Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Philosophy of Revenge of the Sith: Means vs. Ends

File:Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith poster.jpg

Revenge of the Sith is the great tragedy of the Star Wars Saga.

It is a powerful epic and a complex character drama.

At the heart of it is Anakin Skywalker and his struggle to do what is right.  The surprising thing is how little help he gets in staying on the Light Side of the Force.

In these investigations so far, we have focused primarily on philosophical ethics.  But let us take a moment and look at some metaphysics.  Revenge of the Sith deals strongly with the relationship between fate and free will.  Anakin tries to avoid the fate of Padme's death and so makes certain choices accordingly.  The Star Wars universe has a horrible sense of irony because the choices Anakin makes are the very reason Padme dies.  Anakin turns to the Dark Side to save Padme.  Turning to the Dark Side forces him to do horrific things.  Those horrific things lead Padme to confront him and Obi-Wan to surprise him.  Because Obi-Wan surprises him, Anakin attacks Padme. Because Anakin attacks Padme she loses the will to live.

Notice how each of the links in this chain of events is a choice.  The characters all make free choices, but they end up causing the fearful fate.  Like we see in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, fate and free will are commingled with each other.  There is an overall "force" guiding the events of the universe; in other words, things are not all random.  But each step in the reaching one's destiny must involve the free choice of someone.  The question isn't whether or not the will of fate or the Force or Providence will be done.  The question is how much you are willing to fight it and the consequences that will occur.

Anakin is the chosen one.  He is the one who will bring balance to the Force.   As Obi-Wan says, "You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them!"  Anakin had that choice, to confront Darth Sidious and stop the Empire from forming.  But he freely chose to give in to the Dark Side and great suffering followed.  And yet, it is still his destiny to confront Darth Sidious and destroy the Empire.  But it will take a great deal of love and sacrifice to bring that about (more on this in Return of the Jedi).

The real tragedy of Anakin's fall is that he cannot rely on his companions for help.

Consider his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Towards the end of the film, Obi-Wan says, "I have failed you, Anakin.  I have failed you."  This is not statement of empty self-pity.  Obi-Wan truly has failed.  The main reason why is that he was not the mentor that Qui-Gon Jinn would have been.  Consider how he acts in a very un-Qui-Gon way by actually taking a seat on the council.  When Anakin asks Obi-Wan why he's mentor is forcing to do something he doesn't want to do, Obi-Wan says, "The Council is asking it."  This is not the Council-defying iconoclast that was Qui-Gon Jinn.  And when Yoda tells Obi-Wan to kill Anakin, Obi-Wan does so with little resistance.

Obi-Wan and the Jedi are not the villains of the piece, but they are part of the problem.  Their detachment from personal relationships ultimately give Anakin nothing to cling to as he descends into darkness.

Referring again to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, we can see the fundamental problem with both the Jedi and Sith ethics.  Yes, the Sith are selfish, thinking only of themselves and the Jedi are selfless thinking of others.  But there is still a fundamental flaw in both worldviews.

Kant said that the key ethical interactions with others is to treat each person as an end in themselves.   Here, he is referring to means vs. ends.  The "means" are the way in which you go about achieving your purpose or goal or "end."  For example, money cannot be the end of what a person desires.  Money is simply a means of acquiring other things that will lead to (supposedly) the "end" which is happiness.

Kant made clear that while things like money or tools or education or any number of things could be used as means to a particular end, you cannot do that with another human.  Human beings cannot be used as means to achieve another end.  They must be viewed as the end in themselves.   In other words, you cannot use the individual as a pawn to achieve some greater goal.  The goal should be doing good for the individual.  That isn't to say that you cannot have a relationship that gives each of you mutual advantage.  I am allowed to enjoy the fact that my friend has a state of the art entertainment system that I experience when I visit.  But it would be wrong if I maintained my friendship simply as a means to enjoying seeing John Wick do multiple head-shots in all its hi-definition glory.  I cannot view another person as a means to my own ends.

And this where both the Jedi and the Sith fail.  The Sith obviously use people as dispoable commodities.  Darth Sidious starts a destructive war with millions of deaths to gain power.  Along the way he has most of his allies like Darth Tyrannous, General Grievous, and the Trade Federation killed.

But the Jedi also fail at this because they do not see the importance of the individual as an end.  From the very beginning we see this conflict in Anakin.  When they attack The Invisible Hand, his Clone wing-man is being attacked.  His instinct is to help him but Obi-Wan urges him on (we see once again the conflict between desire and duty).  When Anakin seeks Yoda for advice, Yoda advises him to let go of all of his attachments, even of those who have died: "Mourn them do not, miss them do not."  (This probably stems from Yoda's anthropology that individualilty is an illusion that is removed when we die and enter the Force.  This is an idea he rejects at the end of Revenge of the Sith).  The Jedi Council ask Anakin to betray his conscience and spy on his friend Palpatine instead first bringing him to realize the Chancellor's evil.  Mace Windu does not treat Anakin with respect and trust but as a tool to defeating Palpatine.  When Palpatine begs for mercy, Windu ignores him and attacks.  Even Padme tries to use Anakin to influence Palpatine, causing him to lash out at her.  And finally, Obi-Wan does not consider saving Anakin from his evil but simply killing him.

The Jedi use Anakin as a means to an end rather than treating him like an end in himself.  Anakin views the people he loves as ends in themselves.  He cannot ignore the suffering of his mother or Padme.  When he is urged to leave Obi-Wan on The Invisible Hand or "they will never make it," Anakin responds simply "His fate will be the same as ours."  If the Jedi had given him a way to live his ethic, then he may not have made the choice to go to the Dark Side.

That is not to say that Anakin's choice is excusable.  Even if the person is the end in himself, it does not excuse a bad "means."  A classic point in means/ends ethics is that it is never permissible to use a bad means to achieve a good end.  If someone told me to murder an innocent man or he would kill my family, it would not excuse me if I committed the murder (though I would have less culpability in general).

Anakin chooses to put Padme and himself as the highest end and use others as a means to that end. He attacks Mace Windu as a means to save Palpatine.  He kills the Jedi, the younglings, and the Trade Federation as a means to get into Palpatine's graces.  But even Palpatine is viewed as a means.  Anakin intends to kill him when he gets what he wants.

The only person has any chance of living this Kantian ethic is Padme.  She does not excuse his evil,  She tells him she is repulsed by "what you've done."  But she sees past all of that real and horrible sin to the redeemable man underneath.  She goes to Mustafar, to Anakin, not as a means of ending the conflict.  She goes there because her end goal is Anakin himself.  She wants him to be brought back into the light.  Unfortunately, the surprise appearance of Obi-Wan makes Anakin believe her words are false.  Could she have reached him?  We will never know.

In the end the fall of the Republic and the Jedi was not only from an assault from without but from a hollowness within.

The Jedi forgot that they weren't supposed to be fighting for the people.

They were supposed to be fighting for each person.

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