Saturday, November 15, 2008

What Is A Morally Offensive Picture?

There's a good piece in a recent New Yorker about psychopaths. In true New Yorker style, it tells you a whole bunch of things you didn't know you wanted to know about psychopaths: that psychotherapy used to distance itself from the concept of psychopathy, that the test for diagnosing a psychopath is recently designed and copyrighted — like, the guy gets royalties — and that psychopaths make people's skin crawl for real.

One thing in this article, however, mystified me. Part of the story is about how the use of MRIs of psychopaths in prison is revolutionizing the understanding of psychopathy, and the reporter decides to take the relevant test himself. He gets into the scanner, and then has to rate a bunch of images according to how "morally offensive" they are on a scale of one to five.

The pictures include a bloody baby, Osama bin Laden, a man on the ground with his face beaten in, and two guys "inadvertently" butting heads in a soccer game.

Our reporter hesitates. At first he thinks the baby rates high, but then he realizes it's a birth and gives it zero. At first he thinks the soccer game guys rate zero, but then gives it a one because "perhaps a foul was called." He's mystified by the bin Laden picture, and properly so, but eventually gives it a four. Only the guy on the ground can he judge with confidence: this gets a five.

When I read that I was like, WTF? If the baby could be a birth, then the guy on the ground could be a morally neutral victim of an accident. On the other hand, how can you tell from a photo the head butt is inadverant? Could be the result of racist trash-talking, made to look like an accident. And Osama bin Laden??

The problem is that pictures aren't morally charged, narratives and interpretations are. You can't ask people to rate pictures for being morally offensive; it just doesn't make any sense.

The New Yorker points out that the logical conclusion of all this research is the whole looking-into-people's-brains-to-see-whether-they're-criminals thing. It would be good to get this whole picture-versus-interpretation thing sorted out before we get all into that. OK?

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