Whoopi the Relativist
So today Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast of The View. Not one to make a boring first appearance, Whoopi apparently launched into a defense of Michael Vick. Apparently, Whoopi thinks, Vick is from the kind of culture that accepts this sort of thing (the South, she claims), so we have to be understanding of what he did. According to Goldberg, Vick was honestly stunned when he was apprehended, mostly because dog-fighting (and torturing too, obviously) is such a normal thing where he’s from. It was news to him that many people found it reprehensible. So we shouldn’t be so hard on him.
Er…well, no. There are a couple of problematic things afoot here. 1) Whoopi seems to be conflating two ways of employing the use of the term “understanding” (at least implicitly). 2) She is pretty much calling Vick a moron with no brain of his own; apparently, he has no capacity to engage in a reflective critique of his own “culture” (if she’s right on that one, I wouldn’t know).
Let’s look at the first one — the conflation of two senses of “understanding.” Here are the two senses:
1. To “understand” is to grasp an explanation for something. So if someone punches me in the face, and I find out later that the person was very angry with me, I ‘understand’ why the event happened. The guy was mad, he gets violent when he’s mad, and he punches people when that happens.
2. To “understand” means to make a moral allowance for something. So I understand that you couldn’t come to my party because you got into a car accident. Here the car accident is also an explanation for why you didn’t show, but I am also understanding about what you did — in the sense that I make moral allowances for it. Basically, I don’t hold you responsible for breaking your promise (to come, say).
What Whoopi seems to be saying is that because there’s an way of understanding Vick’s behavior in the sense of (1), there’s reason to have understanding in the sense of (2). Why should we accept that? It may very well be the case that Vick’s culture endorses torturing dogs. So in that sense we can at least partly understand (in the senses of 1) why he did what he did. Just because I understand at least partially why the guy punched me doesn’t mean I need to make allowances for it.
Unless we also assume that Vick is a complete moron with no capacity to think for himself, there’s no reason to move to (2). Is she suggesting that Vick is incapable of thought? He can’t critique the values that he grew up with? Was he incapable of recognizing that such behavior could be wrong? If Vick was capable of these things, then there’s no reason why we need to be understanding in the sense of (2) — we don’t have to make any moral allowances for his behavior whatsoever.
Only the lamest “cultural relativist” would be convinced by Whoopi’s reasoning here. Basically, she’s asking us to accept that “well, it was right in his culture, so it’s right in his world”. I don’t think so. People can do basic values critique. Micheal Vick, like the rest of us, can think about whether the values of his culture are well-founded. If he didn’t engage in such critique, it’s most likely because he didn’t want to.
Well, unless he really is an idiot. But if that’s Whoopi’s point, then she should just right and say it.