As a fair warning, I will be spoiling a few of Suikoden II’s twists here.
I’ve lately been smitten with Konami’s Suikoden games, having breezed through the first game and a substantial amount of the second in a relatively small amount of time. From their nuanced, understated approach to storytelling to the fast-paced gameplay and the charming, 2D sprite based aesthetic, there is a lot to cherish in these games.
Suikoden II is centered around two major political powers, the nation of Highland and the City States of Jowston. As the game opens up, the two have just achieved a peace treaty after years of war. The (nameless) hero and his friend, Jowy, are part of a Highlander youth corps waiting to be decommissioned. But in the middle of the night their division is attacked and wiped out by Luca Blight, a high-ranking Highlander general. Luca frames Jowston for the massacre, and uses it to help start a war of aggression against the city states. As the only survivors, the hero and Jowy are denounced as Jowston spies and forced to flee across the border.
The hero and Jowy quickly find themselves in the employ of Muse, the largest of the city states. Recognizing that he has been privy to the mayor’s own counsel, Jowy defects back to Highland, assassinating the mayor and allowing the Highland army to conquer Muse.
Jowy’s betrayal, however, is just the beginning of his own plans: he wants to stop Luca and bring an end to the war, and intends to do so by gaining trust and power within Highland in order to bring about Luca’s downfall from within.
Meanwhile, the hero finds himself forced into a leadership position within Jowston, ultimately spearheading the defense against the Highland invasions. Thus the two friends are brought into conflict with each other, in spite of sharing the same goals.
It’s a poignant story of brother against brother, with a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of both sides of the conflict. Whereas most games would paint the Highland army completely black, we see here that Luca is as much an issue for his own nation as he is for Jowston, with many Highlanders being disturbed by the rise to power of such a sadistic war-mongerer.
For the purposes of this post, what I found interesting was how Jowy functions as a good case example for talking about the moral character of our actions.
Jowy’s role as an antagonist begins with the murder of Muse’s mayor, and continues as he actively contributes to a just war of aggression. But, as mentioned, this is done out of a desire to end the war from within and thereby spare the loss of more lives. In contrast to the brutality of Luca, Jowy has a marked distaste for violence and sees himself as sacrificing his own inner peace for the sake of political peace.
It’s a moral calculus that the modern age is very familiar with: the idea that certain evils become permissible if the situation and the potential consequences call for it. At heart it involves a denial that some actions are intrinsically evil – for if they were, it would be incoherent to speak of them as being situationally permissible. It approaches moral questions in a very “external” manner, concerned entirely with outcomes rather than the interior disposition of the moral agent.
For the Christian it is a quite different story. Inasmuch as we believe that God has a particular nature, and that he created us with a particular nature, it follows as a consequence that some actions are contrary to God’s nature and human nature. We have been created in the imago dei – the image and likeness of God – which is most apparent in the free will we are given as rational creatures. In this manner, our actions carry a supreme spiritual weight for us. As Pope John Paul II put it in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor,
The relationship between man’s freedom and God’s law, which has its intimate and living center in the moral conscience, is manifested and realized in human acts. It is precisely through his acts that man attains perfection as man, as one who is called to see his Creator of his own accord and freely to arrive at full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.
Human acts are moral acts because they express and determine the goodness or evil of the individual who performs them. They do not produce a change merely in the state of affairs outside of man but, to the extent that they are deliberate choices, they give moral definition to the very person who performs them, determining his profound spiritual traits. (#71)
Hence why, “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt 5:28) The interior movement of our will is enough to make us an enemy of God and man, even if, externally, nothing happens.
This still leaves the case of Jowy. After all, his intentions are quite noble, and surely if we are stressing the importance of interior dispositions, this must count towards something, right?
Here is where things need to get more precise. Catholic moral theology traditionally breaks an action down into three components when evaluating it: the moral object, the intention, and the circumstances. Identifying the moral object means asking the question, “what action am I choosing to do right now?” The intention can be identified by asking, “what further outcome do I hope to get from this action, or” what are my motives?” Finally, identifying the circumstances is a matter of asking, “how free am I in this situation?”
Because the moral object is a freely chosen action, it already carries its own moral character outside of considerations of motive or circumstances. Murder, for instance, always has an evil character. Even if one hopes to achieve good through such an act, it still involves the soul’s deliberate choice to commit something gravely evil. Intentions and circumstances can accentuate or mitigate the culpability of the individual, but they cannot turn something evil into something good. To quote Veritatis Splendor again:
The reason why a good intention is not itself sufficient, but a correct choice of actions is also needed, is that the human act depends on its object, whether that object is capable or not of being ordered to God, to the One who “alone is good,” and thus brings about the perfection of the person. An act is therefore good if its object is in conformity with the good of the person with respect for the goods morally relevant for him. (#78)
Hence Jowy, although less guilty than a man like Luca, is still morally implicated in a lot of grave crimes.
The ultimate irony and tragedy of Jowy’s character is that his actions do not even bring about the desired consequences: even after the defeat of Luca, the war between Jowston and Highland continues unabated. Jowy’s choices are an unsuccessful gamble, which only serves to highlight the futility of a morality focused entirely on outcomes. To bring up Veritatis Splendor a final time:
Moreover, everyone recognizes the difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of evaluating all the good and evil consequences and effects…of one’s own acts: an exhaustive rational calculation is not possible. How then can one go about establishing proportions which depend on a measuring, the criteria of which remain obscure? How could such an absolute obligation be justified on the basis of such debatable calculations? (#77)
None of us are in a position to see all the consequences of our actions, or to infallibly predict what the future may hold. Rather, we should always strive to do good and entrust the outcome to God’s own providential care.