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.
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” !
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).
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: