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