Bill Cosby in Hamilton: How to decide whether to see Friday's show
McMaster University philosopher: Case raises what standard of proof is needed to affect actions
When Tammy Wilson won a contest earning her two tickets to every show at Hamilton Place Theatre for 2015, she was looking forward to taking her sister to see Bill Cosby's performance this Friday.
But that anticipation changed.
Now, Wilson won't be using her free tickets, in light of sexual assault allegations levied by at least 15 women against the American comedian, even though he has not been charged in connection with any of the accusations.
'We're asking ourselves, "Should I go see this person and give him my money? What exactly am I doing by going to this?'"- Stefan Sciaraffa, McMaster professor of philosophy
"It was right after the first allegations started coming forth in the fall last year that I knew I wouldn't want to attend this show," Wilson said. "I think it absolutely sends a message of support for Cosby to attend. I know that I would not enjoy the performance because my view of him has forever been changed."
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The dilemma Wilson faces hits home for many people. Whether or not they have a ticket, they might be weighing some ethical questions: Should I go? Should I protest? What does my attendance or my avoidance signify?
Like Wilson, Carol Fields thought about what message she wants to send with her tickets, too. But Fields's decision is the opposite of Wilson's.
Fields and her daughter plan to attend the show, though they're worried about disruptions by the "yahoos." Local groups are planning protests both inside and outside the Hamilton Place Theatre.
"I'll admit, at first we had doubts, but only because of the protesters," Fields said. "But in conversations with people, I thought, 'What am I saying if I don't go?'"
She said the protesters have a right to their opinion, but not to "spoil it" for others who want to see the show. Cosby has not been convicted of a crime, she said.
"As far as a message being sent, hopefully Mr. Cosby will feel supported by those in attendance," she said.
While a frequent response is to let courts determine the comedian's innocence or guilt, a McMaster philosopher said the questions raised ahead of Friday are really more personal, more variable, depending on whether a person still feels comfortable in light of what has been alleged to support the person with his or her money and time.
Stefan Sciaraffa specializes in the philosophy of law and social, moral and political philosophy at McMaster University.
He said the situation raises questions that require personal consideration. Some attendees may take the perspective that Cosby's talent and performing is separate from the sexual assault allegations swirling around him.
And as Fields reiterated, one of the most frequent responses in this conversation is that Cosby has not been convicted of any crime.
'Should I go see this person and give him my money?'
In situations like these, Sciaraffa said, that forms one of the lines of questioning a person goes through when making a decision about his or her actions.
"One thing that gets bandied about is what sort of standard of proof do you need to affect your actions," he said.
In the Cosby case, many people suggest that the standard of proof is a legal one — that Cosby is innocent until proven guilty by a court.
Sciaraffa isn't surprised to see that legal judgment as a go-to.
"This is a hard question," he said. "They're trying to find something that will help them answer it."
But the "assumption should be questioned" that the courts are the singular decision-making framework here, he said. In a legal framework, in trial courts, the standard of evidence required is to decide "whether or not we should incarcerate someone or take their money.
"But there's a different standard of proof, I'm not clear exactly what it is in this case, about whether I support this with my money," Sciaraffa said. "We're asking ourselves, 'Should I go see this person and give him my money?' What exactly am I doing by going to this?"
'Some degree of evidence that should be applied here'
Sciaraffa said the answer to that question may look different depending on your perspective. But the standard of proof for a boycott or for a personal decision to support the performer with your money may look different than whether the allegations of sexual assault could result in legal charges or convictions.
That doesn't mean Cosby doesn't deserve the presumption of innocence, or that the allegations should be substantiated, he said.
"The idea that there's some degree of evidence that should be applied here, that's right," he said. "But certainly not the courts, not 'beyond a reasonable doubt.'"
In this case, Sciaraffa said, the question is not, "Is he guilty?" but rather "There's too much of a chance that ... there's a significant chance...."
Fields said she doesn't like the implications of the protests, because Cosby has no conviction against him.
"If we shunned everyone accused of something, boy oh boy, what a world we would live in," she said. "What's that saying, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!"
Wilson feels differently.
"Just seeing his face in all of the news feeds and articles is too much for me now," she said.
Still, Wilson said she doesn't agree with Anne Bokma's planned protest indoors, so she won't give her tickets to that effort.