The Equestrian Polis: My Little Pony and Aristotle’s Politics

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While Nightosphere already made quite the argument that Friendship is Magic can be interpreted as a representation of virtue ethics in action, I question his statement that it is can utopia in-visioned by Aristotle. Digging into virtue ethics and Aristotle’s views on citizenship and the polis, I argue that Equestria instead presents a powerful, more egalitarian alternative to Aristotle’s political system.

Introduction

About a month ago, fellow analyzer Nightsphere the Gnostic posted a video discussing Aristotle and the world of Equestria. In particular, he focused on the topics of virtue theory and natural law and how Equestria seems to follow these aspects of Aristotelian ethics. Of course the thing is I had looked at doing an article on the topic myself, and he sort of beat me to how I originally wanted to do the topic.

Still, I figured it would be worthwhile to go ahead and do my own article on it anyways as my background in political science would allow me to look at Aristotle’s ethics in a rather different manner. I would highly recommend watching his video before reading this, however, as it is quite good and covers the ethics side of things in a lot more depth than what I will be doing here. I do cover it briefly to introduce the topic, but will later on be going into Aristotle’s politics, and some of Nightsphere’s points will be referenced to.

Disclaimer: I want to make one disclaimer though; political theory-wise and ethical-theory wise I am not in agreement with Aristotle. Therefore, I fully do admit that I may at times take the more ‘negative’ interpretation of some of his points. I will do my best to present his arguments as neutrally as possible, but my own personal views will, of course, slip in once it’s time to interpret. Please feel free to correct or argue with me.

What is Virtue Ethics?

The easiest way for me to describe virtue ethics is to compare/contrast it with an ethical system I’ve already discussed quite a bit about in earlier articles: ethical hedonism/utilitarianism. If you’re not familiar with this ethical system, please feel free to read the articles “Is Pinkie Pie an Ethical Hedonist?” and “Pinkie Pie and Ethical Hedonism: Round Two.”

So as previously discussed, ethical hedonism holds that actions are moral in so much as they increase pleasure or decrease pain. For example, Pinkie Pie throwing a party to cheer her friends up is the moral thing to do as doing so makes her friends happy and therefore increases pleasure. But if Pinkie Pie eats too much cake and gets sick, however, then she has acted wrong by increasing her own pain. The main thing to notice about this description, however, is that the focus is on the actions committed. This is because utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethics system, which is primarily concerned about the outcomes of actions as the judge of right or wrong. The character of the person doing the action is not held as being important, or is important only in so much as it helps to encourage the person to act in the manner dictated by a guiding principle.

Virtue ethics, however, is defined by its emphasis on the role of character and virtue (hence “virtue ethics” on morality. To be virtuous requires not acting in a virtuous manner but instead to have the virtue be a part of a person’s character. In this view, it is fully possible for someone to “act” in a virtuous manner without “being” virtuous.  For example, if Applejack acts honestly because she wants to ensure a good business reputation, then she is not in fact an honest pony. If she is honest because she recognizes that to do otherwise would be to be dishonest, however, then she has internalized the virtue of “honesty” and has made it a part of her character. Therefore, we would be able to consider Applejack to be an honest pony.

While it may not appear to be that big of a distinction, its implications are big. The most important is that to be a perfectly virtuous person, acting virtuous must be as natural as breathing. So using Applejack as an example, if Applejack is perfectly honest, she will not only act honestly without hesitation, she would strive to work with and be friends with other honest ponies, and has a dislike or disapproval of lying and those who succeed by lying or chicanery Trixie. Of course we know that Applejack isn’t perfect in this regard, though she is pretty good about it. Even when she does lie, such as lying to Pinkie Pie to keep her party a surprise, she shows obvious discomfort at doing so, arguably because it is against her nature.

Still, while being a virtuous person should be natural, one is not born virtuous. Instead, virtues exist at first as natural tendencies that must be cultivated through learning and education, possibly by following the role models of other virtuous persons. Twilight’s experiences in Ponyville easily fit within this framework, with her learning about friendship and the other virtues by trying to model and learn from the other Elements (and in some cases, vice-versa).

Aristotle, Virtue Ethics, and Politics

As Nightsphere’s video explained, the most famous proponent of virtue ethics was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and so I will be sticking with him in order to explain virtue ethics further. Which means that if you are confused in anyway after this point you are free to say “It was Greek to me” !

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The reaction of everyone after reading that line.

Aristotle’s system of virtue ethics relies primarily on two philosophical concepts; telos and eudaimonia. Telos is, in simplest terms, purpose. In Aristotle’s system, everything has a purpose inherent in the nature of the thing. For example, the purpose of an acorn is to become an oak tree. Eudaimonia is often translated as “human flourishing” when referring to virtue ethics. It refers to the state of human flourishing that can be achieved through the practicing of the correct virtues. Achieving this state is the characterization of the good-life, and represents the proper goal for all humans to achieve. Telos and eudaimonia are bound together in that what the appropriate virtues that must be cultivated are related to the purpose of the object. For example, the purpose of a knife is to cut things, and therefore to fulfill its purpose the virtue of sharpness must be cultivated.

Now, within Aristotle’s system he argued that reaching the state of eudaimonia for humans was achieved through the exercising of reason, which itself could only reach its proper exercise by participating in the political community within the polis or city state. This is because, Aristotle argued, men are by nature “political animals.” We are drawn together by our social tendencies, and self-sufficient is impossible to attain. It is only by coming together into the political community we are able foster the conditions and virtues necessary to achieve eudaimonia. In a sense, then, man is capable of being their most virtuous when they are citizens. They spend their time engaging in deliberation, participating directly in government, serving on juries, and other tasks that support and improve the community through the proper use of our reasoning.  This is assuming an ideal regime, the discussion of which makes up most of Politics but won’t really be discussed here.

Equestria and Citizenship

The question then is does Aristotle’s view of what is necessary to achieve eudaimonia apply to the world of Equestria, as shown by Nightsphere’s excitement of it being a utopia of natural law and virtue ethics?

Eh, it’s questionable.

Aristotle, unfortunately, had a rather limited view of just who could be a citizen, and by extension be a person capable of achieving eudaimonia. Putting aside his view women and slaves were completely incapable of being citizens as being a product of his times, he also argued that those who had to work with their hands in labor or mechanical work were also not capable of being citizens. This was because they lacked the leisure time to fully develop their minds in a manner that would allow them to actively participate in the ruling of the city. Such workers must exist, of course, because someone has to do the manual labor such as growing food or building houses, but they would have no hand in the ruling of the city. In fact, in the early parts of his Politics, Aristotle suggests that a good citizen should avoid engaging in such labor:

There is, indeed, the rule of a master, which is concerned with menial offices- the master need not know how toperform these, but may employ others in the execution of them: the other would be degrading; and by the other I mean the power actually to do menial duties, which vary much in character and are executed by various classes of slaves, such, for example, as handicraftsmen, who, as their name signifies, live by the labor of their hands: under these the mechanic is included. Hence in ancient times, and among some nations, the working classes had no share in the government- a privilege which they only acquired under the extreme democracy. Certainly the good man and the statesman and the good citizen ought not to learn the crafts of inferiors except for their own occasional use; if they habitually practice them, there will cease to be a distinction between master and slave.  – Book 3, Part IV

Unfortunately, we don’t really know much about Equestria’s governmental systems beyond that Celestia and Luna rule as diarchs and that Ponyville has a mayor. Because of this, we know very little about the involvement of ponies in government. Still, I believe we can still argue that Equestria rejects parts of Aristotle’s view of the good citizen. I feel we can do this because nothing in the attitudes of ponies seems to suggest that they view the work of those in mechanical or labor-intensive jobs any less inferior than the work of intellectuals.

Consider this of our main characters work in what would most likely be considered mechanical labors from Aristotle’s view; Applejack is a farmer, Rarity a tailor, and Pinkie Pie a baker (Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash would probably be as well, but couldn’t think of a good profession for them). Only Twilight would most likely be considered worthy of citizenship, yet at no point does Twilight seem to imply that her talents are somehow superior to others. Instead, she cherishes her friends, and not because they are useful, but instead because of who they are and an appreciation for their skills and talents. Most importantly, however, is that Twilight recognizes she is able to learn and grow alongside these friends of hers, instead of assuming she could learn these only among other intellectuals.

On a larger scale, the founding story of Hearth’s Warming Eve seems to be our best way to show that Equestrian society rejects the divisions present in Aristotle’s political system.

Prior to the founding of Equestria, the three tribes seemed to be separated as followed; unicorns as the intellectuals, the pegasi as the military, and the Earth Ponies as the laborers. Based on Aristotle’s system, the unicorns would seem to be the appropriate source for citizens if the tribes were to be united. Yet, as the story ends, it becomes clear that the future Equestrian society will be formed on a basis of friendship between the tribes, with no one tribe being viewed as superior to the others. We can most likely assume, then, that the society founded after HWE would ensure that all ponies would be represented in government, though again we can’t say anything for sure since we don’t know what the government founded was like.

There is the question, of course, of how Celestia, Luna, Cadence, and Alicorn Twilight fit into this view as the existence of a monarchy system does seem to not geld well with this more egalitarian viewpoint of Equestrian society. However, I don’t think it is inherently an issue, especially since Celestia’s presentation as a mentor places her quite reasonably into the role of, well, a role model for others to follow. Cadence, Luna, and Twilight can further serve as role models for being virtuous. The key here, of course, is that the ability to become virtuous does not seem restricted to any particular class, which is presented rather well I think by the various backgrounds of the characters (Twilight a unicorn scholar, Cadence a pegasus who grew up with Earth Ponies).

Final Thoughts

In a sense, Equestria can be seen as both a representation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics as well as a refutation of his political system. Nightsphere’s video already makes the argument that the friendship of the Mane 6 and the Elements of Harmony fit very well into a virtue ethics system. Equestrian society as a whole, however, seems to provide a powerful alternative to Aristotle’s system. Instead of viewing the talents and capabilities of the laborer class as something purely useful for supporting the citizens, it instead values as worthwhile for their own sake. This simple acknowledge brings forth big implications, the most important of course the idea that virtue in Equestria is not limited to a small, intellectual elite but instead is something that all ponies, regardless of background, can strive for.

For more on Aristotle, feel free to read the following:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue_ethics

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-politics/

http://www.iep.utm.edu/virtue/

http://www.iep.utm.edu/aris-pol/#SH7a

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_(Aristotle)

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “The Equestrian Polis: My Little Pony and Aristotle’s Politics

  1. Awesome, this was well worth the wait, I learnt a lot about Aristotle’s politics that I didn’t know before, so thank you. And thanks for all the promotion you keep giving me! I have some comments and criticisms for you:

    I think you are wrong to emphasise action in utilitarianism, since as you point out it is teleological. It is about consequences irrespective of the actions that procure them. It is deontological theories like Kantian Ethics that concern themselves with actions. Having said that, I understand why you went about it in the way you did in order to differentiate it from Virtue Ethics, but it is more accurate to emphasis utilitarianism as focused on consequences of actions – not the actions themselves. you obviously understand all this, there is just a minor issue in the way you described it.

    I would agree that Aristotle would not consider Equestria a utopia, but not because his theories lead to that conclusion. Instead his biases (the classes, excluding women and children, preventing classes from interacting/doing the same things) would prevent him from using his theories correctly. These bias’s likely come from his teacher Plato, as Plato’s own utopia described in ‘the Republic’ was rigidly class based, and also involved the prevention of higher classes from partaking in the work of lower classes.

    I think you seem to argue for this as well and this is why:
    P1: You acknowledge that Equestrian society fully exemplifies Virtue Ethics.
    P2: You also claim (correctly) that it refutes Aristotle’s Political system.
    C: As a result you prove that Aristotle’s Ethical and Political systems are incompatible as the state which most exemplifies his ethics (Equestria) also contradicts the state that was meant to (the state in ‘Politics’). Which is to say that the class basis of his politics contradicts the underlying ethical system and thus Aristotle erred in creating his political state.

    Thus the state of Equestria is closer to the political state that Aristotle should have created in order to be consistent with the Ethical theories he believed in, as only in Equestrian society, and not Aristotle’s state is Eudaimonia achievable in the way the theory clearly shows it to be.

    Would you agree?

    • I have seen utilitarianism described as being teleological, but in a looser sense than that of virtue ethics. I was more of trying to differentiate it as not as agent-based as virtue ethics was all.

      Anyway, interesting you mention Plato because much of Aristotle’s Politics was a critique of Plato’s Republic before ultimately rejecting it. His distinctions among persons derives more from his belief that there are people who are just naturally inclined to be slaves (in a different sense of the term than modern usage, which would be more of his ‘legal’ slavery and one he did argue against). . From my understanding, his arguments regarding that are usually considered rather weak, and even Aristotle seems to show problems keeping up the argument going (particularly in regards to how you can actually sort the master from the slave).

      With that in mind, some of his points are still considered valid in political theory (in the sense they can be argued), but those are some of the more common sense things like “people who are working and can’t stay informed may not be the best to rule.” The difference is that most theories, particularly democratic theory, usually try and incorporate them into the system of ruling somehow instead of just saying “They have no say” due to other, more pressing moral concerns (equal treatment of people, right to representation, etc.). and aren’t normally based on a system of superior/inferior classifications.

      As for whether or not Equestria is the state that “should” have been formed, I’m not too sure. His arguments are too strongly tied to this ethics and his stated purpose for humans (the use of reason) to say that Equestria is basically the corrected version of his views. Instead, and I touched on it but didn’t stress it, it seems Equestria holds the good life is focused on something else (probably friendship). This, of course, changes the entire structure of the debate, which makes Equestrian society more of , in my view, an alternative systems of virtue ethics than Aristotle’s. If I knew more on it, there is the possibility Equestrian society falls more under a “ethics of care”-based system than a reason-based Aristotelian system.

      • What a well thought through response, thank you.

        It is definitely right to say Equestrian society is a different system of Virtue Ethics, but I believe it is an improved one, ironing out the inconsistencies of Aristotle’s. You yourself stress how weak his arguments for inequality are and this is what I mean, Equestrian society gets rid of those inconsistencies with its equal society while it’s flourishing centred education system and multi-layered society allows for maximum focus on developing virtues with maximum role models to aid citizens. for these reasons I believe it can be counted as a re-formulated, more consistent, reason-based Aristotelian system, and the kind he should have created.

        Having said that I bow to your superior knowledge of Aristotle’s politics, so let me know if I overstep the mark.

  2. Sylocat

    I think that “Virtue Ethics” and Utilitarianism aren’t incompatible at all, since before you can even define “Virtue” ethics, you first have to define “Virtue.” If you take a Utilitarian definition of Virtue, then those virtues are what distinguishes virtue ethics in the first place.

    In fact, I think contrasting virtue ethics with utilitarianism is a red herring, since they actually deal with differing levels of defining what morality is.

    • Well, the differences between Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics is more in what the focus is on and what is valued.

      As a system, Utilitarianism is focused primarily on the consequences of actions as the basis of morality. Actions are good in relevance to whether they increase or decrease a chosen good (pleasure in the classical system). Normally this good is considered the only thing to have inherent value, with everything else only having an instrumental value. The character of the person or the intent behind the actions are only relevant in so much as they encourage people to act in the appropriate manner. So virtue has an instrumental value, but if acting “virtuous” would lead to bad consequences then it would better to not be virtuous.

      Virtue ethics, however, places the focus of morality on the character of the individuals. Virtue has an inherent value, and the center of ethics should be on the cultivation of virtues. In virtue ethics, being virtuous is a matter of cultivating virtue as a permanent, character trait (better explained in Nightsphere’s video). Even if being virtuous leads to bad consequences, it is better to remain virtuous (ex: Socrate’s choosing to commit his court-ordered suicide when he had the possibility to escape).

      A good example I could give would be using generosity. In utilitarianism, since consequences are the important part, developing a tax code or social pressures that encourage people to be generous even if it is not their natural inclination would be considered moral. Even if the individual is only doing it because they want the tax benefits or society would shun them for not being generous, encouraging people to act generous is an overall good.

      Virtue ethics, however, would state that to be ethical the person would in fact have to be generous. If they’re acting only due to self-benefit or social pressures, then they aren’t being moral. It is only if they are acting generous because of their own, natural tendency to be generous (like, say, Rarity) are they considered ethical.

  3. PastAnalysis

    Awesome post man! Keep up the great work!

  4. Pingback: Eudaimonia and Equestria: Part I | Analysis is Magic

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