At the end of the two part season premiere “The Cutie Map”, Starlight Glimmer is exposed as having never given up her own cutie mark despite her claims that possession of a cutie mark leads to fighting and breaking friendships. This, of course, turns the entire town against her as they call out her “hypocrisy.” As she points out, however, it wouldn’t have been possible to remove every-ponies’ cutie marks without her magic, which requires her cutie mark. The town doesn’t buy it, but what if, assuming her morality was correct, she had a point? Is it possible that hypocrisy like this can be moral? In this article we’ll investigate by asking if morality must be public or can there be justified reasons for it to be secret?
Starlight Glimmer’s Hypocrisy
Our villain for the season 5 premiere of Friendship is Magic is the charismatic leader Starlight Glimmer. Running her own town in the middle of nowhere, she advocates a philosophy that argues that the possession of special talents and abilities simply leads to jealousy, argument, inflated egos, and other disastrous things that lead to the destruction of harmony and friendship. To accomplish this, she uses the magic Staff of Sameness to magically remove their cutie marks, a metaphysical representation of their talents, and place them within the Cutie Mark Vault. In doing so, their cutie mark is replaced with an equal sign that seems to suppress their special talents and abilities.
As it is later discovered, however, Starlight Glimmer had her own cutie mark all along. The Staff of Sameness? A stick she found in the desert to hide that it was her own magic that was behind the cutie mark removal process. It isn’t long before the turn revolts on Starlight Glimmer, believing her to be a hypocrite. The episode ends with everypony having their cutie marks back and Starlight Glimmer being chased off into some caves, to never be seen again (until probably the season finale or something).
It’s quite obvious that the town is much better off without being under Starlight Glimmer’s rule, but let’s make the assumption that maybe she is correct in her belief that everypony would be better off without their cutie marks? If that’s the case, is it right for her to keep her own cutie mark and, more importantly, keep that secret?
Philosophers have been dealing with this question since the start, labelling it the publicity requirement. First formally suggested by deontologist Immanuel Kant, the publicity requirement states that moral rules are only valid if they are suitable for public knowledge and acceptance. In the other corner is the theory of esoteric morality, formally presented by Henry Sidgwick but had been appeared in earlier works in some shape of form such as Plato’s The Republic. According to esoteric morality, there are times where it is justified for the rules of morality to be kept secret, with an elite few believing in one thing in private but presenting another belief in public.
In this article, then, I’m going to investigate the morality of Starlight Glimmer’s actions in hiding her cutie mark under these two ideas. As I said, we won’t be investigating whether her actions are right: if they are not right or fail to maximize utility, then the question is moot anyway. So for now, let us assume her beliefs are in fact just/maximize utility and we’ll see what happens.
Either We’re All Equal or None of Us Are!
In an appendix to his work Perpetual Peace, philosopher Immanuel Kant writes:
“All actions relating to the right of other human beings are wrong if their maxim is incompatible with publicity.”
The publicity requirement stated here is an extension of Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative, which is the idea that we must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” This can be broken down as followed:
- Formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose.
- Recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents and holding that all must act as you propose.
- Consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law.
- Ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally will to act on your maxim.
To be morally permissible, your maxim must pass all four tests. So let us take the following example: you need money to do something, but the only way to get it is to lie to a friend about a promise. Using Kant’s system, you would state a maxim like “I will make lying promises when it achieves something I want.” Moving to the next steps, then, imagine a world in which all rational actors decide to lie to get whatever they want. According to Kant, however, this would violate step 3: in a world where everyone lies to get what they want, there can be no such thing as an honest promise. This creates a contradiction by creating a world where you wish to make a false promise but yet it is impossible for promises to exist. Therefore, we are bound by duty to not deceive others about our promises to get what we want.
The publicity requirement is a special case of the categorical imperative that relates to the realm of politics. “True politics”, Kant argues, must conform to the law that would be willed by an ideal, rational public in the same manner that our moral actions must conform to those maxims that would be willed by all rational people. If exposure to the public would render a law self-destructive, just like the case of the maxim “I will make lying promises when it achieves something I want”, then it fails the test and therefore should not be followed.
From this perspective, Starlight Glimmer’s hiding of her cutie mark outright fails. Setting aside Kant’s arguments regarding lying removing the possibility of lying as an option anyway, Starlight Glimmer has an obvious issue. In order for her maxim “I will surrender my cutie mark for harmony” to be morally acceptable, she must be willing to give up her own cutie mark as well. Failure to surrender it is an act of failing to follow her moral duty, given the assumption her ideology as a whole is morally correct to act on. One can even argue that it fails part 3 by pointing out that in a world in which the maxim is willed she and all unicorns must give up their cutie marks and therefore magic…which would destroy the ability to remove cutie marks, creating an issue of self-destructiveness. At best, she might be able simply state “I will not use my special talent” or something like that, but the removal of the cutie mark itself may not be defensible on Kant’s ethics. Any attempts at putting in some exception to allow her to keep her cutie mark risks becoming a maxim that a rational public would reject or find self-destructive, as possibly evidenced by the rejection of her arguments by the town (though do note that of course real public reaction may not be the same as ideal, rational public).
All in all, then, Kant would reject Starlight Glimmer’s actions as being morally indefensible. But what about other philosophers?
“The staff is a piece of wood I found in the desert!”: Starlight’s Noble Lie
The interesting part of Starlight’s plan was the whole ritual she built up around the “Staff of Sameness” that creates a mythology of sorts for the town: by using this long lost magical artifact created by a grand, powerful unicorn she could do what seemed impossible and offer harmony and friendship. In many ways, Starlight’s plan resembles the idea of the noble lie presented in Plato’s The Republic.
According to Plato, in his imaginary Republic, the ruling class devises a “noble lie” that can be used to persuade and convince the public to act in a manner that is needed to ensure justice in the city. The myth Plato creates goes something to this effect:
When a person is born, their souls is mingled with a precious metal. If your soul contains gold, you have been chosen by the gods to rule. If it contains silver, you are fit to be a soldier. Finally, if it has iron and brass you are set to be a farmer or craftsmen. What metal a person has in their soul is independent of birth: the child of a farmer may have gold, and the child of a ruler may have iron and brass. The chief duty of the rulers is to intently observe the composition of the soul and ensure that people are placed according to the composition of the soul.
The purpose of the myth, then, is to ensure that justice in the city will be ensured by inclining people to care for the state and one another as well as allowing for the social mobility needed to make sure the best people for a job will actually have that job. Like Plato’s rulers, then, Starlight created a “noble lie” that ensures ponies will be more willing to surrender their cutie mark as well as treat the process with the reverence and honor that comes with a ceremonial method. By creating such a mythology, Starlight also sets up the basis of a uniting force for the community through a common “religion” of sort.
But what exactly justifies doing this? For that, we turn to, what else, utilitarianism?
“I created harmony!”: Starlight Glimmer and Esoteric Morality
While Plato’s concept of the “noble lie” presents an early version of the idea of esoteric morality, the first formal presentation of it is attributed to Henry Sidgwick in The Method of Ethics. Sidgwick, as I’ve mentioned before, is a utilitarian, which states that actions are justified on the basis of their ability to maximize utility. According to Sidgwick, this creates a rather interesting situation:
Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example.
The reason such a strange situation exists is that we do not live in a world of enlightened utilitarians who would be willing to accept the breaking of moral rules as valid based on the utilitarian calculus. Instead, we live in a world with much more complex, with a wide variety of beliefs, ability, etc. For the maximization of utility, then, it may be justified that some people simply should not be encouraged to adopt consequentialism or that some actions should be done only if no one would know of them.
Plato’s “noble lie” presents one way in which esoteric morality can be complied, but what about Starlight Glimmer? Given an assumption that her town is in fact the utility maximizing option (a stretch of an assumption I know), and the only way in which the town is able to exist is through the use of her magic, Starlight is completely justified in keeping her cutie mark secret. If she were to give up her cutie mark, she would be unable to use her magic to remove cutie marks and bring harmony and therefore unable to maximize harmony. The lie of the Staff of Sameness can also be justified as presenting a simplified myth that allows for ponies who would react with hostility to the idea she still had her cutie mark, despite the necessity of her magic in ensuring the removal of talents, as well as the benefits of a communal mythology as mentioned earlier.
So, then, as long as it can be shown that her philosophy is what maximizes utility, Sidgwick would at least be inclined to listen to the argument that Starlight Glimmer is justified in keeping her magic secret. Final decision may require more deliberation – for example, the fact she can’t guarantee her secret will remain secret could be a strike against an esoteric morality justification – but it wouldn’t be rejected with outright hostility.
While it’s quite obvious that regardless of the system Starlight Glimmer was in the wrong for her actions, if we make the assumption her philosophy was right, it presents an interesting question: is it possible for hypocrisy to be moral? After all, only she has the magic to actually remove cutie marks, so is she justified in hiding that fact from the town? For Kant, the answer is a straight no, and his belief continues to this day in the works of philosophers such as John Rawls and Bernard Gert who both place publicness as part of the definition of morality. For philosophers such as Plato or Sidgiwck, as well as modern philosophers Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, the advancement of the public good may require secrecy or lying, and therefore it may be justified to do in secret what is not allowed in public. What option is the best course is something I’ll leave to you.
For more reading, here are some sources:
Kant’s Moral Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-moral/
Plato’s Myths: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-myths/
Henry Sidgiwck: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sidgwick/
Peter Singer & Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, The Point of View of the Universe, Chapter 10.