Among its many definitions, ethics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the distinction between what is right and what is wrong. It is the moral philosophy. Pranking is a mischievous act. To prank is to play a trick on someone, thus making them look like a fool, scaring them, or even disturbing them. All for the sake of a laugh.
How can we synthesize ethics and prank then? How can we talk about the ethics of pranking? We must resort to normative ethics, or the study of ethical conduct, how one should act.
Normative ethics can be divided into virtue ethics, deontology and consequentialism. Virtue ethics, a mark of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies, emphasizes the importance of developing a good of character by maintaining good habits. It stresses less on what we ought to do, but rather, it tells us who we should be as a way to attain excellence in our lives. Individual character, thus, is the key element
Deontology, which is composed by duty theories, deals with principles of obligations. It disregards the consequences of our acts. That’s why it is also called non-consequentialism. What is right is not the result of our action but our intention.
Consequentialism asserts that the morality of our action solely depends on its consequences. It is pretty much a cost-benefit analysis of our conduct. According to consequentialism, if the outcome of the action is more favorable than unfavorable, it is right. Consequentialism includes popular theories like utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill being the most famous utilitarian thinkers, and ethical egoism. Utilitarianism takes into consideration the good of the majority. The action is deemed morally right if the consequences are better for everyone, or at least most of them. Ethical egoism, on the other hand, considers the agent who performed the action. If the action is more favorable to the person, who acted, it is morally right.
Now, let us pretend that the funny sophomore, a good guy, decides to pull a prank. Ask him, “Man, why did you dress up like a clown and run all over your dorm knocking on people’s door at 1 AM?” He will probably tell you that he did so because it was thrilling to wake the poor residents up and see their scared face.
Let’s break this down. What was his motivation? Did he have good intentions? Was he trying to be a good person by doing so, or a fun one? Was he thinking about an outcome at all, or did he wanted to pull a prank because it was the right thing to do? To wake people up, to see their faces, to have a laugh at someone else’s expense…are these good things?
Of course, we should never generalize. Sometimes we want to pull a prank on our grandma so that in the end we reward her suffering with a gift. The point here is that to prank is to manipulate someone’s feelings. If we want to manipulate someone’s feelings, it is for a reason. If there is a reason, there is an outcome we want to achieve. Therefore, it is neither virtue ethics – we would not have a character-developing goal in our minds – nor deontology, since the latter completely disregards the consequences. Depending on the prank, it can be for one’s enjoyment or a big audience–YouTube videos, TV shows.
The key element in this kind of discussion is to be able to contextualize. Aristotle said that virtue lies in the middle, or the Golden Mean. It means doing the right thing, at the right moment, in the right place, with the right people. To be able to contextualize is to be virtuous as well. With that said, in your opinion, is pranking right or wrong? If not, is there a right prank?
Ruy Vaz, Soccer Asst. Coach