In Part II of my “The Reformation of Discord: A Utilitarian Story”, I made a mention of the episode “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies” as showing the lesson of the importance of rational benevolence to Fluttershy. In this article I’ll explore this concept a little further, returning once again to our good friend Henry Sidgwick and his The Methods of Ethics. By doing so, we can further understand what Fluttershy’s Element of Kindness truly means.
What is Rational Benevolence?
As mentioned in the article linked earlier, utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick defined the duty of benevolence as:
“…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 we have a duty “to do good” towards others and to develop a sense of affection with them. Commonly, we generally assume that we have a duty to be benevolent to people like family, friends, the poor, and other groups that we naturally tend to develop some kind of affection for. Sidgwick, being a utilitarian, argues that the duty to benevolence extends to all sentient beings, which would include humans and animals*. This can be summarized as suggesting that we have a duty to universal benevolence, although for various reasons not explored here Sidgwick argues focusing your efforts primarily on those close to you is the more practical option.
The question is, then, what exactly do we mean by “to do good”? For the sake of time we’ll skip the moral argument and go with the answer that Sidgwick provided: to do good, when it comes to benevolence, means to promote the happiness of others. This happiness, however, is not simply the gratification of another person’s desires completely. After all, people want plenty of things that are bad for them. Instead, it is a rational benevolence that we have a duty to provide to others. For benevolence to be rational, we must measure not only the immediate pleasures and pains an action causes but also the pleasures and pains of the future, and from those measurements determine which course of action leads to the most happiness. If this seems a bit hard to grasp, it’ll make more sense in the next section where I apply the concept of rational benevolence to the episode “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies”.
Fluttershy, Breezies, and Rational Benevolence
As I mentioned in “Fluttershy and Peter Singer: Equal Consideration of Animal Interests”, Fluttershy seems to have at least adopted the idea of universal benevolence by extending her kindness to not just other ponies but to all other sentient creatures. This includes, of course, the Breezies.
The Breezies are, as a species, particularly vulnerable to life in Equestria. Even the loudest sounds or smallest animal is apparently a major threat to them, requiring them to live in a secluded paradise accessible only through a portal that periodically opens and closes. At the same time, however, they apparently collect pollen that is available only in Equestria, requiring a massive migration of Breezies to get it when the portal opens. Surviving this migration requires the careful assistance of the ponies, particularly in the formation of a breeze that activates their magic to prevent the pollen from spoiling. It’s almost as if this species was designed to be able to survive only through benevolence. Fortunately for them, then, their cause is taken up by the Element of Kindness herself, who rallies the town to assist them.
Due to an unfortunate accident involving a leaf, however, Fluttershy soon finds herself playing hostess to a group of Breezies that are severely shaken up by the incident. It is at this point, however, that Fluttershy’s natural sympathies and benevolence begin to take a turn for the worse. Determined to be kind to them, and to protect them from the cruel world, Fluttershy begins to indulge the present desires of the Breezies. In doing so, she encourages them to want to stay, and with the exception of Seabreeze, the Breezies themselves seem glad to take advantage of her hospitality and the comfort she provides them.
It is at this point, then, that Sidgwick’s warning about benevolence becomes apparent. As mentioned a moment ago, rational benevolence requires calculating not just the present desires and wants but the future consequences of those wants as well. Applying this to the Breezies, we can assume that they desire to be safe and sound at home: they are quite aware that surviving in Equestria will be harsh and painful for them. Yet that same desire for comfort and safety is also provided by Fluttershy, at least in the short term, and so they continue to indulge in it. Should the portal close and they are unable to get home, however, we can safely assume that they will suffer immensely, both because of the pain of surviving in Equestria and from being separated from their family. Indulging in their short-term desires, however, will lead to this negative outcome. In the long run, then, their happiness is best maximized by getting them home. Therefore, the rationally benevolent thing would be to return them home.
Fluttershy, however, continues to indulge in their current desires out of what is a genuine but misguided desire to “help” them. It is not until the incident with Seabreeze and the bees – in which the solution to save Seabreeze was to be “unkind” to the bees – that Fluttershy comes to the realization that she has to get “tough” with the Breezies in order to help them. This leads to her forcing them out and the moral of the episode:
“My experiences with the Breezies have helped me to see that kindness can take many forms, and sometimes being too kind can actually keep a friend from doing what they need to do. Pushing them away may seem cruel, but it’s sometimes the kindest thing you can do.”
Granted, this could have been phrased a little better, but it does get to the heart of what rational benevolence argues: that sometimes being “kind” may not, in fact, be the truly kind thing to do for a person. Sometimes you might have to do something that, in the short term, seems cruel, but upon reflection over the long term may have in fact been the kindest thing you could have done.