I keep saying I'm done talking about Vick, and I keep coming back with more to say. Sorry--sometimes I feel compelled.
Like many stories that emerge from the world of sports, the Michael Vick dog fighting story gives us a chance to explore a bit of moral philosophy. These are meager attempts at such exploration.
Where do we get our morality?
I've come to understand the great and probably disproportional outrage against Michael Vick for dog fighting.
For most people, their sense of morality is tied to their stomachs. They react viscerally, and judge the degree of sin/crime according to this visceral reaction.
Part of this is novelty. There are a lot of bad behaviors out there. Driving while drunk is irresponsible and life-threatening, but we're essentially immune to hearing about it. It happens all the time; when a celebrity is caught driving drunk, there is usually moderate condemnation, but acceptance that it has merely happened again. So, too, domestic violence is a very bad thing. But we've heard many allegations involving athletes and domestic violence, and many of these allegations do not lead to criminal prosecution. So we hear about it, we may judge the athlete, but essentially, we're used to it and we move on. I've compared dog fighting to other forms of animal cruelty that are accepted in our society, but the thing is, those are the forms of animal cruelty that are accepted in society. They no longer give people a visceral reaction.
And part of it is the nature of the brutality. People are hearing stories about rape stands, dogs being forced to fight each other to the death, dogs being drowned, hanged, and electrocuted. We get very concrete images--images that lead to physical revulsion for many.
I've shared this story before: I ask my students if they would eat hamburgers if they knew the meat was made out of a dog. Many respond with looks of disgust and revulsion. Rationally, they should not be appalled: there's really not a rational moral difference between a dog and a cow. Emotionally, of course, there is a big difference for most people.
Our morality should not be tied to our stomachs. We should have a sense of right and wrong (and a sense of degree of wrong) that is not connected to how we react viscerally. A lot of very deep evils in our world and society don't come with these concrete images, and they don't involve a form of violence that forces physical disgust on us. Our morality should be tied to something different.
Oh, I believe dog fighting is wrong. I just don't have physical revulsion to stories of dog fighting. These two statements are not mutually exclusive.
"Until seventy times seven"
Allow me to go in another direction here and explore part of this story from the perspective of Christianity. I'm not doing so to proselytize, but simply to explore the issue from another perspective, perhaps a useful perspective.
Michael Vick has apologized for his actions, asking for forgiveness (Fanhouse).
We're cynical about public apologies in our society. We suspect many celebrity apologies to be insincere and self-serving, more for publicity than sincere repentance.
But from a Christian perspective, is this the correct reaction?
I'll say first of all that I am not in a position to forgive Michael Vick. He did not wrong me, and his apology is not directed at me. But to any extent that I am in a position to accept Vick's apology, I must do so. To any extent I can offer forgiveness, I must do so.
In the book of Matthew, you'll find this passage:
"Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven."
Jesus follows with a parable illustrating why people are required to forgive one another: a king forgives a servant a massive debt, yet that servant refuses to forgive somebody else for a very small debt. We're not supposed to be like the servant, forgiven for our sins but unforgiving of others' sins.
The point is, if an individual wrongs us and asks for forgiveness, a Christian must forgive him/her. If the individual wrongs us again, a Christian must forgive him/her. If an individual wrongs us yet again, a Christian must forgive him/her. It would seem as these wrongs continue again and again, we might question the sincerity of the repentance. And yet, Jesus says to continue to forgive. If somebody wrongs me and apologizes, I am not to assess whether or not I believe the apology to be sincere: Jesus' command dictates simply that I must accept the apology.
Michael Vick has apologized: he is taking responsibility for his actions, and he is going to suffer for his actions. If it is forgiveness and redemption he seeks, I hope he finds it.