In Borat and related works, pranks tend to follow the following course.

An impersonator will pretend to be a bigoted (e.g. racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic) character.

The impersonator will then contrive (perhaps using peer pressure or other social psychology methods) a situation where some unsuspecting people will behave in bigoted ways.

The unsuspecting people are filmed and their apparently bigoted behavior is shown to viewers, generating laughs.

Question: is it ethical to subject the unsuspecting people to such pranks?

It rings similar to the ethics of human-subject research and also to ethics of various law enforcement entrapment/sting schemes.

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    It would seem to depend on whether the unsuspecting people are actually bigoted, and on one's ethics, of course. One can certainly justify exposing bigotry from a utilitarian standpoint (it serves "common good"), or deontological one (duty to expose and remedy vices). There is an obvious concern about privacy, but whether one's right to be bigoted extends to being entitled to keep it private strongly depends on how one ranks privacy vs fighting bigotry. Bigotry tends to spill over into public behavior in many insidious ways. – Conifold Sep 17 '20 at 20:00

The ethics of “tricking people in general” may be extended all the way to political economy. It strikes me that revealing people’s receptivity to prejudice and bigotry is demonstrating to them that they’ve been tricked in a different way, I.e., they have already been misled into bigoted ways of thinking and acting, or else they are “tricking themselves”. Supposing that unmasking bigotry is beneficient — I would argue it is quite an excellent aim — their superficial duping seems well-justified in order to reveal profound deficits of character. That people are just basic sometimes is in a way not particularly surprising; the artfulness of the deception here is precisely that it reveals a larger deception having been perpetrated, and the “shocking” displays that Cohen elicits from un-savvy victims of his act are ethically laudable from this point of view anyway. I’m reminded of James Randi, a skeptic who revealed any number of tricks people played on themselves — from faith healers to telekinesis — in some cases by playing (or rather having others play) at having such abilities, duping scientists into “validating” it, then revealing the scam. I’m not sure this sort of baiting is ethically optimal, at least without a larger social import, but the net good seems undeniable.

  • Interesting comparison to James Randi and the idea that the unsuspecting people are revealed to be tricking themselves. I wish your thoughts and those of @Conifold above made it into a newspaper editorial when the Borat 2 movie comes out. I think people will view the film in a different light after reading about these ideas. – Justas Sep 18 '20 at 11:47

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