Is it possible that Equestrian society is too forgiving of crimes? Or maybe the situation is that Equestrian society simply views justice differently? In this article I explore the question of what kind of justice does Equestria seem to favor. Does it favor retributive justice in which criminals are punished because they deserve it? Or is it more consequential, favoring the use of rehabilitation and isolation to advance some kind of societal goal?
One of the most common complaints that has been thrown at the Friendship is Magic series has been that the main cast has been too overwhelmingly forgiving of the antagonists, particularly those whose crimes are rather monumental in scale. Moments at which this complaint could be thrown against may include:
-Princess Luna in the aftermath of the Nightmare Moon; one moment she’s Nightmare Moon, the next she’s crying and saying she’s sorry to Celestia.
-Trixie in the aftermath of “Magic Duel”
-Sunset Shimmer in Equestria Girls: one moment evil she-demon, the next sobbing and begging for forgiveness.
-Discord in the season 4 finale
-Spoilers: The Kelpie in the newest MLP comic which practically attempted to drown Ponyville.
Now, granted, information exists to suggest that several of these characters were not exactly in a correct state of mind: Luna was possessed by the Nightmare Forces, and the Alicorn Amulet Trixie wore in Magic Duel was stated to have a corrupting force. Furthermore, some have theorized that the Elements of Harmony may have played a slight role in things by working as a “purifier” of sorts.
Of course, not all antagonists of the series get away completely scot-free. There are plenty of them receive some form of either karmic punishment-such as the Flim Flam Bros. being run out of town- or more direct punishment-such as Lightning Dust being removed from the Wonderbolts. Let’s not forget about Chrysalis being ejected from the kingdom, Sombra exploding, or Tirek being locked back up in Tartarus. Discord was also turned to stone, but was later given a chance to reform himself. More on that later.
For now, however, I would like to suggest that the reason behind this complaint regarding the cast being “too forgiving” lies in a culture clash on how our world views justice versus that of the world of Equestria. Specifically, I theorize that Equestria does not draw upon what is known as “retributive” justice but instead relies more upon a more “consequentialist” theory of justice instead to further the ends of Equestrian society of friendship and harmony. In this article I will explain what these two theories of justice are and how they might apply to Equestria.
Let’s get started.
Retributive Justice argues that those who have committed serious crimes and wrongful acts morally deserve to be punished and that such punishment is intrinsically good. In other words, when an individual commits a crime they deserve to be punished for no reason other than that such punishment is deserved and that the punishment should be proportional to the crime committed.
So for example, let’s say a pony stole one of Pinkie Pie’s freshly baked cupcake and ate it without her knowing about it. Under retributive view of justice, even if Pinkie Pie never actually finds out about the cupcake being stolen or even notices it went missing and the pony never steals one again, he should still be punished for the original theft. In this case, he might simply have to pay a small fine for the cost of the cupcake.
Not surprisingly, the retributive view of justice is one of the oldest views of justice to exist-practically since the invention of law codes- no doubt because of the intuitive appeal of the idea. After all, why shouldn’t an individual be punished when they do something wrong? Is it not something that they deserve for having done something criminal? For more general arguments for the retributive view of justice, please feel free to research Immanuel Kant’s views on justice.
One possible criticism of the retributive view of justice has been that it can too easily fall into a desire for vengeance. Such a mixup should be avoided, however, as argued by philosopher Robert Nozick, who stated that there were distinctions between the two, namely that:
- Revenge is personal, retribution is not
- Revenge involves a pleasure in the suffering of another while retribution requires no emotional tone or the pleasure at justice being done.
In other words, even if no one wanted to take vengeance on the wrong-doer, retribution is still required. This caveat of retribution, however, is one of the major reasons why I suspect that Equestria does not have a particularly strong sense of retributive justice. Willingness to forgive and not enact some kind of punishment on an individual goes against the idea that retribution is required regardless of the feelings of the individuals involved.
Of course, to counter that, I would remind readers that the examples given of “ease of forgiveness” did involve possible corruption of the mind that would put the responsibility, and thereby the deservedness of the individuals, into question. If the individuals were not punished because deservedness could not be established, then a retributive view of justice is preserved with a particularly strong standard to ensure innocents are not punished.
The problem, however, is that except in the case of Trixie “corruption” isn’t exactly clear cut. At the time Nightmare Moon was defeated the characters didn’t know about the Nightmare Forces, and if you don’t count the comics as show canon then they didn’t exist and Luna was going completely on her own. At the very least, Trixie and Luna could receive some punishment for seeking out and wanting to use such dangerous magic in the first place. Sunset Shimmer is definitely case of any corruption motivating her actions being simply a headcanon. Finally, the kelpie was not corrupted in any manner whatsoever and still received forgiveness, and the same applies to Discord in the Season 4 finale.
One could argue that at least some of these individuals did in fact receive a punishment, even if it wasn’t a traditional one. Discord betrayed everyone and was then betrayed by Tirek, a form of karmic punishment. Sunset Shimmer had to rebuild the school, a task given to her by Luna instead of Twilight. Luna did have a 1000 year stay on the moon; surely that is proportionate to her crime?
Unfortunately, I don’t really buy this. Sure, Discord’s can be read as a sort of karmic betrayal, but that would not have been a conscious act by pony society, and none of the Mane 6 ever state that he deserves it. The Sunset Shimmer example is a pretty straightforward punishment, but it was a punishment given by a Luna who grew up in the humanized world of Equestria Girls and therefore tells us nothing about pony Equestria.
The Luna example is trickier, but I think an alternative explanation for that situation is better explained by moving onto the consequentialist view of justice. Such a view also will deal with Chrysalis, Sombra, and Tirek’s situations.
It should be of no surprise to long-time readers of mine that the consequentialist view of justice originates the strongest from the utilitarian school of moral thought. For those who are new, classical utilitarianism is a moral theory that argues that the rightness or wrongness of actions is determined by the propensity of the actions to increase pleasure or minimize pain. This can be more generalized into simply arguing that rightness and wrongness is determined by the overall balance between good and evil that an action causes. As much as I enjoy the classical utilitarianism, I’ll admit my case is made easier by simply relying on a broader definition that I’ll rename “consequentialist justice.”
So then, how does this apply to justice? Under a consequentialist view of justice, punishment is justifiable by the consequences of carrying out the punishment. Therefore morally wrong actions aren’t punished simply for the sake of punishment but instead to carry out some other kind of social good. Because of this, consequentialist theories of justice usually focus on three key methods:
1) Deterrence: punishment systems should be devised to deter individuals from committing crimes in the first place.
2) Rehabilitation: If possible, attempts should be made to improve the character of an individual so they won’t reoffend and can contribute to society.
3) Isolation: Criminals should be isolated or incapacitated to prevent them from committing crimes.
I can’t think of any time deterrence played a significant role in Friendship is Magic, so for now we will focus primarily on the last two methods of rehabilitation and isolation.
Why exactly do consequentialists view punishment as a tool like this? The main reason is that the utilitarian tradition holds a long history of viewing punishment as a necessary evil at best. To quote Jeremy Bentham:
“…all punishment in itself is evil. … If it ought at all to be admitted, it ought only to be admitted in as far as it promises to exclude some greater evil” (Bentham 1789: ch. XIII.2).
Fellow utilitarian Henry Sidgwick also argued in The Method of Ethics that engaging in retributive justice was a violation of our duty to benevolence: at best, a “righteous anger” might be allowed to ensure justice is done, but otherwise the justice system should be developed to attempt to bring about a positive benefit for society.
So to return to Equestria, then, is there evidence that suggests that ponies hold a view more in line with the consequentialist view? To begin with, we would have to determine what kind of good ponies are aiming for. Since that is admittedly an article in of itself, for the sake of time and brevity let us suppose that the general aim of pony society is the promotion of “friendship and harmony”, as represented by the title of the show, Twilight’s lessons, the Elements of Harmony, etc. According to this, then, any decision on whether or not to punish is based on the determination of whether punishment would, on balance, advance this interest.
If we take this approach to analyze the moments where individuals commit a crime, then the ease of which ponies are willing to forgive those who have harmed them makes a lot more sense. In all situations in which ponies easily forgave an antagonist, the case can be made that the individuals showed remorse, recognition that what they did was wrong, a desire to reform, or some other benefit to be gained.
In at least these three cases, once the threat was neutralized, it was clear that they were no longer going to be a threat to others, and Luna and Sunset were given chances for reform. Trixie’s situation is a little different as it seems her personality hasn’t changed that much, but her experience at least did seem to reduce her desire to defeat Twilight Sparkle and move on with her life. In any case, punishing them for their actions would not have furthered anything but the desire to punish itself. If they weren’t threats and open to reform, then offering friendship and support for rehabilitation appears to be the more maximizing option.
Of course, Discord’s situation just has to be the trickiest of the group. It’s implied by the Season 4 finale that Discord’s offer of redemption was prompted by the possibility of using him to track down and defeat an escaped Tirek. This, admittedly, shows one objection to a utilitarian view of justice, in that it can reduce individuals to a means to an end and sometimes create situations where the “utility maximizing” choice interferes with our intuitive sense of what is just. After all, Discord initially didn’t seem to offer any suggestion he wanted to be reformed; it was only thanks to Fluttershy’s persistence that the wall began to break and Tirek’s betrayal that finished off his hesitation. If Tirek had never escaped it is fully possible Discord would have stayed locked up indefinitely.
Unfortunately, I can’t exactly offer a defense to the objection without basically appealing back to a consequentialist argument, such as “well, it worked out didn’t it?” or “the threat of Tirek was great enough that freeing Discord was a necessary act.”
At the very least, this does suggest that at least Princess Celestia was acting on a consequentialist view and provides evidence that retribution is not a primary concern in pony justice. Twilight’s willingness to forgive him and save him from Tirek as part of their deal even though she was the most against the idea of freeing does at least suggest that once he’s shown a willingness to reform or is in a position to be convinced to do so the opportunity will be taken.
By now we’ve probably hit the “rehabilitation” method pretty hard. What about isolation?
The existence of Tartarus itself suggests that pony society is fully aware that there are individuals who do not want to be reformed and therefore must be isolated from society for the protection of society. Or get sent flying by a magic love shield. Or turned to stone. Or frozen into the ice. Or sent to the moon…man, they are really creative on these imprisonments.
In any case, my main reasons for suggesting these are acts driven by consequentialist reasoning and not retributive is twofold. First, the fact that a threat like Discord was offered redemption not just once but twice does suggest that a desire for reformation means rehabilitation will be granted. Second, when dealing with these threats, Celestia generally talks in consequentialist terms:
Celestia: “No. You won’t. You may have made it impossible for Shining Armor to perform his spell, but now that you have so foolishly revealed your true self, I can protect my subjects from you!” –A Canterlot Wedding Part II
Princess Celestia: “He was ultimately overthrown, turned to shadow, and banished to the ice of the arctic north….But not before he was able to put a curse upon the Empire. A curse that caused it to vanish into thin air. If the Empire is filled with hope and love, those things are reflected across all of Equestria. If hatred and fear take hold… Which is why I need your help finding a way to protect it.” – The Crystal Empire Part I
Celestia: “Discord is the mischievous [sic] spirit of disharmony. Before my sister and I stood up to him, he ruled Equestria in an eternal state of unrest and unhappiness. Luna and I saw how miserable life was for Earth ponies, Pegasi, and unicorns alike, so after discovering the Elements of Harmony, we combined our powers and rose up against him, turning him to stone.” –Return of Harmony I
Celestia: “We have managed to discover the only means by which we can defeat Discord and free the citizens of Equestria.”- Twilight’s Kingdom Part II
Only with Tirek do we get a hint of a retributive intent as Luna states:
Luna: “Scorpan returned to his own land, and Tirek was sent to Tartarus for his crimes.” – Twilight’s Kingdom Part I
Considering the context of the situation, with Tirek being a national threat, whether it was purely retributive is up in the air.
The retributive view of justice is a longstanding and powerful idea in the history of philosophy. Believing that individuals who have committed a wrong deserve to be punished is fairly intuitive and plays to many emotional aspects of humanity.
Yet the evidence suggests, however, that society in Equestria isn’t particularly interested in retribution but instead follows a different view of how justice should work. Instead of retribution, punishment is devised in the manner necessary to maximize friendship and harmony. Rehabilitation by offering friendship and support to those who show remorse is highly encouraged, and forgiveness is central to the process. Only those who clearly show no interest in becoming a better individual are isolated away for the safety of Equestria.
Because of this conflict, then, it can be very confusing to us to see individuals who so clearly did something wrong be easily forgiven. This might not necessarily be a flaw in the storytelling, however, but simply a clash between what we think justice should be and the “pony-way”, a clash that might invite us to rethink just what exactly should punishment be.
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