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The Thoughts We Don't Share · 12:18am Jun 11th, 2018

"Once," Starlight said, "I took a class called 'The Philosophy of Magic.' I don't know what I was looking for. This was before Our Town. I was angry and confused, and maybe I thought it would help. The class wasn't great, but one day, the professor asked us a question. A hypothetical—you have a button you can push. If you push it, it will make all of Equestria eternally verdant, beautiful, good, just, etc. A forever perfect world. But it will also kill half of the ponies who are currently alive."

"Mmm." Twilight said nothing. They lay side by side on the hill out beside the castle, looking up at the stars. Twilight's wings were splayed out behind her -- she still didn't quite know how to get them comfortable when she was lying on her back.

"I got a little annoyed," Starlight continued. "A lot annoyed, actually. I said it was a stupid question. Sure, it sounds all deep and profound, but we all know the answer. We all know the correct answer because it's obvious. The point of the question is just to make the speaker feel clever."

"How'd the professor take that?"

"Pretty well, I guess." Starlight shrugged. "He said the point of the question was to highlight inconsistencies in your thinking. First you ask it with half of the population, then a quarter, then five percent, then one hundred ponies, then just one pony, and see where your answer changes. See where it stops being wrong. And I gave him this confused, incredulous look, and asked him what in Equestria he was talking about. The answer is yes. Of course I'd push the button. Why would having it kill less ponies change that?"

Twilight turned her head to look at Starlight, but Starlight was still staring up at the sky. And so Twilight waited, letting the silence linger until Starlight went on.

"The class," she said, "was a little surprised by that. So was the professor. So he started going up. At three-fourths, do you push the button? Yes. Nine out of ten? Yes. Ninety-nine ponies out of a hundred? Yes. Literally everypony in the world but me? Yes, assuming there's a way to fully repopulate Equestria. Then he tsks and the class mutters and I can feel ponies staring. He says 'that's very selfish, young mare.' And I shoot back, 'You didn't ask about everypony in the world including me.'"

Starlight smiled slightly. "He didn't like that. It wasn't how he expected the conversation to go. The whole class is mumbling again. So he says, 'young mare, the hypothetical you're describing would kill everypony in the entire world.' And I say, 'As long as there are new ponies around to enjoy that perfect world, why does that matter?'"

She shifted in place. "What makes us so great?"

Twilight cleared her throat: "I know some ponies who are pretty good."

"But, so good you'd destroy a perfect world just to have them? That seems selfish." Starlight cleared her throat. "Twilight. Princess. Sorry."

"Is there a reason you're telling me this?"

"Because..." Starlight waved a hoof at the sky. "Ponies tell me I need to be more empathetic. That to be a good guidance counselor, or even good pony, I need to feel ponies' pain. I need to want them to be happy. And I just don't see why. Does Applejack need to feel the pain of her trees? When she kicks them? When she prunes them? When she cuts them down? Phrase the question that way. If Applejack could push a button that would make her farm eternally bountiful by destroying half of her current trees, would she press it? Shouldn't she press it?"

"Ponies aren't trees, Starlight."

"Why not?"

For a long time, the two of them lay there in silence. Eventually, Twilight said: "If you don't understand it intuitively, I'm not sure I can explain it."

"Yeah." Starlight sighed. "So ponies tell me."

"You don't want to..." Twilight bit her lip. "You don't care about ponies?"

"Of course I do." She waved at the sky, her tone turning frustrated. "But do I care about ponies, as in the specific group of ponies I happen to know? Or do I care about the ponies, as in, all the ponies who are presently alive? Or do I care about ponykind, as in the three races collectively?"

"Those are all the same thing."

"No, Twilight, they're not the same thing." Starlight's tone turned short and snappish. "And you're smart enough to know they're not the same thing. But unlike me, you're a good pony, so you want them to be the same thing. You pretend they're the same thing."

Twilight started to speak, but before she could, Starlight cut her off: "Don't patronize me."

A snort escaped Twilight's muzzle, and she rolled back up towards the sky. But when she spoke, her tone was soft: "You can decide what you think for yourself. But I don't think you're a monster."

"I..." Starlight shut her eyes. "Thank you, Twilight. I'm... sorry." After a moment, she went on. "In that class, for my final paper, the professor asked me to justify my position. So I said, there's a way I want the world to be. I want it to be fair and just and verdant and kind. That is good. And it's right. And I must pursue what is good and right by the most effective means available to me. To do anything else is negligent. Anywhere in the world that somepony goes hungry, or suffers, or where unicorns abuse earth ponies or stallions abuse mares. Anytime anywhere something bad happens. That's my failing. My problem. I need to make it as right as I can as fast as I can. And if that means sacrificing ponies, so be it. What right do I have to harm the ponies of the future, just for the sake of somepony who happens to be alive now?

"So I wrote it, and he called me into his office, and he said that it sounded 'supervillian ish.'" She made airquotes with her hooves. "He pointed out that many dictators and dark wizards throughout history said the same thing -- that they had their goals and they needed power to achieve those goals. That the ends justify the means. But I didn't see why that mattered. Their goals were wrong. My goals are right. Stealing to feed a starving family and stealing to buy a nice wagon aren't the same thing. Someone who accrues power for bad ends is a tyrant. Someone who does it for good ends is, well. Princess Celestia."

A laugh escaped her. "So he asked, what absolute universal truth makes my goals 'objectively right' and the tyrants wrong? And I told him that was a stupid question. My goals aren't absolute; they aren't written into the fabric of the universe. But they're mine. And I'll accomplish them by whatever means I see fit. And dictators will accomplish their goals by whatever means they see fit. And the professor will accomplish his goals, just the same."

Starlight licked her lips, and finished: "There is no right or wrong. No universal morality. Only the will to power."

"That does sound supervillian ish," Twilight agreed. "Honestly, maybe more than ish. Maybe a lot."

"Yeah. That's kind of why I told you." Starlight laughed, and it had a nervous tinge under it. "Are you going to blast me with the Elements of Harmony?"

"Not tonight. Maybe tomorrow." Twilight smiled and lowered her head. "You could just stop believing those things, you know."

"I can't. Not any more than I can stop believing the sky is blue. They're right, Twilight. And they're so obviously right it took me a while to even understand that not everpony saw it that way. That other ponies can be that wrong. I thought that whenever anypony disagreed, they were being intentionally thick. Or they were just weak."

"So..." Twilight's smile brightened. "You think I'm weak?"

"Ha ha. No." Starlight rested her head back in the grass. "No, Twilight. I don't think you're weak. And I'm glad you don't think I'm a monster." She paused for a few seconds. "But tell me if I ever do anything to... you know. Change that opinion."

"I will." Twilight reached over to rest her hoof over Starlight's. "And hey, Starlight? Thank you."

Starlight said nothing, and for the rest of the evening, they watched the stars go by.

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Comments ( 98 )
Wanderer D

I mean, some villains started as being good and saw that the only way for them to be fair to all is to become the villain.

Fear not the tool; fear what the craftsmare might do with it.

Might was Right when Caesar bled upon the stones of Rome,
Might was Right when Joshua led his hordes o’er Jordan’s foam,
And Might was Right when German troops poured down through Paris gay;
It’s the Gospel of the Ancient World and the Logic of To-day.

Behind all Kings and Presidents — all government and law,
Are army-corps and cannoneers — to hold the world in awe.
And sword-strong races own the earth and ride the Conqueror’s Car —
And LIBERTY has ne’er been won except by deeds of war.

What are the lords of horded gold — the silent SEMITE rings?
What are the plunder patriots — high pontiffs, priests and kings?
What are they but bold master-minds, best fitted for the fray
Who comprehend and vanquish by — the Logic of To-day.

Cain’s knotted club is scepter still — the “Rights of Man” is fraud.
Christ’s Ethics are for creeping things — true manhood smiles at “God”.
For Might is Right when empires sink in storms of steel and flame;
And it is RIGHT when weakling breeds — are hunted down like game.

Then what’s the use of dreaming dreams, that each shall “get his own”
By forceless votes of meek-eyed thralls, who blindly sweat and moan?
No! A curse is on their cankered brains — their very bones decay:
Go! Trace your fate in the Iron Game, is the Logic of To-day.

The strong must ever rule the weak, is grim Primordial Law —
On earth’s broad racial threshing floor, the meek are beaten straw —
Then ride to power o’er foemen’s necks let NOTHING bar your way:
If you are FIT you’ll Rule and Reign, is the Logic of To-day.

You must prove your Right by deeds of Might of splendor and renown.
If need-be march through flames of hell, to dash opponents down.
If need-be die on scaffolds high — in the morning’s misty gray.
For “Liberty or Death” is still the Logic of To-day.

Might was Right when Gideon led the “chosen” tribes of old,
And it was right when Titus burnt, their temple roofed with gold:
And Might was Right from Bunker’s Hill, to far Manila Bay,
By land and flood it’s wrote in blood — the Gospel of To-day.

“Put not your trust in princes” is a saying old and true,
“Put not your hope in governments” translateth it anew.
All “Books of Law” and “Golden Rules” are fashioned to betray:
“The Survival of the Strongest” is the Gospel of To-day.

Might was Right when Carthage flames lit up the Punic foam —
And — when the naked steel of Gaul weighed down the spoil of Rome;
And Might was Right when Richmond fell — and at Thermopayle —
It’s the logic of the Ancient World — and the Gospel of To-day.

Where pendant suns in millions swing, around this whirling earth,
It’s Might, it’s Force that holds the brakes, and steers through life and death:
Force governs all organic life, inspires all Right and Wrong.
It’s natures plan to weed-out man and TEST who are the strong.

From Sandy Hook to London tower
From Jaffa to Japan,
They can take who have the power
They may keep who can.

This is the law of Heaven and Hell
Stupendous and divine
The highest, holiest law of all
That governs “mine and thine.”

The law it is of Sun and Star,
Of President and Pope —
It is “the prisoner at the bar”
The gallows and the rope.

It is the lawyer and his fee;
The shearer and his sheep —
The eagle soaring swift and free;
The dreadnaught on the deep.

It is the Bond; it is the Loan —
The profit and the loss —
The usurer on his Bullion Throne —
The Idol of the Cross.

It is the Goth; it is the Hun —
The tyrant and his prey,
And flame and saber, club and gun;
O, taxes that we pay!

It is the law of all the climes,
And all the things to be;
And all the bold tremendous times
That you and I shall see.

From Sandy Hook to London tower,
From Greenland to Japan —
They will take who have the Power
And they may keep who can.”

--from Might is Right by Ragnar Redbeard, 1890


I love this poem.

Thank you so much for sharing it.

... you know, Starlight's right: It is a stupid question. Particularly because there's really only two correct answers: Either you push the button no matter how many others it kills, or you don't push it no matter how many others it will help.

Doing anything other than one of those two is a declaration that some live are intrinsically less valuable/sacred than others. There's no problem if that's honestly what someone believes, but if they say that all lives are equally valuable and then choose an option other than those two, there is a flaw in their thinking.

There's lots more in the linked book. LaVey "borrowed" much of the Satanic Bible from there.

I can easily see Luna using this as a binding oath:


Starlight licked her lips and finished: "There is no right or wrong. No universal morality. Only the will to power."

I'd argue that there is a universal moral code of some sort. Things aren't black and white, fine— but there's no such thing as a perfect gray. Things still end up as light gray or dark grey. But people are inherently flawed and there isn't a good way to see it. Anything people believe in will get screwed up because people are the ones using it.

If there wasn't something; some code, some God, something most people collectively tap into to decide generally what right and wrong are; wouldn't things be a lot worse than they are now?

Out of curiosity, why don't you publish these as stories?

That does not sound like a good long-term philosophy.


Then sex happened.

Hap #12 · Jun 11th, 2018 · · 2 ·

There is no morality beyond what each individual personally likes and dislikes.

It just so happens that most people in first world western society are raised to like fairness and dislike things such as theft, rape, and murder.

There are entire swaths of the world where rape is not morally wrong. In fact, there are moral codes governing who and when you're allowed to rape. This idea is viscerally unpleasant to me. I find it wrong.

To believe that rape is universally wrong is the height of ethnocentrism. For every thing you believe to be universally wrong, there is someone out there who believes it is right, and vice versa.

I have an upcoming blog post about good vs. evil, in real life and fiction. I've interviewed a lot of people for a wide variety of perspectives.


If there wasn'tsomething;some code, some God, something most people collectively tap into to decide generally what right and wrong are; wouldn't things be a lot worse than they are now?

No? Trying to muddle your way through seems to be more than adequate to get us where we are today. People make stuff up, anything too dysfunctional results in societies that collapse or otherwise change. Rinse and repeat.

Doesn't mean we cant make judgements or comparisons of course, but it becomes a lot harder to justify. People generally dont like that kind of hard work though.

And this is why I hated that philosophy course I took in college. I'm still hung up on how the button would bring about utopia, and if we can build a version that doesn't require blood sacrifice.

Right and wrong are subjective. At least efficiency can be stated numerically.

Also, thinking about the logistics helps distract me from the terror.


They're not really stories. Just scenes. Or thoughts. And I'm not sure they're all that good.

Just things I wanted to say.

If you can pardon my language; bullshit.

The harm caused by rape is objectively provable facts. It is in no way any sort of grey area anywhere in there at all. A large group of people either resigning themselves to or actively enjoying something doesn't make it right

This is why all successful free societies are based on universal rules of right and wrong, not simply the opinion of the day. Unfortunately, many of the successful UN-free societies are also based on universal rules of right and wrong.

Yeah, I'm an Originalist.

Starlight is kind of terrifying.


The harm caused by putting people in prison is objectively real. Why is putting people in prison potentially okay, but rape is always wrong?

The answer is that we as a society have decided that the prisoners, by some measure or standard, deserve it. Some societies with exceptionally backwards and cruel views on women feel that women deserve it just for being female.

That fact is, as Hap said, deeply sickening. But the fact remains.

I agree with you. I'm reminded of a story I picked up somewhere:

A British general was trying to stop the Indian cultural practice of widow immolation. The Indian people argued that it was their cultural belief that a wife should die with her husband as proof of her loyalty. The British general replied, "Great. We will respect your cultural belief. But we also have a cultural belief, which is that we put to death people who set fire to innocent women."

EDIT: Kinda related to this story: A criminal pleads to a judge, "I shouldn't be held responsible for my actions! There is no such thing as free will; all of our actions were decided by the initial conditions created by the Big Bang!" The judge replies, "If that's the case, then the initial conditions of the universe are making me give you the death penalty. I'm not responsible for that, either."

To answer the question in the original post, I wouldn't push the button because another's life isn't mine to sacrifice for the greater good. I would only do it if every single person who was up to be sacrificed accepted their fate. I know what I think will make my life better, and I know what I think will make everyone's life better, but it's dangerous to assume that because I think it will make others' lives better, that I should therefore enact it without their permission or consent. If I can do it for my own life, and it does make my life better, then hopefully I can spread it via example, and others will take it willingly. When you're talking large-scale ideas, like politics or economic systems, you can tell which ideas work better based on the way people vote with their feet. Notice which way the fences point, and whether people are being kept out or being kept in. Realistically, that's how utopia is created.

Okay, but theoretically one could balance out the harm caused by incarcerating an individual vs encouraging their behavior, which would mean that a greater good exists even if humans are crap at finding it.

Starlight approached the question from an angle I hadn't thought of: the future. The whole question is very Thanos in nature, and FoME brings up an interesting point about how exactly the button goes about its business. That's an important question to ask, too.

It's a very interesting perspective on things. Hmm.

Is it bad that this story makes me like Starlight Glimmer more?

A hypothetical—you have a button you can push. If you push it, it will make all of Equestria eternally verdant, beautiful, good, just, etc. A forever perfect world. But it will also kill half of the ponies who are currently alive.

That can be reformulated in a very similar, but a tiny bit different way: would you accept the wager where you go to live in paradise with probability p, or you die with probability (1 - p)? (the only difference is in original Starlight gets do decide p for others, that may be a bit dickish) Reformulation kinda removes the fleur of philosophical mysteriousness a bit and shows that people accepting such wagers (even for p = 0) means those people currently have pretty shitty lives.

"Ponies aren't trees, Starlight."

"Why not?"

Um, Applejack doesn't need trees, she needs apples (let's stop at apples here) --- value of trees is instrumental.

That's my failing. My problem.

Oh, cool! She has pretty good grasp on that part of consequentialism. Like how cool it would have been if she was explicitly like that in the show? Consequentialist Starlight is the best Starlight! :yay:

Someone who does it for good ends is, well. Princess Celestia.

But they're mine. And I'll accomplish them by whatever means I see fit.

Now that's what I'm really surprised to hear from post-reformation Starlight. The statement "ends justify the means" is true if and only if ends really justify the means. Benevolent goals are nice and all, but goals are in the future and your actions are in the present, and future cannot exact causal influence on the present by itself --- reality doesn't care about your goals and you will get like actual consequences of your actions and only them. Making sure those two things are aligned is up to you, it's a hard work, and it's where Starlight previously failed miserably. (Also the fact that she used non-consistent time travel for torturing Twilight, not for modifying the world according to her goals is interesting in that light)


Okay. Whose good counts? For instance, does the suffering of animals count? If so, which animals? Does all suffering count equally? Are things like illiteracy a form of suffering, or only physical pain?

There have been plenty of societies (for instance, Athens in ancient Greece) that said they sought the greatest good of "all people." Which was sortof true, since they defined slaves, women, and the crippled as "not people."


Gutturally, I agree with you. But you used the word "objectively." So let's remove feelings from it.

Is a cow harmed when it is milked? A sheep, when it is shorn? A goat, when it is slaughtered? Of course, to varying degrees, but that is their purpose.

And you have to remember that women are not people. They are chattel, just like other livestock. Their harm is less important than the benefit to men. Rape serves several beneficial roles, including a reward for the strong and bold. It helps keep women in their place. It provides more children for those strong enough to capture slaves.

Does that feel as wrong to you to read as it felt to me to write? Does it offend you half as much as it does me? Good. I hope it does. I don't really want to share a society with anyone who agrees with those paragraphs.

But there are literally millions of people worldwide who are so thoroughly steeped in that belief that it has never occurred to them to question it, any more than you have questioned your belief that rape is wrong.

Thirty years ago, most people wouldn't have questioned the belief that same-sex attraction was inherently morally wrong. If you'd been born thirty years earlier, you'd probably be homophobic. If you'd been born in Germany in 1900 you'd probably have been a Nazi. These are profoundly uncomfortable thoughts. Writing them is as uncomfortable to me as reading them is to you.

I feel filthy now.

The closest thing we have is tribalist evolution. if you look at it from a Atheist perspective.

One of the most classic examples, is that we are one of the few Great Apes that missionary position is the standard position. This doesn't seem like much, but its believed this is actually genetic memory. We have sex looking into the eyes of the person we are making love with. We bond with them, we make it more then just breeding.

Thats the theory for this shift. (And it is only a theory.)

But this can be applied to a lot of things. Evolutionarily, we need our tribe. We are not like the Lion, who can become a solitary predator. We lacked any sort of solo hunting method, and before current technology was available to us, you NEEDED meat to get Vitamin B12. (Now we make it and put it in cereal and stuff to support a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet, but in the past that wouldn't work.) The tribe is the intrinsic value, maintaining it was critical to survival....and due to both how we were raised and evolution everyone understood we could not just go our separate ways.

This means, if you are to selfish and threaten the tribe, you are banished. If you get to greedy and threaten the tribe, you get banished, if you are to cruel and drive the tribe away from you, you die. If the Chief decides you need to be killed, unless you have someone who cares for you, to plead for your life....you will die. Humans have ALWAYS needed other humans, and that tends to prune out sociopathic traits.

Not completely of course....Their are always those few that go, "I care nothing for anyone else....but if I act like only I matter, they will kick me out. Thus its in my best interest to pretend I care." And they go on to reproduce and pass the genes on.

But this does prune them off. A Sociopath who reveals their traits to early dies. A human who feels compelled to eat other humans....gets killed. Someone who refuses to marry gets isolated and then dies without kids. And yes, the occasional exception slips through the cracks and manage to have offspring. But overall, our acts to our fellow human determine if we are going to have babies, and its those who are most successful at having babies that pass their traits on.

If you WERE to publish all these in an anthology of short drabbles/scenes/what-have-yous, you’d be far from the first author here to do so.

Also, then I could favorite the whole group of them, which I would do, because they’re all great.

Anyway, yes, Starlight is the cutest greatest all-around most complicated character, thank you for spreading the word (whether that word is autobiographical or not).

The problem with "might makes right" is there's always someone bigger and stronger.

Let us assume, as your comment appears to, that the only reason society imprisons people is that we feel they deserve it, rather than to rehabilitate or to protect the rest of society from their potential repeat offenses. It is still more reasonable to behave as if a group is deserving of negative treatment based on something they can control (theoretically speaking, a prisoner is detained in the first place for having broken a just law - let us ignore the complexities of law =/= morality, wrongful convictions, and determinism, as I believe they are outside the scope of this conversation) than based on something they can't control.

I feel like I can sort of grasp what you're getting at (that moral justifications are largely or wholly cultural), but there must be a better way to phrase it, because the example you provided feels pretty weak. In order to hold ground, the whole "What makes our justifications any different than theirs?" thing needs to be more analogous.


There will be someone bigger and stronger than you regardless of whether you believe in them or not. Dictatorships have conquered democracies and dictatorships have conquered other dictatorships. Morality does not protect you against someone who doesn't share your views.

I definitely agree that collating these snippets into one location would be a good idea.


I thought that whenever anypony disagreed, they were being intentionally thick. Or they were just weak."

"So..." Twilight's smile brightened. "You think I'm weak?"

No, she thinks you're intentionally thick. Heck, she even just described it shortly before-

"And you're smart enough to know they're not the same thing. But unlike me, you're a good pony, so you want them to be the same thing. You pretend they're the same thing."


Your goal is not the end that will happen because you decide to use those means.

The will to pursue a goal does not guarantee that the goal will be achieved or that the utility you expected to get from achieving it will actually be there.

There will be unintended consequences. There is always going to be a huge chance of failure.

The ends can't justify the means -- you're trying to pay off the people you hurt with empty promises.

On the flipside, if there is anything that someone can promise you that will convince you to do something horrific, then you can never be trusted with anything, ever. Because promising is free.


Your goal is not the end that will happen because you decide to use those means.

I'm not completely sure what you mean here. It's your job to select your actions in such ways that makes your goals happen and it's hard. Of course universe is not fair and even if you've chosen best actions available you may still loose --- it's a separate issue. The point was that you shouldn't pull Starlight by selecting your actions purely based on your own psychological quirks and expect your goals become true just by virtue of being your goals and saying the magical words "ends justify the means".

Because promising is free.

Promising is not free: if you break your promises often you're risking that no one would want to cooperate with you and that someone you've tricked may try to avenge oneself.

"When prunes them?"
"When she prunes them?"?

"But didn't see why that mattered."
"But I didn't see why that mattered."?

"it took me awhile to even understand"
"it took me a while to even understand"?

Inspired by the same or a related conversation?

"Yeah, I'm an Originalist."
What do you mean, if you don't mind me asking? I don't specifically recall having heard of that before, and looking online now, I find several possible meanings.

(My own view of this:)
The thing is, the "how" is unimportant for the same reason it's a bad idea to try and actually follow the Button without an actual Button (which is only available from the same company infamous for problematic trolleys, conglomerated with the one selling frictionless pulleys and massless rods to physics students). The button's utopia is definitionally good, for everyone. All the various mutually incompatible values don't matter because they're somehow resolved, and the potential user has certain knowledge that the end state will be Good, whatever that means. The question isn't about what counts as good and for whom, so that's not a problem in it, only the number of people the prospective pusher is willing to kill for it.

There are, of course, a number of very large problems that spring into shouting presence the instant the defined-to-work-somehow is taken off. It's a mistake to worry about the how, and about subjective values, and all of that with the Button, because there's no point; we already know that those just aren't problems. It's a much larger mistake to not worry about those when considering actual policy, though; "I would kill billions to bring about Good" isn't equivalent to "I will (try to) kill billions to bring about (what I think/hope/guess is) Good."

It's genuinely useful within its own narrow boundaries for provoking thought and discussion and potentially increasing knowledge of oneself and others, but it's not something that can be closely applied to reality or have reality applied closely to it.

What are your thoughts on the idea of the state sentencing people to be raped as a punishment/deterrent? Not talking about prison rape; I didn't actually think of that until I was already typing the above sentence. I mean a hypothetical system where explicitly being raped by a state-licensed rapist was a possible sentence just like incarceration or a fine. That probably would indeed scare at least some people away from crime, if sentencing as deterrence works at all; do you think that there are some circumstances, some level of court competence, where the use of that sentence counts as good?

"and shows that people accepting such wagers (even for p = 0 ) means those people currently have pretty shitty lives."
Hm, I disagree. Someone who completely loves their life and always has, confronted with the choice, still has a difficult one ahead of them, I think. Firstly, even if they think that there is no possible way their life could be better, they likely know that that's very exceptional, that most people are less happy with their lives, and that many people are unhappy with their lives. Secondly, even for this person, the future is uncertain. They could the very next day catch a horrible disease; in the next hour, they could die in an accident. Similar uncertainty holds for everyone else. By contrast, in the paradise, everyone has a great life, and everyone and future generations will continue to have great lives. Kill everyone alive now and replace them with people as happy as the prospective button pusher, and the average and total happiness of the world both jump up massively and stay there. This person who has nothing to gain in the present, therefore, still must consider the people of the future and how much of their own and other people's present good they're willing to sacrifice for that.

"and before current technology was available to us, you NEEDED meat to get Vitamin B12. (Now we make it and put it in cereal and stuff to support a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet, but in the past that wouldn't work.)"
I will mention that, at least looking at Wikipedia (based on something I thought I remembered), there are plant-based sources:
That said, of course, if your tribe didn't happen to live where the right plants, or even did have the materials but didn't know a good way to use them, yeah, out of luck there.

And in addition to the tribe helping one get food, of course, it also helped stop one from being food.

Hm, I'd say that if someone who claims to have a "might makes right" ideology finds that a problem (and continues to claim that ideology anyway), they're actually hypocritical. If they only like might when it's on their side, their ideology is actually "I make right". A true adherent of "might makes right" would presumably consider their own loss to be right if they were unable to win.


The thing is, the "how" is unimportant for the same reason it's a bad idea to try and actuallyfollowthe Button without an actual Button (which is only available from the same company infamous for problematic trolleys, conglomerated with the one selling frictionless pulleys and massless rods to physics students).

They really should shut that trolley company down, or do a better job regulating it. And find some way to keep fat people off the rails.


"When prunes them?"
"When she prunes them?"?

"But didn't see why that mattered."
"But I didn't see why that mattered."?

"it took me awhile to even understand"
"it took me a while to even understand"?



Fixed, of course. Thank you!

Inspired by the same or a related conversation?

Inspired by a lot of things, including that conversation. I'm in kind of a weird headspace right now. Working through some stuff emotionally.

I thought I was Twilight and it turns out I'm Starlight.

Heh, aye. :)

Well, you know, kind of my thing. :D

"Fixed, of course. Thank you!"
You're welcome. :)

"Inspired by a lot of things, including that conversation. I'm in kind of a weird headspace right now."
Ah, okay; thanks.

"Working through some stuff emotionally."
I hope it goes well.

"I thought I was Twilight and it turns out I'm Starlight."
(I don't know exactly what you mean, but going from the button problem...)
Well, I think most people, if they thought clearly about it, would be Starlight in the presented problem. Maybe not an overwhelming majority, but most. I would also (wildly, I do not really have supporting data) guess that, as in the short storylike thing, most people do not have Starlight's answer, but I think that's down to mixing the problem and real life. In real life, a key part of the problem doesn't exist, so you can't encounter it, only things like it. But if you base your approach to the problem on things from real life like the problem, you get solutions that often don't make sense because they ignore key parts of the problem's world.

In the realm of Definitionally Good States and perfect certainty about outcomes, there's no place for doubt about one's own view of the situation being different from the actual situation. The question is just one of principle: pushing the button provides the greatest good, absolute, average, and minimum, for the future population, but at the cost of the choice, and to some, possibly total extent, lives (and the problem can even be read, though this isn't as clear, so that those are the only costs) of the current population. Do you value a sempiternal paradise for untold future generations? Or do you care about something else more, and if so, what? The free choice of those living now? A belief that actively causing harm is always worse than causing harm or preventing good through inaction, whatever the numbers? Nevermind the details; assume it works somehow, and consider what happens then.

It can be useful, but it's a much-simplified abstraction. If you construct a scenario with enough of the right abstract constraints and guarantees, especially if you tailor it to a specific individual scenario-tackler, pretty much any action you like can be "the morally correct solution" unless they have an absolute, unshakable belief that that action is never, ever, ever right under any circumstances. And that might be difficult to find, given the mutability of the scenario's world ("Your unshakable belief in the wrongness of X comes from your belief in your god? Okay, in this scenario, you've somehow become convinced that he doesn't exist.").

Then there's Twilight's view. Ponies, the ponies, and ponykind all the same. It doesn't make sense; even trying, I'm having trouble thinking of a way to look at it that even kind of makes sense. Caring about the three groups will often intersect, but it's also quite capable of diverging; they just aren't the same thing. But it's one of those useful lies for which the Hogfather is training. Most of the time, and the thing is, the more it's believed, generally, the more it will be true. It allows caring for one of those three groups to transfer to the other two, to motivate good works for them as well, and if the group believes it, it's another reason for the group to care about both its members and any larger groups it's part of. Which, if they share the same view, will care more about that group, and so on. But the system isn't grounded in logic; the mechanics under it are, but the mechanics are more complex and messier and sometimes in active disagreement with the "all three are the same" motivating line. The line is suitable for day to day use, as the underlying system isn't much, but when those disagreements appear, problems can occur. And if they get far enough, one can end up with a system where the majority of people believe something that is obviously untrue and obviously to their detriment. And the problems can build up so much that, by the time the formerly-useful story gets shaken off, things can't be repaired and something else has to be made instead.

Starlight's view, well, we see some of the potential problems with that. Good intentions (at least before the release of the cutie marks in Our Town), and a willingness and ability to get beyond the system and beliefs everyone else was stuck in. And she was dedicated to it; as far as I'm remembering, everything we've seen points to her as trying to live her ideology to the best of her ability. Might be some things offscreen, of course, but it wasn't just a case of someone preaching something just to get rich off the labor of others. To some extent, she even made it work; the village had its problems and might have failed eventually, but it hadn't yet, even with everything against it. It and its people in fact did so well that it and they mostly stayed there, and her former followers forgave her and welcomed her back. Clearly she was doing something right. But also clearly she was doing something wrong. Before her people welcomed her back, they chased her out; even before we ask what the rest of the world would have thought of her attempts to help them, we see her own people, her most fervent supporters, had major issues with what she was doing. And after she left, she sought revenge, to the extent that (and I think I may recall someone else in the comments mentioning this) by the time she got her hooves on the power to change the timeline years in the past, she continued pursuing revenge over putting her former ideology, or any other attempt to help ponies, into practice. She set out to forge her own path, but that necessarily means being much more confident than average in her own views of what a good path would be (That's necessary but not sufficient, of course; one can disagree with some aspect of the herd's ideology but still stick with it for one reason or another, but someone who fully agrees with everyone else, well, why would they leave?). And those views can be close to the truth, better-suited to the actual world than the useful lie the herd is following, or they can just land the visionary and anyone who follows with an equivalent lie and far fewer resources to put towards it.

...Aaaaand I've lost track of where I was going with this, if I in fact ever had a particular destination in mind. Not even entirely sure I know where I am. And also I've spent much longer on this than I'd planned. So, um. Hopefully you find something useful, or at least interesting, in that lengthy ramble?
(I also may, of course, have been well off target about what sort of Twilight/Starlight difference you meant in that last line; I could see a number arising from this mini-story-scene thing.)

Ughhhh, why did I have to see this right before bed?!

Interesting ideas all around! Well, I might as well offer my own thoughts on the matter.

I tend to agree that there's no such thing as 100% universal objective morality. What was morally acceptable centuries ago is abhorrent today. We constantly update our own moral code, as does society. When I was young, I believed it was morally wrong to consume alcohol, but now as an adult I drink most nights, sometimes heavily, and I don't feel it's wrong to do so. A few millennia ago, we stoned adulterers to death. Now we still think of it as wrong, but we don't think of it as something worthy of death. Why?

Because ethics are always evolving, and there's no Great Universal Answer that we're working toward where we will know the answer 100% of the time.

That said, I find comfort in Pragmatism, with a bit of Utilitarianism thrown in for good measure. Let's take some of these stickier issues and view them through that lens, shall we?

  • Why is it wrong to rape?: You are a person. We could define a person as a "sapient" creature (I won't reduce that one down to keep this short). While we might have difficulty establishing for certain that other minds exist and are like our own, we can at least outwardly see that your reactions are similar to mine, therefore we are both people. A society where "people" suffer less is ideal because it means we (and by extension I) will avoid suffering. Though a woman is different from a man in some ways, we can see evidence that they are likewise sapient as men are. (Again, not going to go into the finer points, but I imagine we all agree here.) If we do not wish people to suffer and both men and woman are people, then harming either men or women is wrong. Rape is harmful to men and women (it does in fact happen to both sexes), therefore it is wrong. Additionally, and more practically, I don't want someone to do that to someone I care about (male or female), nor do I want to live in a society that would allow it. Therefore, regardless of culture, we can make a pragmatic argument for why rape is wrong.
  • Why is it okay to jail someone?: I'll continue with the base assumptions about what a person is to answer Jaxie's question. The answer is simple: prison does indeed cause suffering, but we do not wish to live in a society where dangerous people are allowed to roam free. It would be more pragmatic to deprive a single person of his/her freedom than it would be to let them potentially harm many more. That said, we can also find ways to make his/her imprisonment less cruel. We could, for instance, develop a system that was more concerned with reform than with punishment.
  • Is it okay to eat animals?: A less certain one. If we assume human beings are people, then we should consider if animals are as well. While I can see that many are sentient, I am not convinced that they are sapient. Since one day is as the next for most animals, it's probably okay to kill them for the benefit of human society, though causing them to suffer needlessly before being slaughtered is objectionable. This isn't as strong an argument because our own definitions of what counts as "sapience" are in flux these days. There are lot more vegetarians and vegans now than there were a century ago. 100 years from now, we may decide as a society that animals are sapient, and most of the population will be vegetarian by default.

All of these have lots of wiggle room. But essentially, there are two things to think about:

  1. We all want a society that is good for us, and a society that is good for us is probably good for everyone in it, or at least the highest number possible
  2. Ethics do not exist in a vacuum.

Considering these, moral puzzles tend to fall apart a bit: Is it okay to kill one healthy person to get the organs for five sick ones, or to kill one fat guy by pushing him in front of a speeding trolley to save a group of rail workers? By virtue of (1) above, no: we don't want to live in a society where a doctor might decide to murder us to kill our patients or where others can randomly decide to sacrifice our lives for the sake of others. By virtue of (2), we can imagine that the person killed for their organs or the fat guy might have family and friends who would suffer terribly because of their deaths, or we might personally suffer horrible guilt even though we felt we did the right thing in taking those organs or killing that fat guy. The moral quandries cannot be reduced to a single mental experiment, useful and thought provoking as they are.

So, was Starlight right or wrong? There's no right answer because the question itself is rigged. The button promises a perfect society, but how perfect a society would it be if half the population suddenly dropped dead? Every pony left would be touched by the horror of a sudden, instantaneous holocaust. Is that worth a potential society where nobody suffers after that? Well, Starlight seems convinced that it is, and maybe she's right where all those supervillains were wrong, but the conversation about who's a villain and who's a savior is never going to end.

...Aight, I'm going to bed. Thanks for keeping me up with another thought-provoking quandry! Hope this makes sense even with my sleep-deprived brain. :twilightsheepish:

P.S. I can't wait for the sequel: "Would It Matter if I Was a Button?" :trollestia:

An interesting piece of writing. Philosophical even. I can't help but compare Starlight to Voldemort now in my head due to her comment of right and wrong and power and some comments others have made of the Greater Good. The greater good having more of a callback to Dumbledore for me; though, I have been told he never explicitly used the term and it was actually Gellert Grindelwald who was an ardent follower of the belief. Apologies for bringing Potter into Pony, but I have roots in the aforementioned fandom prior to Ponies.

And there certainly isn't a lack of correlation, oddly enough. As I see it, when you get right down to it, your story (and the Potter books) basically asks the question "do all people have intrinsic worth?" You can also re-word it as, "do the lives of all people possess value in equal measure?" It is beyond the scope of this writing to discuss if this applies to all life, but I know some people reading this have immediately progressed onto that question. Suffice it to say, I say "people" in the sense of sapient life, so Ponies, griffins, half-giants, centaurs and other thinking, feeling, talking individuals would be included. In stating that all people have intrinsic worth, I am implicitly implying that this means it is wrong to kill them.

In the Potter books, the question plays out as, "Do the lives of Wizards matter more than the lives of those that are not wizards?" Which is really a matter of depth, but it's still the same question. Do the lives of all people have value in equal measure? If Yes, then Wizards should not go around killing Muggles, Dumbledore should not decide unilaterally that Harry should sacrifice his life and happiness for the Wizarding World (which is where myself and many others find great fault with Dumbles), and Starlight should not decide that some or all ponies should die for her goal. if No, then as a group ideal, this leads to classification: either by degree, or by inclusion and exclusion. By degree: Group A is better than Group B which is better than Group C. (wizards > magicals > non-magicals), and us versus them (magicals versus non-magicals). If No and you believe no life has intrinsic worth including your own then that would be nihilism which is beyond my understanding.

Additional considerations that complicate these thoughts on philosophy are: simple necessity, free will/self-determination, self defense, crime/punishment/deterrence, and the many, many other aspects of being alive and living in society.

It's not! The best part of Starlight, IMO, is that she's trying to be a good pony, when it doesn't come to her naturally. That's really what sets her apart from Twilight and Sunset, and makes her one of the more interesting characters on the show.

See, this makes me wonder why you haven't written stories on here before. Rambling or not, it was interesting and your points well-made. :twilightsmile:

Then there's Twilight's view. Ponies, the ponies, and ponykind all the same. It doesn't make sense; even trying, I'm having trouble thinking of a way to look at it that evenkind ofmakes sense.

Me too!

But the thing that stuck in my craw about it more than anything is that, well, that's not the answer Twilight would even give. Remember the Season 4 finale, where Tirek gave Twilight the option to save her friends in exchange for her cumulative alicorn magic? Rather than put the goal of stopping Tirek from getting the power he wanted above all else, she chose her group of friends' safety over that of every other pony's. Whether this was ethically sound or not is debatable (though in a world where friendship is literally magic and given the end result, we can probably say she made the right call), but the point is that it shows Twilight's mentality: "my group of friends is just as important as - if not more important than - all ponies or all of ponykind."

But oh well, now that I've articulated it, who wants to pick apart character motivation in a blog post snippet? :twilightsheepish:

...me, apparently, when I'm bored at work. :derpytongue2:

I think Starlight missed an important counterpoint. She asks what right current generations have to deny happiness to the future (push the button), but isn't asked what right the future has to deny existence to current generations (don't push the button).

There is an answer in there, and it gets asked every time a nation enters into any form of deadly combat (among other situations). It's not a simple question and condenseing it to "do(n't) push the button" is surprisingly subversive. But, then that is likely the point, being a philosophy class, and all.

But what happens if you only half push the button?

I'm not arguing that humans are necessarily good at figuring out what that greater good looks like; I'd even say people's assuming they know what good looks like is the biggest problem the world has. (It's also totally Starlights biggest problem and why she's such a good character.) I just thought that a greater good does exist.

...I don't know if that's a cop-out. If so, sorry.

A large supply of candy crushes 1/2 of the planet, generating a halfway perfect world with 1/4 of the death toll.

Not with the Magic of Friendship!


I disagree, but you don't have to apologize for holding a different philosophical position. There's nothing wrong with seeing things differently! :twilightsmile:


The point was that you shouldn't pull Starlight by selecting your actions purely based on your own psychological quirks and expect your goals become true just by virtue of being your goals and saying the magical words "ends justify the means".

This is a little off topic but I just realized that's the Modus Operandi of a ton of kids cartoons.

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