Monday, January 08, 2007

Minority Report and the Hand Formula

Tom Cruise's sci-fi film Minority Report portrays a world where murders can be seen in advance and prevented. Thanks to the "pre-cogs" who make this possible, Washington D.C. of 2052 has not had a murder in six years. The only attempted murders to occur now are those taking place in the heat of passion, for intentional planning to murder is easily identified and stopped. Individuals are arrested by the Department of Pre-Crime and punished with many years in a comatose state.

It seems that the disturbing twist to this film is that individuals are punished for horrible crimes that they had yet to commit. Murder should be punished, but should people be punished who have yet to murder but surely would? The movie attempts to draw forth insights about free-will and punishment of people's thoughts rather than actions. The more I think about it, however, the more disturbing twist to the story is the failure to heed the Hand Formula.

The Hand Formula is a calculus of negligence:

"The Hand Formula finds negligence when the actor's burden (B) is less than the probability (p) of harm, multiplied by the degree of loss (L). B < pL ."

Thus the Hand Formula provides a guide for punishing crimes. To dissuade a particular crime, the legal system can manipulate either the punishment when apprehended or the probability of apprehension to set an appropriate price for committing the crime.

The basis of Minority Report is that that the probability of apprehension for murder is 100%. But if murders of passion are stopped before they occur 100% of the time, then the punishment should approach zero.

Perhaps what is disturbing about Minority Report are not the questions of free-will and cognition that it raises, but the deviation from rules of efficiency that the lengthy punishment respresents.

Imagine a world where "pre-cogs" stop murders 100% of the time and the "pre-criminals" are put in a "kill-tank" (similar to a drunk-tank) for the duration of a day. Is this disturbing? I think not. The rare instances in people's lives when they lose control are stopped before serious damage is done. Repeat offenders may be forced to attend therapy of some sort. Murder does not occur. This sounds like a nice society indeed.


Matt E. Ryan said...

I'd love to hear Gary Becker's take on Minority Report.

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