. Some people think it's only the intention that matters, and I think that's wrong because there's such a thing as negligence, but that doesn't mean consequences are all there is to morality.

I was just thinking that on this particular issue that focussing on intention would be a pretty self-centered way of dealing with it. When thinking about the ethics of acting upon another person. is it not better to start with their point of view? I didn't intend any sort of thorough consequentialism.

Yes, I didn't think you were being a consequentialist, but I did think you were closer to it than you wanted to be. My main concern with the way you put it is that it might matter more whether someone should reasonably expect it to have a certain consequence. If there was no way to predict that it would have the consequence it had or at least no reasonable expectation that it would go that way, then is the person doing it at fault? As it turns out, not even all full-blown consequentialists think it's actual consequences that matter. Many consequentialists think it's reasonably predicted consequences that determine the moral status of an action.

Well, here are some thoughts I have, to try to steer this back to the kind of quetion I was thinking about.

One suggestion some philosophers have offered for surprise parties is that it's ok to lie to someone when it's the sort of thing they'd consent to being lied to about. A woman asks a man if she looks fat in a dress. The man thinks she does but lies and says no. Some people think he ought to be honest somehow without insulting her, but many people think it's ok because she'd want to be lied to. [A related case is when someone lies to their spouse about an illness that for some reason the doctor didn't directly report to the person, not wanting them to know they have a more limited time to live than they would otherwise think. I think the same issues will arise in both cases.]

Maybe surprise parties are a clearer case, at least with people who are not me who like to be surprised. I would never consent to being lied to about a surprise party, so I don't think the consent thing works for everyone. But then the same problem arises. Not everyone would want to be deceived by an April Fools joke. But maybe those are exactly the cases when we'd say it's wrong.

There's at least one other factor that I can think of that's relevant, and that's conventions. Some people think surprise parties are ok because lying in such circumstances is accepted as a convention in society. It's not that the individual consents, but society has consented to that kind of deception. The clear case of this is when people say false things while performing a play or acting in a film or TV show. It's a sort of deception, because in a sense they want people to believe they're these fictional characters, but our societal convention is that such deceit is acceptable. If there's ever a time that deceit can be made ok by convention, that seems it. So maybe April Fools jokes are like that. But then you don't have as good a way of showing what's wrong with cases where people haven't consented and wouldn't consent.

This is an interesting question, one that my students wondered about after reading Kant. In any case, I do wonder about Jeremy's point that some philosophers think it is OK if the other person would consent to being lied to in such a case. I'm not sure this gets at the whole issue, and mostly for the reason that such reasoning can, at times, harm the other person's well being (and also the integrity of the speaker. Example: some of my students would prefer not to be told the truth about the quality of their work -- they'd much prefer that I lie to them. But if I take *those* desires as directing me, I'll see it as OK to lie in such an instance, and end up harming them and also harming my own integrity as a teacher.

That said, I have no idea how to solve the April Fools problem!

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