Reading the criminal mind

Besides its surprisingly good action cinematography, ‘Minority Report’ owes its huge success to the deep discomfort it created in viewers. The movie constructs a future world where law enforcement makes use of ‘Pre-Cogs’ — humans who have been given the gift of foresight through genetic modification, so that they can see crimes before they happen. When a crime is predicted, the purported criminal is promptly apprehended and the crime prevented. The movie forces the viewer to confront a host of questions that have troubled philosophers for millennia.

If the future is predetermined, in what sense can we be said to be free? Central to our commonsense conception of freedom is the inherent possibility of doing otherwise. If the future is closed to alternate possibilities, then there is no sense in which a murderer could have acted differently and then it seems that  the act of murder is not a free act. Relatedly, if a person cannot do otherwise, is there a sense in which the person is morally responsible for the action? Hume, most famously, articulated the seemingly essential relationship between the notion of moral responsibility and the possibility of freely choosing your actions. ‘Ought implies can,’ he said. One is morally obligated to act in a certain way only if one can in fact act in such a way. If the future is predetermined, then in a clear sense the murderer could not have failed to murder. But then what sense is there to the claim that the murderer ought not to murder? And if there is no sense to be given in response to this question, there is little reason to hold the murderer morally responsible. The murderer is no different from a person who happens to slip on a banana, land on an innocent bystander, and accidentally snap his neck. The person is causally responsible for the unfortunate killing, but, since the person could not have done otherwise, is not morally responsible for it.

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He said, she said.

388px-Germany_Singelfingen_GossipsThis week the Guardian published an article questioning the veracity of UK sex trafficking figures. Not long ago, numbers as high as 25,000 were being used to motivate government policy which has led to changes in the priorities of virtually every police force in the country, and likely changes in the law. But it turns out the figures are bogus. The Guardian article charts their genealogy.

A central division that shapes the epistemology of testimony is that between reductionists and non-reductionists. Reductionists think that interlocutors have to justify what they are told by their own means. Non-reductionists think that interlocutors can, in principle, be justified in being so told, alone. The present situation offers a nice illustration of what’s at issue.

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could know everything that is known. But in any society in which there is a division of epistemic labour, many people make decisions which affect the lives of others on matters about which they are not experts or even knowledgeable hobbyists.

This combination (absent first-hand knowledge, and, a capacity to affect the lives of others) introduces a requirement that people rely on what the authorities (whoever they are: mechanics, scientists, economists, estate agents, policy designers, teachers…) tell them. This is a fact of modern life. Most of what you know you do not know first hand. But for this dependence on authority to work effectively as a basis on which interlocutors can make good decisions, and act appropriately: the authorities in question must have an accurate reputation; the theatres in which authorities have their checks and controls need to be functioning properly; and that which leaks out into the public domain needs to be put in a way that non-experts can understand and put to use responsibly.

When we have non-expert consumers of information, much scaffolding needs to be in place for a reliance on authority not to end in disaster. But with it in place, we get a picture of the epistemological status of testimony that is not obviously either reductionist or non-reductionist.

Related articles:
£1.99 - small Knowing from Testimony
Department of Philosophy, Northern Illinois University
(Vol. 1, June 2006)
Philosophy Compass