Ethics of Death Note
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
I wrote this for an ethics in communications class.
Moral thesis: Though Gilbert Lugo’s assessment of Light Yagami’s lack of moral grounds for his actions is true and strongly supported, I would add to his assertions by bringing a theologically Christian supported argument as well, illustrating that Light’s actions are wrong because they also eschew any hope of forgiveness, redemption, or grace. Through his pride and lust for power, Light recreates original sin in trying to be like God, and ultimately breaking many of the Ten Commandments we should live by.
Death Note is one of the most popular manga ever written in Japan, quite shocking considering it’s a story about a teenager who acquires the powers of a death god and seeks to create a new world order because of it. Serialized from 2003 to 2006, its characters and tensely written plot continue to thrill audiences today across the globe. However, Death Note is also interesting in terms of its fan base, as there a consistent amount of people who are actually in support of Light’s action of killing criminals, something I have now experienced firsthand at an anime convention. As Gilbert Lugo, an essayist in the anthology Manga and Philosophy states, “although writer Tsugumi Ohba claims that he did not intend to deal with moral issues (Death Note 13: How To Read, p.69), this premise alone guarantees that there will be at least a good handful.” Lugo reveals that Light does not have any moral justifications for his actions, illustrating his actions are merely a result from his lust for power. Though I agree with Lugo’s assessment, I would also add a theologically driven argument to further illustrate the wrongs of Light’s actions in his quest to become like a god.
Death Note is the story of Light Yagami, a male teenager who is the best student in Japan. One day, he finds the notebook belong to a shinigami, or death god. Light soon finds out that whosever name is written in the notebook will die, and takes it upon himself to clean up the world by killing criminals and tries to establish a new world order free of crime. Throughout the densely written and twisting plot, Light battles wits against various geniuses around the world, ultimately succumbing due to his hubris and dying. Though he kills thousands of criminals and innocent people seeking for Light’s capture, many people believe Light was doing the right thing, and was not a villain, but a hero. Though there has not been much quality discourse in terms of the ethics of Death Note, in the public square, academia has had some discourse about the series. In particular, Gilbert Lugo reveals that Light Yagami does not have any moral justification, and that his actions ultimately serve himself in a lust for power.
In Manga and Philosophy, Gilbert Lugo tackles the moral justifications Light has for his actions, illustrating that he ultimately does not have any moral grounds and is only motivated by a lust for power. First, Lugo attempts to identify Light’s justification by attributing Kant’s retributivist theory of justice, which Lugo explains as the idea “that the punishment ought to inflict the same amount of suffering upon the criminal that he inflicted upon his victim.” Lugo goes on to illustrate that although Light initially tries to justify his actions with this moral theory, he kills someone not deserving of the punishment. Light ultimately “strays from his original intentions and can no longer justify his actions by a retributivist theory of punishment.” Lugo then goes on to question Light’s justifications as a belief of consequentialism, the most well know consequentialist theory being utilitarianism, where “the good is equated with happiness or pleasure . . . therefore, an action is right when it brings about the greatest amount of happiness.” This justification is also debunked, as Lugo illustrates the myriad flaws in this approach, such as Light’s killing of innocent people (detectives, police officers) who get in his way. Lugo illuminates that although Light’s main goal is to “deter others from committing crimes,” he would ultimately create a world run by fear, as life under Light’s reign would “become so stringent that he will suck the humanity out of society.” Ultimately, Lugo sates it best: “Not only does [Light] fail to justify his punishment of others on retributivist grounds, but his consequentialist intentions are self-defeating; Light will end up punishing those whom he initially wanted to live in happiness. His grand scheme is left with no moral grounds and instead becomes a means for him to obtain power and control.” As Lugo illustrates, there is no solid moral justification for Light’s actions; his actions only serve himself as he acquires power and control, ultimately affirming his desire to be the new god of the world.
Although I believe Lugo thoroughly reveals Light’s lack of moral justifications is sufficient enough to convince fans of Light’s tactics otherwise, I would also put forth additional theological support to illustrate Light’s crimes, specifically looking at Light’s desire to be the new god of the world and breaking of the Ten Commandments. Light states multiple times throughout the series that he plans to be the new god of the world, using the powers of the death note to shape the world to his will. This is a clear parallel to Augustine’s assertion that the beginning of all sin is pride. Like Adam and Eve biting the fruit to be like God, knowing good and evil, Light partakes in godly powers in pride to be like God and shape the world according to his will. The artwork of Death Note further supports this analogy, as apples are also a motif throughout the series as a reminder of original sin. In seeking to become like a god, Light also breaks the first two Commandments, laws stating that there shall be no gods or false idols before our Lord. As the series progresses, Light accrues a global following who support his actions and worship him like a god, clearly an indication of his sin. And perhaps most obvious is Light’s immense betrayal of the Sixth Commandment forbidding murder, as he kills thousands of people in the name of his reign. Ultimately, it is clear through a Christian theological framework that Light’s actions are totally unjustifiable, making it clear they are not actions fit for bringing shalom.
Overall, through both Lugo’s moral philosophy work and Christian theological reasoning, it is clear that Light’s actions are not morally justifiable in any way. Though I believe Ohba when he says he was not concerned with making Death Note a morality story, I also believe he should have illustrated Light’s crimes and just punishment more clearly at the end of the series. Though Ohba states Light is “very evil”, the statements on justice one character makes at the end of the series leaves much to be desired, as one character essentially describes the idea that no one knows what is right or wrong, and that everyone has to figure out true morality and justice themselves. A similar idea to postmodern existentialism in terms of its insistence of self-reflection and self-truth, I find this statement problematic and untruthful, for there is a clear standard of morality and justice in the world: we have laws in society, and theologically with the Torah. Light’s actions violates all of these, ultimately revealing that fan appreciation for Light’s work is unjustified and unfounded in truth, revealing more illumination is needed in the public square with this text.