The Ethics of Pranking

This is not a prank, but it is April Fool. John Oliver referred to is as being to fun what St. Patrick’s Day is to Irish culture, and he’s not entirely wrong.

People who look forward to it as a day when they get to play pranks on otherwise unsuspecting humans are probably dicks. Pranks inconvenience people at best, but they can scare, threaten, or even harm them. There are prank channels all over Youtube that accost people by menacing them, insulting them, or sometimes assaulting them in the name of “Fun”.

Still, pranks can be funny sometimes, and April Fool can give us the opportunity to inflict the unexpected on our friends and family.

When is it ethical to play a prank?

That’s a question that unpacks into a few more, like what makes an ethical prank, how does the setup work, and can an ethical prank also be a good one, when a good prank is supposed to be disruptive and funny? I think so. The key seems to be consent, cooperation, and follow through.

The greatest prank

The greatest prank, the best ones, make everyone laugh. Even the victim. They create situations so absurd, or so magnificent that a person can’t help laughing about them afterward. Prank vs Prank’s zombie pizza prank, for instance, has Jeana clambering out of a pizza box after bystanders are offered free pizza on the street. The shock is real, but quickly recovered from, and more than a few of the victims linger to see the pair “get” another passerby. It’s scary, but the menace isn’t real. Their movement isn’t restricted, and victims can laugh with the pranksters in short order.

The best prank also has consent. The great thing about April Fool is it gives people the freedom to consent to pranks while limiting them to a single day, so you’re not constantly worrying about people tinfoil-wrapping your office (also, don’t tinfoil someone’s office unless you’re going to help them clean it up). They don’t require it, but lots of people have friendly prank back and forths that are done with a good-natured assessment and respect of the other person’s well-being.

The ethics behind the greatest pranks seem straightforward, regardless of how they’re articulated. Victims are stakeholders in a prank. They’re participants, and their rights and well-being can be impacted by pranksters. It is the responsibility of pranksters to respect that, full stop. It’s worth being a consequentialist and thinking about how a prank is going to impact a person. Is it going to inconvenience them for an hour as they clean whipped cream out of their mouse? Is it going to frighten or trigger them? Another consideration for the victim is whether they’re an object in the prank, a thing to be laughed at, or the subject of it, a participant in it to be laughed with. The pig’s blood prank from Carrie is a classic example of a prank that treats a person as an object, designed to humiliate, frustrate, or harm.

The worst prank

The worst prank doesn’t simply fail to take into account the well-being or safety of its victims. The worst prank isn’t a prank at all, it’s a crime. Couched behind the mask of being in good fun and requiring that the victim be able to take a joke, it encroaches on them and leaves an impression long after the moment has passed. It can be as well-intentioned as one likes, but intentions count for little when actions are inconsiderate of others. I’m not about to throw Sam Pepper any traffic, but on the right is an example of a well-intentioned real life prank gone from from my favourite pranksters, Jesse and Jeana at Prank vs. Prank. Warning: spiders.

Pranking isn’t wrong, but it can be problematic. It’s like back rubs. If a person asks for a back rub, it’s fine to give them one. If you have a history of trading back rubs, then sure. Back rubs require you to be considerate of another person’s time, space, and well-being. They need to be the subject of the back rub, not the object, you can’t just knead them like bread. And most importantly of all, if a person does not want a back rub, keep your hands, no matter how deft or well-intentioned, the fuck off.

Happy pranking, and check out Prank vs. Prank. They are lovely, and have a really healthy prank relationship all year round.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *