Last post, I talked about what I thought are the tertiary and secondary themes of Fullmetal Alchemist ("faith" and "touka koukan," respectively). Now it's finally time to talk about what I feel to be the most important of all. I skirted spoiler territory before, but this time I'm discussing the ending, so tread with caution, proceed at your own risk, etc.
Primary theme: Kantian ethics
This theme is interlaced throughout the entire series in little decisions and single lines, making it difficult to pick out particular instances demonstrating it. However, I think it's pretty clear that, even if unintentional, this is the main theme of the entire work, and there's nothing wrong with it being a little vague, because it's a damn good one.
You can literally teach a whole course on just Kantian ethics, which would make for a really long blog post, so you'll have to excuse me for glossing over some things here. The most obvious and maybe the most important element is Kant's “categorical imperative.” There's a Cracked article I'll steal from – I wanted to link to it, but damned if I can find it. The main point for us is, suppose you're at work one day holding a pen. You remember that you're going to need a pen later, but do not own one because you're a terrible planner, and you realise that your employer has boxes and boxes of these things. You contemplate the ethical ramifications that would ensue if you were to just gank it. You benefit; your employer does not suffer; hell, it would be immoral not to steal it. But according to Kant, the only way for that to work is if you can extrapolate it to a universal maxim, something like, “stealing is permissible.” The circumstances are irrelevant. So if it's ok for you to steal a pen from your company, it's ok for your company to steal your car from you. In this case property would become meaningless and society would cease to function, so we reject this maxim and conclude that theft is morally wrong.
So any given action is either acceptable, or it is not acceptable, and this standard is to be applied across all situations we can find. Once, when I was Vice President of my university Japanese Club, one of the popular girls was bullying a little nerdy kid that none of them liked; I called her over, had a private conversation about why that was unacceptable, and told her to cut that shit out. She pouted about it, but what she didn't know was that I couldn't fucking stand that kid either. But sometimes things are right, because they are right.
This is contrasted with the school of ethics founded by John Stuart Mill, called utilitarianism, which holds that morality is dependent on the exact circumstances. I'll give you a classic example. Suppose you manage the trolley switchboard in a mine. By swapping junctures, you can control the paths of all trolleys at all times, and when you're not busy with that you're allowed to read and listen to music. It's not a bad gig, but oh my God! The miners have lost control of one of the trolleys and it's now careening down one of the main shafts!! You realise that, tragically, it will most assuredly kill ten miners who are directly in its path. But then you have an idea. With the crank of a single lever, you can direct it onto an alternate path – a path where one lone miner is toiling away. You now have the power to decide who dies: One person, or ten people. (There is no third option. You cannot save all eleven. Nobody will hear the noise of the approaching trolley and jump away. You will not face legal consequences. Either one person will die, or ten; those are the only possible outcomes.) What do?
For most people the answer is obvious. It sucks for that one guy, but it would suck a lot more, collectively, for those ten. So they flip the switch. Ahh, shit! Now you're a murderer! If you'd only listened to Kant, and not done anything, now you wouldn't have that poor guy's blood on your hands! But maybe that's worth it. A little personal pain and one death for saving ten lives? Maybe that's an equivalent exchange we can deal with.
OK, let's change the dynamics then. This time, let's say that the one miner isn't a stranger, it's your best friend. Now what do you do? Do you have a greater obligation to one friend than you do to ten strangers? What if you're amongst the ten? What if you're the one? What if Stalin is amongst the ten? What if Mother Theresa is the one? What if instead of ten versus one, it's ten versus nine? Would the one extra life saved be worth it for bloodying your hands? What if it was one human being versus one million sea turtles? One million ants? A crate full of one million dollars that you get to keep if it survives? A billion? Enough money to feed a billion hungry people? There's a whole sub-field of ethics called trolleyology that specifically deals with the most ridiculous and amusing variations on this thought experiment that people can possibly think up.
So there are the two perspectives in the abstract. You could characterize Kantian ethics as putting importance on the process, and utilitarianism as focussing on the results. (My personal opinion, you ask? Each is incomplete, and in the real world we need both.) What would have been really interesting is if Edward had been forced to make some kind of difficult decision where something catastrophic would happen either way, and he'd have to choose between, say, the death of either a bunch of soldiers he'd never met, or just his friend Furey. That never happens because he always finds a way to come through – which, from a literary standpoint, says something in itself – but either way it's pretty clear that Edward is a staunch Kantian. It comes across as he consistently demonstrates an unwillingness to yield in his ideals, and gets awfully angry at anyone who strays from their own.
I think the earliest manifestation of this, and one which persists throughout, is the Elric Brothers' refusal to kill anyone. This extends to all human enemies, including ones who are currently in the act of trying to kill them. After their failed human transmutation, they adopted the conviction that they will never again hurt anyone as a result of their foolishness, or at least they'll do their best not to let it happen. They even let both Pride and Envy stick around after their power has been drained, despite the knowledge that this could come back to bite them at some point; in the case of Envy, it kind of does, but Ed doesn't waste any energy on regret.
They're not super keen on anybody else killing, either. Edward prevents Mustang from finally killing Envy, which was more to stop him from casting a further shadow on his own soul than anything, but he also gets upset whenever battle makes the death of their enemies a necessity. Several characters comment on this tendency, most of them dismissing it as naiive. Mustang and Hawkeye tell Edward to wake up to reality; Miles notes that it's usually easier to kill a defeated enemy than to risk leaving them alive, and it's a mark of their character that the boys have chosen the harder path.
Equally relevant to our analysis, both Edward and Alphonse are reluctant to make use of any of the several Philosopher's Stones they come into over the course of the story. Despite knowing that they could quickly and easily use them to recover their bodies, they refuse to do so once they learn that the Stones are powered by captured human souls. There is a little angst about whether the deceased souls (and thus Al himself, by extension, since he is only a soul in a suit of armour) are no more than “energy,” or are in fact identical to living, breathing humans – eventually it turns out that they still have thoughts and wills, making it doubly clear that it would be inappropriate to sacrifice them just to pursue their own interests, but the two are adamant in their compassion long before they learn this. Several characters do end up using Philosopher's Stones on the reasoning that the people sacrificed to create the stones would have preferred not to die for nothing...which is a dangerous game to play because you can rationalize literally anything to yourself if you really want to, although from the little we see of the ancient Xerxesians it does seem that they wish to give their own deaths meaning and finally pass on.
For the most part, though, the brothers stick to their Kantian ideals. Their reluctance to use the Philosopher's Stones is a manifestation of the critical Kantian principle that you must not use others as a “means to an end.” Each human being, you see, is an end in and of herself, making it immoral to use her simply to gain something else. This is why it's wrong for your little sister to date that guy just to get at his best friend.
This, by the way, is actually very similar to the ethical constructions of Ayn Rand. (Oh, don't look at me like that.) Though she had some nasty things to say about Kant and would balk at me putting the two of them together, mainly because Kant derives his concept of morality from God and she was a raving atheist, they actually had some of the exact same ideas. Rand's main thesis, and the kernel from which she extends her entire body of thought, is the unqualified value of the (rights of the) individual above all else. However, this doesn't mean you have the right to do whatever you want, because everyone else has their rights as an individual as well. All you have is the right to pursue your own self-interest, unimpeded by anyone else, who may also pursue their own self-interest. As she says, “Man – every man – is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for himself, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” I don't know about you, but that sounds awfully Kantian to me.
As an aside, if you wanted to, you could also do a bit of an exploration on what it means to be dead, and how those answers are handled in Hagaren's Philosopher's Stones. Should the dead serve the living, since they're gone and we're still here? Or do we have a responsibility to the dead, because they can no longer act for themselves? Certainly if you promise your father that you're going to finish university, and then he dies, that does not release you from that promise. But are we obligated to try and carry out the vision of our forebears, without whom our current world would never have come to be, or do we inherit, along with the world, the right and even the responsibility to act on our own judgment? The meaning of death was a pretty popular topic in 20th Century English literature, and Wittgenstein had a lot to say about it too. He even claimed that the dead were, in some sense, still alive. So, too, that if you promised you were going to meet up with somebody, and then they died, you still had an obligation, not in a ritualistic, perfunctory way but in a genuinely obligatory kind of a way, to go to their grave and actually meet with them. But he also said that anyone currently alive was in the act of living forever, because “your life has no end in the same way as your field of vision has no limits,” even though your field of vision very demonstrably has limits and if you don't believe me turn around for a sec and then try to figure out where that sharp pain in the back of your head just came from, because he was trying to make a hard philosophical point using poetic phrasing because he was a pretentious twat and a stupid, arrogant cockhole.
There is one particular moment when I think all of these ethical issues really come to a head. I'm talking about the climax, when Homunculus has been defeated, the war is won, the world is safe, and now Edward is desperately trying to think of some way to get back Alphonse's body, which was, after all, the whole reason they set out on their journey. Al has already traded his ties to his armour so that Ed could get his arm back; the trick now to get Al's body back into this world, while keeping Ed's arm, of course. It's like that puzzle where you have two wolves and three hens and you're trying to row them all across a river without the wolves eating any of the hens. Because Ed is still bound by the rules of touka koukan, as discussed in the last post, he needs to proffer something in exchange for Al's body.
At this point, Ed's father comes forward and offers his own life. Surely any good father would take that deal. Al has his whole life ahead of him; Hohenheim has already lived for centuries. Plus, many of the events that occurred, and the two boys getting caught up in the action, are more or less Hohenheim's fault, so it makes sense that he should atone for his sins. I got chills when this happened. I thought, this is it, this is gonna be the wham moment. This is where Arakawa's gonna make us feel shitty about ourselves and then send us all off to rethink our lives. Hohenheim's gonna sacrifice his life for his son's, say something incredibly poignant as he fades away, and then epilogue.
Ed tells him to piss right off. “Why do you have to die for him?!” No matter what happens, he will not sacrifice one human being for another. To do so would be to use them as a means for an end. Regardless of the circumstances, there is no justification for that. He thinks and thinks until he finally comes up with something: He can trade his Door of Truth. Without it, he will lose the ability to perform alchemy entirely, but he will be able to bring back Al, body and all, from the otherworld. He draws up a human transmutation circle, claps his two fleshy hands together, and quickly finds himself sitting before God, who asks him if he's sure this is what he wants. He is, which amuses God to no end. “You've beaten me,” he says gleefully. And he has. He's managed to get back everything except his leg, and all without losing either his moral principles or anyone's life.
That about sums up my philosophical ponderings on this series. So if you're sick by now of hearing what I think, take heart, because to conclude this series we're going to look at interpretations by a few other people elsewhere on the Internet.