That’s future Spike’s problem (Spike at Your Service)

Spike the Dragon. Messes made, feelings ignored.
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It’s December 29, 2012. The top song is still Bruno Mars with “Locked Out of Heaven,” and the top movie continues to be The Hobbit. In the news, Syrian warplanes kill hundreds of their own civilians in the Hama province; children’s television producer Gerry Anderson, creator of such classics as Thunderbirds, dies; and the U.S. government begins flailing in an attempt to avoid crossing the so-called “fiscal cliff.” (Spoilers: They fail.)

In ponies, we have “Spike at Your Service,” with story by Dave Polsky, teleplay by Merriwether Williams, and direction by James Wootton, and normally at this point I’d start talking about how this is yet another episode where Spike is entirely self-centered, places his needs in front of everyone else’s, depicts himself as a victim, and ultimately learns nothing. All of which is true, but boring.

Instead, consider this episode in light of the previous Spike-centric episode, “Dragon Quest.” In that episode, Spike more or less rejected his draconic heritage. He still identifies as a dragon, but prefers associating with ponies, and wishes to continue with the pony lifestyle in which he was raised. Most importantly, he has rejected the values and culture of the dragons and embraced the values and culture of ponies, even while continuing to assert that he is a dragon. This necessarily involves some adaptation; Spike is a different species, and cannot live entirely like a pony. He will never get a cutie mark, for example, and while he clearly does have magic (being able to send messages by burning them, for instance), it fits into none of the normal pony categories. Spike must therefore adapt the pony lifestyle to suit himself, while also to some extent adapting himself to fit into the pony culture.

Thus the “Spike the Dragon Code,” an attempt by Spike to construct a moral schema that can serve as a guide to his behavior as a dragon within pony society. This code bears no relation to the behavior of the dragons we see elsewhere in the series, because it is purely Spike’s invention, and based on what he knows best, individual service.

Like “Owl’s Well That Ends Well,” this episode hovers on the edge of the uncomfortably problematic nature of Spike’s relationship with Twilight Sparkle. While character ages are difficult to nail down in this series, Applejack’s flashback in “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” has Bic Mac and Granny Smith see her off, not her parents, implying they were already dead. If true, that in turn means that Spike must be younger than Apple Bloom. Both have chores assisting an older pony in their work, but Apple Bloom is frequently shown playing or attending school, while Spike almost never is. His life appears to consist near-entirely of serving as Twilight’s assistant, which is particularly disturbing given that she appears to be the closest thing he has to a mother-figure.

Spike’s default mode of relating to ponies, as well as his default method to express affection, is service. The show depicts this repeatedly in his crush on Rarity, we expresses by giving her gifts or assisting her in digging up gems. So it is not surprising that the moral code he creates, or at least the part we get to see, is constructed on concepts of debt and service. He owes Applejack his life after she rescues him; therefore he must give her that life in the form of service.

Where his code falls is in failing to recognize that Applejack doesn’t want that service. She is uncomfortable with it from the start, but Spike ignores her concerns and blithely begins “helping.” Applejack, by contrast, finds herself trapped because she doesn’t want to hurt Spike’s feelings by pointing out how counterproductive his attempts to help are or how uncomfortable she is with the whole idea of keeping what amounts to a slave. Her feelings are trampled on, in other words, because she refuses to trample on his. Spike, however, is overjoyed to work for her, since he is demonstrating that, despite being a dragon, he is still a moral being and a member of her society.

Spike has constructed a deontological ethic, which is to say one based on a list of a priori (a term in philosophy that means, roughly, “prejudice I don’t want to examine”) rules. This is in stark contrast to the show’s usual depiction of correct behavior, which is generally mostly a virtue ethic (that is, based on cultivating certain virtues, such as honesty, loyalty, friendship, and harmony) with some admixture of consequentialism (that is, an ethic based on doing what produces good consequences, such as avoiding harm to others). His behavior is thus naturally found wanting by the show, as any rigid adherence to a single meta-ethical approach will inevitably result in behavior that violates the standards of the other approaches. In Spike’s case, that means forcing Applejack to put up with the negative consequences of Spike’s morals, because her own morals initially prevent her from stopping him. 

There is a tendency, particularly among proponents of deontology, but also just in the culture generally, to treat morality as a non-negotiable, a priori fact over which individuals have no control. “I have to do it,” we say, “it would be wrong not to.” Which is nonsense on two fronts: First, most people do things they believe are wrong all the time. Second, a moral schema is itself a choice. It may be an active choice–a deliberate decision to adopt a particular philosophy or religion, for instance, or even constructing one’s own morality as Spike does–or a passive choice not to examine or modify the morals with which one was raised, but it remains a choice. It follows, therefore, that a person bears moral responsibility for their choice of moral schema, and “My morality told me to do it,” is not an adequate response to criticism of one’s actions.

This is an important point for the show to address, because the argument in favor of maintaining our culture’s gender norms is usually couched as a moral position, that it is a priori wrong for people to behave in ways contrary to those norms. Such arguments (especially when they are couched in religious terms) tend to be treated with kid gloves, as if the people making such arguments are not responsible for the suffering they create by imposing their morality on others, because they are regarded as somehow not being responsible for their morality.

In the end, Spike stops trying to impose his code on Applejack. He recognizes that while it is fine to let his morality drive his behavior–hence resuming his role as Twilight’s assistant at the end of the episode–he does not want to be the kind of person who imposes himself on others when he’s not wanted. His deontology, in other words, has been tempered with consequentialist and especially virtue-ethical elements. Maybe there is hope for him after all.

…Or maybe two episodes from now he will abandon morality entirely and spend an entire episode acting out of pure selfishness.

Next week: Speaking of relationships with deeply uncomfortable subtext…

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