Tuesday, December 28, 2010

forcing morality

The holidays might have many associations for you, but one of my prime memories revolves around Star Wars. It seems like, come Christmastime, there's always at least one cable network airing at least one of the movies. Yes, they are not technically about Christmas, but, through sheer force of habit, they have become my holiday normative movie experience.

(This is actually a complete lie, because everyone knows the ultimate Christmas movie is still Die Hard...but that's another post.)

I love the original trilogy, but, as I get older and more egghead analytical/academic/nitpicky, I've started to more readily notice its foibles. I'm not talking about the little things, such as why every large structure has an endless pit build into it; seriously, Luke falls down one in Empire, and the emperor is thrown into one in Jedi; throw in the pit where Darth Maul dies in Phantom Menace, and you have a galactic architectural trend with which a Freudian would have a field day. These are puzzling, but they are far from the biggest thing going on.

And I'm not even talking about the lack of blood. Seriously, tons of people (and creatures) die in these flicks. Is there an ounce of blood? Of course not. But I can always explain this away using fanboy/geek logic...after all, light sabers must also cauterize wounds, right?

No, the biggest issue with the Star Wars films is the lack of a coherent moral system. Throw in the prequels, and this becomes much worse, because, as a whole, it becomes impossible to even attempt to divine an operational or consistent meta-ethical structure.

Let's consider the Jedi first. Ignore for a moment that, what was a religion in the original trilogy became some weird relationship with microscopic organisms...we'll come back to this. Are they good or evil?

They definitely posit a Manichean. existence by dividing up the force (or at least the way it's used by its very practitioners) into the light and the dark side. They seem to put themselves as guardians of the light/good. This would mean binary, right?

Well, it seems that way at first, but as they go on, the films introduce contradiction upon contradiction:

  • In A New Hope Obi-Wan Kenobi emplores Luke to "reach out with your feelings." Yet the difference between light and dark is confused here, because if you give into these feelings you've been reaching out with, you will be succumbing to the dark side...at least that's what Yoda warns Luke in Empire.
  • Admittedly, Yoda is talking specifically about anger, not all feelings...but by separating out anger from other emotions and making it a negative, this would seem to play back into the good/evil binary. So Star Wars as a whole buys into binary morality, right?
  • Not so fast. In Jedi when asked by Luke why he said papa Skywalker was dead (and not just wearing a kooky S&M costume), Kenobi tells Luke "any of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Does this mean that the Jedis embrace moral relativism? Unless I'm wrong, you really cannot have both points of view and absolutes on the same plane.
  • In the prequels, Kenobi says "only a Sith deals in absolutes"...and since the Siths are the opposite of the Jedis, does that mean that absolutism=Sith and relativism=Jedi?
  • Wait a minute...how can you define yourself as the opposite of another group AND as a relativist? Can one really be an agent of light over dark while still believing in moral relativism?
  • Consider the case of Qui-Gon from Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon was convinced that Anakin Skywalker would be a savior. Yet can you really have a savior if good and evil is, as Kenobi suggests, only a matter of perspective? Isn't salvation the move towards some kind of good? So Qui-Gon shows an operational absolutism.
  • Ignoring that he too is willing to lie to get his way, Qui-Gon dies convinced that Anakin will be a force of good. Is this why Qui-Gon is seemingly written out of Jedi history, for believing in an absolute that did not work out? When Kenobi sends Luke to Yoda in Empire, he calls the little green guy "the Jedi who trained me." Only problem with this is that Yoda did not train Kenobi...Qui-Gon did. Is Qui-Gon being written out of Jedi history for his false belief in a savior who would act as an agent of good? Or is Kenobi just a pathological liar?
  • Back to the Sith for a moment. If only Siths believe in absolutes, how do we reconcile this with the explicit statements of Chancellor Palpatine, who is (spoiler alert) the hidden Sith lord? When, in Revenge of the Sith, he is asked (by a conflicted Anakin) about good versus evil, he says "good is a point of view." Well, if good is only a point of view, that doesn't sound all that absolute. Moreover, Palpatine seems more interested in using all emotions...which again sounds more relative.
  • But if you flash forward in the trilogy, when C3-P0 is trying to explain to the Ewoks why they should fight the empire (this, incidentally, might've only been in the novelization...haven't gotten to Jedi yet this year), he talks about them in terms of good versus evil. To be sure, the whole Ewok versus Storm Trooper battle seems steeped in binary oppositions. Or is C3-P0 just wrapped up in the same pathological lying of Kenobi?

So where do the Star Wars movies lie in terms of Meta-Ethics? Frankly, it's all over the map. The prequels do confuse matters more, but even if we shove them into the Great Pit of Tarkoon where they belong, the original series still has some explaining to do.

I did read somewhere that George Lucas didn't like Empire all that much because it trafficked in moral relativism, which made it a dark film...and, one presumes, this darkness made it less merchandise-friendly. This is a shame, because it is that very lack of absolutism that makes Empire my favorite of the whole series.

Admittedly, though, that relativism might not be the best fit for Christmas, but I am willing to deal with it.

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