I’ve been on a Star Wars kick lately.
I know, I’ll bring it around to climate change eventually, just gimme a minute.
I’ve never been a rabid fan–I don’t have any action figures, I’ve never read the fan fic, and I don’t know the engine specifications of the Millennium Falcon–but in the past few weeks, I’ve seen all seven of the extant Star Wars movies and I had seen all but the newest one before. And it got me thinking about morality and ethics.
(I’m assuming that readers already know at least the basic outlines and major characters of these movies, whether you’ve seen all of them personally or not. I’m also avoiding plot spoilers).
The first three movies–those released in the 1970’s and 1980’s, are striking in their cartoonish depiction of evil, with both goodguys and badguys killing quite casually and the most obvious difference between them being that badguys mostly wear black. There are subtler differences–the protagonists don’t torture or terrorize–but moral philosophy does not appear to be among the movies’ strong points.
And yet the fulcrum between the dark and light sides of “the Force” is a major theme of the series. Particularly striking is the sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke sets out to rescue his friends and his teacher, Yoda, warns him bluntly that he is acting on an impulse that could lead irreversibly to the Dark Side. What could be evil about trying to save a friend?
In the third of the prequels we finally get an answer; the Sith (those who have embraced the Dark Side) are fueled by their personal passions, whereas Jedi school themselves to be impersonal and dispassionate. Jedi kill, but never in anger. Jedi love, but never one person above all others. The difference then is not how they behave so much as how they are oriented spiritually; Sith look inward while Jedi look outward.
So what is wrong with looking inward? What is wrong with the Dark Side, besides its tautological darkness?
Most obviously, the Dark Side is self-defeating. Anikin Skywalker follows his personal passions–most of which are themselves both understandable and admirable, he starts out as a genuinely loving person–and ultimately loses everything and everyone he ever cared about as a result. We learn there are only ever two Sith, a master and an apprentice, no more and no less, because as the apprentice reaches mastery he either kills his master or is killed by him (and replaced by a new apprentice to kill or be killed by in turn). They don’t, in other words, even care about each other. One wonders why the Sith bother, as their lives sound ultimately hollow.
The reason I like the prequels, though most fans don’t, is how subtly and how believably Anikin slowly becomes Darth Vader, something everyone who has seen the first three movies knows he is going to do. He does not succumb to greed, nor even to vanity, though vanity does help. He ultimately sells his soul for a chance to save someone he cares about–the very same protective, loving impulse that almost caught Luke. In Anikin’s case, the very chance he sought was a lie meant to manipulate him and he was easy to manipulate because he never learned to see beyond his own fears and desires. He never learned that his own feelings and perceptions might be different than reality.
The ultimate moral of the story is the absolute importance of learning to rise above and beyond the personal, to not be blinded by fear and desire nor jerked around by impulse. Because even if the impulses themselves are innocent,it is impossible to act wisely or lovingly if one is unwilling or unable to face and accept reality.
The Jedi never try to impose their code on ordinary people–for example, it seems as though Jedi are supposed to be celibate, but none of them ever expresses disapproval of anyone else’s sexual or romantic lives. They seem to live by their own rules, rules that apply to no one else. Perhaps they recognize that once you plug into the Force, actions have consequences that people without that power just don’t have to worry about.
Which is where we get back to climate change (told you I’d do that)
Fossil fuel is not a spiritual power, but it is a power great enough to change the rules we have to live by. Like Anikin Skywalker, we got here by wanting things that every sane person wants–to live well and to be safe. There is nothing evil in wanting to eat a banana in Maryland in February, but to actually get that banana requires the creation of a food distribution system that requires fossil fuel, which in turn inevitably destroys the world and will ultimately cost us the very good life we sold so much to achieve. The problem, and again it is also Anikin’s problem, is not what we want or what we care about but rather our human difficulty in seeing beyond our wants and our cares to the actual choices we have at our disposal–and the terrible momentum that a couple of successive bad choices can acquire. Not all steps toward the Dark Side can be undone.
Environmentalists avoid calling other people “evil.” We fear, quite understandably, alienating fence-sitters, and the reality is that most of us sit on one fence or another at least some of the time. Also, many of us have philosophical problems with the concept of evil–I myself am not sure the word is anything more than a short-cut around more nuanced moral reasoning. And, of course, dismissing other people as evil is a clear example of absolutist, dualistic thinking, something all Jedi avoid. So, don’t call other people evil–but perhaps a little introspection is in order.
I’m not saying the Star Wars series should be taken as gospel; the movies are fundamentally entertainment and while I enjoy watching them every few years, much of the material does not bear rational scrutiny (spice mines? Giant animals that live in the freezing vacuum of space apparently hoping to eat space ships? Making the Kessel run in 12 parsecs?). Nevertheless, it’s an interesting proposition to try out–that a valid way to think about morality might be where one falls on a continuum between personal passion and universal concern.