Moral Philosophy in the World of Pokémon
Elements, Energies, and Relationships
By Lance H. Gracy
When I was young, I told my classmates that the pokémon, Alakazam, exists and helps me with my homework. I also told them that a consortium of Gengars encamp in a forest along our bus route, where they like to dance around a roaring bonfire. Sadly, it was hard to keep my story straight, and when my classmates discovered I was fibbing about my great myth, no one was really surprised. Rightfully so. After all, pokémon don’t really exist, right?
Pokémon is a huge phenomenon. Ever since the 1990s, the television, video and card game series has reached soaring levels of popularity. Its expansions—including the smash-hit Pokémon Go game application, and the 2019 live action, American-Japanese fantasy-mystery family film, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which earned more than a few award nominations for American actor Ryan Reynolds—show no sign of slowing.
Having said all this, I still suspect “Pokémon” is thought of by many as something destined only for the happy, yet immature, status of “childish.” But as a tool of pedagogical imagination, helping children complete stages of cognitive development, Pokémon has important benefits, and despite whatever mythical aspects of it that cannot be eliminated, and despite whatever juvenile craze and fervor may temporarily obscure its non-mythical aspects, I am still inclined to examine the qualities of Pokémon—not as a mythical world, but as a moral-philosophical world consisting of judgments, values, and principles. As philosophers, we must dig deep, and in this article, I intend to by providing a detailed look into the moral world of Pokémon. In doing so, I offer an introductory view into why or how Pokémon, even as a pop-culture phenomenon, is worthy of philosophical attention.
Pokémon was made in Japan, yet it shares many commonalities with traditional Chinese metaphysics and ethics—specifically, classical Confucian, neo-Confucian, and Daoist worldviews concerning powers and elements of the moral life as well as the ends, or moral characters, relative to it. In general, the “moral world of Pokémon” is a moral-elemental World constituted by humans and non-human beings, called pokémon (literally: “pocket monsters”). In this World, humans look upon the mastery, training, and care of pokémon—each of whom can store, channel, unleash or else themselves signify some elemental power—as a principle of destiny. Indeed, some people in this World view such mastery, training, and care as the moral principle of destiny, in so far as they regard the cultivation of their own potentialities and actualities—especially if they are young, ambitious, and have a calling to be a “pokémon master,”—alongside the aid of their pokémon companion’s terrific elemental powers, in a manner similar to how classical Confucian ethics views the task of self-cultivation of “moral sprouts” (duan 端) essential to the original or “innate heart and mind” (Ivanhoe, 38-39).
As Kongzi (Confucius) has it, the moral life is like a pattern of the stars; like “terrestrial constellations, Heavenly patterns that are moved with the stately regularity of stars” (Ivanhoe, 14). According to the five-agent metaphysics, a neo-Confucian metaphysics of ethics, the Heavenly patterns of the stars are signified by elemental substances—namely, Water, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Wood (Chan, 463). These elemental substances or essences compose life’s moral patterns and have an attribute or feature of yin-yang implying opposing, yet harmonious, values within each elemental substance or essence as moral energy. By this token, the nature-types of each pokémon signify an elemental-moral essence, important not merely because they are needed to win “pokémon battles,” but more so because they bestow moral energy on pokémon trainers to come to a realization of certain moral lessons, so as to complete a stage of life and proceed to the next stage of personal development.
In the World of Pokémon, each and every pokémon is indispensable to the regular patterns, practices, and li (“moral rites”) of everyday life. On account of this, relationships between human-individuals and pokémon, the elemental powers, are proper objects of ethical concern, and the moral status of human-individuals in the World of Pokémon contingent upon the degree to which they master and care for each pokémon as elemental creatures with a specific nature-type (fire-type, water-type, electric-type, etc.) and as creatures of intrinsic worth. In stories about Pokémon’s protagonist-hero, Satoshi サトシ (“Ash Ketchum”) and the benevolent concern he shows his Pokémon, we find the key for unlocking the moral lessons given by the energy bestowed upon relationships between humans and elemental powers.
In the context of the World of Pokémon, “benevolent concern” is virtuous concern felt for pokémon that inspires, and manifests, exemplary action on their behalf. If the ancient Confucian masters and others had lived in the World of Pokémon, they would have found attitudes about benevolent concern for pokémon slightly unusual, but ultimately a matter of preferential treatment. Perhaps their own views about benevolent concern toward pokémon would align with the character Professor Yukinari Ōkido (“Professor Oak”), whose perspective on how pokémon should be treated is deeply sympathetic to Ash’s. Nevertheless, according to classical Confucian ethics, Ash’s relationship with his pokémon might be considered abnormal for a junzi (“gentleman” or sage) to engage in. But these relationships cannot ultimately be contrary to the character of a sage. Kongzi and others suggest that the junzi should “feel concern” for non-human animals—not show benevolence toward them (Ivanhoe, 20-21). Nevertheless, there would be no contradiction in the sage feeling, or showing, benevolent concern towards pokémon, because pokémon have a higher moral status than non-human animals normally have in our world. This suggests why it is permissible, or perhaps even morally praiseworthy, for a sage to treat pokémon with a form of benevolence. So, what lessons can be derived from Ash’s treatment, his benevolent concern, of his pokémon?
Fire and Water: Lessons of Relationship
Consider the story of Ash and the flame-pokémon Charmander: In the story, Ash and his friends fight to keep Charmander alive through a struggle to keep his flame-tail lit. Charmander’s tail poses danger to humans, yet Ash and his friends realize that, for their friend Charmander to live, they must preserve and protect this danger, even at their own expense. Ash’s and his friends’ benevolent concern takes form in the knowledge of the yin-yang feature in the nature-type or elemental essence of Charmander: i.e., the knowledge of the positive and negative value-components composing the essence of fire, the moral energy in question. The whole moral energy of fire is such that it can be used for the sake of one’s own purification, or destruction. It refines as well as harms, warms as well as burns.
Returning to the story of Ash and Charmander, we learn that the moral energy of fire, and the benevolent concern relevant to it, is for the protecting and preserving of what is harmful to one because it keeps one’s friend from perishing. This is a lesson of the fire of true friendship and the true person. What a lesson! As the neo-Confucian Wang Yangming might suggest, acting this way accords with Heavenly principle, the bright virtue (Ivanhoe, 98).
Similarly, in connection to Mengzi’s (Mencius) doctrine of human nature, the moral energy of water is thought of as “floodlike qi” (haoran zhi qi 浩然 之氣)—a force of nature, of moral ether （qi氣）that infills the heart-mind, indicating the next stage or lesson of personal development according to dao (Ivanhoe, 91-93). But it could have the reverse outcome of causing one to despair at what has been lost, too, like how one might despair at losing, or becoming thoroughly detached from, their earthly possessions in a flood.
Now, consider the story of Ash convincing the water-pokémon, Squirtle, to follow him and leave the “Squirtle gang”: According to this story, Squirtle acts like a renegade and enjoys wearing cool sunglasses and causing trouble with his gang, but when Squirtle becomes quenched with the moral energy of wanting to leave behind a dissolute life for something better—a life of adventure and victory with a worthy pokémon trainer—he decides to leave it all behind. We learn that the moral energy of water and the benevolent concern relevant to it is the lesson of being excessively quenched with your own substance that you strongly desire new substance and decide to go for it. This is a lesson of floodlike qi and of the good desire and action for new life and new beginnings. What a lesson! As Mengzi might suggest, to realize it, we must first nourish the original heart and mind of unyielding energy (Ivanhoe, 91).
Ash, and other characters in the World of Pokémon, obtain moral status by tireless effort of mastery, knowledge, and benevolent concern, expressed through relationships with pokémon, whom they regard as elemental creatures of both intrinsic and instrumental value. Ash and other characters have virtue bright and nourishing. Such virtue, presumably acquired by adhering to the insights of the five-agents, implies authenticity, and is of understanding dao. By having it, one makes full use of one’s natural potentials. By making full use of one’s potentials, one leaves a mark on the World, signifying thus the spirit animating and attracting others to an authentic life. This animating and attractive spirit, as Daoist master Zhuangzhi would say, is that whose “zhi xiang (high aspiration, purpose, and commitment in life) aims at high and far and is immeasurable” (Chen, 194).
Whether hero, champion, villain, nemesis, sage, professor or caregiver, the authenticity of human characters in the World of Pokémon depends on the degree to which they exercise supreme virtue in mastering and caring for pokémon. The question facing us is: Which of these characters, or what combination of these characters, models supreme virtue in the highest, farthest, and most immeasurable way? Perhaps it is Ash who teaches us what masters Kongzi and Mengzi did not or could not. That supreme virtue is found in having benevolent concern for all creatures. Regardless, one thing stands out clearly from our investigation of the moral world of Pokémon: What terrible and terrific moral energies and lessons are to be learned from it. If we want to cultivate our own moral potentialities and actualities, first we must recognize the crucial role moral-elemental powers play in the moral life.
By recognizing, or failing to recognize, how important these powers are, we make or break our fate or destiny, whether unto good, or bad.
Lance H. Gracy is an adjunct philosophy instructor in San Antonio, Texas and a graduate student of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley. His main research interests include religion and culture, ethics, phenomenology, and Asian and comparative philosophies.
Philip Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mengzi and Wang Yangming (US: Hackett Publishing Company, 2002), 2nd ed., Print.
Wing-Tsit Chan, “The Neo-Confucian Metaphysics and Ethics of Chou Tun-i,” In A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), Print.
Xunwu Chen, Another Phenomenology of Humanity: A Reading of A Dream of Red Mansions (MD: Lexington Books, 2015), Print.