Why the subway photo was morally unsettling
Posted on December 11, 2012
One week ago, a New York City man named Ki-Suck Han was killed after being pushed onto the subway tracks by another man who has since been arrested. Right before the train fatally struck Han, a freelance photographer who had just walked onto the platform snapped several photographs of the impending tragedy. The next day, the New York Post published one of the photographs on its front page.
The result was widespread outrage. But why? The Post did not cause Han’s death, nor did it hasten its arrival. And the photographer was not snapping shots with profit in mind. Instead, since he had no way of physically saving Han, he thought making his flash go off in a flurry might signal to the train conductor to slow down.
Well, a series of studies recently published in the Personalty and Social Psychology Bulletin suggest that “whatever the true motives of the photographer and Post editors, the human mind is tuned to cast a wary eye on their actions.”
As one of the researchers explains, people believe that:
It is wrong to profit from another person’s misfortune. You don’t have to cause the misfortune; it goes without saying that buying a bond doesn’t cause a hurricane to strike. The mere act of making money off of somebody else’s suffering is enough. When we analyzed the potential causes for this moral norm, our evidence pointed toward a specific explanation: We question somebody’s character if they are willing to wish for the suffering of others.
But is this always the case? For instance, what if the photograph shook people enough to realize that the subway system was in dire need of safety reforms that would prevent further accidents of this kind? While this outcome probably would not have quelled the immediate negative reaction that many had to the publishing of the photo, it might have made publishing the photo excusable, and perhaps even supportable. Or is what the Post did wrong, no matter the circumstances and consequences? These are certainly questions worth thinking about, as this is not the first or last time a photograph of this nature will appear on the front page of a newspaper.