When Light first gets hold of the death note, his main plan was to use the power to end the lives of all criminals in order to purify the world of all evil. As such, existing criminals would die, and those who may be considering a life of crime would surely be forced to reconsider under the eye of Kira. If the evil die, the world should ideally be left with those with pure hearts.
In theory, a world where there is no evil sounds really, really good. And yet, the entirety of the show follows Light hiding his ‘Kira’ identity from the police- a governmental force that aims to remove crime. If their goals to minimize crime align, why does the police and the SPK stand so strongly against Kira?
Why is Kira painted as a villainous? Is he wrong in his ideas?
Philosophy gives the answer.
The police’s point of view – Deontological Ethics
The reason why many people opposed Kira’s slaughtering was because that, simply put, murder is murder. There is a line that is drawn where a human cannot turn back once crossed. Regardless of the potential outcome, killing is bad, and no good person shall kill. The ends doesn’t justify the means.
This follows the theory of Deontology, the idea that the morally good person follows social rules and duties, and that the intent and nature of the action is more important than what comes from it.
“Killing” is clearly not morally permissible. It’s obvious that in the Japanese society that Death Note takes place in, killing is a crime that is handled very heavily. As such, Kira’s killing spree, even when limited to those who are not morally upstanding, is still not okay.
The bottom line is that killing is not okay, and since Kira can easily engage in criminal genocide with no signs of remorse, he is clearly not a morally upstanding character.
Light’s Father said it best in the hospital when he said
“No matter how you use it, nothing gained by killing people can bring true happiness”
To Soichiro Yagami, once somebody consciously chooses to take the life of another being, they become eternally barred from having “true happiness” – because to him, they’ve already forsaken their humanity. Acting immorally to punish the acts of somebody else can’t be rewarded, because through the act of doing so, they become immoral themselves.
Therefore, they can call Kira “evil”, simply because he chose to use the killing power he was granted to take away the lives of other humans without any remorse. This was even before the police took action – even when Kira was still killing criminals, people who have committed wrong, harmed others and inflicted pain, the government still took a strong stance against Kira. Such a trigger-happy murderer cannot be allowed to run free, even if their killing is limited to those who have done wrong.
It is clear that these people are all convinced that the people after Kira believe they have exceptional moral standing. They have not killed, they have not done harm to others, and they are on the tail of a murderer. They see themselves as morally good, because by catching the killer, Kira, they can ensure that no lives are taken again by him, even if those lives have been tainted with crime.
Kira’s point of view – Utilitarian Ethics
Light wants to remove criminals, because by doing so, it would improve the world. That is the philosophy that Light stands by when using his death note, and although slightly psychologically damaged with a god complex (I’ve got a guide on that, too), Light sincerely believes that he is doing good. And it is hard to reject the statement : Criminals are bad, and the removal of criminals would result in net good.
Light is an evident follower of a school of ethics known as Utilitarianism. To grossly summarize, Utilitarian theory states that the most morally commendable act is the act that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure. Regardless of the actions, as long as the action ends up with more happy people than other potential options, it’s good, regardless of the methods of reaching such a conclusion. The ends justify the means.
So when Light takes his pen and scribbles down in the Death Note, he knows that by taking the life of a murderer, it means that there are less potential people who can be hurt by the murderer in the future. It needs to be done in order to ensure a kind and pure world. Should Light let these murderers run free, he sees it as a neglect of his moral duty. He has the power to end these awful lives, and prevent the potential deaths and sadness of many innocent bystanders in the future, so he feels it necessary to act.
Obviously, Light is aware that murder is not something to be taken LIGHT-ly (pun very, very much intended) Light is aware that killing isn’t a morally good act. However, he knows that the world is impure. He knows that there are people out there who will kill the innocent, and inflict pain onto many. He knows that the police can’t get onto everybody and bring the world to justice. He has a superhuman power to end lives. And as somebody with the ability to make the world a better place by eradicating evil, Light is convinced that choosing not to act would be far more immoral than acting – even if the “act” in question is murder.
So, Light made the choice to kill the criminals, rather than allow the criminals to kill the innocent.
Of course, Light intends to kill with the purpose of becoming god. He isn’t doing it out of the kindness of his heart, but more so for self-gain. He wants to make the world aware that someone out there is watching, and criminals best watch out. That someone is Light, god of the new world.
Yes, this isn’t exactly the mentality of a moral saint, but to utilitarians, this is completely irrelevant. As long as Light’s actions result in an overall better world, his intent isn’t so important.
And to some extent, Light sees success in the Death Note universe. After the rise of Kira, the police have reported a sharp decrease in violent crimes – and it’s no secret as to why. Before Kira, criminals could get away with anything provided they took the measures. But now, with a vigilante murderer with an intent to punish all criminals with only their name and their face, it makes sense as to why criminals, or even contemplating criminals would cower in fear.
So, was Light successful? Saying so would not be a stretch. He reduced net pain of the population and increased net happiness. People can wander the streets feeling safer with less criminals around. The methods of his actions (blatant, one sided murder) is justified by what comes of it (a world with less criminals)
A pretty popular saying has caught on recently, and it embodies Light’s mentalities pretty well:
“If you kill a killer, the number of killers in the world remains the same.”
“This just means you need to kill more than one.”
So, was Light right?
So the question still remains, was Light Yagami correct on his actions? Should the police, government and L just have stayed out of it all and let the world become ‘purified’?
That completely depends on the point of view of the person at hand.
It’s not always a clear-cut answer. Ethics is incredibly morally grey by nature. What may be considered to be the best outcome in one ethical theory may be seen as absolutely detestable in another. It’s even acknowledged in the series – Matsuda acknowledges that Kira’s actions has result in a sharp decrease in crime rates, but refuses to commend Kira for doing so, because Kira is no better than the murderers by nature.
In which case, here is a more appropriately worded question “If you are presented with the option to kill a criminal and you choose to do so, does that make you morally pure because the world is a better place, or are you morally tainted because the action of killing is morally dirty?”
There, it’s obvious why there’s no universally ‘correct’ answer. Yes, it is common fact that killing is bad, and people cannot kill. So Kira, who has killed, must be bad. On the other hand, it is common fact that the lives of the many innocent outweighs the lives of the few guilty, and such, Kira’s actions in killing others can be completely justified.
There are other scenarios where this can be extended to. Think about Batman vs Joker – many times in the comic’s run, Batman is presented with the choice to kill the Joker, but refuses to because ‘by doing so he would walk past a line at which he would never return’. Should Light adopt Batman’s mentality of no-kill? Or is Batman wrong, as letting the Joker go free would lead to more deaths of the innocent?
Neither view is wrong, and the show portrays this in pretty subtle ways. Despite common misconception, Death Note is not the story of Light Yagami on his rise to become god and purify the world, but instead the story of Ryuk as he drops his divine power onto a foreign world to see what unfolds. As such, we are given a spectator seat. And we can make our own choice as to whether to root for Kira or L/N/M.
This has been an Idiot’s Guide to Death Note’s ethics – Was Light correct? – but hey, don’t take my word for it. I’m just an idiot.