Good, evil and moral relativism in Star Wars
I’ve certainly established myself as a defender of the Star Wars prequels, and by extension a defender of George Lucas. I keep on defending those films for their artistic merits – even if a majority of fans disagrees with me. However, over the past two and half years, a lot has changed in my outlook on life and this has affected the way I look at Star Wars and in particular my favourite film in the series, Revenge of the Sith. There are some things that trouble me.
Really, the problem I encountered all comes down to this line:
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
This line is said by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin after the latter has fallen to the Dark Side and taken on the name of Darth Vader.
It was a sudden, unpleasant shock to me when I realised that the movie I had so passionately defended for the past eleven years actually seemed to espouse a philosophy I cordially and utterly despise: moral relativism, which I hold responsible for a lot of the mess the world is in today.
Relativism and absolutism
Of course it’s hardly even necessary to point out what is wrong with this line. Its fallacy is self-evident: to say that only the bad guys deal in absolutes is itself a form of “dealing in absolutes”. To condemn moral absolutism is itself absolute. And yet, it sounds good and wholesome, doesn’t it? It sounds open-minded, tolerant, nuanced and critical. It sounds that way, but it isn’t any of those things. The idea that moral absolutism is bad comes from a misinterpretation of what moral absolutism means. Very often, we think it means judging people as either wholly good or wholly evil, but that is a huge mistake. In fact, moral absolutism is not really about judging at all. It is about submitting one’s self to something greater. It is the acceptance of an unchangeable moral law. The moral absolutist holds the imperatives of this law in higher regard even than desirable consequences. Moral absolutism implies principles of justice and mercy that apply to everyone, everywhere. It recognises vices such as greed and pride and honours virtues such as compassion and self-sacrifice. It frames morality not just in terms of consequences in the outer world, but also in terms of what certain behaviours and attitudes entail for the moral agent. As such, it calls murder evil because it violates a person’s right to live and because murder stains the soul of the murderer. It calls forgiveness good because it grants a new chance to the forgiven and because forgiveness cleans the soul of the forgiver.
Moral relativism on the other hand, makes everything murky. Under moral absolutism, murder is always wrong because it is murder. Under moral relativism, it can be okay, depending on your point of view. Moral relativists generally believe that people are allowed to craft their own morality and that different rules apply to different people. Moral relativism can very, very easily be used to move the goal posts and change the nature of good and evil according to the agent’s wishes. It is a philosophy that was favoured by people like Benito Mussolini, chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin.
Unfortunately, moral relativism is also very popular among nice, well-meaning people of today who sincerely intend to be decent folk. This is simply because popular culture has embraced this philosophy for its perceived (but false) promises of neutrality and open-mindedness. In practice, it’s actually impossible to be truly morally relativistic. The same person who will say that it is okay for them to commit act X because they have their own private moral outlook, will depend on an absolute moral code to denounce the actions of another person.
Anakin is not Jesus
Going back to Star Wars, let’s look at the placement of that troublesome line in the dialogue. Obi-Wan responds to Anakin, who says: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”. This is the “absolute” that Obi-Wan refuses to accept. Others than I have pointed out that Anakin’s words echo the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30. Of course, we have to take into account that Anakin is nothing like Jesus (despite Anakin’s virgin birth). Christians believe Jesus is God, and God is the source of the very moral code I was defending here. Therefore, Jesus has every right to say these things. In Star Wars, there is no Jesus speaking. It’s Anakin who is speaking. And he is a very flawed human being who is making himself the moral centre of the universe, which is precisely what moral relativism does. With that in mind, Obi-Wan is absolutely right to denounce Anakin’s words.
The problem that I had with the line is the way Obi-Wan refutes Anakin. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes” implies that anyone who compels a choice for or against themselves is a Sith, the Star Wars equivalent of a devil. I don’t think that’s true. Plenty of good people have spoken this way, leaving no room for middle ground. It goes for a lot of issues in real life. Let’s take a very simple one: if you’re not against terrorism, then what are you? I know there are people who have a self-styled attitude of “understanding where terrorism comes from”, but does that mean they are not against it? Sometimes, there simply is no middle ground.
Enter the Dark Lord
The question remains: is George Lucas’ intent here really to denounce moral absolutism through the mouth of the movie’s hero? If it is, I am disappointed. However, let’s look at some of the other evidence. In the duel that ensues (still the greatest duel ever filmed), there is another exchange between the battling heroes:
- Obi-Wan: “Anakin, chancellor Palpatine is evil!”
- Anakin: “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”
- Obi-Wan: “Well, then you are lost!”
I can think of no clearer rejection of moral relativism than this. It’s very clear that Obi-Wan at last gives up on Anakin precisely because his former pupil takes his own viewpoint and establishes it as an objective moral reality. This is the darkness of moral relativism at work. Where does Anakin get such a terrible idea? Well, let’s rewind a bit to an earlier point in the film: the wonderful scene at the opera, when Palpatine first starts to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. There we find this exchange:
- Palpatine: “All who gain power are afraid to lose it, even the Jedi.”
- Anakin: “The Jedi use their power for good.”
- Palpatine: “Good is a point of view, Anakin. The Sith and the Jedi are similar in almost every way… including their quest for greater power…”
Here, the Luciferian arch-villain of the entire saga is clearly using moral relativism to lure Anakin to the Dark Side. It returns again later in the film, when Palpatine reveals himself to Anakin:
- Palpatine: “My mentor taught me everything about the Force. Even the nature of the Dark Side…”
- Anakin: “You know the Dark Side?”
- Palpatine: “Anakin, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace… a larger view of the Force.”
The evil one represents goodness as narrow-minded, unsophisticated, unadventurous and dull. This is very seductive, very effective. I don’t think George Lucas is on Palpatine’s side here, but he seems to understand quite well how evil thinks.
So what about Obi-Wan?
Still, this leaves us with the troubling line “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”. Could it be that Obi-Wan is not the flawless hero we took him for?
Let’s flash forward in narrative time to the original trilogy, more precisely, to Return of the Jedi. There is a scene in the first half of the film where Obi-Wan’s ghost actually turns into a pretty troubling figure, and I don’t just mean that from the viewpoint of moral philosophy; he’s simply an all-around jerk here. At this point in the story, Luke has learned that Darth Vader and his father, Anakin Skywalker, are in fact one and the same, even though Obi-Wan had told him that Anakin had been murdered by Vader. The jerkiness starts when Luke confronts Obi-Wan’s ghost with that lie:
- Luke: “Why didn’t you tell me? You told me Vader betrayed and murdered my father.”
- Obi-Wan: “Your father was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”
You know, if I were Luke, I wouldn’t be satisfied by that pathetic excuse at all. It’s actually pretty galling that Obi-Wan doesn’t even hint at an apology, even in death, but instead turns to a half-assed defence of his deceitful words. Luke’s expression doesn’t seem all too satisfied either when he replies:
- Luke: “A certain point of view?”
- Obi-Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
So again, instead of saying something like: “I know, I should have been a bit more clear, but I wanted to protect you from disappointment” or something like that, Obi-Wan addresses Luke in a high and mighty tone with a condescending bit of lecturing. And not only that, but it’s a worthless lecture to boot. What does that line even mean? If only Luke’s point of view had been a bit different, Darth Vader wouldn’t have been his father? Anakin’s fall suddenly turns into being murdered by another man because “point of view”? What nonsense! Can Luke’s point of view change anything? I don’t think so. I have to say, this line really angers me. It’s pompous and stupid at the same time. But the scene goes on. A few lines later, Luke tries to suggest a non-violent solution to dealing with Darth Vader.
- Luke: “There is still good in him.”
- Obi-Wan: “He’s more machine now than man, twisted and evil.”
- Luke: “I can’t do it, Ben.”
- Obi-Wan: “You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.”
- Luke: “I can’t kill my own father.”
- Obi-Wan: “Then the Emperor has already won.”
What?? So after lying to Luke and then arrogantly pretending it was all some sort of wise lesson, Obi-Wan is now manipulating the poor boy into murdering his own father?
This entire sequence actually makes me doubt if Obi-Wan really is the heroic figure we thought he was. I have to be honest, I always really liked Obi (particularly the version we see in episodes 2 and 3), but perhaps he was never meant to be someone to look up to. Perhaps Lucas wanted him to be a deeply flawed character, misguided in his own way, stuck in a philosophy full of holes and pathologically unable to admit to any fault of his own. Who knows, that might be the reason why he returns as a ghost, rather than becoming “one with the Force” and moving on to greener pastures? Maybe Obi-Wan still needs to learn a few lessons? I don’t know. Considering the noble and heroic spotlight that is shone on the character, maybe George Lucas actually does agree with Obi-Wan, in which case he isn’t really the purveyor of wisdom that Star Wars fans across the world have made him out to be.
George Lucas isn’t Jesus either
While I think Lucas has some positive themes in his movies, I wouldn’t take him or Star Wars itself too seriously. Listening to some interviews with the man has convinced me that Lucas’ philosophy is a shaky amalgamation of superficial aspects of various religions. It lacks any real substance and doesn’t dare to really take a side beyond the obvious stuff that hurting people is bad and being compassionate is good. Still, there are moments of real brilliance and insight sprinkled throughout the Star Wars saga. And in the end, isn’t Obi-Wan proven wrong? Vader can be redeemed and it happens through the love between him and his son. Now that is a theme I can get behind, and it saves Return of the Jedi for me, even if it is at the cost of Obi-Wan’s status as “wise mentor”.
In the end, I’m afraid that the Star Wars saga has simply become too big for its own good. George Lucas is a visionary filmmaker with some great ideas, but he is also a muddled philosopher and he has some obvious problems as a storyteller. There are amateurish turns throughout the saga that could have been easily fixed if he had had a tighter plan from the beginning. For example:
- The whole business with master Sipho-Dias and the clone army in Episode II was vague and confusing and it never really got explained;
- It was a strange idea to introduce Obi-Wan as the mentor figure in Episode IV, only to kill him off and replace him with Yoda in Episode V;
- Lucas played out the big climax of the Death Star too soon by putting it at the end of the first movie. As a result, the second Death Star in the last movie is much less impressive or scary.
Those things don’t bother me all that much because they only show that Lucas is just a guy telling his story, adjusting it as he goes along. Like The Lord of the Rings, this tale clearly grew in the telling. It actually kind of adds to the charm that there are some obvious flaws in the storytelling resulting from that. The problem is that Star Wars became so big and so popular that people started taking it very, very seriously. The irrational hatred of the prequels is closely tied to this. People expected Star Wars to give them something that no movie can give: a substitute for religion. And that, it simply isn’t. Star Wars is an amazing movie series and an exciting universe full of wonder and adventure, but not something to base one’s outlook on life on.