Reproduced with permission from an essay originally, and fully, published at DEATH NOTES: an online source for Death Note Analysis and Discussion
(links at the end)
by Andrew Capuano
If someone intentionally carries out a horrendous deed in an attempt to create a beneficial result, does that make it right?
It's one of those questions that people have pondered over for ages. Some say that it would depend on what the action and result were, though others would argue the means can not simply be forgotten because of the way things happened to turn out. If the goal was the ultimate good imaginable, would it matter what was done to obtain it?
This question is deeply examined in the manga, Death Note, which is written by Tsugumi Ohba, and illustrated by Takeshi Obata.
Light's actions are considered immoral by the standards of deontological ethics, namely Kantian ethics. Immanuel Kant believed that a person's duty was central to morality, and was more important than simply cultivating pleasure. Kant's main idea was his 'Categorical Imperative,' which states: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." 1 In layman's terms, Kant is saying you should only do something if you would want everybody else to start doing it too. More accurately, you should not act on a general rule (maxim) you would not want everyone else to follow as if it were a law of nature (universal law). The Categorical Imperative can be employed with ease to prove that Light's conduct is deplorable.
If everybody acted on the general rule that Light is acting on, (If someone judges a person as evil, it is all right to kill that person) the world would not be able to function for very long, and even if it did last, it is exceedingly unlikely that someone could ever want to live in such a world. If everyone acted on the maxim stated above, then all the people would start killing each other and the world would become a bloodbath. People would start killing others that they considered to be evil, and then others still would kill the previously mentioned murderers, since most people believe murder to be wrong. It would proceed in this fashion, until no one was left alive.
The problem with human judgement is that a person may not know all the facts. If someone deems a person to be evil, but that person was framed or the information was false or otherwise incomplete, then an innocent person would be killed, simply because he was incorrectly deemed evil by someone else. Since it is inconceivable to will the world to be that way, judging people as Light does is immoral.
Kant's Categorical imperative can be reworded in order for it to apply to more situations. The second formulation states that we are to "[a]ct in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." 2 Basically, Kant is saying that people should never be used or manipulated by others. It is morally unacceptable to exploit other people, no matter what ends you are attempting to achieve. Light does this frequently in his doomed quest for a perfect world...
- Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington  (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Hackett, p30.
- Kant, Immanuel; translated by James W. Ellington  (1993). Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Hackett, p36.
DEATH NOTES is an invaluable resource for those who like a bit of academia in their reading of the Death Note manga. Largely inactive now, its archives nevertheless contain a rich bounty of timeless essays written during the period when Death Note was first coming to the attention of international audiences and readers. The site's essayists emanate from varying disciplines within the academe, with less formal - sometimes downright flippant - pieces interspersed for flavour.
The excerpt above was republished here with permission from DEATH NOTES' editor Jennifer Fu.