Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Star Wars, morality, and metaphysics

Recently I finished playing through a game called "Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic." In the game, there are lots and lots of discussions about the dark and light sides of the force, and the varying perceptions of each of these. Today, I was so hopped up on caffeine that I decided to write down some thoughts in a forum about Star Wars, morality, and metaphysics. This is the result, plus a response I got from another reader...


I've never been more impressed by a piece of pop-culture's grasp of the issues at stake on ethics. Granted, virtually nobody in the Star Wars universe is a relativist, so controversies surrounding moral relativism don't come up. But what does come up is the whole dispute between Nietzschean nihilism and Christianity.

Elements of Nietzschean thought in the Sith: the will to power; the eternal recurrence of the same; master morality vs. slave morality (i.e., the artificiality of morality); and the abolition of transcendent truth as a value.

Elements of Christian thought in the Jedi: service to the transcendent; the coincidence of morality and true (rather than superficial) freedom; the primacy of reason over the passions,* sanctity of life, equal importance of means and ends in moral evaluations.

* Jolee Bindo corrects the Jedi disapproval "love" as a passion and distinguishes between saving love and corrupting desire--something that has always bothered me about the Jedi ever since Episode II came out.

Now, it seems evident to me that the game-story, even though it lets *you* be Dark Side, is itself not very friendly to "Dark morality." It's Dark defenders lack conviction and sophistication in their arguments, until they are left only with squawking about "Jedi propeganda." Putting thoughtless dismissal into the mouths of the dark sympathizers makes them seem less intelligent than the Jedi. Now granted, for obvious reasons my own sympathies are going to be with "Jedi morality;" but even so, I feel like it's cheating when a story gives the sympathetic portrayal to one side even when they don't necessarily have the slam-bang arguments.

After all, in the Star Wars universe, where the Force can be used equally well by the evil as well as the good, what evidence is there that the Force even has a will or purpose, as the Jedi believe? If there is nothing "higher" than the Force to give it the "purpose" the Jedi are looking for, they don't seem to have a clear reason to serve the Force rather than be served by it. It makes a big difference whether we conceive of the Force as divine or as mere energy. The Sith's best argument is that nature would seem to legitimize their stance. Nature has more "moral content" than the Force, since the patterns of nature are given before anyone imposes their will on it via technology; on the contrary, the Force is subject to individual wills in a way that nature is not. Therefore, if nature is our guide, selfishness and exploitation seem to be the rule.

Of course, there is a hypocrisy in this argument; nobody in this universe alienates themselves from nature more than do the Sith. Nature is a complex reality; the Sith (and by extension, Nietzsche) have merely isolated one element--exploitation--and made it the determining root of their ideal. This causes an alienation from nature, as it does from the Force, because both of these (as well as other human beings) are viewed as mere fodder for exploitation.

And there we have the fundamental Jedi argument. If the Sith are reducing nature to technology and the Force to the will, the Jedi see that nature has an autonomous worth before it is strip-mined into blasters and starships; so also the Force has a complex life of its own before it manifests itself in "mind tricks" and lightning and such. Exploitation is a part of nature, but only a small part; it depends on there being first something to exploit. Nature is not only predatory; it is also (and primarily), alive. So we can argue by analogy that the Force is the same way.

This does not get past the fact that the Force may not actually have any kind of transcendent purpose or will or personality; but the Jedi never claim as much. They only claim that following the "light" leads to "life"--and as we see from the canon movies, the eternal life of the Jedi is a kind of a final harmony with the deepest root of being, yet without destroying the individuality of the deceased. But anyway, there is something Nietzschean about the Jedi in that their ultimate "salvation" hopes are basically selfish--rooted in a desire for eternal life without, necessarily, communion with a personal Other with whom they can share it.

The key empirical ingredient to the Jedi argument is that the harmony with the Force is something which is experienced, in nebulous fashion, before death. Following the way of the light is expansive and freeing in an *interior* sense; following the dark is expansive only in a "conquering" sense, but the conquerers' inner lives are prisons and dungeons, and their thoughts mad and circular (even if clever and treacherous).

Reply from "DustyPhantom"

i've studied nothing in the line of philosophy or nietzchean nihilism, but after reading your posts i can extrapolate, and i see the connection of force to the premise of each religion. a more obviously transparent similarity between the light side and christianity (which you may not have mentioned sheerly because of it's blatancy) is the existence of a saviour that has been prophesied, which only appears in the movies, in the form of skywalker (take that to mean luke as the real saviour or annikan as the fatherless child fated to shift the balance).

the points brought up about the game, such as the shallowness of the darksided arguements , were a point of relativity. The darkside philosophy is, as you said, one of exploitation, but the sith that only chant of "jedi propaganda" were the weak ones, at least as far as my memory of the game goes, though as dark revan the dialougue selections are admittedly shallow, in the second game when guided by kreia, your decisions are given a logic as opposed to pointless slaughter and hatred. on the first planet (memory a bit short, can't remember name) the killing of a receptionist in the corporate headquarters is scorned by kreia, and the more you try to follow her way of thinking, the more you see a deeper meaning to the exploitation, greed, and deception of the true sith. not that there is something morally sound behind it, but that killing an innocent out of boredom is perverse, while killing an innocent and taking their belongings because you need or desire them, and that person is too weak to hold on to them, is a solid practice. the darkside wanderer has the choice to be superficially sith, and kill anything and everything that gets in his way without the ability to defend itself properly(reminiscent of the social darwinist movement), or be a true sith, only killing when something can be gained from it, and not needlessly extending aggression.

hope i've brought up a few points you hadn't thought of, i know i only concentrated on one issue, perhaps with more time i'll tackle some of the others.

My reply

Indeed, it's true that the Sith ideal is governed by an interior logic. When Darth Bandon asks you whether victory is desired at any cost, the correct answer is, rather surprisingly, "no." In fact, the game demonstrates two general ways to be a "false" or "superficial" Sith: (1) animal irrationality, or (2) slavish obedience to the Sith code. The first is exemplified by Juhani's little jaunt to the Dark Side, when she retreated to a hideout and attacked anything that moved. The second is exemplified by Bastila in her rote recitation of tired Sith arguments and lack of real conviction.

My favorite Sith in the game is Darth Bandon; he has that whole "honorable villain" thing going on that Malak does not. He admits that the Jedi "act with skill" which shows a bit more sophistication in his thinking. Though believing and teaching that Sith strength comes through exploitation, he demonstrates none of the snivelling power-lust of his subordinates (and one might argue, of his superior, Malak). The most dangerous Sith would be one who appropriated the Jedi virtues of calm and rationality and turned them toward their nefarious ends. As C.S. Lewis wrote in "The Great Divorce," the higher the virtue, the more deadly it becomes when corrupted (his example: sexual addiction is merely a low-grade vice; but motherly love corrupted into controlling codependency can destroy souls much more efficiently).

Re: savior stuff. You're right; I deliberately avoid looking for "Christ figures" in pop culture because I find them cliche; and most of them that *do* occur are more often misleading than otherwise. For example, I could say that Bastila is the real "Christ figure" in the game because the Bible says that "For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin," (2 Cor 5:21). But when Bastila reconverts to the Light (in the good ending), she fails to bring other Dark Jedi with her, which is what a real "Christ figure" would do.

But anyway, back to the topic of Sith rationality, while it is true that there are "true Sith" and "superficial Sith," nevertheless the Jedi critique of the Sith exploitation still holds. The Sith were never accused of being simply irrational. Rather one might say that they are, sort of, "narrow minded," because all existence for them is filtered through the narrow purpose of self-magnification. They are blind to any existence the Force might have beyond it's usefulness as a tool; and naturally speaking, they exclude from their environs all non-technologized remnants of nature. Seriously, did you ever see a potted plant growing in an Empirial Star Destroyer? So it might be truer to say that the Sith are alienated from the Force in the same way they are alienated from nature.

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