The Morality of Killing: An Investigation of the Ethics of Violence


Can bloody violence be ethical or morally righteous?

Throughout Taiko as well as the K-Drama Tree with Deep Roots, we are presented with brutal violence in the name of war. I contest that although war is at times unavoidable, an ethical way of conducting war exists that is often ignored by the texts’ characters.

This essay will focus on the decisions both King Sejong of Tree with Deep Roots and Hideyoshi of Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan have had to make as they climb to power and maintain that power in their respective kingdoms. I believe that it is King Sejong who has a deeper and more profound understanding of violence and its consequences, while Hideyoshi often wields violence carelessly and rather than using it as a last resort often jumps at the occasion to violently dominate his opposition. Through this essay I will examine theories on the morality of war, and then proceed to apply those theories to examples of the aggression of Hideyoshi and the pragmatism and prudence of Sejong.



The K-Drama Tree with Deep Roots was a hit in Korea

In order to adequately investigate the morality and ethics of the decisions made by both King Sejong and Hideyoshi, we first must establish a standard of morality. While no one person can say with any certainty that they have a monopoly on the understanding of an absolute morality, I chose to use the theory proposed by James Pattison who investigates the morality of an individual’s involvement on the war rather than the war taken generally. This viewpoint will be useful as we look at the actions of individuals rather than entire nations.

Pattison explains, “The Individual-Centric Approach asserts that the justifiability of an individual’s participation depends, simply, on the merits and demerits of that contribution, rather than the war more generally,” (Pattison 39). To put it even more simply, a warrior can be morally righteous in a morally corrupt war or morally corrupt in a righteous war. Pattison first lays out the principles of Jus Ad Bellum or the Just War Theory. However, he applies these principles in the manner that is only relevant to the individual rather than the war as a whole, which has been done in past studies.

First, the individual must have a specific just cause. Pattison writes, “The right to use or assist (often-lethal) force, given the harm that it inflicts on others, can exist only when there is a good enough reason to use force,” (Pattison 40). Simply put, the individual must be using violence to bring about a specific immediate just cause.

Secondly, the individual must have the right intention. Pattison explains, “This requires that individuals do not possess a wrong intention, such as intending to use force disproportionately or to pursue an unjust end. If they act with a wrong intention, even in response to a just cause, the harm that they will inflict on others is morally problematic,” (Pattison 41).

Thirdly, the individual’s violence must be in proportion with the good it brings about, “to be proportionate, an individual’s actions needs to be reasonably effective course of action in terms of the promotion of the good compared to other potential actions, including the choice not to participate,” (Pattison 40). To use an exaggerated example, it would be unjust to kill a man to save a dog. Although the motive is just, the amount of violence is disproportionate to the good it would achieve.

Fourthly, the individual must pursue nonforcible options first. Other options such as negotiation or even coercion would be a more morally defendable approach than immediately resorting to violence.

Finally, the war must be also conducted by a legitimate institution. A legitimate institution can be understood as an institution or government that upholds the basic human rights. The institution has the resources to obtain a better understanding of the morality of the altercation. This final aspect of the Just War Theory does not directly correlate to the morality of the individual’s actions and will not be used in comparison to the actions of our characters.

In a novel that spans more than nine hundred pages, it would be foolish to think that one paper could adequately summarize the true essence of a character. Eiji Yoshikawa does a magnificent job of developing his characters displaying their growth throughout the epic novel Taiko. Hideyoshi is perhaps his most masterful character who we see as a small petulant and yet proud boy in the opening of the novel, to grow into the Taiko and ruler over all Japan. Through this development, Hideyoshi makes decisions in the name of war and efficiency that violate the acceptable ethical standards that I laid out earlier in the paper.


Written by Eiji Yoshikawa. Taiko follows Hideyoshi as he becomes supreme ruler of Japan.

Understand that one example of violence does not define Hideyoshi as an evil character. However, I believe as the novel progresses he undergoes a consistent compromise of his honor and ethics for the sake of power. In Book Seven of Taiko, a group of workers were conscripted to build a dike to protect the surrounding castle. However, the laborers refused to work at the rate that was required to finish on schedule. While Hideyoshi’s retainers fear that they will fail to construct the dike in time Hideyoshi reassures them saying,

“We can do it… we can finish it. But it won’t be done if we get the strength of three thousand men from our three thousand workers. Now if one man works like three or even five men, our three thousand workers will have the strength of ten thousand. If the samurai supervising them act in the same way, one man will be able to muster the spirit of ten men, and we should be able to accomplish anything we want. Kanbei, I’m coming to the construction site myself,” (Yoshikawa 591).

Hideyoshi’s method of getting the most out of his workers involves a public execution of those who are asked to voice their grievances with their current working conditions. After listening to the complaint of the five selected workers, Kanbei, a subordinate of Hideyoshi’s responds as he, “Threw down his staff, unsheathed his sword, and sliced the man in two. Turning quickly to another who had started to run away, he cut him down too. At the same time, Rokuro and Kyuemon—who were standing behind Kanbei—wielded their swords and finished off the other three men in a shower of gushing blood,” (Yoshikawa 593).

In this way, Hideyoshi is able to inspire the workers to finish the dike in the allotted time. If we compare Hideyoshi’s actions to the Individual-Centric Just War Theory laid out by Pattison, we will see that indeed Hideyoshi’s actions were morally corrupt. I will attempt to give Hideyoshi every benefit of the doubt as we look at the four relevant criteria.

Does Hideyoshi have a specific just cause? The dike being constructed would protect Hideyoshi and the people of the clan from incoming invaders so we will say that he satisfies this criterion.

Does he have the right intention? Once again, we will give Hideyoshi the benefit of the doubt and believe that his intention is to save the lives of the many by building this dike and does not possess another more selfish motive.

Is his violence in proportion with the good it brings? In this regard, there is little argument that can be made in favor of Hideyoshi’s violence. The grizzly statement that the public executions made to the workers did not bring about the building of dike, it is the fear that it creates within the workers that incites them to build. Therefore, the violence committed was merely to send a message and is not proportionate.

Finally, does Hideyoshi attempt nonviolent options first before resorting to force? Once again, Hideyoshi’s actions are indefensible. This public display of violence was undoubtedly effective, but I do not believe that it was the only possible way to inspire the workers, nor would it become morally or ethically permissible if had been the only option. Hideyoshi was not new to construction projects. In fact, in Book Two he assures his lord, Nobunaga, that he can build a castle wall in three days that was not near completion after twenty. With a nearly impossible task to accomplish, he inspires his workers who were previously resentful and lazy with a rousing speech exclaiming,

“’But the rise and fall of a province is not in a castle. It’s right here in you. The people of the province are its stonewalls and moats. Working on the construction of this castle, you may feel as though you’re plastering the walls of somebody else’s house, but you’re wrong. You’re building your own defenses. What would happen if this castle was burned to the ground one day? Surely it would not be the fate of the castle alone. The castle town, too, would be engulfed in flames, and the entire province would be destroyed… So why is it that we are at peace today? Fundamentally, of course, it’s thanks to His Lordship. But you, the people of this province, most certainly protect us with this castle as your very center…’ [Hideyoshi] spoke with tears in his eyes, but he was not pretending. He grieved from the heart and meant every word he spoke,” (Yoshikawa 163).

After this rousing speech the workers meet the challenge and complete the wall within the three days. From this excerpt we are able to see that the sincerity and passion of a younger Hideyoshi was able to evoke the same response from workers without the murder of five individuals. While we are able to use these two examples as comparisons and note that Hideyoshi had other options available to him rather than violence, we are often asked to accept the grizzly violence in the novel as the only option available to our protagonist. However, I contest that through the sincerity and passion he had shown in his youth he would discover methods that avoided violence and were more ethically permissible. King Sejong from the series Tree with Deep Roots provides an excellent example of effective nonviolence.

King Sejong is perhaps the series most intriguing and well-developed character. The beginning of the K-Drama takes us through Sejong’s adolescence as his father brutally destroys his enemies with little remorse in order to consolidate all the power to himself. However, Sejong has a different view of what his reign will bring saying, “I will rule with words only. I’m only going to use military power to defend against foreign power and to defend our land. Having a strong armor, military, and a soft flesh, culture. That is the Joseon I will make,” (Tree with Deep Roots Ep. 3).

After the death of Sejong’s father, Sejong leads his kingdom with great wisdom. Sejong creates and introduces the Hangul alphabet to the Korean people. Previously, individuals would have had to learn tens of thousands of Chinese characters in order to effectively read and write, a task that was difficult for scholars and impossible for commoners. Therefore, Sejong and his advisors created a simple alphabet with only 24 characters.

In episode 15 of Tree with Deep Roots, King Sejong is faced with the difficult decision of sacrificing his kidnapped son for the sake of the new Hangul alphabet. I contest that by refusing to act with violence against his son’s kidnappers, he effectively handles the situation with moral righteousness.

It is important to understand that when I say effectively, I am not implying that it is merely the best way of addressing the problem without violence, but rather I’m asserting that it was the best method of any available options in order to bring about the most good for his cause.

Sejong is presented with the question at what length is he justified in retrieving his son? Rather than acting with violence, he takes an interesting and ingenious approach. As King Sejong addresses Pyung, a member of the group that has kidnapped his son, he begins with an enraged attack exclaiming, “If you touch the Prince [Gwangpyeong] or So-yi, every member of my military I will call to arms, and will sweep all of you around the village market in front of the people. We will display all of your dead bodies. Those dead bodies will be ripped to pieces and sent all over the country,” (Tree with Deep Roots ep. 15). However, Sejong then quickly breaks down in front of Pyung sobbing, “Please… save Gwangpyeong. I will give up everything… everything!” (Tree with Deep Roots ep. 15). It is only after this that Sejong’s demeanor changes for a third time and asks Pyung if it was these types of emotional responses that he had expected? Sejong then reveals that he will not react in this way and he will neither retaliate in violence against Pyung and his friends and family, nor will he simply give into his commands. Sejong’s revenge against the kidnapping, and perhaps murder, of his son will be the triumph of the plan that Pyung and his allies are trying to destroy.

Sejong threatens, albeit a faux threat, to publicly kill Pyung and his family if they go through with the murder of his son. However, I believe Sejong chooses both the morally stronger path as well as the more effective path. Rather than merely threatening his enemies, which will undoubtedly cause more violence, Sejong chooses nonviolence and ignores his aggressors rendering their antics useless. If Sejong had chosen to respond with violence, his actions may have fulfilled the requirements laid out by Pattison, however, he still refused to give in and responded with nonviolence, which eventually led to the return of his son.

There have never been clear lines of what constitutes justifiable violence, and I am certainly not condemning those who have acted violently in a situation. Both Hideyoshi and Sejong are presented with situations that have seemingly no justifiable route. Rather, I am proposing that we should avoid rashness in regards to violence. I do not expect all violent altercations from the characters of our text to be completely morally righteous, however, I do expect and hope that they would truly grapple with the morality and ethical nature of violence before committing towards a certain course of action. It is this vital introspection that is paramount to not only the characters in our texts, but also to the world leaders across the globe.

Works Cited

Pattison, James. “When Is It Right to Fight? Just War Theory and the Individual-Centric Approach.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 16.1 (2013): 35-54. SpringerLink. Web. <;.

Yoshikawa, Eiji. Taiko: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan. New York: Kodonasha, 2012. Print.

“Episode 15” Tree with Deep Roots. Seoul Broadcasting System. Seoul. 23 Nov. 2011. Television.

<a rel=”license” href=””><img alt=”Creative Commons License” src=”×31.png&#8221; /></a><br /><span xmlns:dct=”; property=”dct:title”>The Morality of Killing: An Investigation of the Ethics of Violence</span> by <a xmlns:cc=”; href=”; property=”cc:attributionName” rel=”cc:attributionURL”>Timothy Gillman</a> is licensed under a <a rel=”license” href=””>Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License</a>.