The Reformation of Discord: A Utilitarian Story – Part II

Discord and FriendsIn Part I of this two part exploration of Discord’s reformation, I drew upon utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick to argue that Discord’s reformation could be viewed as a story of the conflict between egoism and utilitarian ethics. Sidgwick argued that this conflict was logically irreconcilable as the decision to be one or the other came own to one decision: the willingness to put your own interests aside for the greater good.

In Part II of this exploration I will analyze Discord’s reformation through the lens of Sidgiwck’s view of the role of sympathy and the duty of benevolence in the utilitarian ethic. In doing so, I argue that Discord’s story can serve as an example of how one can transition away from the egoistic philosophy. In doing so, I can also explain why Fluttershy was the best choice of pony to reform Discord despite my arguments that Pinkie Pie is already a utilitarian of sorts.

Sidgwick and the Duty of Benevolence

In Book III, Chapter IV of the The Method of Ethics, Henry Sidgwick investigated the virtue of benevolence. According to Sidgwick, benevolence consists of the duty:

“…to cultivate kind affections towards those whom we ought to benefit; not only by doing kind actions, but by placing ourselves under any natural influences which experience shows to have a tendency to produce affection.”

In other words, Sidgwick argues that the duty of benevolence requires us to develop, to the best of our ability, a sense of affection towards others in the process of benefiting them. This differs from other theorists, such as Immanuel Kant, who argued that benevolence is simply limited to seeking the good or happiness of others. Part of this is a concern about making an emotion a duty. Sidgwick notes, however, that similar emotional components are present in Charity or Philanthropy and no objections are made in these cases to the emotional component. Furthermore, Sidgwick states, there is a natural relationship between affection and benevolence, in which benevolent actions tend to lead to affection and affection leads to benevolence. Therefore it seems that benevolence does require at least the attempt to develop feelings of affection, though Sidgwick places no exact level of affection but that you simply do the best you can.

It should be noted that when Sidgwick and others talk about “seeking the happiness of others”, it’s a rational benevolence. In other words, benevolence is not about simply giving into the desires of others but doing those things that will, on the whole, lead to the greatest amount of pleasure or satisfaction. This will be particularly important when we get to discussing Fluttershy’s benevolence and its role in Discord’s reformation.

Benevolence and Utilitarianism

As mentioned, Sidgwick noted that there is a natural relationship between affection and benevolence. This natural affection tends to be particularly powerful to certain classes of people, such as friends, family, those who have done good to us, and those we feel pity for. Indeed, Sidgwick notes that “common sense” morality usually holds these sorts of people to be those we have the duty to be benevolent towards. Sidgwick, however, believed that no logical principle could be deduced to explain why benevolence was limited only to these classes of people and not towards humanity as a whole (see Book III, Chapter IV and Book IV Chapter III).

With that in mind, however, Sidgwick admits that development of strong affection towards humanity as a whole is difficult if not impossible and that people are naturally more able to develop affection towards those classes of people mentioned a moment ago. Since, as mentioned in Part I, the development of affection and sympathy towards other is a source of some of the strongest pleasures available to humans, there seems to be no reason to discourage these natural affections. Indeed, going straight for affection for mankind as a whole threatens to develop only a “watery kindness” that is weak and easily broken. Furthermore, since most people are not in a position to actually help mankind as a whole, it seems natural to encourage them to focus on those close to them that they would be able to actually help. This has the additional benefit of giving people practice in benevolence and affection, practice that would hopefully inspire further benevolence and affection among both the giver and recipient.

In other words, developing affection towards those close to you not only brings great pleasure in of itself but also develops the disposition necessary to expand benevolence towards humanity at a whole. It is this process, I argue, that sets Discord on a path of turning away from his hedonistic egoism.

So Why Fluttershy and Not Pinkie Pie?

Fluttershy and PinkieAs I mentioned in Part I, if Discord represents hedonistic egoism, Pinkie Pie seems to represent utilitarianism. Because of this, then, it seems that Pinkie Pie should be the one to reform Discord. Yet it is Fluttershy, however, that is given the job, a decision even her own friends thought odd until later on. Looking at it within the context of Sidgwick’s arguments regarding benevolence, however, I think the decision becomes rather clear for several reasons.

To begin with, despite my proclamations of Pinkie Pie being a good utilitarian, I do have to admit that when it comes to benevolence she has a few weak spots. She’s particularly reliant on parties, spontaneity, and having “fun” to make ponies happy. This means that when she meets ponies who do not fit into her perceptions, she find difficulty in interacting with them. This is most obvious in a “A Friend In Deed” and her interactions with Cranky, but also appears in “Luna Eclipsed” and “Fillli Vanilli” where her normal behaviors lead to emotional trauma for Luna and Fluttershy, respectively. This suggests, then, that despite her good intentions she may have some difficulty with sympathy that causes her to have trouble adjusting herself to the situation at hand. She’s not incapable of it – after all, she does put Fluttershy off limits for pranks as she recognizes she’s sensitive to them – but when dealing with a case as troublesome as Discord it could prove troublesome to have a character who has difficulty detecting emotions in this manner. Especially since we could be concerned that Pinkie, who appears to be more tolerant of Discord’s antics than the others and in fact approves of some of them, might have trouble being rationally benevolent as she may be unable to step in and stop Discord when his indulgences are problematic.

...yeeaaaaah

…yeeaaaaah

However, the decision to have Fluttershy be the one to redeem Discord is more, I believe, due to her strengths than due to Pinkie’s weaknesses. To begin with, Fluttershy was the only one of the Mane 6 to resist Discord’s manipulations in “Return to Harmony” as she was comfortably able to accept her own flaws. This, of course, has the practical effect of meaning she’s less able to be manipulated by Discord, who likes to prey on the weaknesses of others. Furthermore, this suggests that out of the Mane 6 Fluttershy may actually be the most prudent, or self-regarding. Taking care of yourself, for Sidgwick, is important as if you aren’t healthy and happy as well then doing the same for others is much more difficult.

Most importantly, however, is that Fluttershy’s Element, Kindness, practically amounts to benevolence itself, but to a degree stronger than Pinkie Pie’s Element of Laughter. As mentioned, Sidgwick believed it important that benevolence include a sense of affection towards the target and not simply a desire to improve their well-being. Pinkie Pie is benevolent, but by spreading it as far and at the sort of superficial level she does she risks having the “watery kindness” that Sidgwick was concerned would not be enough motivation for benevolence. That is not to say that Pinkie isn’t benevolent, but Fluttershy’s kindness seems to include that additional level of emotional attachment that Sidgwick suggests is important. This is probably best seen in her interactions with animals, who she makes the extra effort to ensure are comfortable and taken care of in the ways particular to them. Even towards her “enemies”, such as the dragon in “Dragonyshy”, she shows compassion and a desire to help them even after she gets angry and lectures them.

Even things that scare the crap out of her deserve some comfort.

Even things that scare the crap out of her deserve some comfort.

If there is one difficulty Fluttershy shares with Pinkie Pie, it is a tendency to sometimes not exactly be rationally benevolent. The episode “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies” best illustrates it as she indulges in the Breezies desires, but at the risk of their long-term well-being by risking keeping them trapped in Equestria. Her lesson in that episode, however, reinforces that being benevolent and kind does require you to sometimes to do things that an individual might not like immediately but is important for their long-term well-being. Granted, this occurred after “Keep Calm and Flutter On”, but even in that episode she showed some rational benevolence as she was able to keep a balancing act between letting him indulge in his chaos but intervening when it goes too far.

In short, Fluttershy is in the perfect position to reform Discord as not only is she comfortable with her own flaws – and hence being safe from his manipulations – but she is particularly well skilled in the affectionate, rational benevolence that Sidgwick argues we are bound by duty to engage in.

Comfort DiscordDiscord’s Reformation: From Fluttershy to Tirek and BackDiscord and Tirek 2So now that we’ve discussed in depth Sidgwick’s arguments and why Fluttershy was the better choice, we reach the climax of this analysis: does Discord’s reformation match what Sidgwick said?

To begin with, let’s see how Discord reacts in “Keep Calm and Flutter On”. At the beginning he is, of course, acting “nice” under the threat of the Elements of Harmony, which is keeping in line with an egoistic reason to behave. Behind the scenes, however, he is plotting more chaos and is attempting to make Fluttershy his “friend”, not for the enjoyment of friendship or concern for her but as a manipulation tool to ensure the Elements of Harmony are divided. This suggests, of course, he is unaware of the how friendships work, which culminates with Fluttershy refusing to use the Element of Kindness on him but also breaking the friendship.

Here is the first hint that Discord’s reformation seems to be following the path of Sidgwick’s explanation of how benevolence works. Throughout the episode Fluttershy had been tolerant and kind towards Discord, but was willing to put her hoof down when he went to far and tried to use their relationship as a tool. At first Discord acted as if he was fine with the breakup, but it seems that at some level Fluttershy’s kindness had touched. It was enough, at least, for him to consider that having a friend could in fact be something pleasurable. This fits with Sidgwick’s description of how benevolence towards an individual can build affection: in other words, kindness begets kindness. By being affectionately kind to Discord, Fluttershy has gained affection from Discord. Establishing this bond has, for the moment at least, given Discord a reason to behave himself or risk losing this possibly new pleasure.

At this point, however, Discord is still acting egotistically, as his behavior in episodes such as “Princess Twilight” and “Three’s a Crowd” shows his affectionate behavior is limited primarily towards Fluttershy. This fits in the example mention in Part I on how an egoist can be sympathetic but still egotistical by having one or more persons they care enough about to be concerned about their happiness as it directly effect’s their own happiness. In other words, if Fluttershy is not around, Discord feels more free to engage in some manipulative and unkind behavior.

The two parter “Twilight’s Kingdom” is the best representation that Discord’s redemption is only partially incomplete. Despite initially helping the Mane 6 in stopping Tirek, when Tirek offers him the chance to become free to indulge in his past indulgences, Discord takes it. Sure, he hesitates a bit when he thinks of Fluttershy, but he still makes the decision to join Tirek in draining the magic from Equestria.

Yet, something interesting happens throughout the episodes. To begin with, despite helping Tirek, Discord does seem to show at least a sense of sympathy, as seen from the look he gives after Shining Armor is drained of his magic. More interesting, however, is that Discord’s interactions with Tirek suggests he is attempting to befriend Tirek as sort of a replacement for the friend’s he betrayed. This culminates in him appearing rather grateful when Tirek gives him the medallion “as a sign of my gratitude and loyalty”. This fits in quite well with Sidgwick’s claim that the pleasures from sympathy are of the highest level, pleasures that Discord got a taste of in his friendship with Fluttershy and apparently is trying to replicate with Tirek.

Best friend stained glass windows!

Best friend stained glass windows!

Unfortunately for Discord, Tirek is still quite the egoist and is concerned only with gaining more power. Therefore, once Discord is proven to be of no more use, Tirek betrays Discord and drains him of his magic. This is the point, I would argue, that Discord truly becomes redeemed. Why? Because it is at this point that Discord, the all powerful reality warper and being of chaos, can now relate to other ponies. Stripped of his power and having been betrayed himself himself, Discord has now had an experience that allows him to sympathize with other ponies as well as reflect on what he had done. He expresses this realization when he tells Fluttershy “You’re the pony that taught me that friendship is magic. I had magic and friendship, and now I don’t have either.”

Sealing the deal, of course, was Twilight, probably the pony who most disliked Discord – for very good reasons in my opinion – extending benevolence to him as well. Twilight could have left him in Tirek’s clasps, and I’d be hard-pressed to say it would have been unfair of her, but she instead offered him forgiveness and benevolence by demanding his release alongside her friends. And as kindness begets kindness, Discord presents a final piece of evidence of his redemption: he reciprocates her kindness by sincerely giving her the gift Tirek had given him falsely.

It's the ciiiiircle of life...er, friendship!

It’s the ciiiiircle of life…er, friendship!

Conclusion

When Discord was first introduced, he was the epitome of unrestrained egoism, with all the flaws that Henry Sidgwick feared following it could bring. He was selfish, chasing after the fleeting pleasures of chaos. Not only did he avoid sympathetic relationships, he worked to ruin them. Unfortunately, logic seems to offer no response to Discord’s ethics: from his perspective, he seemed to be acting perfectly logical.

But by being exposed to kindness and affection from Fluttershy, Discord soon learned the joys that sympathy could bring. Sure, he stumbled a bit, remaining egotistical and willing to throw the friendship away in return for a chance for his old pleasures. But one a pleasure of high quality has been tasted, it becomes hard to resist. Befriending Tirek was a wrong choice, but it lead to Discord learning what he truly valued and gained the perspective needed to see what he had been doing wrong.

Now, does this mean he’s a utilitarian? Not exactly: we’d have to see how things go in season 5 and beyond. But at the very least, he is far from the selfish egoist he was when he started.

And that, everybody, is the magic of friendship.

Discord and All


For more on Henry Sidgiwck, please see the following:

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/

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4 Comments

Filed under Character Discussion

4 responses to “The Reformation of Discord: A Utilitarian Story – Part II

  1. That was the best analysis on ponies I’ve ever read/watched. Superbly well written and researched.

  2. Pingback: “It Ain’t Easy Maximizing Utility”: Fluttershy, Breezies, and Rational Benevolence | Analysis is Magic

  3. Pingback: “It Ain’t Easy Maximizing Utility”: Fluttershy, Breezies, and Rational Benevolence | Analysis is Magic

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