Psycho-Pass: Where Does Criminality Come From?

Why do people commit crimes? What makes people “good” to begin with, and are some people just born to be “bad”? The debate is as old as philosophy, religion, and ethics, and Gen Urobuchi—one of the most thoughtful screenwriters in anime today, and who has broached such subjects before in previous series—once again tackles the question in his new anime, Psycho Pass.

The antecedents of Psycho Pass are transparent to the informed science fiction viewer: take some atmosphere from Blade Runner, a premise similar to Minority Report, and some of the violent, sexualized tableaus of Akira and one gets a good sense of the show’s feel. In many ways, it’s a hearkening back to an older style of cyberpunk anime, the sort that hasn’t been made much often past the Ghost in the Shell movies and series, and seems at first glance to be a reaction to anime’s current trends: witness the news that the staff has banned even the term “moe” from their studio. One blogger astutely notes that this alone is no guarantee of originality, of course, and the naive female protagonist at the center of Psycho Pass seems to be, like Madoka, a modern Urobuchi construct who will be subject to the full brutality of life as the story continues. (Suffering moe?)

Nonetheless, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the show to me is exactly where it differs from the central conceit of Minority Report. In Minority Report, the three clairvoyants see the actual crimes being perpetrated in the near future; the pre-crime police division’s goal is to stop particular individuals from committing actual deeds, often with minutes to spare. In Psycho Pass, however, the Sybil gauges only tendencies toward criminality. In true pseudo-scientific fashion, an actual number is assigned to a person’s likelihood to be a criminal, “latent” criminality as determined by a “crime coefficient.” Despite its veneer of mathematical objectivity, this is a fuzzier judgment than the envisioning of specific crimes. Just where does Sybil get its information and what criteria does it use to determine the score?

Remember, just because you watched your rapist explode does not mean you’re not a criminal too!

The first wanted man, Okura Nobuo, senses the fundamental unfairness of this system. He hadn’t even actually thought of doing anything wrong, but now that his life has basically already been ruined, he can’t see the point in remaining “good” anymore—so he acts on his worst impulses and kidnaps and rapes a woman. After having been heavily victimized, and thus determined by Sybil to also be a danger due to her confused, fearful desire for revenge, the woman nearly sets everything ablaze.

Urobuchi thus immediately points out the central flaw in Sybil’s system, which is that presuming someone to be a criminal, and acting accordingly, will often backfire. People will rise, or fall, to the expectations set on them. No wonder the grizzled enforcer tells the protagonist that “young people can’t handle much stress anymore”: when entire classes of them are judged on the basis of a number that they are no better than criminals, then why not be criminals? Why not go out in a blaze of glory and just do whatever you really wanted to do? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, a denial of free will (why, you have that number, so you must be bad!), and human nature rebels against such an imposition by lashing out willfully.

Civilization itself is thin ice.
Note: he’s not doing it for himself, or any other higher purpose.

It also raises a further question: why be good? The fact that Okura, upon receiving injustice, decides to just be bad in response implies that his “goodness”—better described as non-criminal action—was really a matter of conformity more than inner character. He describes how he had always tried to keep his nose out of trouble, tried to follow society’s expectations, but to no avail. Bereft of those external pressures, he collapses into complete selfishness and lust. For the victim, she doesn’t even have that in mind—she just wants the pain to end and to protect herself from impending harm. If it takes out a few people in the process, so be it—though I doubt she is even consciously considering that. She’s a cornered animal at this point, dehumanized by attackers outside and inside the law. The cruelty of putting her down as such is clear to protagonist Akane, and presumably the audience, but not to the hardened cops and hired criminal guns.

This Hobbesian view of humanity is not new, finding expression in doctrines as wide ranging as (a distorted understanding of) Original Sin, Hobbes’ own belief that absent Leviathan was anarchy, and more recently Brecht’s line in Threepenny Opera that food will always come before morals. Goodness and decency, in short, isn’t innate in human nature. It is either imposed or, at best, cultivated through moral education. The latter has always been one of the central functions of religion and philosophy, and if one has to generalize across very diverse philosophical and theological viewpoints, the purpose of ethical training is to make laws as unnecessary as possible: instead, the knowledge of right and wrong is internalized and becomes part of a person’s character. Morality becomes inner-directed. Urobuchi, true to his pessimistic leanings, suggests that few have that sense of morality, and the Sybil system ironically undermines any hope of instilling it by presuming some to already be “bad” and offering “therapy”—or ostracization.

And why would he, if it’s just telling him he’s bad?

The immediate resort to force after “therapy” is rejected is telling. CS Lewis once wrote about the dehumanizing shift from treating criminal behavior as moral faults to sicknesses requiring a “cure” or “therapy.” On the surface it seemed more humane to think of criminals as being ill, who can be thus healed by a doctor or therapist, but in reality

If crime is only a disease which needs cure, not sin which deserves punishment, it cannot be pardoned. How can you pardon a man for having a gumboil or a club foot? But the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being ‘kind’ to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. —”The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

A punishment theory of justice requires someone to actually do something worth punishing. But those with a high crime coefficient in the Psycho Pass universe get no pardon, and without having done a single thing. So why should they show mercy in return?

Poor Kana-tan. You’re about to find out what happens to people who say this in Gen Urobuchi anime.

Psycho-Pass is legally available streaming in the US through Funimation.

8 thoughts on “Psycho-Pass: Where Does Criminality Come From?”

  1. That’s where Mack the Knife originally came from? Cool! Didn’t realize that song had that story behind. Yes, food comes first, Maslow’s pyramid. “Economy, stupid!” is all about. Morality is higher-up. Grand Inquisitor told Christ that people want food rather than freedom.

    This title is interesting, since Japanese doesn’t have “th” sound, it exactly sounds “Psychopath”! It’s very Urobuchi to me from the start. Madoka was very misleading in the beginning, so for anti-moe purpose, I think Madoka worked better.

    Yes, innocent until proven guilty is gone. Criminality index, over 9000! No human rights whatsoever. Yes, I’m curious about what criterion they use to calculate criminality index.

    Interesting concept about therapy. I think that’s what libertarians want to do for drug offenders, rather treat it like disease than crime.

    Looking forward to 2nd episode!

    1. Brecht’s view forces us to consider just how animal-like human beings are when it comes down to it—though famine has always been around the corner for most of human history. In fact, one argument contends that both Japan and Germany started World War II in part due to gain extra space to grow food. Those who blithely say that people are naturally good and if only society would get out of the way we’d all be better off…have not studied history. Or looked around past the comfortable middle and upper class cocoons.

      The pun with Psycho-Pass and “psychopath” is obviously deliberate. The crime coefficient is trying, really, to discover psychopaths before they strike. Intelligent psychopaths really are scary because they do such a good job faking human interaction while feeling no empathy at all, and are thus liable to do anything. There actually is a real psychopath test, which they administer to some prisoners and whose results make a difference in parole decisions. A first step toward Psycho-Pass? Who knows…what makes this show so compelling is that its concept is really just the logical end of things that are already happening in society now, which is to make everything subject to the therapeutic model.

      I think libertarians, more than just decriminalizing drug use, want to make recreational drug use not really an offense at all, of any kind. The problem arises when that therapy or treatment is forced on people. Libertarians should be first in line to denounce the sort of society that Psycho Pass would create, or the use of psychological categories to confine undesirables involuntarily. The Soviets were the masters of declaring their enemies crazy and confining them to mental wards. See also A Clockwork Orange for another look at how a scientific technique to eliminate the desire to commit crimes is a far worse punishment than any traditional jail sentence.

      I am looking forward, too, to where this goes.

      1. Yes, there’s a study about chimpanzee violence. Chimpanzees lived in shortage of food were aggressive, and chimpanzees lived in abundance were peaceful.

        I think that argument is right, after the Meiji, westernization and industrialization, Japan experienced population explosion, so the islands became too small to live. Some of them emigrated to the American continent, in California, treated as yellow peril. It’s still too small, more than 100 million people living in a space smaller than the size of California. And 70% of Japan are mountains, so arable space is only 30%, and even rice is not self-sufficient anymore. Japan can’t survive without food imports. Hitler was clear on that, claiming Lebensraum in Southern part of USSR, now Ukraine.

        Yes, forced therapy is a problem. Yes, notorious “re-education” camp of stalinist regimes. Rapists are “treated” with chemical castration here. But at least, though extremely controversial, these are prisoners who were found guilty, not general civilians like Psycho Pass.

  2. Hmm I think “fearful desire for revenge” is jumping too quickly to conclusions. “doubt she is even consciously considering that. She’s a cornered animal” seems more likely.

    Slow, unpromising first episode until the end. Of course, Gen/Madoka has likely set the precedent for three episodes before judgement ~_~

    1. You’re probably right that that’s stated a bit too strongly, though it’s not that the vengeance is a deliberate or conscious thing—it’s more like, I need to hurt those who are about to hurt me, and it’s more instinctive than anything else. I think most anyone in that situation, given its exceeding injustice, would at least want to react in that way.

      I didn’t find it slow, at least not compared to the other show I like best this season, Shin Sekai Yori—whose slowness is, I think, justified—but it is still too early to tell whether Urobuchi will explore these ideas to their full potential. I have confidence he will, though.

  3. This was a great analysis. Very in depth and gives me a different perspective of the anime (watched the first 3 episodes) and the comparison to the Minority Report. Thanks a lot!

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