• Member Since 11th Apr, 2012
  • offline last seen 11 hours ago

Bad Horse


You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart. -- W. H. Auden

More Blog Posts690

May
12th
2014

Fantasy as deontology (finale spoiler) · 2:23pm May 12th, 2014

In my post about what EM Forster called "fantasy", we came up with 3 "definitions" of fantasy:

Fantasy is when the world itself has a personality or an attitude. -- EM Forster, interpreted by me

Fantasy is the result of blurring character and setting. -- equestrian.sen

A fantasy world is one in which moral and magical law have the force of physical law. -- Tolkien, via TheJediMasterEd

In the season 4 finale, when Twilight agrees to give up her power in exchange for her friends, she believes she is dooming her entire world to eternal slavery. That's not just idiotic. It's selfish and evil.

Yay! :yay:

But, sadly, it wasn't evil in Equestria, because it conforms to the moral of the show: Bro's before ho's Friendship above all. As I said in a comment on that post, "Friendship is Magic" means "The morals of friendship are part of this world's physics". Something had to happen to turn Twilight's evil action into good, because she acted in accordance with the moral rules that are built into Equestrian physics.

So here's my definition of classic, or at least Tolkienesque, fantasy:

Fantasy is a place where rule-based or virtue-based ethics (deontological ethics) work.

By saying an ethical system "works", I mean that according to that system of beliefs, doing good leads to good outcomes. This is true in consequentialism by definition: it defines "the good" as doing whatever gives the best chance of having a good outcome.

It isn't automatically true in deontological ethics, which say that you can't define "the good", because, as Plato told us, "the good" was the First Thing, or God, which created the Universe. "Doing good" means acting in conformance with The Good. But since The Good is timeless and eternal, and was complete before our temporal world of change was made, these actions can depend only on necessary properties, not on accidental properties [1]. This is usually taken to imply that if lying is wrong, it's always wrong, even if the Nazis are asking you where the Jews are hiding. Kant, a famous deontologist, would say that telling the Nazis where the Jews are would lead to a bad outcome, but is still the right ( = just, righteous) thing to do [2].

In nearly all fantasy [3], deontological ethics work, not because "the good" is that which gives good results, but because there is a force, like karma, or Hegel's World Spirit, or the Force, which twists outcomes to guarantee that doing "the good" eventually gives good results. After Frodo spares Gollum's life on Mount Doom, that stupid mercy turns out to be just what was needed to complete Frodo's mission. Stupidly turning off his targeting computer turns out to be just what Luke needed to do in Star Warsj, even though if there's one thing computers are better at than people, it's firing a hypersonic missile at a tiny target far away.

More simply, a fantasy is a dreamworld in which there are no moral quandaries. The thing that feels on a moment's reflection like the right thing to do, is the right thing to do. If it isn't, the world will intervene to make it so, from Gawain and the Green Knight to the MLP season four finale.


[1] This is a technical distinction made by Aristotle, which would take time to explain, and is based on assumptions about how language works which we now know to be incorrect.

[2] Deontologists don't distinguish between "just" and "righteous" because Plato didn't; they had a single word for both in ancient Greek. That's why, to Platonists, the concept of "justice" can't consider relationships between things other than those relationships which have been reified into a Platonic form (like "friendship" and "brother"). For instance, dividing up a chocolate bar between you and me can't depend on which one of us bought it, so gimme your chocolate. Property rights can change; therefore they aren't Real(TM Plato 330 BCE); therefore they must not be referred to in an ethical system.

[3] In modern deconstructionist fantasy, e.g., The Black Company, most actions have bad consequences, because the world is evil and fallen and has reverse karma. Contrast all existing fantasy with The Orkneyinga Saga, which is made of the same component events, but in a world with no karma of any kind.

Report Bad Horse · 2,086 views ·
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Comments ( 83 )

Hmm. Fresh food for thought.

... you could go places with that. It's a bit like Pratchett's Narratavium - the element of plot necessity, which infuses everything and makes those million-to-one shots almost guaranteed to hit nine times out of ten.

The problem comes when we conclude from this that the real world is as ethically easy. In real life, the equivalent of Twilight's choice -- such as giving terrorists nuclear weapons because they held hostages -- would have produced diasastrous consequences.

There's a bit of an out here in that Twilight may have, as a canon power, the ability to figure out the right choice when it involves the Magic of Friendship, because it's her Element. It strikes me as likely that, even in the Magical Land of Equestria, she's the only being who could have gotten away with playing a hunch like that.

The ironic thing is that, if you think all the way back to "Feeling Pinkie Keen," that means that Twilight -- who has always striven to be super-rational in a sometimes crazy world -- won the fight against TIrek by going with her emotions.

Let's look at that, Twilight chose between keeping her powers and accomplishing nothing, because even with them she could not defeat Tirek, or giving up her powers and accomplishing something, that is, acquiring the freedom of her friends.

It looks to me like Twilight chose the demonstrably better option, even without rainbow power and saving the day. Rather than obstinately hold onto her power in vain, she used it to help who she could at that moment.

Lo and behold though, where one failed, a few friends succeeded.

EDIT: I always mess up spoiler tags the first time around.

There's talk on xjuggernautx's blog about the whole thing that Twilight and discord might even have begun to figure out what was going with the box and saw an opportunity arise to get the final key. I think that may be going a bit far, but surely Twilight had the magic box in the back of her mind when she made that decision.

2104330
I'm tempted to agree with your authoritative tone, Horsie, but on reflection 2104330 has a really good point. The battle royale had demonstrably worn to an utter standstill, and Tirek probably had the gift of endurance. What do you feel about the theory that the adaptive unconsciousness feeds us intuitive judgments through our emotions and instincts, and so long as you've properly trained your perceptions--i.e. through repeated mind-expansions and moral lessons (exactly as Twi's been doing for four years) rather than letting them flaccidly and thoughtlessly hold on to unfair and unanalyzed prejudices--that your emotions can be a powerful guiding force for good decision-making, especially in crisis scenarios?

2104412
I... find it hard to believe that it's possible for Twilight to have been thinking "I need to teach someone a lesson about the magic of friendship... hey, Discord! I could teach him!" and even less possible for Discord to be thinking that he needed to learn a lesson. That seems like the kind of trickery that magical keys wouldn't buy. Not to mention that they didn't know what was in the box.

That being said, even if Twilight didn't know if she could get into the box, it seems entirely likely she might have had an eye on the Elements of Harmony. Pulling them out of the tree for a last use probably wouldn't have destroyed Equestria (well, not more than Tierk could have), and would have been worth a shot if they couldn't get the box open.

Have to agree with Westphalian_Musketeer on this one. Twilight couldn't bludgeon Tirek into defeat, and the stalemate favoured him: he could round up more ponies, or steal magic from buffaloes, donkies, dragons, breezies or whatever to level up beyond her.

I'm not saying that there weren't other options: maybe retreat, form an alliance of all of the above, march an army of magically adept ponies, peoples and monsters against him and beat him with a bigger stick, but Twilight's been studying friendship, not diplomacy.

In the season 4 finale, when Twilight agrees to give up her power in exchange for her friends, she believes she is dooming her entire world to eternal slavery. That's not just idiotic. It's selfish and evil.

I think that you are wrong, and I'll tell you why. It assumes that having ultimate power equals winning; that is Tirek had all the magic then he would automatically win and enslave everyone. Now, as we know from show logic that clearly isn't true, and frankly it is something that shouldn't be true.

Twilight wins because she is a good person. Not because she saves her friends, but because she saves Discord who had done nothing but betray the trust she had put in her and sold her out (and it is explicitly saving him that gets her the key). All the magical mumbo jumbo power in the world is not enough to overcome a good person, because at the end of the day it is meaningless.


There's a great episode of the original He-Man cartoon, where Skeletor spends the entire episode trying to get this magical gem that will explicitly make him more powerful than He-Man. Everyone is really worried about it, and Skeletor gets the gem and fights He-Man. He-Man proceeds to beat Skeletor in five seconds flat, crushes the gem and is all "Everyone knows that REAL power lies in FRIENDSHIP, Skeletor!" I found it hilarious because they blatantly just changed the rules of the episode at the end, but also, yeah, he's totally right.

I think deontological ethics, as you term them, can be well done or ill-done. Well-done? How about:

Bilbo could have easily killed Gollum in The Hobbit, "but pity stayed his hand.*"

Without that impulsive act of pity, Middle Earth would have been lost.

* "It's a pity I've run out of bullets."--Bored of the Rings

2104938
BH's whole point is that the real world doesn't work like that. In reality, you should go through with justified actions that have positive consequences. People don't easily change, and setting criminals (to use an imperfect analogy) free out of pity is generally a mistake. It is only in contrived fantasy worlds that deontological ethics like "never kill" and "never lie" yield the most desirable results.

2105018

I get Bad Horse's point, yes, that fantasy is not like the real world, and I agree with it.

*My* point, which it seems I did not make clear, is that fantasy worlds, being imaginative creations, need not work like the real world. They can work by their own laws provided those laws are found elegant and satisfying by the reader.

2104907
Right, and I think BH is saying that's a bad lesson to teach kids, because A) it doesn't prepare them for the Real World, where Good People don't always win; and B) it leads to thinking 'Well, I'm a Good Person, therefore my actions are justified' without any kind of self-reflection on whether or not those actions actually are justified.

2105046

Gotcha.

Aspiration is important though. If we only teach our kids cynical life lessons, then goodness, where will we be.

Most entertainment features the toughest, strongest, most violent characters as heroes and winning the day. That shouldn't be something to aspire to.

2105040
Oh, you mean that deontological ethics can be done well within the context of fantasy. I agree. However, I maintain that this is, as 2105046 says, a bad lesson, no matter how elegant.

2104907

It assumes that having ultimate power equals winning; that is Tirek had all the magic then he would automatically win and enslave everyone.

That reminds me of something, and I've probably been primed by all the GIFs circulating of Twilight "Badass" Sparkle floating around.

In the show "Dragon Ball Z" the concept of power levels are time and again brought up by the villains, Vegeta, Frieza, many of the androids, etc. They all measure the limits of Goku's power, and initially think that they'll be able to wipe him off the face of the planet easily and permanently. Goku then (eventually) smashes them to a pulp. Apparently it was essentially a gradually developed shorthand to recognize that a villain in the series is obsessed with power and thinks it is the only measure that matters, discounting everything else that Gokue has other than power as we understand it, but allows him to exceed the contrived readings of his foes.

With that, obligatory GIF time.
derpicdn.net/img/view/2014/5/10/622807__safe_twilight+sparkle_animated_screencap_princess+twilight_hub+logo_hubble_hub_spoiler-colon-s04e25_lord+tirek.gif

2105080

I feel as if I want to bicker with you about the concept of "bad lessons" in fantasy, but given that I am writing a vignette in which Applejack gives a fence-post feminist critique of The Giving Tree--complete with the line, "WHAT KINDA MESSAGE YOU THINK THAT SENDS TO A LI'L FILLY WHAT'S ALL YOUNG AN' IMPERSONABLE?"--I think I'll just shut up ;-)

Well, the "problem" with deontological ethics is that they sometimes lead to seemingly (or actually) illogical conclusions.

The advantage, though, is that they're very simple and easy to understand. And that is a mighty big advantage, given that most people are utterly incapable of actually thinking through moral choices in the real world. Look at how many people vote for lower taxes and complain about lack of government services, or who want long prison sentences for crimes then complain about spending too much money on jails. Look at the people who are anti-abortion and birth control but who want to reduce dependence on welfare. These aren't even long logical leaps or complex systems - it is very immediate cause and effect. And yet people still don't get how their positions are contradictory. If you asked them, though, they'd come up with a list of reasons a mile long why their point of view is logical, because they believe that they are acting logically.

So, as a pragmatic person, isn't it better for highly accessible children's shows to teach deontological ethics, and present a world where deontological ethics really work? :moustache:

Of course, in a world where interpersonal connections - love, trust, friendship - are literally magical and give you more power than the rest of Equestria combined (at least if combined with some sort of horrifying, large scale symbiotic organism which manipulates people's behavior to ensure its own reproduction), it was a logical choice.

Or maybe she was just hoping that he was going to violate rule 22 until he exploded. :trollestia:

2104938
Damn it. These always happen when I am too busy. A quick comment, then. I don't think this (or Ed's example either[1]) is strictly speaking deontological. I think it is an example of an older metaethics system: virtue ethics. Twilight possesses the virtue of Friendship and thus the acts she undertakes motivated purely by this virtue are good. She wasn't following a rule, or rather an obligation. Certainly, you can extract an obligation from it ("Always be faithful to your friends above all else.") but that's not how the show works, I don't think.

Also I just had a thought: The difference between BH and me[2] is that he sees this and sees it as a window through which he can draw darkness into Equestria. A flaw in it he can force to make a story. I see it as something to mend: in fic or in headcanon.

Interesting.

[1] 'Twas pity that stayed Bilbo's hand, indeed. It's Bilbo's virtuous motivation that makes the act good. Hell the universe supports this in a tangible fashion as the virtuous way (comparatively) in which Bilbo got the Ring protects him from the most deleterious effects of holding it.
[2] Aside from about eighty IQ points[3] in our esteemed host's favor.
[3] Assume for sake of pithiness that intelligence is quantifiable and that it is quantifiable as a scalar and that that scalar is called IQ.

Fantasy world is a world revolving around the protagonist.
Real world is a world in which the protagonist doesn't mean shit.
:rainbowlaugh:

Or, to put it slightly different: real world is a world with around 7 billion protagonists (this planet only!), each equally important than the next one. :raritywink:

Alicorn Magic < Magic of Friendship.

Please. Twi's an expert on dat shit.

Also she was evenly matched with Tirac. But he had leverage. He could harm others she could not protect.

Also "fantasy" in fiction is any setting that contains actual forces not quantifiable by our scientific understanding of the physical laws of the universe and not attributable to science.

Oh and also:

The thing that feels on a moment's reflection like the right thing to do, is the right thing to do. If it isn't, the world will intervene to make it so.

It only seems this way if the story's badly written.

Remember that in fantasy, moral and magical law have the force of natural law. And as with natural law in our universe the consequences that follow from moral acts in a fantasy universe should seem necessary, right, and, well--natural.

This does not mean they need not be spectacular. We marvel at the spectacle of a waterfall but not at the raindrops and springs and streams that go to make it up. Yet they are surely its genesis, as Bilbo's act of mercy was the genesis of Sauron's fall.

Granted this is only plain once you've finished the book. It is in no way plain while you're reading it and this is a brilliant bit of misdirection. Bilbo lets Gollum live, but Gollum knows Bilbo's family name and comes looking for his Precious--thus putting all the Bagginses under threat. On his travels Gollum visits untold harm upon the cottagers and woodsmen he comes across, stealing their produce, livestock and even their infant children for food. Eventually he's captured by Sauron and reveals all he knows, thus putting the whole Shire in the Dark Lord's sights and all of Middle Earth in peril. Letting Gollum live, for most of the story, seems like a monumentally stupid, even evil thing to have done.

But without Gollum the Ring would have never been destroyed. Only in retrospect is the wisdom of Bilbo's impulsive, softhearted, sentimental act revealed.

So the episode we're discussing doesn't meet this standard. Is anyone surprised? Tolkien could take as much time and as many pages as he liked to tell his stories, and his editors were Oxford Dons. The writers on MLP have at most a few months to tell a story in 22 minutes and their editors are Standards, Legal and Marketing.

The wonder is that the bear dances at all.

2105436

I don't think this (or Ed's example either[1]) is strictly speaking deontological. I think it is an example of an older metaethics system: virtue ethics.

I have to say, I'm totally with Ghost here.

I mean, it's not like the show spells out exactly what the elements virtues it considers important for achieving harmony eudaimonia are in Equestria.

And of course, I've never seen anything expressing parallels between Equestria and classical Greek philosophy before.

And I'd go a step farther, and say that most children's fantasy is designed towards virtue ethics. For kids it especially makes sense, since the ability to use logic and understand consequences tends to develop after we've already started to try to teach them that some things are right and wrong. (That is, we need to teach them "Don't hit other kids" before they're capable of understanding why they shouldn't hit other kids, and a long time before they can understand "sometimes, maybe, it could be right to hit other kids, but you need to consider a lot of different things." So, "Don't hit other kids because you want to be a good girl, and good girls don't hit other kids" is the first step most parents will aim for. Most hope that the abilities to think about things in a more complex way will come with age.)

But most fairy tales with happy endings are likely to ascribe them to a virtue the hero or heroine displays than any sort of adherence to moral absolutes, and the consequences of their actions don't need to be well thought out. Cinderella gets to be a princess not because it's right to live under the control of an abusive parent, and not because doing so had the best ethical outcome for anyone, but because through it all she remained dedicated to being a kind person. That seems like a worthy goal for a seven year old.

2106337 But without Gollum the Ring would have never been destroyed. Only in retrospect is the wisdom of Bilbo's impulsive, softhearted, sentimental act revealed.
So the episode we're discussing doesn't meet this standard.

No, I'm with 2105080 and 2105046: That episode in Lord of the Rings is written better, which makes it worse, because it's an evil ethical system (and I use the term "evil" to mean "deliberately causing harm to others rather than inconvenience yourself", where "inconvenience yourself" in this case means "admit the world doesn't work the way you want it to.")

Bilbo's softhearted act wasn't wise. Tolkien lied to push his own false beliefs about ethics on readers. And I know it works, because I've heard people cite "don't kill Gollum" as evidence in real-world arguments about ethics, as if it had really happened.

2106596

Bilbo's softhearted act wasn't wise. Tolkien lied to push his own false beliefs about ethics on readers.

Story time at the Bad Horse Day Care Center. Only realistic moralities allowed. Pick a book, children!

0.media.collegehumor.cvcdn.com/37/94/ba255e5f774236322da1ef1fc433a982-all-my-friends-are-dead-in-game-of-thrones.jpg

:raritywink:

Okay, enough flippancy. Here is a serious answer, as honest as exhaustion can make it:

And I know it works, because I've heard people cite "don't kill Gollum" as evidence in real-world arguments about ethics,

Wrath is my besetting sin.*

And sometimes this is the one thing that keeps it in check: don't kill Gollum.

No, I don't mean "kill" literally, just as I don't mean "Gollum" literally. Many times a day, though, I have to make the conscious choice to NOT TOTALLY BURN THAT FAT BLOWHARD WHO IS BALKING ME WITH HIS ENDLESS BLAH BLAH BLAH. And my reason is: my heroes wouldn't do that.

Of course there are good rational reasons to not slag off annoying poltroons (Self interest! Pusillanamy!). But when you are tired and hungry and worried and clueless, reason is rather a weak reed to lean on.

So that is how I govern myself, I'm afraid: puling sentimentality in the service of bourgeois morality. Not clear reasoned principles arising from the free-will centers of the brain...

...which are--precisely where?



* You are shocked--shocked, you tell me.

she believes she is dooming her entire world to eternal slavery

It looked pretty obvious to me that she knew that this was her act of magic/friendship/whatever that would get her a key, and that her hesitation was because 1) she hadn't been aware that her friends were in danger and 2) she was high on the power, and so reluctant to give it up, but knew this was the way to open the box and defeat Tirek.

Now, this also hinges on Tirek being a vampire. It's clear that he hasn't actually injured anyone (beyond stealing their magic) in his lust for power, and so Twilight knows that he'll just drain her and leave her be, rather than drain her and then grind her and her friends into the dust.

It also only makes sense in a world where these sorts of trump cards exist, and you're right that setting stories in those worlds runs the risk of teaching people bad lessons about this world.

2106587 2105436 Rule-based, virtue-based, same basic result: Fantasy is a world where a simple ethical system that gives us warm fuzzies actually works. Rule-based & virtue-based systems have the same advantage (simplicity) and the same flaw (simplicity). It doesn't change the fact that giving Hitler the atom bomb in exchange for a few hostages is the right thing to do according to that system, but evil under any sane system, and that fantasies cheat by having the world intervene to make everything work out for the best when people obey the ethics embodied in the fantasy world.

2106652 2106596
I have to say I'm more in agreement with Ed here. While Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum caused suffering, it did save more lives. Could more lives have been saved? The answer is yes, but more lives could have been saved by Smeegul (spell check please?) not murdering his friend over the ring and shunning the light of day, by that human guy destroying the ring, or by Sauron not being obsessed with ruling Middle Earth.

More lives could have been saved, by adhering to the system of moral choices, the choices to adhere to a system that observes the value of life, in creating and preserving it.

Bilbo decided grant mercy, and years later, Middle Earth was saved.

Twilight decided to save those she could, and seconds later Equestria was saved.

JediMasterEd is right, it is just a matter of how much time was permitted to pass, and while there may have been horrible consequences, it was the right decision that ended up allowing each horrible event to be stopped.

EDIT: I just realized this too, Samwise points out pretty much this, in some veiled way. There is still some good in the world, and it's a passing thing, he just doesn't mention that it's because someone made a choice for it to end, and holding to it.

[youtube=IBvdV8qO68k]

I can't believe I'm saying that Sam said perhaps one of the smartest things in that movie. I bloody hate Sam as a character, but this... I think I get it a bit more.

I can't interpret what you're trying to get across here. At first, I thought you were going to be criticising the heavy-handedness or morale extreme the finale may have drifted towards. But this conclusion seems to be equating an extreme generalization of a philosophy with this genre as a whole. I was surprised at this condemnation and level of bitterness coming from one of my favorite and most active authors. The person this post paints, to me, probably wouldn't be able to STAND interacting with this site.

I view these season bookends as balancing acts that pair up with the slice-of-life episodes that make up the majority of the Friendship is Magic. Actually, this finale relies more than any other on milder episodes, the best of which involved peeling back the layers of good and ill intentions to find they were very much intertwined.

Something else worth noting is that each of us, for most our time on Earth, will never really know what was right and what was wrong. I realized this after reading 2106337's interesting post. His reasoning can be put to task in retrospective in the real world as well. I could say that 9/11 helped point out flaws in our national security, and helped prevent larger, longer lasting tragedies. Someone probably has the urge to punch me for that, but some would actually debate it. I'm not advocating for
2105342, saying that we should adjust our morale presentation because the world is bogged down with morons (though it's a technically true obeservation). It's just that our lives are inherently unfulfilling

If we could also put aside the argument of morales, and the presentation of them, I'd like to turn toTwilight's tactics. Trading for her friends seems to have some good reasoning behind it. Twilight's probably figured out that the six/seven of them together can make some pretty amazing things happen, even when it doesn't involve the Element Bearers inherently making things explode like rainbow-colored anti-matter. But arguably, Discord was the more valuable target, given that he has milenia experience with bizzare and forbidden magic. Confronting Tirek in general seemed like a bad idea, since his power theft seems to be based on proximity. This leads to the bigger problem of the writers being overly eager to rub a hyped fight scene in our faces.

2106745

I can't believe I'm saying that Sam said perhaps one of the smartest things in that movie. I bloody hate Sam as a character, but this... I think I get it a bit more.

You must understand that Sam Gamgee is based on Sam Weller in Dickens' Pickwick Papers: a stout, loyal, commonsensical yeoman who follows his master into the abyss--and proves himself as brave and good as any noble.

2106780 Ah, yes, that makes bit of sense. Authors in the 1800s did come to love the idea of showing a commoner as good and better than many a nobleman. War and Peace, gentlemen?

2106745 I have to say I'm more in agreement with Ed here. While Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum caused suffering, it did save more lives. ...
Bilbo decided grant mercy, and years later, Middle Earth was saved.
Twilight decided to save those she could, and seconds later Equestria was saved.

We're talking about works of fiction. These things didn't actually happen. My point is that the writer chose to make something work out for the better, to teach the lie that it's better to follow a simple set of rules that feel good, than to think about the consequences of your action.

You're trying to use the ending that the writers made as evidence that the characters did the right thing. The writers wrote those endings. They're claims, not evidence.

Okay, so looking back over my notes we've got:

My Little Pony = Hitler

Lord of the Rings = My Little Pony

Tolkien = Lord of the Rings

Therefore, via the transitive property:

Tolkien = Hitler

...

lh6.googleusercontent.com/-02NH3uS9guk/UR-46l6MaoI/AAAAAAAAEEg/DifU-bYLaNc/w506-h380/mlp-fim-jump-shark2.png

Good game, everybody!

2106814 Hey, don't look at me, it was BH who invoked Godwin's Law.

With that however, I'm free to just bring it up again myself.

2106804 Remember the old formula, BH, comedy = tragedy + time. Hitler killed millions, but now the western world (largely) recognizes antisemitism and racism as backwards ideas that would and can only ever lead to hopelessness and destruction in a self-contradictory state of existence. The tragedy is that millions died, but now each day millions of people now choose to treat each other with dignity and respect irrespective of ethnic origin. And it all perhaps started with an act of "pity".

Hate stops when a person chooses to stop, eventually. That's all I see being the problem with Fantasy stories, time gets compressed in terms of how things eventually work out.

2106804

We're talking about works of fiction. These things didn't actually happen. My point is that the writer chose to make something work out for the better, to teach the lie that it's better to follow a simple set of rules that feel good, than to think about the consequences of your action.

I think it is permissible for writers to occasionally write about how they would like things to be, rather than how things are. Oscar Wilde thought that should in fact be their primary function. True, Aestheticism's "with O'Leary in the grave," but you can't fault Hoscar for being unlettered or unthoughtful.

By the way, if you want to read the most thoroughgoing parody of Tolkien's style, a complete inversion of everything he believed about fantasy, you will probably will enjoy Farmer Giles of Ham by...J.R.R. Tolkien.

Even the dog is a disloyal coward.

2106859 Hitler killed millions, but now the western world (largely) recognizes antisemitism and racism as backwards ideas that would and can only ever lead to hopelessness and destruction in a self-contradictory state of existence. The tragedy is that millions died, but now each day millions of people now choose to treat each other with dignity and respect irrespective of ethnic origin. And it all perhaps started with an act of "pity".

This is a different, larger, and to me more terrifying principle: Terrible things can have very good long-range consequences, and things that seemed to be ethical necessities can have terrible long-range consequences. It's almost as if there were a moral equivalent to Newton's third law (To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction). What would the world look like now if you went back in time and killed Hitler? I think it's true that the Nazis accidentally revived Western morality at a time when it was dying, by giving a jaded world an image of evil.

2106738

Rule-based & virtue-based systems have the same advantage (simplicity) and the same flaw (simplicity). It doesn't change the fact that giving Hitler the atom bomb in exchange for a few hostages is the right thing to do according to that system, but evil under any sane system, and that fantasies cheat by having the world intervene to make everything work out for the best when people obey the ethics embodied in the fantasy world.

Then I think it's a good thing we rarely have seven-year-olds handle hostage negotiations. I recommend the world keep on with that plan.

But I have a suspicion that somewhere in the past there have been times where most of us cleaned our rooms, told the truth, or gave someone a present for no reason other than we wanted to be a good person and these were part of virtues we were told made people good. I'm certain we all did it when we were kids, and I have a suspicion that most of us still do this from time to time. We learn as we grow up that sometimes it doesn't work out the way we'd hoped, but it's planted in our brains. (Which is probably why even adults like stories where these apply from time to time.) And I would bet that practically speaking it does as much as any other ethics system, if not more, to make the world a better place to live in.

Though, speaking of simplicity, I'm pretty sure that in terms of any serious consideration of either duty- or virtue- based ethics there's more to the consideration of "giving Hitler the atom bomb" than some random, nameless hostages. Both systems tend to be a little more complex than that when you're talking about adult views of them.

Fantasy, where the universe has a moral, ethical foundation, is what humanity wishes could be real. It is very, very difficult to exist in a completely uncaring, utterly meaningless cosmos of horror where existence is a random fluke of chemistry. Some people can, I assume, come to some sort of peace with such hopeless nihilism, but for the majority? Terror Management Theory is probably pretty damn valid.

If not for escapism, I would certainly have killed myself long ago. As much as I utterly despise organized religion, I comprehend how desperately people cling to it, and why.

We evolved to perceive patterns and to determine causal connections as a survival advantage, the side effect of this is that we naturally find connections even when they don't exist - and thus it is natural for humans to think of the universe as having some moral or ethical basis. It is a cognitive bias that cannot help but arise unless it is essentially beaten out of a person relentlessly... and even then, traces always remain.

I know the universe doesn't care, that there is no meaning, that life is pointless, that there is no true good or evil, and that existence is meaningless horror.

But my emotions will always desire a universe radically different than reality - the polar opposite, in point of fact - and I will always suffer that such is not so. I do not think I am alone in that endless misery.

I say, let the fantasies be, as long as they don't lead to atrocity like religion does. Without at least some playing pretend, what else is there to counter the horror of existence?

2106753 I was surprised at this condemnation and level of bitterness coming from one of my favorite and most active authors. The person this post paints, to me, probably wouldn't be able to STAND interacting with this site.

I don't feel bitter, and I don't condemn people for being wrong. (I don't condemn anyone at all; I'm an atheist, so the word has no meaning for me.) Calling something evil is for me an assertion of logic, not of righteousness. It is a term that I should probably use with more caution, or perhaps not at all, but I wanted to highlight the extreme selfishness and deliberate cooperation in pain and destruction of Twilight's action. It seems much more stark and obviously wrong to me than Bilbo and Frodo's mercy towards Gollum. I think it should shock us to see it advocated in a children's show, and the fact that it doesn't shows that we ourselves have had our thinking corrupted by similar influences.

2106738

As see it, it's less giving Hitler the bomb for a few hostages, but more giving Hitler the bomb to distract him from the knife about to be plunged in his back. You take the scene as Twilight not having a plan, where as I do.

2106913 That's a valid counterpoint. I keep talking about what's true and correct, but there's no guarantee that it's good for society for individual humans to know what's true and correct. It would be a remarkable coincidence if it were. I could even argue that "morality" is best defined as "preferences evolved into humans by kin and group selection to make them act against their own interests", and so morality is by definition self-deception. I don't believe that, but the distinction between that and what I kinda sorta believe is complicated.

2106738
Oh, I didn't disagree, necessarily, with the main thrust of your argument, BH. I just wanted to point out a minor philosophical quibble, is all.

That said, I fee like playing devil's advocate[1] here: While I really am a good consequentialist boy and realize the issues with alternative approaches to ethics, I am compelled to point out the big problem with consequentialism, or, rather its incarnation as utilitarianism and it isn't one of ethics so much as one of epistemology. It's all well and good to base your actions on future consequences but unless you figure out to turn time's arrow around, you aren't basing your actions on consequences so much as on your modeled consequences and that's a different thing altogether[2].

Even if we say that the future is predictable enough to base moral actions on the prediction, you are still stuck with an insufficiently evolved monkey-brain to do your prognostication with[3]. How good are you at seeing all ends? And how good at not fooling yourself? Tricky business.

Another problem is one of reciprocity. If I live in a community with certain elements of deontology (which I, and you, and pretty much everyone does) I can rely on a certain common core of rules. And I don't just mean the big ones—the ones that safeguard my life. I also mean the ones that say things like one good turn deserves another, and fairness is good, and so on and so forth. And this inctentivizes me to act altruistically which is good for the general benefit of society[4]. Certainly, you could make a purely consequentialist argument for most of those values (the general utility is raised if people pick the 'cooperate' option in an iterated prisoner's dilemma after all) but I trust the ability of our culture to influence us and of our emotions to push us towards altruism far more than I trust people's ability to rationally assess their options. And I do include myself in that 'people' section above. Even if you assume that my tiny two-volt brain will arrive at the correct decision given time, every time (or often enough) for a broad class of ethical quandaries I feel the right answer much, much faster than I can reason my way towards it[5].

Summa summarum, I think consequentialism is the obvious correct answer always, of course, but it is a fitting system of ethics for strong AI, not so much for humans. It's elegant and it will always produce the right answer, but it is in a lot of cases intractable[6] and it is difficult to build a society around. In its place we have a broad suite of heuristics that are mostly deontological with a bit of virtue thinking thrown in there[7]. We are imperfect, and thus we can only have imperfect ethics. It's what Sir Terry would call, with precision, an embuggerance, but there you go.

Also, allow me to present yet another devilish aside, as a riff on my notion of reciprocity: Non-consequentialist thinking enables us to achieve powerful forms of social cohesion by using obligation as a signaling mechanism. We can say: "This is the rule I will follow. I will stand by you no matter what. Even when it is ruinous. Even when it is not a good idea. I am so committed that no matter what I have your back. And I will prove this and keep proving this in perpetuity."

I think that's how a decision theorist says 'I love you.' :twilightsmile:

I'm being flippant, of course, but it bears thinking about. After all: Overcommitment is love is friendship is magic. And it is worth considering to which extent it is permissible to tolerate suboptimal decisions in the now in order to permit a social bond to exists which permits future good that exceeds the bad that the suboptimal decision created.

Given all of this, is it not possible that fantasy-as-a-world-of-reified-naive-morality is something we need? We need a moral heuristics. Even if it is possible to reach a state of clear-headed rationality that is always superior to any practical system of heuristics, what about getting to that point? At an absolute minimum we need training wheels, yes?

My own take is this—and forgive me if I come off all Nicomachean—humans are an in-between people and need to dwell in an in-between place. We need dreams of true hearts and fast friends and love which conquers all ills and then we need to doubt that. And if we are to doubt, it's best we do so with the clear-headed skepticism of consequentialism, rather than the puerile contrarianism of cynicism. In the dialectic clash between the two, an imperfect morality for an imperfect people can, possibly, be found.

Then again...I did just write a thousand words in defense of people being exactly like me. Funny that. I am just wise enough to know that this might be a pack of self-serving rationalizations, and more than foolish enough not to be able to tell. Caveat lector.

[1] And when I play devil's advocate, I play to win. :trollestia:
[2] "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."
[3] Well. We are. Whatever it is you have between your ears is a different matter. I don't know myself, but I suspect that it is mate of something other than matter and occupies something other than space.
[4] Why, yes, I am using consequentialism to evaluate the benefits of deontology and virtue ethics. And for my next trick, I'll open this here box with the key that's locked inside it.
[5] Note I'm blithely assuming I actually reason to the right answer instead of rationalizing a bad one. In my defense I ought to point out that I, on occasion, decide I was misled by 'feeling' upon further analysis. But even that might just be a self-flagellating guilt trip.
[6] There are a lot of cases in which it is tractable, of course. The Hitler scenario, fr'instance. Or any problem where you caught people about to fall from a cliff and can only save one &c &c.
[7] You can think about them as baked-in solutions to generalized consequentialist analysis, as well as various and varying Schelling fences and so on and so forth. And, certainly, these heuristics would be much better if frequently reexamined in light of consequentialism.


2106652
I am shocked, actually. I never imagined you thus. There is something of what you said, of us needing our stories in what I wrote above[1]. I think you are right on that score.

[1] My current besetting sin appears to be pride, since, yes, I am nudging you to read it. Um. :twilightblush:


2106587
It's a worthy goal for us all, in a way, remaining kind. There's only so much you can reason out of, after all. Sometimes you just have to nail your colors to the mast and sail on.

2106894 But I have a suspicion that somewhere in the past there have been times where most of us cleaned our rooms, told the truth, or gave someone a present for no reason other than we wanted to be a good person and these were virtues we were told made people good.

Yes! There have been experiments concluding that children initially learn rule-based ethics, and they really believe in the rules as ethics. But there doesn't seem to be any distinction in the minds of very young children between "things that are wrong" and "things that will get me punished".

But I don't think anybody has investigated whether that's a cultural thing or not, or whether there are better ways of doing it, or at what ages people should acquire more advanced ethics. The fact that people on this blog are resisting the idea that Twilight's decision was wrong strongly indicates too me that we reinforce this simple approach to strongly.

And I think that, if you want to promote virtue ethics, you should promote them within a context in which they make sense. The season finale deliberately promotes them in a context in which they are blatantly wrong. Far better to just not discuss with kids the cases where virtue ethics fail, than to spell out those cases and tell them that they work even there.

2106963

I am compelled to point out the big problem with consequentialism, or, rather its incarnation as utilitarianism and it isn't one of ethics so much as one of epistemology. It's all well and good to base your actions on future consequences but unless you figure out to turn time's arrow around, you aren't basing your actions on consequences so much as on your modeled consequences and that's a different thing altogether

"The course of your action was wrong, as you see
By the outcome!" He calmly eyed me:
"When planning the course of my action" said he
"I had not the outcome to guide me."

--Ambrose Bierce

Why, yes, I am using consequentialism to evaluate the benefits of deontology and virtue ethics. And for my next trick, I'll open this here box with the key that's locked inside it.

"Oops--I'm sorry, the cat just ate it."

--Monty Schrödinger

2106963 I agree with everything that you said, and you expressed it brilliantly. I especially like the bit about how decision theorists say "I love you."

(Except the claim that your besetting sin is pride. Your besetting sin is humility. I mean that.)

But I still say that, even given all that, if you want kids (and adults) to use virtue ethics for all of the reasons you & bookplayer listed, your stories should show situations where virtue ethics might work in the real world, rather than deliberately choosing a situation where virtue ethics would fail and claiming that they would work.

2107000

"The course of your action was wrong, as you see
By the outcome!" He calmly eyed me:
"When planning the course of my action" said he
"I had not the outcome to guide me."
--Ambrose Bierce

Fact: Ed's cutie mark is the graphical representation of le mot juste.

"Oops--I'm sorry, the cat just ate it."

--Monty Schrödinger

"Has he?"

"She, sir. Or he, possibly. Let me go look."

:twilightsmile:

I agree with everything that you said, and you expressed it brilliantly. I especially like the bit about how decision theorists say "I love you."

Gosh. Thanks. :twilightblush:

(Except the claim that your besetting sin is pride. Your besetting sin is humility. I mean that.)

Not traditionally seen as a sin, I don't think. :twilightsmile:

But I still say that, even given all that, if you want kids (and adults) to use virtue ethics for all of the reasons you & bookplayer listed, your stories should show situations where virtue ethics might work in the real world, rather than deliberately choosing a situation where virtue ethics would fail and claiming that they would work.

Granted.

Having dissonant ethics is a sign of bad writing. In fact, if you think about it, that most moth-worn of the prohibited literary devices, the Deus ex Machina, is a way to make the ethical calculus work out, no matter what. So it is in modern writing, with perhaps a fresh coat of paint on the old Machina. Case in point: the S4 finale.

2106933 I won't argue with that. Pretty much nothing I said here applies to your interpretation, then.

2104443
I'm tempted to agree with your authoritative tone, Horsie

What if I use ALL CAPS ITALIC BOLDFACE! What THEN?!

What do you feel about the theory that the adaptive unconsciousness feeds us intuitive judgments through our emotions and instincts, and so long as you've properly trained your perceptions--i.e. through repeated mind-expansions and moral lessons (exactly as Twi's been doing for four years) rather than letting them flaccidly and thoughtlessly hold on to unfair and unanalyzed prejudices--that your emotions can be a powerful guiding force for good decision-making, especially in crisis scenarios?

Sure. "Guiding force." But not "unfallible deciding force." I think this case was pretty clear-cut: Choice between a fifty-fifty chance of saving THE ENTIRE WORLD FOREVER, versus earning your friends a few minutes' freedom from bubbles before Tirek kills or enslaves you all anyway.

This was the writers deliberately reaching out for the worst-possible failure scenario for the "Friendship conquers all" dogma, and claiming that it works even then.

2105342
As I understand it, most children are already taught deontological ethics. Popular ethical systems tend not to be logically self-consistent. It's entirely possibly that this is one reason why people hold contradictory positions later in life. Teaching deontological ethics may just perpetuate the problem.

Login or register to comment
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!