Warning: Extensive spoilers for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood spends a lot of time tackling some fairly complex ethical questions for a shounen series, not least of which is its examination of vengeance and situational ethics. Of course, situational ethics tends to get a bad rap, being characterized (much like ethical relativism, to which it is related but not equivalent) as a sophistic cover for amorality. But really, situational ethics is nothing more than the trivial observation that the context of an ethical decision can alter the outcome. On some level, this should be obvious; it is clear that curling one’s index finger caries different moal implications depending on whether the finger is pressed against the trigger of a gun or not. But FMA:B goes beyond the trivial in its examination, and as such, has earned some undeserved criticism for inconsistency on the question of whether revenge is justified.
A significant factor in this criticism is that we live in a culture where two major ethical systems dominate, the Manichaean and the utilitarian. In a Manichaean worldview, morality is determined by ingroup and outgroup status—anything which helps the ingroup or harms the outgroup is good, and anything which does the opposite is bad. The same action may thus be regarded as good when done to the outgroup, and bad when done to the ingroup, or vice versa. This is the moral view generally embraced by militaries (“support your comrades, kill the bad guys”), and can be found in quite a few places in our culture, such as most action movies and video games, the Harry Potter series, and the Republican party. Contract the ingroup until it consists of only the individual self, and you have capitalism, libertarianism, and objectivism.
At the other extreme, expand the ingroup to include all of humanity and you have the utilitarian view: anything which net benefits people is good, anything which net harms them is bad. It’s certainly a more progressive worldview than Manichaeanism, but still based entirely on the outcomes of actions. It does not matter why or how you benefit people, as long as you do. Which sounds reasonable on the face of it, until you realize that depending on whether you count misery as a small amount of happiness or a negative amount of happiness, utilitarianism either says that a world of 50 quadrillion miserable people is better than a world of 5 billion happy people, or it says that murdering severely depressed, unloved people is not only morally permissible but mandatory.
FMA:B, on the other hand, mostly follows an ethical system that is largely disfavored in our culture, virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, an action is good if it demonstrates that the person doing it has the qualities of a good person, and bad if it demonstrates they have the qualities of a bad person. This is where we come to the question of revenge, because FMA:B quite consistently argues that pursuing revenge turns you into a bad person.
Key to this are the characters of Scar and Mustang. Scar is the survivor of genocide; most of his people are dead, murdered by the Amestrian military and particularly its State Alchemists, their homeland of Ishbal is ruined and largely abandoned, and most of the survivors live in slums scattered throughout Amestris. Early in the series, Scar is introduced as an antagonist, murdering every State Alchemist (an organization which the main character joined long after the Ishbalan War) he can find. From the start, Scar is depicted as inhuman: nigh-superhumanly fast and skilled in hand-to-hand combat, cold, implacable, without even a name—he is known only by the prominent facial scarring he received during the attack that killed his family. As the series progresses, however, Scar slowly turns away from vengeance, ultimately adopting the twofold goal of making Amestris admit what it did to his people, and reform in order to ensure it never happens again. This is accomplished through a process of humanization, as Scar acquires companions—a cowardly, disgraced Amestrian soldier, a foreign child on a journey of her own, and ultimately Marcoh, a medical doctor driven by guilt over the experiments he performed on Ishbalan prisoners of war—and is thus given opportunities to demonstrate emotion and character depth. Key in his development are his two confrontations with the character Winry, whose parents—Amestrian doctors who tried to help the Ishbalans during the war—were Scar’s first victims.
In the first encounter, Winry learns that Scar is responsible for her parents’ deaths and points a gun at him, but is unable to pull the trigger. Details of the scene cause Scar to flash back (post-traumatic stress disorder is another recurring theme of the series) to the death of his family, in a way that places Scar in the position of the State Alchemist who killed his family, main character Ed Elric in the position of Scar’s brother who died saving Scar, and Winry in the position of Scar. Scar flees in confusion, and soon after spares Marcoh’s life in exchange for learning more about the Ishbalan War, showing that already he is acquiring motivations other than mere revenge.
In the second encounter, Scar is immobilized and wounded, and several characters are debating whether to kill him, given that he has information they need. Winry steps in and begins treating Scar’s wounds, stating that although she does not forgive him, it’s what her parents would have done. At this point Scar’s transformation begins in earnest, and the series begins moving him from antagonist to, arguably, tritagonist or even deuteragonist.
Contrasted heavily to Scar is Mustang, an Amestrian State Alchemist regarded as a war hero for his participation in the genocide of the Ishbalans. From the start, Mustang is depicted as somewhat morally ambiguous, but mostly good. He seeks to become the head of the Amestrian military dictatorship, but not solely out of ambition; rather, he sees it as the only way to institute reforms. His explicitly stated plan is to become dictator, transform the country into one where genocide and dictatorship are not tolerated, and then turn himself in to a war crimes tribunal for his actions in Ishbal. Early in the series, Mustang’s best friend, Hughes, is murdered, and Mustang spends much of the series pursuing the mystery of who killed him and why, although like most of the cast he spends much of the second and third phases of the series too busy dealing with larger events to spend much time on personal goals.
Relatively shortly after Hughes’ death, Mustang encounters Lust, who contributed to Hughes’ death but is not the one who personally killed him. Lust is an extremely dangerous fighter, among the series’ more lethal antagonists, and manages to permanently disable one of Mustang’s closest followers, seriously injure Mustang, and nearly kill Mustang’s right-hand woman Riza (who is also strongly implied to be his love interest) and their ally Al Elric, Ed’s brother. Mustang responds with a furious show of force, brutally and efficiently killing Lust in an agonizing fashion. The scene is deeply uncomfortable, but played as a triumphant victory nonetheless, and indeed it is the first real victory anyone has had against the main antagonists of the series.
Much later, in the final run of episodes leading up to the series finale, Mustang finally meets Hughes killer, Envy, who not only confesses but brags and taunts Mustang about the killing. Mustang proceeds to violently, painfully, and methodically demolish Envy in a lengthy fight sequence that spans two episodes. Unlike his attacks on Lust, which looked and sounded extremely painful but were nonetheless clearly Mustang trying to kill her as quickly as possible using whatever resources he had on hand (Lust finally dies mere centimeters from striking a killing blow on Mustang), his fight with Envy is clearly torture. He gives Envy time to recover between attacks, allows him opportunities to attempt counterattacks (all of which Mustang immediately defeats), and deliberately uses attacks designed to be painful and disorienting rather than lethal (such as burning out Envy’s tongue and eyes). The sequence is extremely difficult to watch, and clearly the series very much intends it as such, because immediately after Envy’s defeat Riza, Scar, and Ed confront Mustang, persuade him that this pursuit of revenge and hatred is inappropriate for the man who will become the country’s leader, and force him to back off from striking the killing blow.
Finally, in the last episodes of the series, nearly the entire cast gathers to fight Father, the immortal power behind the throne of Amestris. Al sacrifices himself to save Ed, and Ed attacks Father in a berserker rage, seriously injuring him. There is then a brief fight between Father and another character, Greed, after which Ed strikes a final blow on Father, causing his body to be destroyed and his soul to return to the primordial chaos from which it originated. This entire sequence is again portrayed as a heroic act, with the assembled characters chanting Ed’s name as he fights Father.
Here, then, is the apparent inconsistency: Why is it wrong for Scar to kill State Alchemists, Winry to kill Scar, and Mustang to kill Envy, yet right for Mustang to kill Lust and Ed to kill Father? And the answer, of course, is context.
The latter two incidents have in common that the antagonist being killed is an immediate and deadly threat, is highly capable of defending themselves, and has only just caused serious harm to someone close to the protagonist doing the killing. The protagonist, in other words, is both acting in the heat of the moment and “punching up”—attacking someone more powerful than they. In addition, in both cases the protagonist has been well-established as a fighter, though Ed has been consistently portrayed as refusing to kill up until his fight with Father. Finally, they do not draw out the attacks more than is necessary; they are clearly acting to defeat the opponent, not cause them to suffer for its own sake.
All of the other incidents differ in at least one respect. Winry is consistently depicted as a non-combatant, as her confrontation with Scar makes clear: Ed tells her “these hands were made for healing, not killing” when he talks her down. Scar’s attacks on State Alchemists are based on old pain, and represent a premeditated plan; in addition, he targets all State Alchemists indiscriminately, not just those who participated in the Ishbalan genocide.
Finally, there is Mustang’s revenge on Envy, which of all of these scenes gets the most attention from the narrative, taking up the last seven minutes of episode 53 and the first ten or so of episode 54. That it gets this much time is especially notable given that, at this point in the series, there are no fewer than fifteen separate groups of characters being actively followed by the narrative, allowing an average of 1.47 minutes per group per episode—to give a single confrontation more than ten times that much screen time clearly marks it as both a major plot event and a key moment of character and thematic development.
All of which it is. The audience has minimal empathy with Envy in this scene, as he has been thoroughly vile throughout the series, killing beloved characters, taunting and tormenting others, and gleefully recounting his participation in multiple horrific acts, including deliberately setting off the conflict that culminated in the genocide of Ishbal. If anyone in the series deserves to die, it’s him—and yet the visuals repeatedly depict Mustang as a figure of terror, his face contorted in rage (including shadows noticeably similar to Scar’s scar) as he clinically describes precisely how little of a threat Envy is and how he plans to cause Envy maximum pain. After Envy attempts to flee, Mustang becomes much like a horror movie monster, unstoppable, implacable, and inescapable as he pursues Envy and just keeps hurting him, over and over and over again.
Mustang is consumed utterly by hatred, and the contrast between this and him fighting Lust (or Ed fighting Father) could not be clearer. In those scenes, the protagonist was immediately, furiously angry, but still recognizable themselves. They were not given over entirely to their anger, and thus still appeared human. Here, Mustang is monstrous, much like Scar in his early appearances, existing solely to make the enemy hurt without regard to any other concerns.
In both the fight with Lust and the fight with Envy, the effect of Mustang’s actions is identical: a lethal and dangerous enemy who has committed terrible crimes (and intends to commit more) dies painfully. However, the circumstances of that killing (the situation part of situational ethics) make it clear that against Lust Mustang is acting out of desire to protect his friends, loved ones, and allies, and anger at the immediate harm Lust has caused. In the latter, Mustang is acting out of desire to see his hated enemy suffer as much as possible. In other words, against Lust Mustang is being righteous, protective, loyal, and just; against Envy he is being sadistic. The former are virtues, the latter a vice, and thus under the series’ virtue ethos the former is right and the latter wrong.
This is primarily Scar’s argument in the scene where the other characters talk Mustang down, but it is not the only argument used against him. Ed and Riza instead use a slightly more complex variant of virtue ethics, in which the virtues themselves are situational—specifically, individual personality and social roles both influence what virtues apply for a particular person. This goes back to Winry’s “hands of a healer”; Ed’s argument in that scene is that it is wrong for Winry to kill because she is inclined to the virtues of compassion and empathy, and because her role in society is as a healer and maker of prostheses. The implication is that it would be wrong for Winry to kill, even in a situation like Mustang’s fight with Lust, because it would go against her core virtues and contradict her social role. Mustang, on the other hand, is neither particularly compassionate or empathetic, and as a soldier, his social role requires killing. However, as Ed points out, he seeks to become the ruler of Amestris in order to reform it. Is the kind of person who sadistically tortures hated enemies the kind of person who can transform a military dictatorship into a just and peaceful democracy?
The series is quite clear that the answer is no, and so Riza (whom Mustang ordered years ago to kill him if he ever became corrupted by power and ambition or strayed from the path of reforming Amestris) pulls her gun on Mustang and tells him that if he kills Envy, she will kill him, finish out the current mission, and kill herself. It is this ultimatum which finally breaks Mustang out of his berserker rage and forces him to back down from torturing Envy (who, for complex reasons outside the scope of this essay, commits suicide shortly thereafter).
Situational ethics, as I said, often gets a bad rap. Like moral relativism, it is frequently characterized as being a cover for underlying amorality. In truth, any sufficiently complex ethical schema can be gamed to justify basically anything, and so the extreme case of a complex ethos such as situational ethics or relativism does shade into amorality. On the other hand, simpler ethical schema lack flexibility and nuance, and so the extreme case of a simple ethos such as utilitarianism or deontology shades into extremism. FMA:B is not particularly inconsistent in its ethics, as critics allege; rather, it consistently portrays a complex virtue ethos in which the morality of an action is as much or more a function of the motivations, goals, social role, and emotional state of the person performing the action as it is a function of who the action targets or what outcomes it results in.