Archive for November 3rd, 2011

Assignment: Free Will on Trial

Posted November 3, 2011 By Dave Thomer

We spent some time thinking about free will and determinism in my ethics class, and watched a couple of movies that hinge on the idea. To wrap up the topic, I gave the students the following assignment today:

Imagine that you are a lawyer in a court case involving one of the films we watched about free will. You must write a 3-paragraph persuasive argument to make your case. Choose one:

A. You are a DEFENSE ATTORNEY for Howard Marks, the man who was arrested for the future-murder of his wife at the beginning of Minority Report. You are trying to get Howard’s conviction thrown out by challenging the entire precrime system. To make your case, you need to argue that the precogs’ visions are not sufficient evidence that Howard is guilty – Howard still had the power to change his future.

B. You are a PROSECUTING ATTORNEY against Dom Cobb from Inception. You want to prove that Cobb is responsible for Mal’s death even though Mal jumped from the building herself. To make your case, you need to argue that once Cobb put the idea that the world was not real in her head, it was inevitable that Mal would kill herself – Mal had NO power to change her future.

I would probably have an easier time with A than B. I can make the intellectual case for determinism. Sometimes I think I can make it too well. But it’s not something I can fully commit to.

I like this assignment because it gives the students who want it an opportunity for a little theatricality. Even if they don’t have a lot of actual courtroom experience, just about everyone has watched enough Hollywood courtroom antics to have an idea of what they would do. And even though I don’t want to get to the point of saying legal = good, illegal = bad, from time to time I think it’s good to have something more concrete, like “Are you going to jail?” rather than something abstract like “Are you a good person?”