PETA calls for Brain Scan of Michael Vick: how neuroscience is once again being called upon to solve what are fundamentally normative problems

Michael Vick used to be the NFL’s highest-paid player.  That was before he was caught bankrolling a gambling ring that killed dogs by shot-gun, electrocution, drowning, and heinous beating  (hard words even to write).  He was charged with conspiracy and is currently serving his 23 month sentence.  Despite this incredibly public, negative exposure, there are still some NFL teams who are interested in Vick after his sentence is complete in July.  Will it be the Dallas Cowboys?  Will he be able to regain his instincts as a passer, given how the NFL has become so much of a passing league?   I can’t pretend to understand how commentators could focus on these mundane questions, given what we know about Vick’s life off of the field. But before I wax too moralistic…I don’t think you have to be a dog-lover like me to see the shame and atrocity in the way the pit-bulls were treated in Vick’s “Bad Newz Kennels.”  It’s hard to imagine a human being capable of that kind of violence toward something so innocent and defenseless.  But Vick wasn’t charged with being a bad person, he was charged with conspiracy.  And that sentence is almost up.

The Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, stated that he owed it to the public to make sure Vick was capable of remorse before he ever wore an NFL jersey again.  Oh, that’s helpful.   I can’t imagine that a statement of remorse will go far enough to restore his public image, but perhaps it would allow the bottom-line-blinded teams to take him back into the fold.

While I don’t think that a public statement of remorse should morally cut it, I also do not support the inquisition by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  Officials from PETA sent a letter to the NFL commissioner today saying that Vick should be checked to see if he is a psychopath or sociopath before he can return to the NFL.  And the method that they specifically suggested?  Brain scans.  PETA wants Vick to undergo a full psychiatric evaluation and a brain scan to determine whether he has anti-social personality disorder or psychopathy.  Excuse me, what?

Functional brain imaging cannot be used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses.  Full stop.  Not yet.  Researchers such as Kent Kiehl are currently making strides in locating neurological  markers of psychopathy, but they are not yet able to reliably use brain scans to diagnose someone with ASPD or psychopathy.  (Kiehl posits that psychopathy or APSD may be caused by a defect in the “paralimbic system,” but he acknowledges this is still a theory).   Because of the methodological limitations of fMRI, even if there were a deficit, the scanner might not pick it up.  Further, there could be reduced metabolism in the brain regions of interest, and yet this may not have any connection to psychopathy or ASPD.  So at this point, the scans would add nothing to explain Vick’s behavior.

Assuming for a second that brain scans could actually diagnose these disorders, why would this information be relevant at all in determining whether or not Vick should return to the NFL?  Would such diagnoses exculpate him from his bad acts, or make it impossible for him to return to the NFL, as he might strike again and sully the brand?  According to the letter from PETA to Goodell, PETA wants to use the brain scans to answer the question, “whether Michael can change.”  While parole boards and sentencing judges may ask whether someone “can change” (i.e., will they offend again)  PETA is not a legal entity and it cannot impose that sort of process on the NFL.  As the law has nothing to say in this case (where the sentence will have run and the NFL teams can hire or fire whomever they want) it seems to me that this is really a normative question for society to decide.  And one way we make social decisions is to trade signals back and forth —  in petitions, outrage, public apologies, and appeals for psychiatric tests.

But what is the relevance of this finding if it were somehow possible to show he would re-offend?  That it’s ok to brutally kill animals once, but not twice?  I guess it is hard for me to understand how PETA’s argument works; asking whether or not Vick can change seems to me to be the wrong question.  If Vick truly has no volitional control (as evidenced by the dazzling, commissioned brain scan…?) and he could not change his behavior, then might that make us a bit more sympathetic to his predetermined actions? The sword can cut either way.

Vick did what he did.  A signal of apology may or may not move anyone to think he should be restored to his previous NFL glory.  But the question that actually lies underneath all of this is to what degree society ought to punish someone who did what Vick did.  The law has not answered that.  Neuroscience cannot answer that.  Only we can answer that, by using a low-tech device of consumer activism: the boycott.

— Teneille Brown