“I can see why they did that.”

Here’s something that’s commonly said “I can see why they did that”. It carries a tone of excuse, or at least of lessening the harshness of a judgement. Does this fact tell us something?

If it carries meaning to say “I can see” why someone did something, presumably it’s possible that sometimes, indeed often, “I can’t see” that. And in such a case, we can only presume, our judgement will be harsher, our punishments more severe, without the soothing reconciliation of “I can see why”.

But if we “can’t see” why something was done, what does that mean? There are surely three explanations:

1) there was absolutely no reason: it was like a muscle spasm, an action without accompanying thought. Perhaps the person was sleepwalking?

2) we’re just not exercising our imaginative capacities enough, or our imagination is too weak.

3) there was a reason why something was done, but the logic used, or the person using it, was so alien to us, so totally different, that however hard we try we just won’t be able to understand it.

Now if 1. was true we wouldn’t be condemning the person at all, so that’s clearly not what’s going on.

And 2. would make no sense – why would the personal failings of the judgers be relevant to judging someone else? The whole point of a judgement is that it aims at objectivity.

So it must be 3. that’s at the back of people’s minds when they say this. We say, and consider it worth saying, that “well, I can see why they did that”, because we have at some level the belief that there

A) there are people out there who are profoundly different from us, so that no reconciliation, no understanding, no meaningful sense of a shared world is possible; and

B) these people should be judged more harshly, shown less mercy, and condemned to more extreme punishments when they act in ways that go against what we consider right – which they most likely will, given their radically different way of thinking.

Now hopefully I don’t need to point out that this is, firstly, factual nonsense, and completely against both the data and the spirit of science and rationality more broadly, which tells us that things can always be understood, and that we should always do our best to do so, and, secondly, that it’s violently hostile to what’s different.

Yet for years it never even occurred to me that there was a question to ask about this turn of phrase. Now I consider it, and I can’t see how it makes any sense except on the assumption that 1) bad things are done by people who are completely other to us, and 2) we should hate the other.

One Response to ““I can see why they did that.””

  1. links for 2009-06-10 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] “I can see why they did that.” « Directionless Bones […]


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