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‘Psycho-Pass,’ Justice, and Utilitarianism

Psycho Pass provides a powerful look into the nature of justice, utilitarianism, and the organization of the ideal society.

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Psycho-Pass

Psycho Pass is one of those anime that manages to check so many of my favorite boxes. It’s got a sexy and sleek sci-fi aesthetic, an intriguing plot and mystery to solve, a cast of well-developed and engaging characters, and some pretty deep themes running through its narrative. There’s a reason why so many critics have named it one of the top anime of the past decade.

One major question that the series presents is this: What makes a society just? The society in which Psycho-Pass takes place seems to answer that question like this: The just state should work to maximize the pleasure and well-being of its citizens while minimizing the harm and suffering they encounter.

Despite this reasonable-sounding maxim, the society we are presented with in Psycho-Pass is manifestly unjust. To demonstrate exactly what is wrong with the political structure of the state in the anime, it helps to understand the philosophical theory of utilitarianism and how ethical theories inform our conception of what, exactly, justice is.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that attempts to answer the question, “What makes an action morally correct?” The idea behind utilitarianism is pretty simple. According to utilitarianism, the morally correct action is the one that maximizes pleasures for the greatest amount of people. Under utilitarianism, whether or not an action is right or wrong depends on the consequences it generates. Actions that generate good consequences are good and actions that generate bad consequences are bad.

Utilitarianism as an ethical theory has existed in some form or another for a long time, though the most influential formulations of the view come from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, two English philosophers who lived during the 19th century. Both Bentham and Mill argued that pleasure and pain were the two things that ultimately have value. Further, they argued that actions that maximize pleasure and minimize pain constitute good actions.

Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism.
Jeremy Bentham, the father of modern utilitarianism.

Both Bentham and Mill were writing during a time of social and political unrest. Thus, they developed their ethical ideas with the intention that they inform public policy. Bentham and Mill believed that social policy should be directed by their utilitarian maxim; i.e. that laws should be situated to promote the greatest benefit for the most people. Bentham and Mill’s belief that society should aim to increase overall happiness motivated many of their then-progressive political views. Primary among these was the conviction that prison and social punishment should function as a means of rehabilitation, not as a form of retribution or vengeance.

‘Psycho-Pass’ and the Utilitarian Society

In the world of Psycho-Pass, advances in technology have led to the creation of the Sybil System, a superintelligent AI that organizes most aspects of Japanese society. Through its vast network of cameras, sensors, and monitors, the Sybil System keeps tabs on the psychological states of the individual populace. Psychometric data is recorded on each citizen’s “Psycho-Pass,” a handheld device that communicates information about a person’s current mental state. The color of a person’s psycho pass (called its hue) reflects their crime coefficient, i.e. their propensity to engage in criminal behavior at any given moment.

The Sybil system continuously monitors peoples’ psycho passes and keeps track of their hues. If a person’s crime coefficient rises above a certain level, the system marks them as a “latent criminal” and they are immediately collected by law enforcement. Those marked as latent criminals are forcibly administered therapy in order to reintegrate into society. If a person is deemed beyond reform, there are permanently separated from society and stripped of most of their rights.

The state enforcers in Psycho Pass
The state enforcers who capture latent criminals.

Aside from its role in preventing crime, the Sybil System coordinates many other aspects of society as well. People are placed into their respective jobs by the guidance of the system, and Sybil also handles most affairs falling under the jurisdiction of the nation’s government, the Ministry of Welfare. Through these measures, the Sybil system has created a Japan that is characterized by extraordinarily high levels of well-being and happiness.

The society of Psycho-Pass seems to be founded upon a utilitarian ethic. The Sybil System operates to maximize the collective good and minimize the suffering and pain of its citizens. Those judged likely to cause harm are removed from society to prevent the bad consequences of their behavior and to reform them so they can re-enter society. The motivation behind this policy is to minimize the amount of harm anyone can do.

The Sybil system also manages the city’s affairs with the goal of maximizing its citizens’ happiness. Citizens are matched to jobs with the goal of optimizing their personal satisfaction and well-being. Traffic, media, and entertainment are all designed and monitored to keep the populace in a pleasurable and calm psychological state. Each law and policy implemented is meant to promote the most possible happiness for the greatest number of people.

By many accounts, the society of Psycho-Pass has achieved utopia. Crime has virtually been eliminated and the large majority of the population live satisfactory lives. Despite this pleasurable facade, however, the world of Psycho-Pass is fundamentally flawed. The picture of the state that is presented through the viewpoints of main characters Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami is one that is clearly unjust and undesirable.

What Is Wrong With the Society in ‘Psycho-Pass?’

I claim that, despite the fact that happiness is maximized among the populace, the society of Psycho-Pass is unjust. In fact, the society of Psycho-Pass is unjust precisely because it’s designed to maximize the happiness of its citizens at the expense of other important political values, most importantly liberty and democracy.

The treatment of latent criminals is an important example that exemplifies a lack of liberty under the rule of the Sybil System. Those marked as latent criminals are immediately removed from society, even when they have not actually done anything wrong. This preemptive incarceration is perceived as justified because it ostensibly minimizes the amount of harm in society. However, it does so at the expense of the individual’s right to liberty. There is a very good reason why we should not incarcerate people who have not actually done anything wrong; it violates the individual’s autonomy and punishes them for things they didn’t do.

The main cast of Psycho Pass
The main cast of the series.

More generally, the non-criminal citizens of future Japan lack liberty and self-determination in their everyday lives. It is true that the citizens of the state are not under brutal subjugation, but their enslavement is of a more subtle and coercive nature. Peoples’ rank and status in society are determined by the Sybil System based on what it decides is best for them. Moreover, the state uses methods of psychological manipulation to monitor and shape the mentality of the populace to make them more agreeable to control. This form of domination is not one involving chains but is inherently unfree nonetheless.

The state in Psycho-Pass is also lacking in democracy both on an institutional and social level. Decisions of governance are not made through any kind of democratic mechanism, but by the rule of authoritarian central power. This lack of democracy in the political sphere bleeds into the sphere of subjective experience. If an individual is incapable of conceiving of themselves as autonomous, they cannot engage in the process of deliberative self-determination. This conundrum manifests in many of the main characters as they grapple with their inability to escape the predefined roles society assigns them.

Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the constitution of the state reflected and also played a role in shaping the soul of the individual citizen. The constitution of future Japan in Psycho-Pass is one that places primacy on pleasure above all other values. As such, the population molded by the political arrangement is similarly incapable of reflecting on other important political values like democracy, freedom, and justice. The single-minded pursuit of the state and the accompanying neutering of the public consciousness sow the seeds of conflict that drive the main narrative of the story.

Utilitarianism and the Ideal Society

Here’s a hypothetical situation: Imagine there was a society in which every person experiences the greatest amount of happiness and fulfillment. However, in order to maintain this society, an innocent person must be savagely tortured on a regular basis. In this society, the well-being of everyone else is dependent on the acute misery of a single person. If you were raised in this city and discovered the awful truth behind its prosperity, what would you do? Would you accept this arrangement as a necessary evil or would you reject that conclusion and leave?

Psycho Pass cityscape
A shot of future Japan.

The above example is drawn from the story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The point of the story is to illustrate that whether or not a society is just, depends on more than if it achieves some specific end; how the ends are achieved is also important.

This realization points to a fundamental flaw in utilitarianism as an ethical and political maxim. Utilitarianism is entirely focused on the ends of specific actions and does not assign the right moral weight to the means. Psycho-Pass can thus be interpreted as a critique of utilitarianism as a social philosophy. The society of Psycho-Pass, which is based on the utilitarian maxim, is focused on the ends of the political arrangement (maximizing happiness) and engages in unjust and cruel means to achieve that end. That’s why it is an undesirable political arrangement.

The question of the nature of justice and the ideal society is a major theme in Psycho-Pass. The series seems to be keenly aware of its philosophical content too, as many characters and institutions explicitly reference philosophical ideas and concepts such as the Panopticon surveillance system and the main antagonist’s clearly existentialist and Nietzschian beliefs. The rich philosophical content and thoughtful presentation are just a few of the reasons why Psycho-Pass has been praised so highly. A word of caution though; this is one anime that definitely did not need a second season.

Alex Bolano is a freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. When he isn't writing about anime, games, and gaming culture, he is probably eating mac and cheese or having a debate about the cosmology of the Elder Scrolls universe.

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