Ethics of Pre-Crime (spoilers from Minority Report)

I watched Minority Report last night. The same thought crossed my mind as did the first time I saw it;

Was Lamont justified in his 3 murders and induced comas of 3 individuals to enact the system of Pre-Crime? The way the movie ends to me puts an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I suppose this is similar to the ancient philosophy question - if killing one person would let you save 100 people, would you kill the one person? I’m not entirely sure how to answer this type of question.

But anyway, the ending theme of the movie is that Lamont was the evil bad guy, and John saved the day by rescuing the three precogs.

On the other hand, Lamont says earlier in the film, “think of all the people you’ve saved” - at the end of the movie, John is labelled as around inmate #1130 or something. That is over 1000 saved lives. By deconstructing the system, not only will more lives be lost to murder, but all of the “pre-murderers” previously captures are suddenly released back into society.

The other ethical question is the opposite; is it right to basically kill someone (I don’t see how induced coma and death are very different, other than on a technical level) for a crime they are going to commit?

Or should there be a “tiered” system, where the “pre-criminal” is prevented from doing hte murder, is given a trial by their peers and a court, and either released (in the cases of crimes of passion that aren’t likely to repeat) or given a various other sentence depending on the severity of the murder? I don’t know why it has to be so black and white as it is in the movie.

Or is it wrong to arrest someone for an intent at all?

Supposedly, the movie originally ended in a way that more directly raised this question. At the end (where Tom Cruise is doing the voiceover about everything being happy), there was another sentence, something along the lines of “The following year, 500 people were murdered in Washington, DC” (I’m not sure on the exact number, but you get the idea).

As for the question… it’s sticky, but here’s what I think:

  • It was wrong for Lamont to kill the people to cover up the flaws in the system and keep it going. The people had the right to know how the system really worked.
  • The “release” of the three precogs is stickier. I think it was wrong to enslave them against their will, but I think, if three people are in the position to save thousands of lives like that, they should do so. They shouldn’t be forced to do so, though.
  • I always thought the punishment was ridiculous, especially for the “crimes of passion”. In a world with precogs, it seems like we could come up with something better, such as psychological treatment combined with monitoring to ensure that they never murder anyone.

The bugged me, also, especially since it wasn’t clear why a conventional prison system had been replaced by this wierd “freezer” approach, nor why a crime of passion interrupted requires a life sentence. While I can picture a bunch of jetpacked cops busting in to break up a crime in progress, I think a cooling off period for all the participants, with lots of crisis counselling, would be a better use of resources. Heck, in the case of the crime at the very beginning when a man is stopped before knifing his adulterous wife, I can imagine even she wouldn’t want him taken away forever.

You should read the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick.

I was going to come in here and say the same thing. The short story is a different angle and completes in a different way. It makes a little more sense.

I thought the movie was OK when I first saw it, and every time I thought about it I liked it a little less. It was not until I read the story that I realized the problem - it was too stretched out and a lot of stuff was just made up.

Knowing how much you like citing papers: An fMRI Investigation of Emotional Engagement in Moral Judgment (pdf) :wink:

Made up? In fiction?! :dubious: :wink:

If it is implicit in your premise that Pre-Crime knows for an absolute certainty that the crimes will be committed, then that argues very strongly for predestination and against free will. I don’t see how ethics applies to a situation where an individual is unable to make a choice.

The whole premise is ridiculous. Look, as soon as Cruise saw that he was destined to murder that dude in x days, he should have high-tailed it to the mountains or somthing and camped out for a week until the deadline passed. Instead he goes off on some crazy adventure to solve the crime he ends up committing anyway.

That should be the “punishment”. If you get picked up by the pre-crime for “about to killing” someone, they should hold you for a period of time or drop you off a thousand miles away in one of those Dustbuster looking flying things so that you can’t commit the crime, and then go about your life.

Because in the future, it will be more efficient to store criminals in complex and expensive cryogenic chambers instead of concrete boxes. And nothing rehabilitates a man like going to sleep and waking up 20 years in the future.

Silly me for not explaining further. I mean a lot of the stuff in the movie was made up, and wasn’t in the story. And a lot of times (I think) a director or screenwriter more likely doesn’t come up with a very good story when it’s revised.

Does that make sense at all?

I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know the details of how the system is meant to work. Yet if the psychics and police are able to predict murders and then prevent them, the murders cannot be predestined. If God or Fate or whatever foreordains that a murder is going to happen then by golly it’ll happen no matter what mere mortals do to try and prevent it.

If it seems that psychic information is preventing murders then I see only two explanations. Either the psychic visions are bogus and the whole thing is a big scam, or they’re visions of a possible future that can be averted through human action. Neither scenario negates free will (although neither requires it either).

Getting back to the OP, if it’s all a big scam then the ethical problems are obvious. I guess one might eliminate murder through such a scam, if it made people too afraid to even think about murdering anyone. However, it would seem that the only way to make the scam convincing enough to produce that effect would be if the goverment went around framing innocent people for imaginary future murders and then executing them. (I take it from other posts that something like this did happen in the movie?) This could be seen as a form of “taking one life to save a hundred”, but even if one has no objection to this in principle there’d be no guarantee that the numbers would actually work out that way. There’d be no guarantee that the scam would successfully deter any murderers at all. The government would also be guilty of a massive deception of the general public.

If the visions are genuine but of a possible rather than predetermined future, the questions becomes “Is it okay to kill someone if they might kill others?” I think the answer to that depends on how detailed our information is and how certain we are of the possibility. If the police act on highly suspect information then things are hardly better than they’d be if the government started executing people at random. So let’s say we’re quite certain that the prospective murderers at least possess genuine intent to kill. Under ordinary circumstances, I think that if someone learns of a murder plot they have an ethical obligation to do what they can to prevent the murder from taking place. This would remain true if the plot were an idea in someone else’s mind uncovered through supernatural means. But do you kill someone just because you know they’re planning a murder?

Ideally, one would prevent the murder in the least harmful manner that would still be effective. I think the reasonable approach would be similar to what Bryan Ekers suggested. Take the prospective murderers into custody, find out who they want to murder and why, and then take steps to both protect the intended victim and try to work the problem out non-violently. If the prospective murderers could not be reasoned with then imprisonment or psychiatric confinement might be justified. I can’t see similar justification for killing them unless the future visions reliably indicated that this was the only way to keep them from carrying out the murder. Doesn’t seem like a situation that would occur very often, though.

It’s even less likely when we get into unplanned murders. A psychic vision detailed enough to be certain about would probably contain enough information to allow police to prevent the murder-inspiring situation from occurring in the first place. There would be cases where nothing more dramatic than a well-timed phone call or other minor delay could disrupt the chain of events leading to the murder. At the extreme end, the cops could show up in time to tackle or stun the prospective murderer and save the day. Some kind of follow-up counselling might be necessary (help the husband deal with his jealousy issues, convince the wife to be faithful or file for divorce), but solving the problem with killing seems like…overkill.

It seems to me that the only justifications for a “kill first, ask questions later” policy would be not ethical, but practical or financial. It might be easier and cheaper to kill someone (or put them in the freezer) rather than give them years of state-sponsored therapy. But if we’re willing to go that route, it seems like a short but slippery slope to deciding that it’s easier and cheaper to forget both the legal system and this psychic mumbo-jumbo and just kill anyone who seems the least bit suspicious. Heck, why not cut the Gordian Knot and end all crime permanently by killing everyone?

One element that’s a little odd is that when Pre-Crime is abolished and the prisoners pardoned and released, Cruise’s character is apparantly among them. But unlike them, Cruise actually succeeded in the predicted murder. All the evidence would suggest that he intentionally shot Leo Crowe (Crowe shot point-blank with Cruise’s gun, for example), Crowe’s “suicide by cop” plan notwithstanding. The only witness is Agatha, who seems too out of it to provide reliable testimony. At the very least, Cruise should be facing some kind of penalty, possibly a manslaughter or reckless endangerment charge.

In any case, I can’t see any reason an impressive system like Precog should be dumped simply because the penalty (life in a coma) was ridiculously inappropriate and one of the founders was a nut. The movie suggest the need for reform, not abolition. I note in the weaselly voiceover at the end that some of the pardoned were under surveilance “for years” afterward, suggesting Cruise was explaining the events from a historical perspective, yet he fails to mention if murders began to recur during those “years”.


Pre-Crime makes arrests and effects summary judgement based on what it claims is knowledge of the future. These are not planned crimes but crimes of passion; supposedly the perpetrator is not himself aware of his intent until right before it happens. It is a truism that preordained events cannot be undone; it is also a truism that paradoxes cannot be resolved and remain paradoxes, so perhaps the entire premise of the movie is silly. If the question then becomes whether it is ethical to punish someone for having a possible future, I give it resounding no, and add that I should think it would go without saying.

Sounds like it, although since I haven’t seen it I can’t judge how cleverly they pull it off. But the only way to be sure that a prediction of the future is accurate is to wait for it to come true. If the police use predictions to prevent the very events that were predicted, they can never know if the murders would have really happened or not. One could be pretty sure if the police burst in just in time to catch someone putting their finger on the trigger, but people do change their minds at the last second sometimes. Maybe the prediction was correct, but it’s impossible to both be sure of that and prevent the murder.

Of course, part of the premise for such a story could be that the government has decided it’s “worth it” to punish criminals in advance even if they are not and cannot ever be certain that their information about the future was accurate.

Well, if the police do catch someone with their finger on the trigger I think it is ethical for them to act to prevent the possibility that the trigger will be pulled from becoming a reality. If innocent lives are at stake then even killing the gunman could be justified, provided there were no other obvious options and it could be done without endangering bystanders.

Yet killing someone in such circumstances isn’t really a punishment. Given the sort of advance warning any reasonably reliable psychic predictions would provide, such circumstances should also be avoidable. If we’re talking about arresting, convicting, and sentencing people based on unverifiable information then we’re dealing with a huge violation of the whole “reasonable doubt” thing. Worse still, if my understanding of the movie is correct, people are being sentenced to death-or-something-like-it for the crimes of attempted manslaughter or attempted second-degree murder. That’s much more severe than the punishments currently handed out for such crimes even when they’re successful, and that’s with much more reliable evidence than someone’s supposed visions of the future.

It seems to me that in a world where it’s accepted common knowledge that the government can predict future crimes and grab the criminal before he commits them, there wouldn’t be many planned crimes in the first place.

Actually, that was mentioned in the movie. They could also predict planner murders, they just almost never had any, because nobody bothered to plan them anymore. Planned murders were also much easier for them, because the predictions came about earlier (as people started to think about it, basically); crimes of passion were harder to stop, because they didn’t have as much warning.

In the original version, at least according to some website I read when the movie came out or something, Cruise’s character ended his monologue with a line about the 500 murders that occurred in Washington, DC, in the year after PreCrime was abolished. That one line changed would have made the whole point of the movie what Zagadka asked about at the beginning of the thread (and what you’re mentioning here)–is it ok to enslave 3 people to save the lives of hundreds? Removing it made the movie just a story, without the obvious moral question, and I think hurt the movie a LOT.

As for that question… I think the system should have been reformed, and continued… ONLY if the three precogs agreed to do so. Enslaving them to the system against their wills was wrong, but, if they chose to save lives (which would be the right thing to do, but not something that should be required of them), then it could continue… for a while.

The problem is, they won’t live forever. There was no guarantee of future precogs (for those who haven’t seen or don’t remember, the precogs were essentially crack babies, but from a new future drug; some of the babies developed these powers, and apparently only three developed them well enough to work in the system). I definitely think it would be wrong to intentionally make precogs by getting pregnant women to take the drug, and hoping that some of them would be stable enough to be precogs. So the system couldn’t last. Once it’s gone, you have a police force that no longer knows how to solve crimes. The precogs should have been studied to see if it was something that could be induced in a willing adult, but, barring that, the system was doomed to eventually fail.


I think we are hung up on the actual (potential) crime rather than the events that lead up to it. Pre-Crime will accurately predict all the elements leading up to a crime; for example, the husband leaving the house, the lover sneaking in to meet his (the husband’s) wife, the husband returning for his glasses, etc. All of these predicted events happened. Whether or not the actual crime takes place is trivial. The ability to predict the future at all implies predestination, which implies lack of free will, which takes ethics out of the picture.

Well, again, if the predicted future can be averted then either the predictions are inaccurate or we’re not dealing with predestination. It doesn’t matter if the predictions are partially correct. If the predicted future can be changed at all then either it wasn’t predestined or the prediction was wrong. The ability to predict the future only implies predestination if the psychic, like Cassandra, can see the future but remains powerless to alter it. In a case like that described here the vision of the future is, at most, an image of how the future will be unless something is done now to prevent it. This is just a more advanced form of guessing what is likely to happen in the future, which is what ordinary people do every day.

If I see a child playing in the street, unaware of the speeding truck bearing down on her, it doesn’t take any special ability to predict that there’s going to be a tragic accident…unless I do something about it. If I prevent the accident from happening by grabbing the child or shouting for her to move, I’ve just proven that my “prediction” was not a vision of a predestined future. It was a reasonable guess about the likely result of allowing the current set of circumstances to continue unchecked.

Now, this scenario (or that in the movie) doesn’t rule out predestination. Maybe I swapped one possible future for another through my own free action, or maybe I merely acted out my predestined role. I could have been fated to see the child, fated to guess that she’d be killed unless I saved her, and then fated to save her. But if that’s the case, then my “prediction” was even less accurate than it was in the free-will scenario. In the free-will scenario it was at least a possible future, but in a predetermined universe it couldn’t be even that. The child was never going to be hit by the truck, because I was predestined to prevent that from happening. There’s no “if I had done otherwise” in a predetermined universe.

So the psychics in the movie were superhumanly good at guessing what was likely to happen, or their visions were of a future that never could have been. But either way, the fact that the predicted murders don’t happen thanks to psychic/police intervention is evidence enough that they are not predestined.

They went into this a bit in the movie. Colin Farrell’s character is asking Tom Cruise’s character about how they can know the person is going to commit the crime if there’s free will (or something along those lines). Tom rolls a ball along a shelf toward Colin, and Colin catches it.
Tom: Why’d you catch that?
Colin: Because it was going to fall.
Tom: You’re certain?
Colin: Yeah.
Tom: But it didn’t fall. You caught it. The fact that you prevented it from happening doesnt change the fact that it was going to happen.

Incidentally, I really liked that scene you mention, Jon the Geek. Clever.