Beyond Minority Report: Pre-Crime, Pre-punishment and Pre-desert
Utilitarian ethics are apparently incommensurable with other ethical perspectives. Faced with a choice between maximizing general benefit to society and committing an act of injustice, those of us who reject utility in favor of justice are powerless to change the viewpoint of someone who rejects justice in favor of utility. Since there are no higher ethical principles that overarch both principles of utility and principles of justice, both sides must run out of reasons when deciding which principles should be put first. But the unreasoned decision is ineluctable, because there are possible cases in which the principles conflict.1 This kind of incommensurability in ethical values emerges again in the attempt to justify punishment. A desert-theorist – one who justifies punishment in terms of what the offender deserves simply seems to have fundamental values incommensurate with those of a deterrence-theorist – one who justifies punishment in terms of the utility of the deterrent effect of the punishment. In what follows I examine a fantastic, yet coherent scenario which puts the desert-theorist back into dialogue with the deterrence-theorist. Both should judge that the form of punishment considered – punishing a person for an offence he will commit – is morally wrong. On both sides, there are good and bad arguments available for this common judgment. But it turns out that all the good arguments available to the deterrence-theorist are parasitic upon good arguments available to the deserttheorist. Therefore the desert-theorist has the better justification of punishment in general.