Management: Spoilers ahead for Madoka, Gargantia, Psycho-Pass, and Fate/Zero.
It’s not a complicated question. You hold the gun, target in the sights, finger on the trigger. An innocent, no question. But the stakes could not be more clear: one or one hundred. Either you kill this one person, ending their life and putting their blood on your hands, or you do nothing, and one hundred die through your inaction. Is it morally permissible to fire? Is it morally permissible not to? You could ask them first, I suppose – are they willing to die for the sake of one hundred strangers? That would certainly be noble of them, and possibly clear your conscious. But what if they say no? What if the stakes are one thousand strangers? One hundred thousand? One hundred billion?
Kyubey gets kind of a bad rap. He doesn’t just ask his single strangers – he grants wishes, giving them power beyond anything humanity could hope to achieve. He lets them play the hero, live as long as they’re able to manage the consequences, potentially even change the world. And he even takes no for an answer! Granted, he doesn’t generally clarify the exact nature of the bargain being struck – but there’s a lot hanging in the balance there. One girl for one hundred billion life forms, again and again, forever.
His choice certainly makes sense, at least from one perspective – the utilitarian viewpoint. That which aids society and promotes greater general happiness is Good. That which aids only the self or those close to you at the expense of greater happiness, is Evil. As overtly defined by Striker in Gargantia, Utilitarianism can also be referred to as the Greatest Happiness Principle – each individual member of a society should act in such a way as to promote the greatest total happiness of that society. And when adopted as a formal law, the utilitarian principle can certainly produce results!
Take the Galactic Alliance, for example. Although that society’s utilitarian contract is railed against as inhuman, its almost insect-like treatment of the human race as one single-minded colony results in great technological innovation and societal focus, creating a military strong enough to do battle with the equally single-minded Hideauze. Or consider the Sybil System of Psycho-Pass – though the show’s protagonists accept its preeminence only grudgingly, it is only because of their position on the fringe of that society’s effectiveness that it seems so prone to failure. In the normal case? People find jobs according to their ability within a society so devoid of violence and disorder that crime is considered almost a novelty. When all humanity is bent towards a single purpose, great things can be accomplished. A stable society is achieved, a monumental war is waged, the universe itself is maintained – all at the mere cost of a few lives per billion.
Well. Perhaps that’s not the only cost. Ledo might have thought differently, for example. Not at the beginning, when he worked as a perfect cog, counting the hours of service remaining to earn a freedom he couldn’t begin to value or even comprehend. But perhaps he might have found cause to complain when he first remembered the death of his brother – one of those small sacrifices necessary for the good of the colony, the remembrance of which was essentially conditioned out of him by a value system which only favors that which benefits the collective. Kyouko might also find cause to complain – again, perhaps not at the start, when her acceptance of the system as a given still acts as a defense mechanism against grief. But by the end, when acknowledgment of Sayaka as her emotional shadow leads her to sacrifice herself for just one other person? It seems unlikely that Kyouko would accept the utilitarian ideal. Ledo, at least, is eventually given the opportunity to choose. When his connection to his own emotions has been reawakened and a gateway back to the Alliance model is offered, he is given a chance none who exist within the utilitarian systems are offered: the chance to become a human being.
Because in Urobuchi’s worlds, it is not enough to eat and breathe and sleep. That might count as being alive, but it does not count as living. That which is most fundamentally human is that which separates us from animals, who act according to their programmed instincts – the ability to choose. This isn’t directly correlated with compassion – there are good people even within constricting systems. And choice is clearly not the same as virtue – the nihilists of Fate/Zero and sociopaths of Psycho-Pass live according to their own choices, and provide stark examples of the individual cruelty present even when systemic inhumanity is broken. They see the system of sacrifice for the greater good as meaningless, but can find no other meaning outside of self-worship. And they are not entirely wrong.
The heroes of Urobuchi’s worlds do not reject utilitarianism. They struggle against it, and seek a better way, but they are not blind to the bargain Kyubey has struck, or his reasons for doing so. Akane ultimately accepts the current existence of the Sybil System, though promising to seek a better way. Kiritsugu embodies the utilitarian ethos as he seeks peace, though he feels only a miracle could replace such a system. They do not blindly deny utilitarianism – in fact, they might even be considered paragons of it, the few citizens able to think in terms of the greater good at all times. Given an entire society of Akanes, utilitarianism possibly would be a tenable societal structure. It would not require conditioning or forced bargains – everyone would simply take the long view instinctively, and choice would be allowed because society could operate assuming everyone would make correct choices. This is the utilitarian ideal as formally envisioned – a society not of slaves, but of enlightened individuals, accomplishing great long-term goals of their own initiative. A society of Madokas, able to take the suffering of these systems upon themselves as a personal burden. But in Urobuchi’s view, that ideal is just a fantasy. Most humans cannot take the eternal long view – most humans think in terms of the people they love. Does this make them weak, or unworthy of saving?
No. If the system designed to raise up the cumulative mass of individuals assumes an incorrect view of humanity, then it is the system that is wrong, not human nature. And in spite of all his negativity and character-killing, there is nothing Urobuchi finds more powerful or inspiring than human nature. A character like Yayoi from Psycho-Pass doesn’t think in terms of the political consequences of her actions – she thinks in terms of being close to the woman she loves. When Kyubey attempts to explain his reasoning to Madoka, she can’t even comprehend his words – she simply repeats that his reasoning is ‘too terrible’ and blocks her mind, too empathetic to handle the scale of sacrifice he’s describing. When discussing the slow utilitarian path towards general happiness, John Stuart Mill stated that “though a long succession of generations will perish in the breach before the conquest is completed… every mind sufficiently intelligent and generous to bear a part… will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself.” Perhaps it was thoughts like these that left Kyubey so perplexed regarding Madoka’s reaction. And yet this weakness, this inability to reason in terms of the utilitarian ideal, is what ultimately makes her mighty.
Urobuchi’s utilitarian systems are designed to make the most of our weak, fragile individual nature. They succeed, more or less. But in doing so, they sacrifice that which makes us most powerful – our moments of greatest sacrifice, greatest triumph. Most human beings cannot sacrifice on the societal level – but given the chance, many of them would die happily for their closest friend. When we put our struggles in emotional, personal terms, we can rise above even a hopelessly powerful system, rise above and do incredible things. There may be no rational counter to the eternal question of the one versus the many, but human strength has never been fully rational – and in those irrational moments of desperate, hopeless sacrifice, we are most powerful, most full of grace. Rider charging towards a battle he knows he cannot win. Kyouko sacrificing herself to save a friend long past saving. Chamber destroying himself so that Ledo may live. These choices may not make sense according to any greater, widely applicable logic. But these characters do not make them because they’re stupid – they make them because they’re human, and as humans they must keep trying, keep fighting for a better way. When pressed to explain Kiritsugu’s inconceivable wish for peace, Irisviel does not frame it as naivety, optimism, or even compassion – she says “Kiritsugu has faith.”
Urobuchi’s stories do not void their meaning in the ending, or wave away the oppressive nature of reality. When the dust settles and the heroes are gone, the Sybil system still stands. Madoka can only replace her reality with a new world marginally less terrible. And Gargantia only thrives because the Hideauze are a distant specter. But Urobuchi does not concede to these systems – in spite of their necessity, he sides with Madoka, sides with Kiritsugu, sides with Akane. When it comes down to our individual, emotional potential, he has indomitable faith.
In 1984, Orwell described his society’s future as “a boot stamping on a human face, forever.” Urobuchi likely sees that same image, but in his view, there is something almost beautiful in that. It is not the boot trampling down that really matters – it is the human rising up, ever-struggling, defiant forever. Humanity’s irrational, emotional hope is its greatest strength, and no system of regulated virtue could ever shatter that. As Madoka says, “If anyone says there’s no reason to hope, I’ll tell them they’re wrong every single time.”
I didn’t want to clutter an explanation of Urobuchi’s philosophy with a direct point-by-point debate with utilitarianism, but I suppose I should clarify his argument to some extent. Mill himself does not claim all people should think in terms of the long view – in fact, he directly states that “it is a misapprehension of the utilitarian mode of thought, to conceive it as implying that people should fix their minds upon so wide a generality as the world, or society at large.” The utopia he describes is intended to come about as a long-term shift in human nature – a move towards adoption of the Greatest Happiness Principle as default morality. Urobuchi is not so optimistic about such a shift – his societies jump to that end stage while maintaining an “unenlightened” populace, forcing utilitarian morality not through selflessness, which requires an acknowledgment of individual desires and willing rejection of them, but instead through denial of self, which uses systemic control to remove the choice-centric human element, making the utilitarian “correct” choice the only choice. Urobuchi’s societies make an unquestionable god of the utilitarian principle, and in doing so they destroy any value that system could provide. But the alternative is irrelevant to his worlds, and I would guess contrary to his base idea of human nature – Mill speaks regularly of how “the deeply rooted conception which every individual even now has of himself as a social being, tends to make him feel it one of his natural wants that there should be harmony between his feelings and aims and those of his fellow creatures.” When Urobuchi creates a character who really does feel that inherent broad-hearted instinct towards societal harmony, they come across as almost inhumanly perfect – the Akanes and Madokas of his world. If the utilitarian principle ever can be successfully applied to humanity, it won’t be to the brand of humanity Urobuchi believes in. As far as Urobuchi is concerned, the final word on how utilitarianism could actually be applied comes from Mill’s application of the theory to the idea of justice: “all persons are deemed to have a right to equality of treatment, except when some recognized social expediency requires the reverse.” I’m fairly certain “preventing the slow entropy death of the universe” falls under the category of social expediency.