Twelve Days of Anime #7: Kiritsugu Emiya vs. Philosophy 101

If you’ve ever taken a philosophy class, you’ve probably been faced with the “trolley problem”: A runaway trolley is headed toward a group of five people. You have the option to save them—but only by pulling a lever that switches the track over to where just one person is standing. Would you pull the lever? Most people, at least at first, will say yes. It’s simple math, right? Five is greater than one. The only struggle is the fact that you have to get over the compulsion not to kill, not to get your hands dirty. And that’s just your selfish emotions talking, right?

The “trolley problem” is supposed to be up for interpretation, but I always thought its framing made it fairly clear that you’re supposed to pull the lever. It simplifies the complex issue of intent vs. results, of means vs. ends, down to a mere mathematical inequality. In doing so, it makes our human instincts against killing feel illogical. As someone who knows she wouldn’t be able to pull that lever—knew it at 17 when I first learned about the trolley problem in school, know it now—I find it a little insulting and amoral. And as a fan of his anime, I suspect that Gen Urobuchi would agree with me.


It’s easy to forget that I first watched Fate/Zero only earlier this year. The “Fate” franchise is the sort of thing that consumes you so much that you forget that you weren’t always familiar with it. Then I remembered this scene as I was preparing the “Vash vs. Legato” post that’s coming up in this series. It serves a similar purpose in being a moral argument about “pacifism” as a philosophy, but Urobuchi takes it from a very different angle.

Trigun, as I’ll explain in a future post, supports pacifism because of the idea that killing robs people of their free will to determine the course of their lives, and that everyone deserves that chance at redemption. (It’s a very Christian story, so it’s a big-time believer in the power of redemption and forgiveness. That’s why it ends the way it does. But more on that later.) Urobuchi believes very strongly in the human spirit and in free will, but not in quite the same way or for the same reasons as Trigun does. And so, when Urobuchi gets to be his most direct in pleading for “ethical killer” Kiritsugu Emiya to change his ways, this is how he does it:

Kiritsugu is the sort of guy who would never hesitate with the trolley problem. He’d pull that lever in a jiffy. The Holy Grail shows him why he’s wrong when it turns the trolley problem on its head, by repeating it to the point of uselessness. Even if Kiritsugu continues choosing the option where he kills less people, he’s still ultimately killed the majority of the people in total. It shows the folly of reducing this issue to a math problem—because if you make a life philosophy out of this, the math doesn’t even check out, anyway. You’ll eventually have killed far more people than you’ve saved.

And that’s exactly what Kiritsugu has done. The “long trail of bodies” Kiritsugu has intentionally left behind him is more his legacy than the people he supposedly saved with them. Violence can’t solve violence, the Grail tells him; only ending the cycle in the first place will do that. Urobuchi makes more philosophical, less mathematical arguments for this in Fate/Zero and many of his other series (Bobduh has a good post about this topic on his blog). But I thought it was neat that Fate/Zero showed that even from the math front, even when you do reduce the issue that way, it still fails if you set up the numbers like they’d check out in the real world.

Irisviel knows better than you.

Irisviel knows better than you.

So if I were to teach a Philosophy 101 class, I think I would try to find a way for my class to watch Fate/Zero, or at least the relevant bits of it. (If only it were an easier show to chop up like that!) Maybe then my students won’t all see the “trolley problem” as one with such an easy answer. Maybe they won’t think that dispensing with what makes us human is the inherently more “logical” choice.

2 thoughts on “Twelve Days of Anime #7: Kiritsugu Emiya vs. Philosophy 101

  1. I think the problem with reducing morality to mathematics isn’t in the math, though. In the problem Kiritsugu faces from the Grail, he makes the “correct” decision given the information in front of him both times.

    No, I think the problem is that it’s rarely so clear-cut that one action will save more lives than another, and often times, we take actions that preserve values and ideas rather than lives. There’s a particular moment in Heaven’s Feel, for instance, where Shirou has exactly this mathematical quandary: kill one person, or let that person live and put all the civilians in the city in danger from that person. At least, that’s how the game phrases the problem, right? But that’s because it tacitly ignores the third option: let that person live and stop them from endangering others. A remote possibility at the time, but clearly the ideal outcome.

    In that sense, I think Nasu (and perhaps Urobuchi, in writing an extension of Nasu’s work) presents things too simply. There is no room in Nasu’s world for someone who acknowledges that shooting for the third option is hard but worth doing because it upholds the ideal of trying to save everyone. Instead, his “cynical” heroes give up on such dreams quickly. They sacrifice a few lives for the sake of many, and they sacrifice a little hope on top of it.

    We take actions to preserve values rather than lives all the time. Why fight to recover a single captured soldier when it puts many living ones at risk to do so? Because it represents a promise, right? A promise that, if at all possible, one’s brothers and sisters in arms will not leave one behind. That encourages people to sign up, and it’s a promise–a value–that can’t be reneged upon lightly.

    I can’t say in a vacuum what values are worth sacrificing lives for, but hope and implicit promises like that are, I think, worth more than a few seconds of consideration.

  2. I don’t think that it boils down to Nasu oversimplifying things. Fate Stay Night has 3 scenarios each presenting a different philosophy. The Fate scenario is more idealistic and Shirou wants to save everyone to the point that it is suicidal and damaging to himself. The UBW scenario is Shirou wanting both his ideal of saving everyone but also realizing that it is impossible to do so. He wants the best of both worlds which is contradictory and Archer tries to convince him of this, however he holds fast to his beliefs even though he acknowledges them as contradictory. Heaven’s Feel, is the most cynical path and is also the scenario where Shirou gives up completely on his ideal of saving everyone.

    I’ve always liked the philosophy of UBW because Shirou comes to terms that his philosophy is contradictory but still chooses to follow it because it is an ideal worth striving for. It embodies the struggle that we all deal with in terms of ideals vs reality. Too much weight on ideals and you risk having all of those ideals crushed by the real world. To much weight on reality and you become cold and hopeless. I guess it really boils down to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, that the virtue is the common ground between two vices.

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