Psycho-Pass and the Beautiful Horror of “the Perfect Society”
If you were to watch the darker, dystopian version of our reality in the near future claimed as the perfect society, would you continue watching it?
I wouldn’t claim myself as an avid anime watcher, manga reader, or film and TV series connoisseur, not that there’s anything wrong with it if you are, but when I do watch them, it’s significantly rare I get emotionally invested in one. There are only so few that hooks me to the bone and leaves me emotionally-wrecked. Psycho-Pass is one of them. Psycho-Pass has been on my Netflix watch list for some time, and I’d say the current global situation pushed the urge in me to take it off my list. So I did, with the 2-season series and Psycho-Pass: The Movie that’s available on Netflix. I’m aware that there’s the third season of it out, but I’ll give this article up for the things that the series has forced me to take in. It is, without a doubt, beautiful and horrifying.
If you haven’t seen it and you’ve been planning to, this is where I’ll give you a “Spoiler Ahead” warning.
To put it not-so-briefly, Psycho-Pass is a Japanese anime set in futuristic Japan where its system is governed by a powerful bio-mechanical computer network, the Sibyl System (シビュラシステム, Shibyura Shisutemu). The Sibyl System is big on law and order to attain peace and absolute happiness of the citizens. It constantly and instantaneously measures and assesses Japanese citizens’ mentalities' biometrics through a process they call a “cymatic scan”. The result of this constant assessment is called a Psycho-Pass (サイコパス, Saikopasu) and it comprises a person’s numeric index called Crime Coefficient (犯罪係数, Hanzaikeisū) and a color-coded Hue of a person that signifies a person’s stress level. All of this is included in a person’s Psycho-Pass reading to determine the probability for a person to commit a crime.
The threshold for an accepted, non-criminal Crime Coefficient number is 100. Anything below 100, you’re a law-abiding citizen, and anything above 100, you’re a criminal, and beyond 300, you’re a threat to society. When you reach above 100, this data is sent to the Ministry of Welfare’s Public Safety Bureau, or MWPSB for short, which will alert the officers to move to where you are. A device they use in the anime as a major plot point is a hand-held weapon the officers use called the Dominator. The Dominator (aside from its great design) allows authenticated users for an immediate cymatic scan of a targeted individual to reveal their Psycho-Pass, whether their Crime Coefficient is a target for the Sibyl System to maintain order, mend justice, and preserve peace. The Dominator can only fire when approved by the Sibyl System and triggered by the user.
So if your Crime Coefficient goes high under any circumstances, making you a target for the Dominator’s power to put you under arrest or as far as eliminating your existence to preserve justice and order for others’ peace, it’s fair, isn’t it?
Is it really?
“The Perfect System” for the Perfect Society
The Sibyl System is a hive mind comprised of Criminally Asymptomatic individuals’ brains. Criminally Asymptomatic individuals are those whose personality doesn’t go along humanity’s conventional standards, able to oversee human actions from an objective viewpoint, without empathy or sympathy clouding judgment. Because of this objectivity, thoroughness, and accuracy, the Sibyl System is sought to be the superior decision-making entity to help society's betterment, from suppressing criminals and criminal pursuits to deciding your best choice of career path and romantic partner.
But what is the perfect society?
If you’d like to cheat, the anime says the ideal society is a peaceful society that maintains law and order through objectivity. In their book, a utilitarian society, overruling democracy as democracy is based on human subjectivity. The very heart of utilitarianism is this notion where it advocates for happiness and the most ethical actions that promote it. The ethical action here is the choice that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number. This is where it’s fundamentally flawed, especially in the anime, where the Sibyl System disregards individual rights and, in a way, justice.
Is it the perfect society for us? What is our version of a perfect society?
The Sibyl System claims itself to be the perfect system that can run a peaceful society, but the idea of the Dominator itself is already quite imperfect. In the eyes of the Sibyl System, when the Dominator is pointed at you, no matter whether your Crime Coefficient is high because you are the criminal who pursues the crime, or you’re the victim affected by the criminal pursuit, clouding your Hue/stress level which affects your Psycho-Pass (and that in itself is the work of logic), you deserve to be a target for enforcement action. Instances are running in the series where what utilitarianism holds––the true form of justice, what law holds and preserves, or the idea of free will––are being questioned. For example, a Criminally Asymptomatic individual, Makishima Shogo, orchestrates several crimes, including an abundance of murder and (almost) bioterrorism. Yet, his Psycho-Pass is 0 with a clear hue, not being able to be judged by the Sibyl System.
But that doesn’t sound right, if you think about it, no? Makishima Shogo is, rightfully so, a criminal in our eyes. But in the eyes of the Sibyl System, he’s innocent because Makishima is a Nihilistic individual who believes that “the only time people really have value is when they act according to their own free will,” in contrast to the citizens under the Sibyl System whose decisions are already made by the hive mind, making him Criminally Asymptomatic. Makishima is a blind spot for the Sibyl System. But does this mean the Sibyl System, claimed as the perfect system, can be judged? Can the Sibyl System be judged? Can the system itself be judged how it judges its citizens? Would that suggest the omnipotent paradox? Would that make the system no longer perfect when proven so?
Can an omnipotent being create a rock so heavy that it cannot lift?
On a personal note, I’m grateful that the Sibyl System doesn’t exist in our world because I agree to an extent with what he says when it comes to free will. And free will is the backbone of Psycho-Pass, and, can be argued, of humanity.
The Sibyl System doesn’t stop at criminal pursuits. It’s an all-ruling hive mind that decides pretty much everything, all suited to an individual’s likelihood of living a happy life. But what makes us happy? What makes you happy? Is it for a matter of statistic and objectivity? Would a computer deciding the aforementioned matters for you make you feel content? Or would the act of making our own decision and having means of control — the idea of free will, make you happy?
The answer doesn’t fall on the series. It’s for you to answer.
But some would argue that free will is an illusion. In comparison to our reality’s society, we are, to an extent, free. In the question of ethics, free will depicts our capacity to make choices that are genuinely our own. In the first episode of the first season, main protagonist Inspector Akane Tsunemori makes a bold decision on her first day by forbidding an Enforcer to pull his Dominator's trigger at a running hostage whose Psycho-Pass is affected by a stimulant, given by force, and the crime itself. Inspector Tsunemori realizes the true nature of the situation, knowing full well the hostage is far from being a latent criminal despite the Crime Coefficient. If it weren’t for the Inspector, the trigger would’ve been pulled without hesitation as judged by the Sibyl System, and a person’s life would’ve been wrongfully eliminated. Her sense of free will and maintaining law at the same time also becomes a highlighting trait of the character that acts as a middle ground, between the two extremes, between what the Sibyl System deems right and just, and what someone like Makishima Shogo thinks is and isn’t valuable. After all, it’s “not the judgment of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that’s important. What matters is that you come to the decision yourself. That you agonize over it, and you accept it.”
The series gets more philosophical and scientific as it runs, asking ourselves––or in this case, myself––what it means and could mean to be human. Direct and indirect references to philosophers are not scarce. It’s a beautiful horror in a way that I can’t quite describe, even after these lengthy paragraphs. One of the sentences said by the main protagonist, Inspector Akane Tsunemori, stuck with me since, that “it is not society that determines people’s futures. It is people who determine society’s future.” It, in a way, makes me feel at comfort and discomfort at the same time.
There are a few recurring themes of the anime, and all of them are nothing that makes you feel comfortable when you’re being forced to ask these questions yourself. One thing about this anime is that I personally think that is exactly the one purpose the creators are trying to do; this anime forces you to run barefoot while questioning your own morals at the same time.
To imagine a country to be governed by computers would be a work of horror science fiction. Psycho-Pass reminds me a lot of 1984 by George Orwell, which is quoted in the anime, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, both science fiction about a united totalitarian state with mass surveillance in its own technology. Both novels voice the reasonable common discomfort of mass surveillance, and the resemblance between Big Brother (Orwell’s), the Benefactor (Zamyatin’s), and the Sibyl System in Psycho-Pass is uncanny.
To look at our current reality, it’s not that far away that a governing system with mass surveillance by supercomputers is already being implemented; China’s Social Credit System is an example. This reality of ours and Psycho-Pass do not shy away from questioning our sense of free will, what we deem is just in the eyes of our governing system that we choose, how much individual rights we can hold and are held above our heads, how predictable human behavior is, so on and so forth. Psycho-Pass isn’t one to tell you white, sugarcoated lies, whether a dystopian future is too far distant and too impossible to achieve. Heck, it even gave me nightmares for a few days straight. But I think it’s telling why the nightmares are worth explaining in these paragraphs.