Belief's Own Pragmatics: What Whoopi Goldberg's Unwavering Defense of Bill Cosby Teaches Us About Ourselves

Over the past week, it was revealed that Bill Cosby admitted under oath in 2005 to essentially date-raping at least one woman he wanted to have sex with. This information was procured following U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno's thoughtful decision to make public a deposition relating to a 2005 sexual molestation civil suit brought by a Temple University employee, which ended without court resolution in a settlement. In his own words:

The stark contrast between Bill Cosby, the public moralist, and Bill Cosby, the subject of serious allegations concerning improper (and perhaps criminal) conduct, is a matter to which the AP -- and by extension the public -- has a significant interest.

Apparently, the accounts of no less than forty women, together painting a picture of a hypocritical megalomaniac well-versed in exploiting the asymmetrical power dynamic his mentorship roles in these relationships inevitably instantiated, had not sufficed to convince The View co-host Whoopi Goldberg of his probable guilt. Think she's changed her mind or intensity of support now?

Before laying into Goldberg, though, it would do us well to explore what exactly is so off-putting about her redoubt of delusion from an epistemological perspective. I'll contend in the following that uncomfortable as it may seem, it isn't primarily her refusal to assert Cosby's guilt. The points that emerge apply as well mutatis mutandis to similar behavior seen in such persons as Bill Cosby's wife and daughter, and fellow The View co-host Raven-Symoné, whose sterling career she ascribes to Cosby's hand selecting her for a role in his eponymous show.

To help kick things into gear, let's look at the evidential corollary of a popular saying which has sired untold versions of itself to suit their speaker's purpose: evidence (of some type in question, which for or our purposes is testimonial) is individually inconclusive. But put it together with enough instances of evidence of that same type and sometimes the conclusion is inescapable--or at least super probable--whatever happens legally.

The preceding means something to us because evidence is evidence to someone about some state of affairs. Put another way, it interests us how evidence is used precisely because we think it ought to influence ordinary belief formation and, in turn, action. As agents outfitted with reason, we rely on proper belief formation to act on good faith. An ideal rational agent, then, we think, forms and modifies their beliefs strictly according to what the relevant evidence says, investing only the amount of credence into a belief that is permitted by the evidence.

Goldberg's outspoken homilies on the importance of believing in Cosby's innocence, even as fiery accuser after fiery accuser spoke out on yet one more incident to add to his burgeoning list of carnal perfidies, shows a regrettable dissociation from what the evidence strongly indicates. Consider Goldberg's pugnacious takedown of her detractors following the aforementioned deposition's unsealing, squashing all hope of reason finally prevailing:

Save your texts. Save your nasty comments. I don't care. I say this because this is my opinion, and in America, still, I know it's a shock, but you are still innocent until proven guilty... He has not been proven a rapist.

Goldberg, as pundits have observed, couldn't be more wrong. Legal culpability is a relationship between evidence and some agreed upon standard of proof. Therein lies the problem with her contention: legal epistemology, practically speaking, is not concerned with the truth per se. Most of us are familiar with our forensic system's draconian rules concerning admissibility of evidence, which by itself presents an initial encumbrance to the truth. Beyond evidence admissibility, questions also abound with respect to the stringency of the standard of proof in play. (For criminal or civil rights allegations, it's typically proof beyond a reasonable doubt.)

Among other reasons, legal epistemology preemptively factors in these distinctly non-epistemic considerations because the moral cost of a false conviction is thought to outweigh any potential good that might result from a legal verdict that gets it right. That is why the standard of proof that is employed here in the United States for cases of this nature is so high and nebulously defined. As far as goals, our ethical scruples against producing false convictions is in inherent conflict with justice's concern with maximizing accountability. Cosby's heretofore presumptive innocence is more likely the result of his status as a television icon, his ability to hire expensive lawyers, and the fact that the alleged incidents took place, no doubt calculatedly, in locations where he could impose himself on his accusers without detection.

Goldberg must know this, as she seemed perfectly cognizant of this distinction when she blasted the Ferguson grand jury in November of last year after they elected not to arraign, or bring charges against, the policeman Darren Wilson in the Michael Brown killing. She did not there shy away from publicly convicting Wilson, despite the lack of charges filed. Where was her presumption of innocence then?

What to make of the inconsistency in Goldberg's treatment of Cosby's accusers and critics vis-à-vis her reaction in the Ferguson case?

The truth is, it is an entirely human instinct, not confined to Goldberg and Cosby's closest-of-kin, that when personal interests are of sufficiently ascendant value, maintaining any associated beliefs in their present condition becomes an overriding concern. We know first-hand how taxing knowledge of any countervailing evidence can be for our deepest convictions. Imagine what must be going on in Goldberg's head right at this moment.

Whoopi Goldberg, Raven-Symoné, Camille and Evin Cosby: their reactions in the face of their good friend's, professional benefactor's, and husband and father's very public defrocking show us just how pliable our cognitive architectures can be under duress. Cast away, for now at least, are those norms of belief which would be in place were Cosby not TV's current favorite bête noire. In effect, a cognitive dissonance has taken hold; norms that previously applied to everyone now only apply to everyone not-Cosby. Because of this, it is plausible that Goldberg only subconsciously knows her error, if at all.

The foregoing allows us to see why Goldberg seems perfectly fine with the naïve view of legal judgments in her friend's case (with respect to whether they track the facts), but skeptical in the case of Wilson's non-arraignment. It has something unmistakably to do with the fact that she presently perceives her personal interests to be under siege by the information that is out.

The cost of legal epistemology's incorporation of non-epistemic considerations in its calculus is that very often, verdicts do not track fact. And Goldberg's inconsistency can perhaps be explained away by appeal to forgetfulness, say. But she is joined, as I mentioned, by Cosby's closest of kin and someone who clearly feels she owes Cosby her undying devotion. The type of pragmatics they exemplify is a sort of nepotistic exclusion to norms of belief that, as demonstrated by Goldberg, they clearly would recognize in non-personal situations. Someone without the benefit of her friendship would not profit from the impromptu moratorium on those norms she has plainly instituted.

That favoritism, or something analogous to it, is something we can all relate to. Think of all the times you lent your friends or gave your church money without doubting their motives and compare that to all the times you cynically brushed off strangers in parking lots who entreated you for a dollar. That off-putting feeling, I submit, in watching Goldberg's recalcitrance unfold comes from us seeing ourselves having erred, or potentially erring, in like manner.

It is true that the unchanging fervor with which Goldberg everyday proclaims her belief of Cosby's innocence is incongruous with what the mounting evidence and his own disclosed admission univocally suggests. We ought to deplore modes of thinking that contribute to this failing. But I also caution for us to remember that we're also in a better position to say this because of our relational distance from Cosby.

Belief's pragmatics have a way of seeming least pragmatic when they happen to be our own. Those who are most eager to vituperate and pillory Goldberg (example here) should realize that they themselves probably exhibit a similar pathology in various aspects of their own lives.

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