After over 100 episodes, I finally found an excuse to combine two of my favorite things in the world into one: the cartoon series Steven Universe and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian ethics. That it took so long to do so is more of a testament to the high quality of the show than anything else. The sheer expanse of the show and the topics it deals with – from basic lessons about friendship to in-depth explorations of grief, loss, and trauma in the aftermath of relationships and war – kind of makes it a bit intimidating to get a grasp on it. What finally inspired this long-awaited excuse to stuff utilitarianism into yet more cartoons (see my long, long list of utilitarian ethics inspired analysis of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic) was the two-parter episodes of Beta and Earthlings, the 100 and 101the episodes according to the Steven Universe wiki.
But we’ll get to that in a moment. For those not familiar with either Steven Universe or John Stuart Mill, a brief introduction.
Steven Universe is a cartoon staring the titular character Steven Universe and the trio of extraterrestrial beings known Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. Together they form the Crystal Gems, a group dedicated to defending the Earth against the distance Gem empire known only as Homeworld. As the series progressed, we learned that Earth is a former colony of the Gems, and that Steven’s mother Rose Quartz – who gave up her physical existence to form him – was the leader of a rebellion that expelled Homeworld from the Earth…for now.
John Stuart Mill was a 19th century British philosopher and political economist who is most famous for his being a major proponent of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism itself is an ethical system that, in its most basic form, argues that the basis of ethical decision making should be, in the hedonistic form that Mill advocated, the weighing of the resulting levels of pleasures and pains that an action results in. The goal is, broadly speaking, to take the action that maximizes the resulting balance of pleasure and pain.
So, obvious how I came to associate Steven Universe and John Stuart Mill, right? If not, well, that’s what this article is for, but the focus of this article won’t be on Steven or the Crystal Gems. Instead, the character that sparked this connection, and the one who I find the most likely to be sympathetic to Mill’s utilitarianism, was the former Homeworld technician turned Crystal Gem, Peridot.
Peridot originally appeared as an antagonist. To make a long story short, Steven and the Crystal Gems captured Peridot who revealed to them a giant fusion abomination known as the Cluster was in the center of the Earth and threatened to destroy it. In working with the Gems to defeat it, Peridot eventually came to treasure and value the Earth and the Gems, leading to her eventually defecting from Homeworld and becoming one of the Crystal Gems.
What is it about this little clod (her favorite word) that drew a connection between her and John Stuart Mill? This is where the episodes Beta and Earthling finally come in, but mostly it was this speech she gives to Jasper, her former bodyguard during her mission to Eart who, having been beaten by Amethyst and Steven demands to know why Peridot is with the Gem’s now:
Jasper: How can you side with Rose Quartz?! Why? Why protect this useless shell of a planet?
Peridot: It’s not a shell, there’s so much life. Living here, that’s what I’m doing! I’m living here! I’ve been learning new things about myself all the time! Like how I can make metal do my bidding! (Shows off ability, but the metal rod just falls behind her) The point being: Earth can set you free.
It’s the phrase “I’ve been learning new things about myself all the time!” that caught me, that sense that one of the things that Peridot associates with how Earth is “freeing” is this ability to constantly learn new things about one’s self. The reason this clicked with me is because of this Mill’s On Liberty, which is his defense of liberty and freedom not from the perspective of “rights” but, instead, purely from the basis of utility as Mill states:
“I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”
The key phrase here is “man as a progressive being”, a concept that is threaded throughout Mill’s works, that is the connecting thread between Peridot and Mill’s utilitarianism. Because for Mill, happiness is the result of allowing individuals to develop and use all of their faculties; the moral, the intellectual, and, central to his utilitarianism, the sympathetic.
“It Could’ve Been Great!”
One of the more interesting connections between Mill and Peridot arrives from an unlikely source: Mill’s political economy work Principles of Political Economy.
Mill was writing in Victorian England during the Industrial Revolution, and he was quite critical of what he perceived to be the effect of industrialization and capitalistic society on the character of individuals. For Mill, the Industrial Revolution and resulting capitalistic systems demands of the homo oeconomicus, the economic man, to work and consume in pursuit of “economic progress” threatened to subsume all behavior and motivation for people towards growth without end. Indeed, in Utilitarianism, Mill uses the love of money as an example of a situation in which the association between an object and happiness can often translate into the desiring of that object as a mean of itself.
While we currently have no information on whether or not Homeworld is “capitalistic”, we do know that it is strapped for resources, as noted by Peridot in the episode “Too Short” when she states that current era Gems do not have the “powers” that older era gems such as the Crystal Gems have due to lack of resources. But one of the most telling aspects of the relationship between Homeworld and their colonies comes from the episode “It Could’ve Been Great”. There, the Crystal Gems and Peridot go to the Homeworld base on the Moon to find information on the location of The Cluster. After finding that information, and Steven playing around on the computer, Peridot pulls up information on the plans for Earth and is absolutely marveled at it, stating:
“Ta-da! A finished Earth colony. Wow, look at this! Eighty-nine kindergartens, sixty-seven spires, a Galaxy Warp in each facet, efficient use of all available materials. What were you thinking, shutting this operation down? It could’ve been great!”
The Crystal Gems, having been protecting Earth for thousands of years, were not amused. In the ensuing argument, Peridot appeals to the expansion of the Gem population and the expansion of the Empire. In other words, Peridot defends the resource extraction plan purely on the basis of growth and ‘progress’ for the Homeworld empire. Noticeably missing, however, is any concern about either life on the Earth or even the improvement of the quality of life: growth for growth’s sake is all Peridot is concerned about. From a Millian perspective then, it appears that Homeworld has misplaced the means of progress for an end in of itself: the expansion and consumption of resources is a moral goal in of itself instead of simply a necessary component for achieving some other end. For Mill, of course, the end is the cultivation of happiness.
“You’re a pearl! You are beneath me!”
The question, then, becomes how to correct this misplacement ends with the means? In regards to the capitalistic society part of things, Mill advocated for the reorganization of the relationships in the workplace from the oppositional hierarchy of labor and capitalist to cooperative-based partnerships.
When Peridot and the Crystal Gems decide to work together to stop the Cluster, Peridot initially believes that their relationship will remain in the form of the hierarchy established by Homeworld. There, our Pearl would be considered an accessory and servant, and although a Peridot would normally not have one, it would still be expected that Pearl would be beneath Peridot. Pearl, however, belongs to no one and has instead spent her time and freedom on Earth cultivating a large array of talents.
This clash of Peridot’s expectations of a hierarchical based relationship with the cooperative-based expectations of the Gem’s leads to a giant robot fight to ‘prove’ who is the best.
Peridot ‘wins’ and, as her expectations suggest she should get praise. Instead, she is basically ignored as the rest of the Crystal Gems praise Pearl for her performance, and Steven points out to Peridot simply how amazing Pearl must truly be to continually push her limits and do all she has done.
The result is Peridot’s grudging respect for Pearl, though admittedly it sill appears based mostly on a basis that Pearl is useful. In fact, judging the worth of individuals on the basis of how ‘useful’ they are is still a challenge for Peridot, even judging herself in the episode “Too Short” on the basis of the lack of powers. Still, this moment marks the beginning of Peridot’s re-evaluating the relationship between herself and the Gems from “enemies temporarily working together” to a more truly cooperative relationship.
“I’m Percy and Pierre” “….Ohhhhh!”
The development of the sympathetic abilities is perceived by Mill to be one of the most important aspects of the utilitarian character. The ability to imagine is useful for recognizing commonalities and shared interests between ourselves and others, and Mill’s hedonistic utilitarianism provides the readily available commonality of pleasure and pain as a starting point. In his writings on the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, Mill emphasizes the use of poetry and nature as a method of cultivating these imaginative sensibilities, relating to his own experiences in reading Wordsworth helping him to overcome his depression in his early youth.
Peridot, however, I doubt truly has that sense of awe and meditation when she see’s nature that Mill advocates for. Her interest in nature often times appears to be more intellectual which, to be fair to Mill he does allow as he also emphasizes the importance of recognizing that different minds find different things appealing for different reasons. Where Peridot and myself must break from Mill, however, is that his defense of poetry and aesthetics for the development of emotional and empathetic sensibilities includes the usual deprecation of novels that was common in the Victorian era as being stimulating in the same manner as gossip or sight-seeing.
Why this break? In the episode “Log Date 7 15 2” , Steven introduces Peridot to the series “Camp Pining Heart”, a melodramatic series set in summer camp in what appears to be the show’s equivalent of Canada. While initially dismissive, Peridot quickly becomes engulfed in the episode Steven gave her, marathoning it 78 hours straight and creating a highly detailed relationship chart between all the characters. She particularly focuses in on the pair of Piere and Percy, which Peridot believes is the superior relationship than the show’s canon teasing of Paulette and Percy.
Meanwhile, Peridot remains continually confused by the existence of Garnet. Garnet is herself a fusion of two other Gems, Ruby and Sapphire, who remain continually fused. From Homeworld’s perspective, to quote the character Jasper, “Fusion is just a cheap tactic to make weak Gems stronger”. That Garnet remains herself despite doing absolutely nothing of practical or martial value befuddles Peridot. Garnet offers to fuse with Peridot to show her, and Peridot does make the effort to do so before backing out. Still confused, Peridot asks again why Garnet exists. Garnet’s answer?
“I’m Percy and Pierre.”
This single sentence apparently solves the mystery for Peridot, noting in her log that while she had hoped to get a better understanding of fusion, she instead got a better understanding of Garnet. This ability to use her fictional show to learn more about and empathize with another being is one reason I’m dismissive of Mill’s dismissiveness of novels and preference for poetry. Because to be quite honest, I personally still don’t see how poetry is supposedly superior at the creation of imaginative sympathies or providing a deep insight into human psychology than novels. And if Mill is dismissive of novels, probably dismissive of Camp Pining Hearts as well, I wouldn’t argue if Peridot wants to call him a clod.
But arguments about medium aside, Peridot’s cultivation of an empathetic ability through the relation between the aesthetic experience of her favorite show and the experiences of another individual hit at the larger point that Mill was attempting to get at in his discussions on the role of aesthetics in the cultivation of moral character. His opposition to the “novelistic” stems from a belief that the experience of working through our thoughts and feelings over a piece of art is superior to entertainment by the incidental. His mistake, then, is more the lack of his own imagination, I believe, in believing that one can not go through that experience when reading through a novel or watching a show.
“Let me show you our…morps.”
In the episode “Beta”, Steven and Amethyst arrive at the barn that Peridot and Lapis Lazuli have made home only to find that they have filled the barn with their own creations. In Peridot’s words “What if we made music, but instead of sounds, we use things!”
Steven quickly informs them that is called art, but Lapis and Peridot prefer the term “meep morps.” For a good analysis on this scene from someone more familiar with aesthetics and art history, see Storming the Ivory Tower’s “Self Portrait as a Fused Gem: Steven Universe and 20th Century Art”. Here, I will primarily focus on the creation and role of art from Mill’s perspective.
Mill argues for an expressive theory of art in which the value of the art is based out of the emotional self-expression of the artist. The appreciation and creation of artwork, then, is tied to the development of those imaginative and creative sensibilities that Mill argued were part of resisting the homogenizing effects of society as well as the development of new, unconventional possibilities for living life.
Of the pieces Peridot presents, “Wow, thanks”, a piece with several broken cassettes and her recorder, is probably the one I’d pick to be closest to Mill’s conception of art. As Peridot notes:
“It represents the struggles of intercommunication. The tape is the ribbon that binds our experience on Earth together. It has no functional purpose! It just makes me feel bad!”
In other words, the piece is specifically designed to invoke an affective reaction, but the meaning of the piece also reveals Peridot’s self-awareness and desire to tangle with the difficulties that have come from her new home on Earth and communicating with the Gems, Steven, or Lapis Lazuli. Considering the emphasis Mill places on sympathic feelings and communicating with others, I think he would be quite pleased with Peridot for this piece if not her taste in television programs.
Unfortunately, I don’t quite consider myself versed enough in aesthetics or art history/theory to really discuss the other pieces in-depth. If anything, my gut reaction would be to suggest Mill would raise an eyebrow at Lapis’s piece and her statements suggesting they simply invoke memory or just likes that show, invoking the more “novelistic” aspects of art Mill did not find to be stimulating. Hence my suggestion of Storming the Ivory’s piece for a superior exploration of these pieces from an art perspective.
“The point being: Earth can set you free.”
In my article “John Stuart Mill and Pinkie Pie: A Crisis of Moral Unfreedom”, I explored Mill’s concept of “moral unfreedom” in the context of an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and direct you there for a greater look at the topic. If I had to pick a quote from Mill to sum up the idea, however, I would pick this one from On Liberty:
“One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character.”
In other words, for an individual to be said to be truly ‘free’ in a meaningful sense requires that their actions and motivations be derived from their own desires and impulses, of which an individual preferably has a rich diversity of them. The process of meditation, debate, imagination, empathy, aesthetic education, etc. are all in the pursuit of ensuring that the passions that drive humans remain alit and not subsumed under the dictates of habit and conformity.
Homeworld, with its emphasis on a strict caste system in which every Gem has a set role in service to their Diamond in the pursuit of expansion of the growth of the empire, is exactly the sort of society that Mill would find suppressive of the individual and the development of their character. Her experiences on Earth, however, and the relations she formed with the Crystal Gems, Steven, and Lapis, have given her the tools needed to truly meditate and explore herself. In doing so, she has learned more about herself, about others. Heck, she even learned that she isn’t actually powerless but can make metal do her bidding! Her time on Earth, then, has freed her from the confines of Homeworld’s society.
Peridot and the Meep-Morp of Life
In his third edition A System of Logic published in 1851, Mill added a brief discussion on what was the difference between “science” and “art. Science, Mill argued, was the realm of claims asserting matters of fact, the “arts” the realm of claims that “do not assert that anything is, but to enjoin or recommend that something should be.” In other words, the traditional is/ought distinction of philosophy. Mill, adds to this the claim that every art has a first principle affirming what the desirable end is.
The “Art of Life”, Mill argues, has the ultimate principle of the cultivation of human happiness and is broken into the departments of “Morality, Prudence or Policy, and Aesthetics; the Right, the Expedient, and the Beautiful or Noble, in human conduct and works.”
Now, for full exploration of this I would recommend reading the book mentioned in the acknowledgement section. I bring it up, however, because the distinction between “science” and “art” according to Mill serves as a useful metaphor for Peridot’s character arc. It also explains where I got the article title.
When she first arrived, Peridot, in a sense, viewed life as a “science”: Peridots were technicians, Quartzes were soldiers, Pearls were accessories. Deviation from this objectively true placement in life was “incorrect” and defective. As she notes in the start of her recorded rant at the end of “Too Far”
“Log date: 7112. This entire planet is backwards. There hasn’t been one instance of correct behavior exhibited by any one of these “Crystal Gems“. I have concluded that they are all defective.”
It is the lines that follows, however, were we begin to see Peridot’s shift from viewing life as a “science”, in Mill’s terms, to an “art”:
“But I am no better. I failed my mission and now I’m working with the enemy. And I can’t even get that right. I have apparently “hurt” Amethyst’s “feelings”, which was not my intent. If I’ve damaged my standing with the best Gem here, then I’ve made a serious mistake. I’m still learning. I hope you understand. I want to understand.”
She’s still viewing life in the sense of “defective” behavior versus “correct”, but that’s the start of character development for you. By the time “Earthlings” comes around and she explains herself to Jasper, another Homeworld Gem who continues to define herself based on her role as a soldier for her Diamond and is now on the verge of corruption after losing to the Gems, she no longer talks in terms of defective behavior. Returning to her quote:
“It’s not a shell, there’s so much life. Living here, that’s what I’m doing! I’m living here! I’ve been learning new things about myself all the time! Like how I can make metal do my bidding! (Shows off ability, but the metal rod just falls behind her) The point being: Earth can set you free.”
She is no longer viewing “life” in scientific terms of “correct” and “defective” behavior, but is instead in terms of learning and living. She has, in other words, begun to master, using her own term for it, the “Meep Morp of Life”
Acknowledgement: I would like to thank the book “John Stuart Mill and the Art of Life” and the various articles within it on Mill for inspiring much of this conversation and filling in the gap of my knowledge on things such as Mill’s aesthetics and his political economic work.