Tom Cruise does philosophy

By Andrew Moesel

Minority Report is an action packed movie based around a pair of interesting philosophical questions: can we predict human actions before they happen, and, with this knowledge, can these actions be controlled? The movie offers an accessible look at these timeless, complicated ethical and metaphysical issues concerning the freedom of man’s action. Audiences across the country are leaving the movie theatre arguing about ideas that have historically taken on the names like free will, predetermination, and rational choice. Referencing many of the plot devices and revelations throughout the movie (even the very end), this essay is intended for those who have already viewed the movie, don’t plan to see it, or at the least, don’t mind having it ruined for them. Read at your own risk.

Tom Cruise plays a detective in charge of the Department of Pre-crime, an agency that uses evidence provided by a trio of waterlogged oracles to arrest murderers preemptive of their crimes. For six years the system seemed to have worked without a glitch until Cruise himself becomes the subject of a “pre-cog” premonition depicting him murdering a man he has never met. Assured of his innocence, Cruise wages a war against both the Washington, D.C. police department and the hands of fate to prove he has been framed in some dastardly conspiracy. Cruise eventually succeeds in stumbling across the evil plot he suspected, but not before fulfilling his destiny by shooting the victim in question.

The most philosophically relevant part of the movie, however, comes at the very end when Cruise’s boss, the man behind the entire scheme, chooses to kill himself rather than Cruise, a decision that blatantly goes against the prediction of the psychic crime fighters. All programs are cancelled, all prisoners are pardoned, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Hence, the movie makes the clear statement that there is no fate, or at least none we can’t avoid with our rational faculties. Though certain patterns could conceivably be universalized (with infinite or mystical powers of some kind) to forecast some decisions, humans always have a completely free choice in their actions regardless of the situation, making outcomes impossible to predict.

Such a concluding evaluation is somewhat strange in a movie that appears to endorse just the opposite. The “pre-cogs” are correct 999 times out of 1000, and though they apparently disagree on some occasions, countless murders have apparently been stopped. But all it takes is one exception to a theory, and the theory fails to become truth. What the movie is saying, therefore, is this: there is no underlying theory to human rationality that can flawlessly anticipate human action in a series of events. Perhaps though, we could get remarkably close to such a theory. It is to this point I would like to address a few moral considerations.

The moral issue I would like to address is not the ethics of charging people with crimes they are going to commit, but the alarming promptness with which the Department of Pre-Crime was shut down. I thought they had something pretty good going for them. Although at the end of the movie the system makes a mistake, all the characters appear confident that there were no such mishaps in the previous six years of the program (since there had not been a single murder in that time). There were “minority reports” in which the psychic predictions of the three “pre-cogs” did not agree—I believe Cruise mentioned twelve reports existed with such discrepancies—but without a high level cover-up these cases may have been handled differently. Even still, there were only thirteen convictions of possibly innocent suspects in six years. I doubt our current legal system could boast such a tally. Are these people acceptable casualties for a society with no murder and little violent crime? To borrow the colloquial expression, to make an omelet, do we have the right to crack a few eggs?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I wouldn’t be presumptuous enough to offer any opinions. Is it morally acceptable to kill one person to save a hundred, a thousand, or a million lives? What I will say is that the movie makes too quick a judgment on this point. The system could be reformed to work better in the future instead of discounting it so completely. I have heard people say it is better to let a thousand guilty men go free than imprison one innocent man. Though I am leery of the very thin philosophical ice on which I tread at the moment, I am skeptical of this sort of grandiose, liberal generalization about the criminal justice system.

Movies can’t all be five hours long, and people don’t want to sit through heavy philosophical debates about utilitarian precepts after the grand finale and happy ending. However, if it were up to me, in reality I would have liked to see the Department of Pre-Crime undergo a more thorough investigation and trial before a complete dismantling. I may even have been one of its advocates.

Andrew Moesel is a third-year in the College concentrating in English and philosophy. He has given up a promising career as a lawyer to search for truth and the tastiest ham sandwich on earth.