Competing Ethical Systems in Ghost of Tsushima
by Armond Boudreaux
In its depiction of medieval Japanese culture, its astonishingly beautiful landscapes and imagery, and its hyper-realistic combat, Ghost of Tsushima is ground-breaking. One remarkable thing about the game that might have gone relatively unnoticed, however, is the way in which it invites a sophisticated consideration of morality and competing ethical systems. The main story in Ghost of Tsushima brings three of philosophy’s main systems of ethics into conflict with one another and asks players to think not only about whether an action is good or bad, but also about how we decide whether it’s good or bad.
The main story of Ghost involves a fictionalized version of the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in 1274. The island’s samurai gather to repel the invasion, and in the ensuing battle, almost all of them are killed by the Mongol forces. The protagonist, Jin Sakai, barely survives, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, is taken hostage by the Mongol leader, Khotun Khan. In order to save Tsushima from becoming a vassal of the Mongol Empire, Jin joins forces with a thief named Yuna and works to free Lord Shimura, the Jitō of Tsushima. While rescuing Shimura, Jin and Yuna quickly become close allies and continue to work together in the fight against the Mongols. Since he has no army of samurai at his back, Jin has to combine his samurai training with more clandestine tactics—including the use of poisons, attacking from the shadows, assassination, and other methods that run counter to the bushido code of the samurai. These methods earn Jin the name “Ghost” among the Mongols and the Tsushima peasants.
After Jin rescues his uncle, we see friction develop in their relationship. Lord Shimura forgives Jin’s use of clandestine methods in rescuing him, but he regards these methods as dishonorable and commands Jin never to use them again. Shimura’s ethics require warriors to approach their enemies face-to-face and in plain sight, never to use deceptive methods like prowling in the shadows, and to completely shun tactics like poisoning and assassination. Although Jin initially acquiesces (at least in word) to Lord Shimura’s demands that he fight with honor, he quickly finds that the grim reality of opposing the Mongol army doesn’t allow him the luxury of honor. If he fights by the Jitō’s methods, then Tsushima will be lost. So Jin is forced into a difficult choice. He can have honor and the respect of his uncle—whom he regards as a father—or the people of Tsushima can have their lives and freedom. There is no way to achieve both goals. So Jin fully embraces the persona of the Ghost, ultimately defeating the Mongols and killing Khotun Khan—but also creating an unbridgeable chasm between himself and his uncle.
Lord Shimura: “I trained you to fight with honor.”
Lord Shimura’s moral system, the ancient samurai code known today as bushido (“the way of the warrior”), fits most neatly into the category of virtue ethics. Virtue ethics focuses on a person’s possession of certain character traits rather than on whether he or she obeys a codified set of rules about right and wrong. In other words, virtue ethics tends to ask questions like, “What kind of person should I be?” rather than asking, “What do the rules say?” In the case of bushido, two of the most important virtues are a martial spirit and courage in battle. Hence Lord Shimura’s emphasis on approaching an enemy head-on rather than attacking from the shadows “like a thief.”
Jin: “Honor died on the beach.”
Jin’s position is more complicated. He is first and foremost a samurai, which means that he has spent his life dedicated to the same honor code that his uncle believes in. Though he adapts to an extraordinary situation, all of his martial skills come from the samurai tradition.
After the Mongols kill the majority of Tsushima’s samurai, however, Jin realizes that whether or not the bushido code of his uncle is morally right, an uncompromising devotion to it will leave Tsushima under the thumb of the Khans and the samurai wiped out. In other words, Jin begins to reason like a utilitarian. Unlike virtue ethics, utilitarianism doesn’t ask about the character of the person doing an action. And unlike a rules-based ethics, it doesn’t ask whether or not that person has obeyed the moral law. Instead, it asks what “good” (or “utility”) will come from any given action. Utilitarianism says that when we’re faced with a moral choice, we must always do what will bring about the most good for the greatest number of people. In embracing his identity as the Ghost, then, Jin becomes something of a utilitarian. He decides that more good will come from his stealthy and clandestine tactics than from obeying the honor code of his uncle.
Jin: “I will make sure that you are remembered—as a great warrior, a wise leader, and a father.”
But there is another way in which we can analyze Ghost of Tsushima’s ethical conflict—one that might allow for a synthesis of Jin’s ethics with Lord Shimura’s. While it is true that the honor code of the samurai is based in virtue ethics, Lord Shimura usually describes that honor in terms of rules and obligation. What allows a samurai to possess virtues like courage and martial vigor is his obedience to a set of rules. So when Lord Shimura urges Jin to act like a good samurai, he does so by admonishing him to obey the rules of being a samurai—especially the obligation to face one’s enemy with courage and honor. (Rules- or duty-based ethical systems are called deontological ethics.)
Jin, too, seems to believe that there are certain rules that one must follow in order to be good, and in principle, he doesn’t seem to disagree with Lord Shimura’s rules—under normal circumstances, that is. It’s just that the Mongol invasion of Tsushima has forced a shift in his priorities.
Under normal circumstances, the bushido code of the samurai is essential for the maintenance and stability of Tsushima. It’s one of the very foundation stones of the society. The system of mutual dependence between various levels of society—Emperor, Shogun, Jitō, samurai, artisans and peasants—provides for peace, stability, and harmony. The problem is that the Mongol invaders threaten the very existence of the samurai and their honor code. This means that Jin feels forced to obey a law that transcends honor (but doesn’t necessarily nullify it). In order to ensure that the samurai can continue living by their code, he must temporarily act outside of it and defeat the existential threat of the Mongols.
Looked at in this way, Jin doesn’t necessarily completely reject the teachings of Lord Shimura or “the way of the warrior.” Instead, he realizes that extreme circumstances threaten the very existence of those teachings and then makes the sacrifices necessary to protect them.
Jin: “I am trying to save our people.”
Lord Shimura: “By teaching them to fear us!”
There is a problem with seeing Jin either as a utilitarian or as a man who protects the honor code by acting outside it, though. The difficulty comes after the Mongols are defeated. Once Jin has stepped outside the honor code, it’s not clear that he can simply renounce his ways as the Ghost (nor does he seem to want to). More importantly, the society of Tsushima itself might be irrevocably changed now that Jin’s actions have called into question the ability of the samurai to protect their people.
This is why at the end of the game’s main story, the Shogun regards Jin as a threat to the social order and orders Lord Shimura to kill him. It’s often difficult for people who live in a modern, Western, liberal society to understand this, but a rigidly structured feudal society like that of thirteenth-century Japan can’t simply allow a prominent member of the hierarchy to challenge its most fundamental values and get away with it. This is especially true in Jin’s case. In becoming the Ghost, he doesn’t just act outside the bounds of what is acceptable for his society; he also earns the admiration and respect of many of Tsushima’s people. An honor society that loses its sense of honor can’t remain stable for long. Indeed, it can’t remain itself for long.
ARMOND BOUDREAUX is an associate professor of English and the author of the sci-fi thrillers Forbidden Minds: The Way Outand Forbidden Minds: The Two Riders. In addition, he has contributed to Doctor Strange and Philosophy, Disney and Philosophy, and the forthcoming Black Panther and Philosophy. He lives in Georgia with his family. You can learn more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.
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