Monday, August 27, 2007

Michael Vick: lessons in ethics and religion

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.


  1. Anonymous1:56 PM

    I'll violate my oath and wade into the topic again as well. I'm not physically revulsed by dogfighting either, but then again, I've eaten dogmeat, while overseas. When people look at me oddly when I tell them this, I usually remark that the only difference between what you won't eat today and what you will eat tomorrow is how many days have passed since eating. Human beings are evolved to handle an omnivore's diet, and to delineate among different types of animals which are worthy of eating seems wholly superficial to me.

    Killing and eating humans is wrong because human civilization cannot advance when people greatly fear a violent death at the hands of their fellow humans. The same doesn't hold for other animals, and until a vegan demonstrates to me that he hasn't killed animals in some fashion to advance his condition, the moral argument for veganism just doesn't strike me as very sound.

    What I found exceptional in Vick's misdeeds were the pursuit of the infliction of agony upon animals purely for entertainment value. It's one thing to operate a slaughterhouse inhuamely (and I may be in favor of much more tight regulation of slaughterhouse practices, and certainly favor buying meat which has been packaged as result of methods of slaughter which minimize agony), because the slaughterhouse owner is trying to maximize profit, and thus wrongly ignores subjects animals to eminently avoidable torment. People pursue awful acts for money all the time, after all, including the murder and enslavement of human beings.

    It's another thing to go out of one's way to pursue the infliction of agony, however, and I think this is a fair description of Vick's behavior; the pursuit of the infliction of agony for it's own sake. Of course, in practice, people who start out inflicting agony as a byproduct of the pursuit of money often end up enjoying inflicting the agony as much as they do making the money, which is an excellent reason for society to tightly regulate violence in all it's forms.

  2. PV, I'm glad you spoke out on Vick again. I am deeply interested in your perspective. For me, it's not the cruelty that I disagree with. It's the hypocrisy that certain people smite him with. Anon cited the eating of dogs. I wonder how many people would forsake their Dora the Explorer toys if they knew the worker assembling their child's Christmas was eating the "fragrant meat" (the Chinese translation) at their first opportunity.

    Whether it's the zoo or the circus or Sea World or the Kentucky Derby or the programming at the Discovery Channel, most Americans are complicit in the destruction of animals for the purpose of their entertainment every day. I just think it's unfair that Vick is singled out.

    And I'm glad you feel compelled to occasionally speak out, as an animal activist, a vegan and a Christian. As a Black person, I often feel compelled to be an apologist or to defend people like Vick. I am fine with that, even if for no other reason than just to be a voice of reasonable dissent. There are at least two sides to every story.

    I'm glad you indulged your compulsion.

  3. Anonymous8:44 AM

    I too enjoy your perpectives on the Vick situation, PV.

    As I've commented before, it is puzzling that Kevin Kolb kills animals for fun with a 12-inch bowie knife, and most of the people condemning Vick probably think this is hunky-dory.

  4. Anonymous8:46 AM

    hmmm, maybe "enjoy" isn't exactly the right word. But I find them well worth reading. That's what I meant.

  5. Vick was forced into admitting guilt was in all reality a smart move.Friends that he bankrolled for 6 years turned on him in less minutes.
    I think this got over blown and carried way to far. I also wonder if Vicks lawyers are smart enough to notice judge he is facing is a confirmed dog lover.
    If Brett Favre was found to do the samething would the outcry be the same.No, the story would be that Favre out of the goodness of his heart was training the dogs to defend themselves.That he did so because he was afraid that if they got loose they wouldnt be able to survive.
    Vick was tried in the Media and any Judge knows his job relies on public opinion to keep it.I see Vick getting at least 24 months not the norm for first offence which is no jail time.

  6. I found this pretty interesting and I think that Michael Vick gives some important principles and ideas we should consider regarding ethics and religion