More Food for thought from Fullmetal Alchemist

In the previous post, we considered an interesting philosophical idea presented in the Fullmetal Alchemist – Brotherhood anime series. While we are at it, let us look at a few other deep questions on life and ethics raised in this series, some of which particularly struck me as profound food for thought. If you are planning to watch this series, I’d recommend coming back and reading this post after you have done that. In case you’ve already watched it (or read the manga) or have no plans of doing it, you’re welcome to read on.

The primary antagonists in this story belong to a class of beings called homunculus, which are created human-like beings with extra-ordinary regeneration abilities and longevity.  In their life spanning across ages and generations of ordinary human lives, they interact with many humans, perform in several human roles, and form numerous relationships. However, since they have had many relationships (many husbands, wives, etc.), and each relationship is only a very small period in their long existence, they do not attach too much significance to any particular person or relationship.

This is much like how we don’t think much about the people we become friendly with during a train journey or those we meet at a party. If we could see our own existence in its totality, spanning over numerous lives and stretching over eons, we would similarly appreciate the relative insignificance of our current positions. This is what is conveyed in Srimad Bhagavatham through the story of King Chithrakethu who, along with his wife, was grieving at the death of their son, when the divine sage Narada offered to bring back their dead son before them. The sage asked the son thus brought back, to return to his mortal body and give solace to his parents. The son asked the sage which parents – of all the parents he has had in all the lives – he should please, thereby kindling the fire of dispassion in the King.

Homonculi, being the main villains in the series, have a goal and are willing to go to any extent to achieve it. This involves sacrificing the lives of countless humans who, in spite of their attempts to resist, are powerless to do so. In one instance, when the hero asks a homunculus how he can be so cruel and mindless to the suffering of others, the homunculus gives an example. When an insect struggles to live on, do humans feel anything about it? It would be wrong to generalize all humans here, but most are willing to sacrifice other beings for achieving their own goals – especially, beings who are powerless and whose existence is ‘insignificant’ in comparison. A fisherman does not feel pity for a fish that struggles for breath. Poachers mercilessly kill elephants and rhinoceros for their tusks and horns. Homunculi do not bat an eyelid as they trample upon humans on the path towards their goal and are shown as evil and ruthless beasts. We humans aren’t so different from the homunculi in this one respect. We fear and despise the homunculi only because their victims are other humans that we can relate to. (Reminded me of the attitude of European colonial powers towards Hitler).

Again, on another occasion in the Fullmetal Alchemist, one of the main protagonists asks a homunculus why the latter cannot live like a human. It is evident from the statement that the protagonist considers humans as being superior to the homunculus, which is generally how we think of ourselves in relation to any other species. The homunculus, however, responds saying that they homunculi pride in being what they are, just as we humans do. 

What we understand from this is that the pride we feel in being what we are – in our lineage, skills, race, religion, or anything else, is not unique to us or our current station. All beings feel proud and value their current existence. That is why an ant that falls into a cup of water struggles to survive – and humans cling to hope and continue on their miserable lives.

As humans, much of our morality and philosophy is often based on our superiority over the inhabitants of this planet. By bringing in a class of powerful beings that make humans appear mere insects in comparison, this series shakes the very foundation of many commonly accepted moral principles (like, it’s bad to hurt a human being but okay to boil silkworms for silk or skin animals for leather).

The idea that it is okay to illtreat those who are less powerful than us is so deeply ingrained into the morality of modern world that we need to bring in an artificial concept of ‘equality’ to treat people well. To treat all humans well, we need to say all humans are equal. The problem with this approach is that if it is genetically proven that some races are unquestionably superior to others, it would give them an excuse for abusing these lesser mortals. Another issue is that many are unable to even see the difference between accepting someone as equal and being good to them – as in the case of those who confuse sexism (the view that men and women are different and have natural strengths that are often different) with misogyny (hatred or ill-will towards women).

If someone was completely powerless before you, if you held absolute power over them and their lives, will you ‘use’ them for your own gain, or will do what (you think) is good for them? This is the test of morality that not just homunculi, but most humans will fail. Nevertheless, I think it is a good ideal strive towards.

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