Minority Report

Pragmatism versus Ethics

In his review of Minority Report, Robert Barnes writes that the main character, Precrime Chief John Anderton, is

driven by ethics.  He is consumed by the sense that there is right and wrong, and murder is wrong.  His guilt over playing an unwitting part in the disappearance/murder of his son cannot exist in a world without morality.  His zeal to protect victims of violent crime flows from his good conscience.1

Thus, when the film opens, Anderton is convinced that he is not actually violating anyone’s rights.  He is convinced that all he and his unit are doing is preventing an otherwise-inevitable violation of rights.  As the film progresses, however, he discovers that the state’s predictive apparatus is flawed, and it becomes abundantly clear to him that the people targeted by the Department of Precrime are technically innocent.  Thus, from that point forward, Anderton aims to take down the very system he himself had helped to promulgate, the very system that had been systematically violating the natural rights of the technically innocent.

Max von Sydow as Lamar Burgess

Barnes contrasts Anderton with the Director of Precrime thusly:

On the other hand, the villain of this world (Anderton’s superior Lamar Burgess) is a pragmatist.  He kills innocent people, enslaves innocent Precogs, and creates a criminal system that likely punishes innocent people.2

It is interesting to find the term pragmatist used in this fashion, because often, individuals associate pragmatism with “the good.”  But pragmatism can reference something undesirable as well, if and when the person using the term aims to use it in defence of some so-called “necessary” evil.  To Burgess, it is indeed a “necessary” evil to commit murder, and indeed to violate the natural rights of innocent people, because some sort of “greater good” is served.  But Burgess’s entire outlook is fundamentally flawed, for it ignores human rights in the name of defending human rights.  For the Precrime methodology to be just, human rights would have to not exist; but if human rights do not exist, then there would be no point in preventing murder in the first place.

The abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, argued for the abolition of slavery based on the notion of self-ownership.  Every person, these early libertarians understood, inherently owns her own body, and should be free to do with her own body whatever she pleases, so long as she does not initiate force or fraud against the person or justly-acquired property of anybody else.  And why this prohibition on aggression against others?  Rationally, because such aggression would necessarily violate the equal right of others to self-ownership.  All human rights, therefore, are derived from self-ownership.

Consider this quote from the libertarian Frederick Douglass, who was fortunate enough to escape from slavery:

I was now getting, as I have said, one dollar and fifty cents per day.  I contracted for it; I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh.  And why?  Not because he earned it,—not because he had any hand in earning it,—not because I owed it to him,—not because he possessed the slightest shadow of a right to it; but solely because he had the power to compel me to give it up.  The right of the grim-visaged pirate upon the high seas is exactly the same.3

Douglass earned money through the labour of his own body, which he also by right owned.  But the slave master took the earnings nevertheless.  External property can only be legitimately acquired in one of three ways: homesteading it from the state of nature, receiving it as a gift from a previous legitimate owner, and receiving it through trade from a previous legitimate owner.  When someone, like Master Hugh, takes one’s legitimately-acquired property, can it ever be on a basis other than the assumption that the person being victimised is her- or himself the property of the aggressor?  All theft of justly-acquired property amounts to retroactive enslavement, for all legitimate human rights are derived from the innate self-ownership of the individual.

Likewise for the victims of Precrime, until the moment one initiates (or clearly and undeniably threatens to initiate) force or fraud against the person or justly-acquired property of another, one has not yet sanctioned the use of defensive or retributive force.  Thus, unless the Precrime officers wait until the highwayman points his gun at his would-be victim, they are necessarily violating the rights of a self-owner who has not yet sanctioned the use of defensive or retributive force.  Moreover, since there is no and can be no metaphysical certainty that anyone will ever initiate or threaten to initiate force or fraud, it doesn’t matter how “pragmatic” one claims it is to issue a preemtive attack, such preemtive attacks are necessarily and inherently unethical.  For a use of force to be ethical, not only must the legitimate user of force wait until the aggressor has actually initiated or actually threatened to initiate force, but it must also be directed solely at the aggressor(s) and at no one else.  Any use of force not thusly confined is necessarily in violation of individual human rights and therefore unethical—again, no matter how much one may claim it to be “pragmatic.”  (Note:  If a person points a gun at you, he is thereby threatening your life, even if he does not speak, and you have the right to defend yourself.  But merely possessing a gun is not a threat, and therefore it is unjust to attack a person for merely possessing a gun.)

This isn’t to say that pragmatism is inherently bad, of course; rather, the point is merely that pragmatism is not inherently good.  Therefore, pragmatism for its own sake, without regard for ethics, can be quite destructive.  And this, precisely, is why Lamar Burgess is correctly viewed as the film’s villain.

In reading Rev. Barnes’s review, I couldn’t help but to think of an account, written by the libertarian philosopher and Austrian school economist Dr. Murray Rothbard, of the rise of libertarianism in America.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995)

On election day, 1978, Libertarian party candidates for congressional, state, and local offices amassed 1.25 million votes throughout the country.  Richard Randolph was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives on the LP ticket, and Edward Clark piled up 377,960 votes for governor of California.  After the LP presidential ticket gained 174,000 votes in 32 states in 1976, the sober Congressional Quarterly was moved to classify the fledgling Libertarian party as the third major political party in America.  The remarkable growth rate of this new party may be seen in the fact that it only began in 1971 with a handful of members gathered in a Colorado living room.  The following year it fielded a presidential ticket which managed to get on the ballot in two states.  And now it is America’s third major party.

Even more remarkably, the Libertarian party achieved this growth while consistently adhering to a new ideological creed—“libertarianism”—thus bringing to the American political scene for the first time in a century a party interested in principle rather than in merely gaining jobs and money at the public trough.  We have been told countless times by pundits and political scientists that the genius of America and of our party system is its lack of ideology and its “pragmatism” (a kind word for focusing solely on grabbing money and jobs from the hapless taxpayers).  How, then, explain the amazing growth of a new party which is frankly and eagerly devoted to ideology?

One explanation is that Americans were not always pragmatic and nonideological.  On the contrary, historians now realize that the American Revolution itself was not only ideological but also the result of devotion to the creed and the institutions of libertarianism.  The American revolutionaries were steeped in the creed of libertarianism, an ideology which led them to resist with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor the invasions of their rights and liberties committed by the imperial British government.  Historians have long debated the precise causes of the American Revolution:  Were they constitutional, economic, political, or ideological?  We now realize that, being libertarians, the revolutionaries saw no conflict between moral and political rights on the one hand and economic freedom on the other.  On the contrary, they perceived civil and moral liberty, political independence, and the freedom to trade and produce as all part of one unblemished system, what Adam Smith was to call, in the same year that the Declaration of Independence was written, the “obvious and simple system of natural liberty.”4


1 Robert Barnes, “Minority Report: A Review,” IIIM Magazine Online 4, no. 24, (June 19 to June 26, 2002), http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/rob_barnes/PT.Barnes.MINORITY.REPORT.html.

2 Ibid.

3 Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, 2nd ed., ed. David W. Blight (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003, orig. 1845), p. 106.

4 Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2nd ed., (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006, orig. 1973, 1978), pp. 1–2.