An Aspiring Jedi’s Handbook of Virtue

The next essay in “Star Wars and Philosophy” is “An Aspiring Jedi’s Handbook of Virtue” by Judith Barad. In it, she compares the Jedi to Plato’s Guardians, and also makes references to his famous cave analogy, placing the Jedi firmly in the Platonic framework. For the most part, the comparisons work, although using Yoda training Luke to balance things is a bit shaky. The Jedi could indeed be Plato’s virtuous warriors, although to what extent they are Platonic or Stoic is an open question.

I’m going to take on her discussions of emotion, however. Plato, the Stoics and the Jedi all want to restrict emotion in ways that we would consider harsh. Barad wants to use Aristotle’s idea of balance to moderate these views a bit, to allow for things like righteous anger or compassion — as an emotion, not as a virtue — to influence our decision-making. In both cases, her overall argument is that these things can work well and are even necessary for us to act virtuously, falling back on the common arguments that we need righteous anger and compassion to motivate us to do good and act virtuously. She says that compassion is why we care about everyone and not just ourselves, and that righteous anger can lead to just action.

In the Star Wars universe, anger, righteous or not, rarely leads to good actions, and rarely does so for long. The issue when it comes to justice is that just actions are actions that are determined not by how anyone feels about them, but instead by what is truly just or not. It’s a rational determination, and neither anger nor compassion facilitates the determination of what is just. A heinous action may make you feel angry, and even justifiably so, but that doesn’t change what the actual just action is. You might feel compassion for someone who has done a wrong, but that doesn’t change what the just response to them is. This is because the just action will always take into account all relevant factors. If the factors that made you feel compassionate towards them are relevant to what the just action is, then the just action will already take them into account. So the determination of the just action should be identical if all of those factors are relevant. It’s only when the factors aren’t relevant that they would differ. It’s the same thing for righteous anger. If the factors enraging you are relevant, dispassionate justice would take them into account. It’s only when they aren’t that the assessments would differ.

And the problem with emotion is indeed made pretty clear in Star Wars: it encourages you to do things that, later, you regret doing. Anakin, in a rage, attacked Padme and gravely injured her because he thought he had been betrayed, when in reality he hadn’t been at all. He also slaughtered the entire Sand People village, which he later at least somewhat regretted. His love for Padme led him to choose Palpatine over Windu, combined with his fear of losing her. If he had paused to consider his actions and gather all the facts, he probably would have chosen something else. Emotions are quicker and easier ways to acting at least somewhat virtuously, but they are also seductive. Once you start accepting them as the judgements of what is right or wrong, then they will constantly seduce you into following their recommendations … even if those recommendations are incorrect. You can’t fix that by trying to balance them, because balance is a dispassionate assessment, and righteous anger and compassion are not dispassionate.

If you’re going to create warriors with the power of life and death over others depending only on their own judgement, you don’t want that judgement clouded, and righteous anger and compassion could your judgement. This doesn’t mean that you don’t show concern about others, but that you don’t let that concern override what you know is right, or encourage you to do what’s wrong.


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