Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe

Let’s just make this a “Philosophy and Pop Culture” week. Of course, everyone knows what that means, although I had been neglecting that category for a few weeks and so did want to do some posts, and it just ended up being conveniently in a week where I needed a post to round out the week.

Anyway, the next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “Moral Ambiguity in a Black-and-White Universe” by Richard H. Dees. In it he, well, tries to find moral ambiguity in the generally black-and-white Star Wars universe. Now, of course, the Star Wars EU found this in spades, but he’s relying primarily on the movies here, where it seems the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and when they try to introduce moral ambiguity into the universe they generally do it really, really badly (Dees references Anakin from the PT, for example, but even he has to concede that, ultimately, what Anakin does is so horrible that it doesn’t really work).

But what’s interesting here is his attempt to look at characters that represent certain moral codes, and how they aren’t the ones that you think. He uses Han Solo as a prime example of Egoism, and even an only semi-enlightened Egoism. And Lando Calrissian is considered a Utilitarian … mostly for his actions at Cloud City including betraying Han and Leia to Darth Vader, which most — and the movie itself — seem to consider his most morally dubious moments, not his most moral.

Dees gives an interesting argument to suggest that Han Solo is really an Egoist, concerned primarily if not exclusively with his own interest. Sure, he acts that way at the start, but surely saving Luke at the first Death Star, joining the Rebellion, and leading the ground force on Endor are all selfless as opposed to selfish acts, right? Well, Dees accepts that Egoism isn’t just simply caring about one’s direct and immediate interests, but about one’s long-term and indirect interests as well. Much of Han’s purportedly selfless actions are done to protect people that he has come to care about. He returns to the Death Star to save Luke, who it is clear that he is quite fond of, and whose anger and disappointment in him at his leaving clearly hurts Han. He goes back to rescue Leia at Hoth because he cares for her and doesn’t want her to be hurt. He falls in with the Rebellion to be with his friends, and arguably participates in the mission to end the Empire because, again, he wants them to be free. He loans Lando the most important thing in his life — the Falcon — because he wants him to come back safely, and as he says, Lando needs all the help he can get to survive. Han’s arc can be seen as the path from simple Egoism to Enlightened Egoism: Han moves from caring only about himself, to caring for Chewie (seen in the EU), to caring for Luke and Leia, to ultimately to caring about others and about the galaxy as a whole, but it can be argued that at the end of the day it is because those things have become important to him, not because he sees their importance overall.

Lando, on the other hand, is the respectable one. The deal he makes with Vader can be easily seen as him trying to protect his position, and sacrificing his friends to do it. But he is clear that the deal he made is to protect everything that he and the rest of the Bespin citizens have made when he mentions it obliquely to Han and Leia (as he’s leading them to their capture). It can be argued, then, that with Vader having arrived before them and knowing that they were coming there, Lando chose the option that he thought would best protect the most people, and the people of Bespin. Trying to resist then would just get a lot of his people killed and the colony put under Imperial control, which would be terrible for most of the people. When it becomes clear that Vader isn’t going to hold up his end of the bargain, Lando then decides to cut his losses and try to save Han. He then goes to rescue him with the others, and volunteers to lead the mission, presumably on the reasoning that he’s the best suited for the job. In all of this, it can be said that Lando is always looking out for the most happiness for the most people, and if that means that he has to sacrifice a friend — even an estranged one — then that’s what he has to do.

In keeping with the overall theme of the essay, though, these judgements aren’t unquestionable. Han certainly acts Egoistic … but he’s only traveling with Chewie because Han decided to risk his career to save him, and couldn’t bring himself to simply abandon him once he swore the Life Debt to him. And Lando could very well be trying to preserve his own position and power. But that we can consider one of the main heroes Egoistic even in his finest moments and someone who converts from antagonist to hero Utilitarian in what is considered his most dubious moment says a lot about Egoism, Utilitarianism and morality in general.

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