Philosophy graduate student Sam Director on “The Inhumanity of Cards Against Humanity” (which also appears in the current issue of Think.
In general, it is morally wrong to joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of a person who fits into this category. I argue that, when people play the game Cards Against Humanity, it is likely that they do this very action. Thus, I conclude that it is morally wrong to play Cards Against Humanity.
Making a rape joke to a rape victim is morally wrong. Joking about domestic abuse to a victim of abuse is morally wrong. In general, it is morally wrong to joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of a person who fits into this category. This is a claim with which most people would agree. At any rate, most, if not all, people would never make such a joke. But, as I will argue, when people play the popular card game Cards Against Humanity (henceforth Cards), it is likely that they do this very action. Essentially, I argue that, if we play Cards, it is likely that we will joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of a person who fits into that category. From this, I conclude that, since most people view such jokes as morally impermissible, most people ought to view playing Cards as morally impermissible. In section I, I explain the general background and rules of Cards. In section II, I argue that it is morally impermissible to play this game. And, in section III, I address objections.
- The General Background and Rules of Cards
In recent years, Cards has gained immense popularity. The number of copies in circulation is hard to determine, but various sources give an idea of how many copies of the game are in use. According to one source, Cards has sold over 500,000 physical copies, and more than one and half million copies of Cards have been downloaded from the company’s website, where it is available for free. 1 This suggests that, as of 2014, at least 2 million copies of the game are in circulation. A more recent estimate of the figures is unavailable. But, given that, at the time of this article, Cards is the best-selling item in the Toys & Games section of Amazon, we can assume that the figures have grown greatly since 2014.
In order to evaluate the moral permissibility of playing Cards, we must know how the game works. Accordingly, a basic explanation of the rules is in order. Simply put, Cards is a crude version of the game Apples to Apples. The game has a deck of black cards and a deck of white cards. The black cards contain either questions or fill in the blank statements, and the white cards contain nouns. The makers of the game suggest playing it with four or more people. To begin, the players draw ten white cards. Next, they select one player to be the judge. The judge draws a black card and reads the question or fill in the blank statement written on it out loud. Then, the players decide which of their white cards is the funniest response to the question or phrase on the black card. Once they choose, the players submit their white cards face down. Then, the judge flips over the white cards, reads each one out loud, and decides which is the funniest response. The person who submitted the chosen card receives a point. A turn is then complete, and a new player becomes the judge. This process is repeated until someone gets the winning number of points, which is not specified by the makers of the game. For example, imagine that Joe is playing Cards with his friends, and the judge draws a black card that says, ‘What gets better with age?’. Joe looks at his white cards to decide which is the funniest response. Here are his options: ‘The Virginia Tech Massacre’, ‘Dead parents’, ‘Dead babies’, ‘Alcoholism’, ‘The KKK’, ‘AIDS’, ‘Child abuse’, ‘Coat hanger abortions’, ‘Date rape’, and ‘Incest’. Joe decides that the funniest answer is ‘Dead babies’. He submits it, and the judge decides. The turn ends, and the whole process repeats.
- The Moral Impermissibility of Cards
In this section, I argue that playing Cards is morally impermissible. I make this argument based on the following principle, which I believe most people endorse: it is morally wrong to joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of a person who fits into this category. Call this principle the Obviously Immoral Joke principle, the OIJ principle for short. I argue that if one accepts the truth of the OIJ principle, then one is morally obligated to not play Cards. In this section, I first clarify and argue in favour of the OIJ principle. Second, I show that, if one accepts the OIJ principle, then it is morally impermissible for this person to play Cards.
The OIJ principle needs clarification. It states that one does something morally wrong if one jokes about a particular kind of suffering while in front of a person who has experienced this kind of suffering. For example, it holds that it is morally wrong to make a rape joke in front of a rape victim and that it is morally wrong to make a racist joke in front of a person whose race is used in the joke. To many, this seems obviously true. Suppose that John, who is white, makes a joke about lynching in the Jim Crow South while in front of Dan, who is black. We view this as obviously wrong.
However, there are exceptions to the OIJ principle. What about cases in which the victims whose suffering is used in the joke are not upset by the joke or cases in which the victims themselves make the joke? For example, what if a victim of rape uses rape jokes as a coping mechanism and is fine with others using them? Or, suppose that a black comedian jokes about the injustices perpetrated against black Americans by the police, as Dave Chappelle has done. In these types of cases, it does not seem wrong to make such jokes. What is it that makes these jokes permissible? I contend that we view these jokes as permissible because either (1) the person making the joke is a victim of the suffering mentioned in the joke, or (2) the victims whose suffering is used in the jokes are not upset by these jokes. If one of these conditions obtains, then it can be permissible to joke about the suffering of victims while in front of those victims. So, the OIJ principle cannot cover these cases. Consequently, it must be amended to say this: it is morally wrong to joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of a person who fits into this category, except in cases in which conditions 1 and 2 obtain. Henceforth, the revised OIJ principle will be referred to simply as the OIJ principle. With this caveat, the OIJ principle seems highly plausible. These jokes are morally impermissible in cases in which the people making these jokes are not themselves victims of the suffering used in the joke, or in cases in which the victims who hear the jokes are not comfortable with hearing these jokes. Again, we would all regard it as morally wrong to joke about domestic abuse in front of a person who has been in an abusive relationship and who is not comfortable with this kind of humour. Similar examples can be given for any other kind of suffering. Intuitively, it just seems that these jokes are wrong. But, specific reasons can be given for why we view these jokes as impermissible: they can enforce harmful (racist, sexist, etc.) attitudes in the speaker of the joke, they can cause psychological trauma for the hearer, and more. For my purposes, the reasons why we view these kinds of jokes as wrong won’t matter. All that matters is that the reader affirms the truth of the revised OIJ principle; her specific reasons for doing so will not alter the conclusion of my argument.
Finally, it must be noted that the OIJ principle does not entail that jokes which involve the suffering of a category of people are categorically wrong. All one needs to believe in order to affirm the OIJ principle is that making such a joke in front of a person who it is about is wrong, assuming conditions 1 and 2 are not realized.
With the OIJ principle justified, I argue that, if one accepts this principle, then it is morally impermissible for this person to play Cards. My argument is that it is highly likely that, when one plays Cards, one will be playing the game with victims of the kinds of suffering which the game jokes about. The odds are high that, when one plays Cards, one is playing with victims of rape, abuse, or other kinds of suffering that are made light of in the game. Consider the following story:
Taylor is a twenty-four-year-old female. One night, she goes to her friend John’s house. When she arrives, John says that he has invited people over to play Cards. Taylor, who was raped in college, is uncomfortable with hearing jokes about her suffering, and she knows that Cards has jokes about rape and sexual abuse. So, she does not want to play the game. She considers her options: she got a ride to John’s house, so she can’t leave on her own, unless she wants to walk for an hour on the side of the road. She could say that she doesn’t want to play, but she would be the only person not playing, and she knows that she would be asked why she doesn’t want to play. Since many rape victims never tell anyone that they were raped, Taylor is unlikely to tell her friends the real reason that she doesn’t want to play. 2 In the end, to avoid any chance of having to tell her secret, Taylor plays the game. She tells herself that it’s a better option than having to explain why she doesn’t want to play. In the course of playing, a card is drawn which asks, ‘How did I lose my virginity?’ In response to this, John plays a card which states ‘Pedophiles’. John has just made a rape joke in the presence of a rape victim. Suppose that John, like most people, affirms the OIJ principle. This means that he regards making a rape joke in the presence of a rape victim as morally impermissible. Thus, in playing Cards, John has violated his moral principles. Since agents are morally obligated to not violate their moral principles, and since playing Cards is a violation of John’s principles, John is morally obligated to not play Cards. This can be generalized to all individuals who affirm the OIJ principle, meaning that if these individuals play Cards, they will likely violate their moral principles, which means that they are morally obligated to not play Cards.
This story may seem unlikely; but, given the statistics about rape in America, Taylor’s story is more common than one might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), ‘an estimated 19.3 percent of women … have been raped during their lifetimes’. 3 This means that roughly one in five women has been raped. So, if we play Cards with a group containing five women, it’s likely that at least one of the women has been raped. Cards contains the following cards about rape and sexual assault: ‘Date rape’, 4 ‘Pedophiles’, ‘Surprise sex’, ‘Destroying the evidence’, ‘Incest’, ‘Reluctant anal’, and ‘A sad handjob’. Imagine that, instead of being raped, Taylor is a victim of sexual abuse that did not constitute rape. According to the CDC, ‘an estimated 43.9% of women … experienced other forms of sexual violence during their lifetimes, including being made to penetrate, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and noncontact unwanted sexual experiences’. 5 This means that, if we play Cards with a group of five women, two of them are likely to have experienced some form of sexual violence. All of the cards previously listed under rape jokes are applicable as jokes about sexual violence in general. Or, perhaps Taylor has been the victim of domestic abuse that is not limited to sexual violence. According to the same survey from the CDC, ‘approximately 1 in 4 women in the United States (24.3%) has experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime’, and ‘nearly 1 in 7 men in the United States (13.8% …) has experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner in his lifetime’. 6 If we play Cards with a group that contains five women, it is likely that at least one of them has experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner. And, if we play Cards with a group containing five men, then it is likely that one of them has experienced such violence. Or, perhaps Taylor is one of the 702,208 children who were the victims of child abuse in 2014. 7 Cards contains the following cards that are about some form of abuse: ‘Children on leashes’, ‘Holding down a child and farting all over him’, ‘Child abuse’, ‘Overpowering your father’, ‘Daddy’s belt’, ‘A bitch slap’, and ‘Beating your wives’. What if Taylor has cancer or has lost a loved one to cancer? According to the American Cancer Society, in 2016, nearly 600,000 people will die from cancer. 8 Cards contains the following cards about cancer and death related to terminal illness: ‘Kids with ass cancer’, ‘Hospice care’, and ‘Dead parents’. What if Taylor, or a loved one, is one of the 1.2 million people in the United States who have HIV? 9 Cards contains these cards about HIV and AIDS: ‘AIDS’ and ‘Eating all the cookies before the AIDS bake-sale’. Finally, Taylor may suffer from an eating disorder. Four percent of ‘college-aged women’ suffer from anorexia bulimia, 10 and ‘20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life’. 11 Cards has a card which says ‘Bingeing and purging’.
The basic idea of the Taylor story is this: given the statistics about various kinds of suffering, it is likely that the average game of Cards will include someone who has been the victim of some form of suffering that is made fun of in the game. Thus, when we play Cards, we are likely playing with victims, meaning that we will joke about their suffering, to their faces. Since this is a violation of the OIJ principle, which most people affirm, we are morally obligated to not play Cards.
First, one might object that Taylor’s story is unlikely, because it assumes that victims will be forced to play Cards against their will. The objector can argue that such a situation in which a person is made to play Cards against her will is highly unlikely. After all, victims can simply avoid the situations in which Cards is played, or they can refuse to play the game if they find themselves in a situation in which others are playing it. If it is true that victims can avoid being forced to play Cards against their will, then my argument fails, because it would be unlikely that the average game of Cards includes victims. If there are no victims playing the game with us, then we won’t make jokes about their suffering while in their presence, meaning that playing Cards won’t violate the OIJ principle.
This objection fails. If, prior to attending a social gathering, victims were informed that the people at a social gathering would be playing Cards, then a victim could choose to avoid this situation. But, it frequently happens that people are invited to a social gathering without a full idea of what will happen at the gathering, and card/board games are often spur of the moment ideas. So, the idea that victims can know if a social gathering will involve Cards is false. Victims will often not have the opportunity to simply avoid Cards; rather, they may find themselves in a situation in which the group wants to play Cards either on a spur of the moment decision or on the basis of not entirely promulgated plans. This means that victims will be faced with situations in which those around them will likely attempt to pressure them into playing Cards. It is common, when the majority of people at a social gathering want to do a certain activity, that those who do not want to engage in the activity are pressured to participate. Of course, the objector maintains, it is possible for victims to refuse to play in such a situation. In response to this, I ask the reader to recall the number of times in his or her life that he or she has been socially pressured into doing something against his or her will. I do not have in mind things like being peer pressured into doing drugs or illegal activities; rather, I am thinking of cases when our peers pressure us into seemingly harmless activities, such as going out with friends when we’re tired and would rather stay in, etc. These situations are commonplace. Since most people perceive Cards as a harmless activity, most people would pressure their friends into playing without considering it to be harmful. On the receiving end of such social pressure, it can be very difficult to say ‘no’, especially when a person is terrified that others might find out the real reason that she doesn’t want to play the game. Furthermore, victims may not know that they will be adversely affected by hearing a joke about their suffering until they actually hear it. People may not know that something is a trigger for them until they experience it. Given this, the victims themselves may not know that they should avoid gatherings in which Cards is played and may end up, unintentionally, in a harmful situation. With over two million copies of the game in circulation, and with millions of victims in the population, the chances that a victim will find herself in a situation in which she is pressured into playing Cards is more likely than one might think. So, the objection that victims can avoid playing Cards is false. If we play Cards, we cannot assume that victims will have chosen to avoid this situation; we have to be aware that they may be playing with us, too afraid to leave.
Second, one might object that the people who desire to play Cards can verify that those with whom they are playing are not victims. If none of the people playing are victims, then no victim-based jokes will be told in front of victims, and the OIJ principle will not be violated.
This objection assumes that we can know that those playing Cards with us are not victims. How could we gain this information? Would we ask, ‘are you a victim of the kinds of suffering mentioned in this game?’ Many victims never tell anyone, not even their closest friends, about their victimization. Given this, the idea that we could somehow ascertain this information from victims is preposterous.
Third, the objector can point to the two exceptions in the OIJ principle, which stipulate that victim-based jokes can permissibly be made in the presence of victims if (1) the victims themselves make the jokes or if (2) the victims are not upset at hearing the jokes. If either of these conditions obtains, then Cards could permissibly be played.
Situations in which either 1 or 2 obtains are rare. For condition 1 to obtain, all of the people in a group playing Cards would have to be victims of some kind and would have to only make jokes about suffering that they have experienced. This is unlikely to occur. To know if 2 obtains, we would have to know both if those we are playing with are victims and if they are fine with hearing jokes about their suffering. Unless this information is voluntarily given, we face the same epistemic difficulty mentioned in response to the previous objection. And, if we don’t know if those playing with us are victims, we should act with caution, knowing that the odds are high that victims are playing with us.
Fourth, one might object by saying that, while it is wrong to make a joke about the suffering of a category of people while in front of someone who fits into this category, people playing Cards have no way of knowing that those with whom they are playing are victims. If they knew this, of course, they would not make such jokes. And, since they don’t know that what they are doing is wrong, they cannot be held responsible for it. Simply put, one can accept the OIJ principle and still maintain that it only applies in cases in which the person making a joke has reason to believe that those in front of him are victims. If our information and beliefs give us no reason to believe that our joke is being made in the presence of a victim, then, although our action leads to bad results, we are not blameworthy.
Ignorance of the amount of victimization in our culture is negligent. So, the ignorance of a person playing Cards is not an excuse. Or, after being exposed to the statistics in this article, ignorance of the prevalence of victimhood is no longer excusable. However, even if one were non-negligently ignorant of the prevalence of victimization, ignorance would still not make victim-based humour permissible. Suppose that I make a joke about a dead mother and then find out that I told it in front of someone whose mother died the previous week. Clearly, I have done something wrong, even though I may have not had reason to know that my joke would harm this person.
The OIJ principle is true, and those who accept it cannot continue to play Cards if they desire to act in accordance with their moral principles. So, I conclude that Cards Against Humanity is, indeed, against humanity.
1Lagorio-Chafkin, Christine, ‘The Humans Behind Cards’, Inc (2014), <http://www.inc.com/christinelagorio/humans-behind-cards-against-humanity.html>.
2According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), ‘only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. That means about 2 out of 3 go unreported’. ‘The Criminal Justice System: Statistics’, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, <https://www.rainn.org/statistics/criminal-justice-system> [accessed 2016]. It is important for the reader to know that RAINN did not collect these figures but rather reports them from other sources. To illustrate the total numbers, The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that ‘on average, an estimated 211,000 rapes and sexual assaults went unreported to police each year between 2006 and 2010’. ‘Nearly 3.4 Million Violent Crimes Per Year Went Unreported to Police From 2006 To 2010’, The Bureau of Justice Statistics(2012), <http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/vnrp0610pr.cfm>.
3 Matthew J. Breiding , Sharon G. Smith , Kathleen C. Basile , Mikel L. Walters , et al. , ‘Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Violence, Stalking, and Intimate Partner Violence Victimization – National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011’, Surveillance Summaries 63 (2014): 4.
4The ‘Date Rape’ card has been discontinued by Cards, but it still exists in all decks that were made prior to this discontinuation.
5Breiding, et al., 4.
6M. C. Black, K. C. Basile, M. J. Breiding, S. G. Smith, M. L. Walters, M. T. Merrick, J. Chen, and M. R. Stevens, ‘The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report’, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011), <http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf>, pp 43-44.
7‘Child Maltreatment 2014’, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Administration for Children and Families Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau (2016), <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/cb/cm2014.pdf>, p 36.
8‘Cancer Statistics’, National Cancer Institute (2016), <http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics>.
9‘HIV in the United States: At A Glance’, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016), <http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/statistics/overview/ataglance.html>.
10‘Statistics: How Many People Have Eating Disorders?’, Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, <https://www.anred.com/stats.html> [accessed 2016].
11‘Research on Males and Eating Disorders’, National Eating Disorders Association, <http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/research-males-and-eating-disorders> [accessed 2016].