Death Note: Killing Without Consequence
Death Note: Killing without Consequence
By Francisco Diaz
DISCLAIMER: This article focuses on the television show Death Note NOT the movie with the same title.
In the TV show Death Note, a boy named Light Yagami discovers an abandoned notebook on the floor during school. He opens the notebook to look for the owner’s name and instead sees a set of rules: Whoever’s name is written in the notebook will suffer from a heart attack and die (unless Yagami provides a cause of death). If a person does not want this power, he or she can ask to relinquish their death note, but they will forget everything regarding the death note. As Light finds the Death Note, he immediately takes time to look at himself and ask if he would use such a device. He eventually does, but starts by only targeting those who have committed crimes. The ethical quandary presented in this show is an interesting one: If you had the power to kill with no repercussion, would you?
When presented with this question, many would valiantly denounce the thought of killing anyone, no matter their situation. It seems as though people think they know what they’d do in this situation, but do they really? Many quickly answer the question to avoid looking at the entire scenario as a whole and analyze how the world could be changed. Would I kill murderers on the loose? End countless investigations surrounding disastrous criminals? The answer no longer seems clear, nor should it. This question is overflowing with ambiguity because it focuses around ethics and psychology. Ethics is not a black and white subject, but rather a gray sheet, void of any absolutes or correct answers. Depending on the person, ethics can focus on feelings, morality, or logic. Different ethical views will call for multiple different actions for each scenario; however, ethics does not represent what happens deep inside the human mind, psychology does. To gain an overview of ethics, one must first search into the multiple facets of ethical thinking and what each believer would do in this scenario.
The first ethical ideology discussed is that of Utilitarianism, the belief that the most important part of each decision is their utility output. This means that people should disregard emotions when making decisions and think solely about the utilitarian benefits that a certain scenario presents. In the mind of a utilitarian, utilizing the death note would be the only option; in fact, a utilitarian would probably question why you’d consider not using it. As criminals repeatedly die from heart attacks, news outlets will most likely spread this news. This will most likely be followed by the crime rate effectively going down because most criminals will abandon their illegal escapades, fearing death. The ends justify the means. Life will be beneficial for those who work honestly and diligently, though it may not be the world they want to live in. This ideology, however, starkly contrasts multiple other ethical ideologies.
Deontology is another ethical belief that centers itself on the differentiation of right from wrong utilizing a universal set of rules. A deontologist would most likely denounce the use of this death note because it involves the taking of a human life, similarly to those who denounce capital punishment and other immoral political ideals. Deontologists will focus solely on the situation at hand, therefore consequences do not matter. The ends never justify the means. For this reason, they’d probably denounce the utilization of the death note due to the unethical nature of the taking of a human life. No one can control who lives and who dies; this can only be determined by a God. Light Yagami is a Deontologist, preaching that he’d never utilize the book; while he preaches that he would never use the book, something inside him hesitates (this will be discussed further in the paragraph on psychology). This analysis using multiple different ethical ideologies continues with a third group.
The final ethical ideology that will be discussed is that of non-intervention. Non intervention is the concept that interfering with a common timeline should always be prevented by any means necessary to prevent any abnormalities within a universe. A non-interventionist would marvel at the fact that a ‘death note’ exists, but would refuse to use it because they would not want to interfere with the timeline, or prevent any specific event from happening in the future. Believers of this ideology would most likely leave the book alone and wait for the right person to pick up the book. This right person, whether they use it for good or evil, should be left alone to prevent any problems within a timeline, These different ideologies emphasize the ambiguous nature of ethics. These ways of thinking have been used to express the outside feeling of people, but does it actually explain their deep, inner feelings.
Because the human mind is extremely proficient in self deception, no person can fully explain how they feel. The closest one can get to understanding this is using the psychoanalytical works of Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud would believe that the ethic beliefs mentioned above are fueled by a person’s superego and ego, however this does not fully represent the thoughts of each human. Humans are instinctively aggressive, meaning they’d most likely revert back to their instincts when presented with the death note.
If the death note was in a person’s possession long enough, their Eros (life instinct) would take control when encountering multiple criminals (or just watching the news). Once the Eros takes control, the instinctual nature of humans will reveal itself along with their unconscious feelings. A person would most likely discover new stress arising out of not preventing others deaths, or they would succumb to the power of the death note and use it to try to gain control over all; Both of these result in the author using the death note. This is what happens to Yagami in the show. His aggressive instincts take control of the body. When crimes are committed, he feels more and more threatened and turns to the death note to protect others. Yagami works quickly, killing around 20 criminals each day. Eventually, police investigate the deaths of these criminals and get closer and closer to Yagami. Shifting away from the show, a person’s Thanatos— death instinct— could begin to show up in the sense of self destruction, however this Thanatos will be ultimately beaten by the Eros (because a person’s want for survival is far higher than their susceptibility to self destruct). This escalates the killings and broadens the scope of the type of people killed, ultimately leading to a God complex. People revert to their instinctual want for an aggressive life.
Death Note provides an interesting look into the life of Light Yagami, who is put in this scenario. While ethics can be used to determine what could be done in this scenario, it does not always take into account their psychological effect and what actually happens. Sometimes, a person’s psyche ultimately takes over their ethical beliefs, leading to the utilization of the death note. This, however, doesn’t encompass what each person would do, leading to the final question: What would you do?