In this first part of a two-part exploration of Discord’s reformation, we’ll explore Discord’s egoism in the context of utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick’s dilemma of the irreconcilability of egoism and utilitarian ethics. This sets the the stage for the exploration of Discord’s reformation in part two.
Long ago, back all the way in season 3, I had a debate with another philosophically-oriented MLP analyst named Nightsphre the Gnostic about whether or not Discord could be considered truly “chaotic.” My argument in that debate hinged on the idea that Discord was not chaotic but followed a very understandable philosophical system known as hedonistic egoism. Hedonistic egoism is, at its core, the belief that the ethical action to take in any given situation is that action which increases one’s own pleasure and minimizes one’s own pain. This is in contrast to hedonistic utilitarianism, which I have extensively talked about in past articles, which emphasizes the pleasure and pain of all individuals within a given situation.
To put it another way, I have argued that Pinkie Pie serves as an exemplary example of an ethical hedonist of the utilitarian kind. She dedicates her life to trying to make as ponies happy as possible, emphasizing she enjoys seeing them smile and that everypony is her friend. In contrast, during his initial appearances in “Return of Harmony” two-parter, Discord was interested in distorting reality itself for his own amusement, which often involved severe mental, physical, or emotional harm to others.
At the time of the video, however, “Keep Calm and Flutter On” had been released, and the potential of a Discord reformation story was given to us. On my side of the argument, I mentioned one possible route of reformation for Discord was a transition from hedonistic egoism to utilitarianism. The key to this development comes from the works of utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick and the role of benevolence in utilitarianism. The exact relationship will be discussed in-depth later, but the core of it is that encouragement of affection and benevolence towards those close to you (friends, family, etc.) is invaluable to the development of universal benevolence that is utilitarianism. In other words, learning to to care and help those close to you can lead to learning to care about others as well.
Based on what we knew at the time, I argued that “Keep Calm and Flutter On” was Discord’s first step on this path. By learning to at least care about Fluttershy’s well-being Discord could, eventually move on to care about the well-being of everyone. The goal of this article, then, is to look back on that prediction and determine if my guess on how things would go was correct.
To make a long story short: sort of.
Due to the depth of the topic, I will be splitting this analysis into two parts. The first part will focus on an explanation of the conflict between egoism and utilitarianism as discussed by Henry Sidgwick in his The Method of Ethics and how it is reflected in the show. The second part will discuss the actual reformation of Discord and how it reflects Sidgwick’s discussion on the cultivation of the Duty of Benevolence.
Henry Sidgwick and the Irreconcilability of Egoism and Utilitarianism.
In 1874 utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick published a book called The Method of Ethics. It’s goal was quite large: to reconcile what he believe to be the three major strands of ethical thought. These three strands were “intuitionism” – which is conformity to intuitively derived moral duties that is similar to deontological ethics like Kant- , hedonistic egoism, and utilitarianism. For the purpose of this article the only relevant part of this reconciliation is Sidgwick believes he was able to reconcile intuitionism and utilitarianism but unable to do the same with egoism. In other words, Sidgwick could not find a logical argument that allowed utilitarianism and egoism to coexist: you could be one or the other but not both.
The reason for this irreconcilability is because either position is a fully rational and internally consistent ethical method. Which one you end up at hinges on one fundamental question: is the ultimate end of all actions your own pleasure and happiness, or is the ultimate end the pleasure and happiness of all individuals in equal regard and therefore require some level of self-sacrifice on your part? If you accept the former principle, than you accept egoism, and Sidgwick could not find a logical argument that could be made to convince otherwise. Acceptance of either principle, then, lies in trusting your intuition that one is better than the other.
Now, for reference, this isn’t saying that Sidgwick believe morality came down to being a self-serving jerk or a self-sacrificing saint. There are plenty of reasons for an egoist to care about others and to remain generally nice: enjoyment of the company of other people, the need to live in a society, not wanting to get arrested, etc. On the flipside, utilitarianism simply requires you treat other people’s interest as equal to your own, not ignore it completely. Indeed, prudence is one of the duties Sidgwick argues utilitarians have for that reason.
Egoism and Utilitarianism in MLP: Discord and Pinkie Pie
In the “Return of Harmony”, Discord stated that the Element of Laughter had always been a personal favorite of his. This sets ups the possibility of a dualism between him and Pinkie Pie, and in many ways this dualism can be seen as a reflection of the opposition Sidgwick finds between egoism and utilitarianism.
You see, despite recognizing that high minded and well-adjusted egoism can exist, Sidgwick was deeply concerned that subscription to such a belief cultivated in a person a sense of selfishness, stating:
“…amid all the profuse waste of the means of happiness which men commit, there is no imprudence more flagrant than that of Selfishness in the ordinary sense of the term,—the excessive concentration of attention on the individual’s own happiness which renders it impossible for him to feel any strong interest in the pleasures and pains of others.” – Sidgwick, The Method of Ethics
In other words, while acceptance of egoism as an ethical principle can give a fully rational and coherent method, it dulls the sense of sympathy for others. For many utilitarians, Sidgwick included, these sympathetic feelings are some of the most important and strongest sources of happiness in the world. Indeed, immediately following this, Sidgwick states:
“The perpetual prominence of self that comes from this tends to deprive all enjoyments of their keenness and zest, and quickly produces satiety and boredom; the selfish man misses the sense of elevation and enlargement given by wide interests; he misses the more secure and serene satisfaction that continually accompanies activities that are directed towards goals that are more stable than an individual’s happiness can be; he misses the special rich sweetness, coming from a complex reverberation of sympathy, that is always found in services rendered to those whom we love and who are grateful. He is made to feel in a thousand different ways, according to the level that his nature has reached, the discord between the rhythms of his own life and of those of the larger life of which his own is only an insignificant fraction.” –Sidgwick, The Method of Ethics
The egoist, dulled of sympathy and ability to enjoy some of the richest joys of life, becomes an individual constantly chasing after some fleeting pleasure in order to satisfy an insatiable boredom.
This description seems to fit Discord to a t, and Discord himself does not seem to keen to argue otherwise. In his appearances, especially in “Return of Harmony”, Discord seems to lack any real sense of guilt or remorse and often engages in destructive, manipulative behaviors towards others for the sake of his own amusement. Being a reality warper, he does not have even the need to behave for the sake of avoiding punishment, the Elements of Harmony notwithstanding. Even his own language betray his hedonistic goals, such as stating, “What fun is there in making sense?”, “you ponies are simply the most fun I’ve had in eons”, and “Oh it’s just too entertaining.” Even his later appearances after his “reformation” show him still maintaining these behaviors, such as sitting by and watching ponies struggle against the vines in “Princess Twilight” instead of assisting them. In short, Discord constantly references or shows that his personal fun, laughter, and entertainment are the motives behind his chaos.
His relationship with Fluttershy also appears rather self-centered in that he enjoys her affections and her taking care of him when he does in fact get sick. At no point do we actually see him reciprocate the friendship in any meaningful way, though this may be because are simply told they are friends but little of their friendship is actually shown. Full exploration of this, however, will be saved for Part II.
In short, Discord can be seen as a representation of egoism at its worst excesses, unrestrained by the normal, human limitations and sense of sympathy that would cause the rational egoistic individual to maintain coherence and harmony with society even in pursuit of their own interests.
If Discord represents the excesses of egoism, Pinkie Pie represents the utilitarian alternative. My argument for Pinkie Pie as a utilitarian is pretty well trodden ground so I will simply suggest reading it here. The key point of comparison, however, is that despite the occasional hiccups, Pinkie Pie is a generally well-meaning and sympathetic figure who would do anything to make a friend happy. “Pinkie Pride” in particular emphasizes this aspect of her character as she eventually puts her own ego and pride in her party planning skills aside in order to let Cheese Sandwich plan Rainbow Dash’s party so that Rainbow Dash can have the best party she can. In other words, she was willing to sacrifice her own interests and pride in order to let Rainbow Dash be happy. And, as mentioned, the willingness to sacrifice your own interests for others is a vital difference between an egoist and a utilitarian.
Returning to Sidgwick’s quote, if the selfish egoist is restrained in their interests and quickly brought to boredom, the utilitarian who has a strongly developed sense of sympathy is able to tap into a variety of strong and unique senses. In particular, Pinkie Pie stresses the joy of service to others throughout the entirety of the Smile Song, which I would argue is practically an anthem of the utilitarian ethic.
Unfortunately for Sidgwick, despite the joys that come from sympathizing with others, it still isn’t a logical argument to go from egoism to utilitarianism. Indeed, unlike fellow utilitarian John Stuart Mill, Sidgwick argued that sympathy could not be the foundation for the argument for the utilitarian ethic as true universal benevolence is not possible for the vast majority of individuals – Pinkie Pie probably being one of those few individuals. Instead, most people feel strongly sympathetic towards only a few individuals, something even an egoist could do by having a person or persons that they feel so sympathetic with that their death or unhappiness would destroy their own reason for living. In fact, sympathy can even threaten utilitarianism if people are unwilling to sacrifice the interests of their loved ones for the greater good: after all, utilitarianism treats all interests as equal, and the fact than individual is a loved one doesn’t mean their preferences get extra weight.
Therefore, logically, sympathy can’t be foundation of utilitarianism, but you’ll have to read The Methods of Ethics to get his argument for utilitarianism. Despite these issues, however, Sidgwick argues that the cultivation of sympathy, and thereby access to its rewards, will be best reached by having a sincere desire to promote the general happiness. In other words, to get the most out of sympathy, an individual should sincerely believe in the utilitarian ethic. But this suggests that sympathy requires having utilitarianism, so how can sympathy lead to utilitarianism?
The solution to this quandary and it’s relation to Discord will be the focus of Part II of this analysis. For a preview of it, the argument that will be put forth comes from Sidgiwck’s analysis of the Duty of Benevolence and it’s relation to sympathy. Like any skill, sympathy is something that can be learned and encouraged. Since the natural course of sympathy is to be sympathetic to loved ones, such sympathies should be encouraged on the basis that learning sympathy for loved ones will extend to an ability to sympathize with others as well. Since sympathy naturally leads to benevolence, this process can also be used to encourage a universal sense of benevolence. Discord’s own reformation, I’ll argue, follows a similar route, with its own unique troubles of course.
For more on Henry Sidgwick and his The Methods of Ethics:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sidgwick/
Online Version of The Methods of Ethics: http://www.laits.utexas.edu/poltheory/sidgwick/me/