Even a Purely Moral Act (This Just Can’t Be Right)

I’m running a Kickstarter campaign to fund My Little Po-Mo volume 2 here!

And as long as you have your wallets out, two more worthy causes to which you can give: You can help Viga pay for art school (and earn some custom art in the process), or you can help the family of Michael Morones, the bullied Brony boy who attempted suicide.

Dammit, Jim, I’m a magical girl, not a miracle worker!
And now the image of Puella Magi Bones Medica is in
your brain and can never be unseen. You’re welcome.

One of my professors in college once gave an odd bit of advice: If you ever have to write on a work, and you’re stuck for a topic, look for the exact midpoint, and right about whatever you find there. I am not remotely stuck on topics for Madoka, but seeing as the end of this episode is the midpoint of the series, it seems as good a time as any to discuss Madoka and consent issues.

The final scene of this episode has the characters recoiling in horror at the latest revelation from Kyubey: that the bodies of magical girls are not alive, but rather simply shells, which can be repaired so long as the Soul Gem is intact. Only by harming that gem can the magical girl herself be harmed–but by separating the gem from Sayaka’s body, Madoka has effectively caused Sayaka’s (temporary, thanks to Homura’s quick intervention) death.

There is a case to be made (not a very good case, but a case nonetheless) that the girls are getting worked up over nothing. Frankly, what Kyubey describes seems like a pretty sweet deal: the physical experience of the body is close enough to being alive that most magical girls never even notice the change, but it is perfectly healthy, more durable, and able to heal from anything? Plus, given the evidence from Kyoko, it seems likely that it can eat junk food forever with no consequences? I’d take that deal in a heartbeat.

Indeed, the Soul Gems seem fairly clearly to be a reference to the Russian folkloric character Koshchyei Byessmyertnuy (Koschei the Deathless in English), who hid his soul in his finger, which he then severed and hid inside an egg inside a duck inside a hare inside an iron chest, which he buried underneath a green oak on a distant island. Koschei is a villainous figure who menaces young women, and only if the hero can find the egg can Koschei be harmed. The advantages to Koschei of doing this are quite clear.

But there is an important difference between Koschei and Sayaka here, which is that of affirmative, informed consent. Koschei, the legends imply, knows what he is doing and chooses to do it. Sayaka had no idea that her life was in her Soul Gem, that her body had been transformed against her will. In a later episode she will note that she does not believe her new body is capable of bearing children, which she perhaps wanted to do someday. Regardless, the horror expressed by Sayaka, Kyoko, and Madoka in this episode makes it clear that all three recognize this as a supreme violation.

Kyubey’s defense is that he doesn’t understand why humans care so much about where their souls are located. This is irrelevant nonsense; it doesn’t matter why they care when he clearly knows that they do care. Kyubey is deliberately concealing relevant information when he makes these pacts, and then blaming the victim when they reject him. In essence, he is justifying his actions by saying “Sayaka never said no.”

“No means no” is often tossed around as a slogan in campaigns for women’s rights, especially where issues of consent and bodily autonomy are concerned. However, while certainly better than failing to acknowledge that no means no, this is an incomplete standard, as Kyubey demonstrates. More important than “no means no” is “yes means yes,” which is what is meant by a standard of affirmative consent. An absence of objection is insufficient, because that could mean that the person was unable to object, just as Sayaka was unable to object to aspects of the deal she didn’t even know about.

This question of respecting the choices and autonomy of others interacts interestingly with another scene in this episode, when Madoka talks to her mother (in the vaguest possible terms, of course) about Sayaka’s situation. Two things are important here, the first of which is Junko noting that doing the right thing does not always lead to happiness or good outcomes. The significance there is that it is an outright rejection of consequentialism as an ethical position, which in general matches the stance taken by the show (hence the consistent depiction of Kyubey as a strong consequentialist).

The significance of rejecting consequentialism explicitly in the scene with Junko is that the ending scene on the bridge implicitly rejects it as well. Kyubey’s position is a consequentialist one: the soul extraction is beneficial for the magical girls, since it enables them to fight witches and survive, but learning about it tends to make them unhappy, so the best thing to do is to extract the soul and not tell them about it. The music and the framing of the scene (particularly the way Kyubey is shot to be literally overshadowing the girls, despite his small stature) make it quite clear that the show is rejecting Kyubey’s construction and empathizing with the girls’ horror, which is to say rejecting the consequentialist perspective.

The second significant element of the conversation is the description of Sayaka as someone doing the right thing and making things worse as a consequence, because that description is hardly unique to Sayaka. It equally well applies to Homura, whose repeated attempts to save Madoka keep making her suffer more and become a more powerful witch in each successive timeline. Junko’s advice to Madoka to make a mistake on her friend’s behalf thus not only applies to throwing Sayaka’s Soul Gem off the bridge; it is equally a description of her choice to become a magical girl (the very thing Homura has been trying to prevent) in the final episode. That this dual meaning is no accident seems clear given the musical choices; the theme which accompanies Junko’s advice in this episode also plays in the final episode, starting from when Madoka says to Mami that she will always reject anyone telling her not to hope, and continuing through her transformation into a magical girl and apparition to all the other magical girls.

Further, this idea of saving someone by making a mistake for them is reiterated in Rebellion, where both Madoka and Homura take seemingly very ill-advised actions on each others’ behalf–but more on that when we get there.

14 thoughts on “Even a Purely Moral Act (This Just Can’t Be Right)

  1. If I may ask something: Aren't there cases where affirmative, informed consent is impossible? For example, Mami was about to die when Kyubey offered his contract. I would argue she was in no condition to give informed consent, and yet the show suggests that Kyubey's contract was the only thing that could save her life. If the only way to save someone's life is to rip their soul out of their body, and you have no time to explain that to the other person, isn't the other person's right to live more important than their right to consent? Is life less important than self-agency?

    I'm not exactly justifying Kyubey's actions, of course. He does save Mami's life, but he still doesn't tell her what he did to her. On the other hand, we do get to see what happens when Mami learns the truth…

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  2. I made the connection between Junko's advice and Homura's actions in Rebellion but I'd never thought about them in relation to Madoka's wish. Both of them rejected the wishes of the other in order to do what they thought was right. All the dualism between them is so cool.

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  3. if I may ask, why do you say the theme when clementia and sagitta are different? they are quite similar songs? is that it? but theyre not the same exact song in either scene.

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  4. Yes, there are cases where affirmed, informed consent is impossible, mostly to do with someone being both in immediate danger and unable to communicate with potential rescuers. However, you are unlikely to encounter such a scenario unless you are a professional rescuer (doctor, firefighter, paramedic, etc.), all of whom are trained in navigating the ethical complexities of such situations, so for most people, most of the time, it's still a good standard.

    And if we're going to reject an ethical principle because there are cases where it doesn't work, well, we may as well just reject all ethical principles now and save the effort. (I do not actually recommend this.)

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  5. Maes sense, thanks for the reply! (I'm probably going to bring something like this up again when we get to Rebellion).

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  6. What do you think about situations where someone is choosing to act in a self-destructive way? (E.g., staying in an abusive relationship, cutting, addiction, etc.) Sometimes the person is clearly being coerced, but that's not always the case. Sometimes people make terrible choices of their own volition.

    When (if ever) is one permitted to overrule their choices for (what one sees as) their own good? Must one wait until they are actually in immanent mortal peril?

    On a lighter note, I'm really enjoying The Very Soil. Thanks for all the work you put into these.

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  7. This is going to sound like a copout, but unfortunately it's what I think is true: It depends massively on who you're talking about, what your relationship with them is, how much harm they're actually doing… there simply isn't a rule that is both broad and concise for these scenarios, this is a tricky area.

    My view on morality in general is that there are a few simple rules which work most of the time, but then the times when they don't work are incredibly complicated and difficult. If you've ever seen a graphical representation of Newton's Method, it's kind of like that.

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  8. Kyubey's position is a consequentialist one: the soul extraction is beneficial for the magical girls, since it enables them to fight witches and survive, but learning about it tends to make them unhappy, so the best thing to do is to extract the soul and not tell them about it. The music and the framing of the scene (particularly the way Kyubey is shot to be literally overshadowing the girls, despite his small stature) make it quite clear that the show is rejecting Kyubey's construction and empathizing with the girls' horror, which is to say rejecting the consequentialist perspective.

    This, unfortunately, highlights the major problem with the show's critique of consequentialism: Kyubey's methodology sucks, even from a Utilitarian view.

    In a world as messed-up and pathological as this one, Kyubey wouldn't have any trouble finding girls who would freely consent to that whole mess even knowing what it entailed. Heck, since the Incubators feed off emotional energy, that would seem to be a far more lucrative means of acquiring it.

    The only drawback is a non-diegetic one, namely that it doesn't make for quite as biting a satire of the magical-girl genre.

    But it would have story potential on its own, especially for a writer of Gen Urobochi's, er, interests. Hmm, there's fanfic material here somewhere…

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  9. Eh, giving Kyubey the benefit of the doubt (a dubious proposition in any circumstance) then his methods make sense. He says the biggest source of emotional energy is the moment when a magical girl falls into despair and becomes a witch; how many volunteers do you think he'd get for that job? And oblivious girls are even better candidates anyway, since they're more likely to make choices they'll regret later. Remember, Kyubey's “utilitarianism” is the sort that lets him say the annihilation of all life on Earth isn't his problem, so benefitting the girls he contracts with doesn't count for much in his calculus.

    Speaking of which, I do think Kyubey is better seen as a critique not of abstract utilitarianism but more an illustration of Hannah Arendt's “banality of evil.” It's not clear whether Kyubey personally cares about anything beyond meeting his quota in the manner least burdensome to himself. Under that interpretation, his callousness isn't principled, it's just lazy, and his attempts to rationalize it can be just as thoughtless.

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  10. He says the biggest source of emotional energy is the moment when a magical girl falls into despair and becomes a witch; how many volunteers do you think he'd get for that job?

    Well, during episode 10, when Homura and Madoka are both about to transform, Homura suggests, “How about the two of us become monsters and rip this awful world to dust?” At which point I was kind of sympathizing (not agreeing, but sympathizing) with her viewpoint on that matter, and it certainly didn't seem out of character for Homura at that point.

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  11. That happened well after Homura contracted. I think most people do not want to turn into monsters and destroy the world, even if they get a free wish out of it.

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  12. The bigger issue is that the hope –> despair change is what actually releases the energy, kind of like an exothermic reaction. Someone who is already in a state of despair wouldn't be able to produce much hope in the first place, so they are not a lucrative target for Kyubey.

    I suppose one could imagine a girl who is so evil that becoming a (relatively) mindless engine of death & destruction would be a hopeful thought for her… but it's not clear how that would work in the system. “Hope” in PMMM seems to be a rather narrower concept then how we generally use it.

    In any case, we only know what Incubator operations in the general vicinity of Mitakihara are like. Incubators in, e.g., a war-torn third world country might operate quite differently.

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