Examining the fictional morality of “Star Wars.”

I have to admit that I really didn’t care much for the Star Wars prequels and I thought it was because of idiotic plot devices such as the “midichlorians” and JarJar Binks, but perhaps the reason I didn’t like them was more involved than that. Perhaps I didn’t like them because the morality they present just plain old sucks. And not just in the prequels, but in the original movies as well.

I came to realize this after reading Fictional Morality: Star Wars over at Action Skeptics which turns a critical eye on the “Jedi Code” and explains why it’s one of the worst moral systems ever imagined:

Even bigger problems arise when we look at the Star Wars universe as context. The biggest implication of this part of the Jedi Code is that Jedi are urged to be completely emotionless. On one hand, this allows them (potentially) to deliver impartial judgements. On the other, it denies them things that might well make them better people, put them more “at peace,” so to speak. Anakin Skywalker could have had a perfectly fine marriage were it not for this code. Instead, he hid his marriage and was wracked with (poorly acted) anxiety over his breach of the code. Were this tenet absent, he would have had emotion and peace. Instead he had emotion and emotional turmoil because he was breaking Jedi dogma.

This tenet is also inherently cruel given the structure of Jedi training. The Padawan learner inevitably builds a strong emotional bond with his teacher, all the while being told that such emotion is immoral and wrong. We have problems from the outset. It is almost reminiscent of the oft-told story about various militaries through time: the troops are each given a puppy and told to love it and take care of it, then once they have bonded with it are instructed to kill their puppies. The Padawans are thrown into a situation where emotion is inevitable but are led to believe that such emotion is wrong and should be eliminated.

I hadn’t really sat down to think about it, but seeing it spelled out by Akusai in this essay really brings home one what is arguably the most irritating thing about the whole Star Wars universe. Namely that its system of morality sucks and results in some pretty piss-poor storytelling as a result. In the original trilogy the Jedi mythology was kept murky enough that you could overlook it, but we become much more familiar with the Jedi in the prequels and it’s then that the problems with the morality become more pronounced. Why it never occurred to me prior to reading Akusai’s excellent essay about it is puzzling. It’s a good read and you should check out the full essay. Next up is the morality of Dungeons and Dragons and I can’t wait.

22 thoughts on “Examining the fictional morality of “Star Wars.”

  1. What drove me nuts was that Amidala was a whore.

    Think about it.

    She was living with Anikin.  When they wanted to find Anikin they all went to her.

    And yet no one knew who the father was.

  2. On the topic of morality…

    What does everyone think about Congressman Pete “I’m a lying sack of shit” Hoekstra saying that Sen. Craig should resign?

  3. What does everyone think about Congressman Pete “I’m a lying sack of shit” Hoekstra saying that Sen. Craig should resign?

    I think it’s rather off topic?

  4. Jedi are urged to be completely emotionless. On one hand, this allows them (potentially) to deliver impartial judgements. On the other, it denies them things that might well make them better people, put them more “at peace,” so to speak

    I disagree with the last bit, not having emotions can make you more at peace, because what you don’t care about can’t affect you, so it doesn’t trouble you so much to see injustice, which lets you rest – If you felt an emotional respose towards injustice, then you wouldn’t be at peace, you’d be thinking about the event

    If you break someone psychologically you can mould them more easily, this is what most militarys generally do. The puppy thing was to break the emotional side, so they keep their cool, it would work for some at least.

    Michelle: What drove me nuts was that Amidala was a whore.

    Is that a bad thing? Whores bring joy to people, like pornstars they make people happy. In pacifying men they might even decrease rape rate, and more pro-active women increase men’s confidence in their ability to pull. If they’re not hurting anyone there’s nothing but positives as far as I can see.

  5. the originals were just Lucas remaking a fairy tale- he said that’s what he was trying to do.  What I want to know is why was the empire ‘evil’. There didn’t seem to be to a whole lot of oppresion going on. 

    The worst thing they did was blow up a planet, but that was because they thought it was the enemy’s main base. 

    It’s not like they purposefully bombed a civilian restaurent you thought might possible have the enemy leader in- you’d have to be in the bottom 15% of your class to, and frankly who is going to elect a president who boasts on his website of being in the top 86% of his class?

  6. Thanks for the kind words and link love, Les. I honestly wasn’t sure how well that article would go over. A friend and I have been breaking down Star Wars morality for a while, and I was hoping I could organize our thoughts on the matter coherently.

    DnD morality should be easier and even more absurd. Well, maybe.

  7. so it doesn’t trouble you so much to see injustice, which lets you rest – If you felt an emotional respose towards injustice, then you wouldn’t be at peace, you’d be thinking about the event

    I think that’s what we might call apathy with a lack of conscience…more commonly referred to as a psychopath.

  8. That’s where I was going with it, really. It all depends on how you define “peace.” If you define emotional peace as “completely lacking any emotion or drive to care about anything,” then yes, you’re peaceful as a Jedi. However, I don’t think that’s how most people define it. It’s certainly not how I define it.

    I would be plenty at peace while fighting injustice (lightsaber in hand, of course) by responding to that emotional call. Likewise, I’m at peace in love, and (call me sadistic) I’m at peace when awful people whom I hate get their just desserts.

  9. tafka: more commonly referred to as a psychopath.

    True… And and being psychopathic isn’t bad in itself, that said i’d like them to at least know what effect they’re having on others, so perhaps it’s better to become a psychopath than to start off as one, to get some emotional feedback on your actions until you are ready

    Akusai: I would be plenty at peace while fighting injustice (lightsaber in hand, of course) by responding to that emotional call

    Interestingly for me it’s the emotional call that can be disturbing in itself because it’s mental activity that detracts from mental rest, certainly you can feel good about responding, but on the condition that you feel bad if you don’t. That puts conditions on your feelings of peace, that you’d have to actually do something to maintain it, making it difficult to remain shut-down.

    For the same reasons I dislike having to work to survive, there are physical conditions on me to feel pain if I don’t eat, which would stir mental activity if not satisfied that I am not yet able to ignore, and the action of work to satisfy hunger requires activity in itself, so essentially I’m forced to take what route I percieve to be easiest when doing nothing is not a sustainable option

  10. I think the major disconnect here is you’re defining “peace” as “inactivity.” I don’t think that “peace” can be defined as such. Inactivity may be in itself peaceful (for some people), but the two words aren’t synonyms.

  11. Ya know Bahamat, I often think you’re out in left field with some of the ideas you express and then you say things like:

    True… And and being psychopathic isn’t bad in itself, that said i’d like them to at least know what effect they’re having on others, so perhaps it’s better to become a psychopath than to start off as one, to get some emotional feedback on your actions until you are ready

    And I realize you’re not even in the same ballpark.

    Being a psychopath is, indeed, bad in itself. Even if you never harm another person it still would negatively affect your life and the life of those around you. That’s bad. I cannot begin to imagine a situation where being a psychopath would be a “good” thing.

  12. I’ve had similar thoughts for a long while and my wife and I have even taken it further:

    Anakin was supposed to be the Chosen One. But think about it—he DID fulfill his destiny. The Jedi had reigned for thousands of years (not all unopposed), and the Sith barely had a hold on power. So the Force created Anakin to bring the Dark Side to the front for a bit.

    Now a generation in power isn’t that long in the scheme of things, but if you’re talking restoring balance to the Force, then it needed to be tilted to the Dark Side.

    Funny how that’s glossed over and ignored. The Republic was stagnating under the Jedi.

  13. Funny how that’s glossed over and ignored. The Republic was stagnating under the Jedi.

    So very true.

    An intersting read, though it is always interesting to disect fairy tails.

    Next up is the morality of Dungeons and Dragons and I can’t wait.

    Now, *that* will be intersting since I have many years invested in in the game and the Morality that the game sets forth with alignments has always bothered me.

  14. Akusai: Inactivity may be in itself peaceful (for some people), but the two words aren’t synonyms

    Maybe but in order for me to diferentiate, I need to know what the difference is, I have not felt another form of peace for myself, though I realize it’s incredibly difficult to describe any feeling

    Les: And I realize you’re not even in the same ballpark

    I’m sorta in my own, which takes the form of what I consider most valid at the time. I have no allegience to any category, but sometimes my conclusions have similarities because of perspective

    I cannot begin to imagine a situation where being a psychopath would be a “good” thing.

    Sometimes people need to be crushed/broken in order to change mindstate. Though the change is painful, they will tend to find something that makes them generally more immune to the problems of the world, so they could handle the same situations next time round. Long term, this is better for the person because they don’t lose the immunities they gain, and so suffering can be wished upon someone in kindness if it is thought that that person would benefit. Remove what keeps someone sane and you’ll force them down another route, because the mind always strives for some minimum level of sanity, even if that involves illusions. At SEB we attempt to dispell illusions, which could in theory break someone if it was what they relied upon.

    However people with quarms are usually unable to bring themselves to provide the conditions necessary, so it’s either done by people who don’t know what they’re doing (their useful role), or done by psychopaths who know what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve. Unfortunately the psychopaths that end up in jail tend to strive for personal gain, but it’s not necessary that they do, particularly if they havn’t always been psychopathic.

    Psychopaths would be tougher people, less hindered by negative emotion, and so more able to do Jedi-like things or generally get through life and do things others wouldn’t

    Les: Even if you never harm another person it still would negatively affect your life and the life of those around you. That’s bad.

    Not necessarily, it’s merely a lack of emotion, not a desire to hurt, and as a lack of emotion psychopaths shouldn’d ever be in hate or rage, which might pacify their actions, certainly they might be easier to get along with if they don’t hate.

    If there is no emotion involved, psycopthic killing can only really be for personal gain because emotion is the only thing that makes people care about others. A lot of killers are psychopaths but not necessarily all psychopaths are killers, it would be unfair to treat an innocent one harshly merely for being what they are, they can’t help it, maybe they were even born like it, that’s my arguement against general prejudice, and I feel it applies to the psychological as well as the physical for the same reasons.

    But as I said before, it would help if psychopaths have at least some bearing on how they’re affecting others, making those who became psychopaths more aware than those who always were. While someone doesn’t see what they did or why they should change, you’ll struggle to convince them, perhaps hence reoffending after jail – seeing the effects of themselves also makes the offender blame themselves rather than the authorities who just seem like nasty people who ‘punish me for no reason I can see, restrict my freedom and get in my way’

    I’ll just finish saying it’s a spectrum state, everyone is partly psychopathic (the point when they don’t care) just as everybody is partly autistic, it just applies to greatly varying extents which are not always visible

  15. Fear not about what I say, if information is true then it can only point towards reality (being part of it), part of the jigsaw.

    Plus, what could I do to you over the internet?
    If it helps, my aim here is to show that even groups commonly feared have useful sides, or that you can potentially benefit from your encounter from them, and also not to assume that psychology ensures certain action (makes it more statistically likely, sure, but it depends on the person).

    I have only ever aimed to help people, there is no benefit for me in anything else. I do so in hope it prevents problems in the future for myself by working it’s way back and spreading like a virus (as mindstates and ideas naturally desire do), and speeds things up

  16. Man, I usually own up to my geekdom, but I’m still a little embarassed to be posting this. Nonetheless…isn’t the inherently problematic nature of the Jedi code kind of the whole point of the the movies, at least the prequel trilogy? Without giving Lucas too much credit for his skills as a story teller, I thought that the whole point of the prequel trilogy was that the Jedi order had become stagnant, and its philosophy was inherently flawed. If the Jedi had been able to understand the importance of emotional attachments, especially that between Anakin and his mother, the Empire would never have come into existence in the first place. I never got the impression from the movies that we were meant to view the emotion-denying Jedi worldview as correct. Take the whole issue of “midichlorians”. They seem like a jarring and unnecessary addition to our knowledge of the Jedi- but perhaps that was the point? Perhaps the reason they are never mentioned in 4-6 is because things like midichlorian counts were symbolic of the old, outmoded Jedi way of thinking?

    My take on this might be influenced by my passing knowledge of the canonical books detailing the events post-episode 6, in which Luke reforms the Jedi order. The new Jedi order allows knights to get married and form emotional attachments, and aims to circumvent the pull of the dark side by skirting dark side emotions and channeling them to good purposes. My understanding of the “bring order to the force” prophecy is that, pre-Darth Vader, the force was strictly separated into two distince sides, light and dark, and that this was ultimately untenable. It is only through Vader’s actions that a balance between light and dark, as seen in the philosophy of the new Jedi order, that balance could ultimately be achieved.

  17. Perhaps the reason they are never mentioned in 4-6 is because things like midichlorian counts were symbolic of the old, outmoded Jedi way of thinking?

    Or possibly, and I realise I am going out on a limb here, Lucas never needed to explain Jedis- they were just cool blokes with great toys.

  18. I’ve noticed a lot of films generally have a powerful antagonist who’s obviously ‘evil’ and needs to be defeated, but I wonder why so many would serve the antagonist with such drive if it was so obvious that it was for a bad cause.

    I find it more interesting in films+games where it’s difficult to tell whether the antagonist really is bad (ie venat of FFXII), or where they misguidedly believe they are doing good (ie seymour of FFX)

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