The moral ambiguity of the new Star Wars universe became crystal clear with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The Emperor ended up being unequivocally evil—and so was his Empire. Nevertheless, it makes one wonder if that justification is enough for the Rebel Alliance’s rebellion. Or is there another way to look at the moral and political correctness of it all?
The Rebels, unlike those in the Empire, believe in the Force, a mystical energy that they believe gives them power and is on their side. They even greet each other and call on its power with a familiar phrase: “May the Force be with you.” However, it is not a force that’s benign.
In Star Wars Episode IV, Grand Moff Tarkin intentionally targets the civilians of Alderaan, destroying their entire planet with the Death Star, to instill terror across the galaxy. So, Tarkin apparently behaves like a terrorist.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Moral Ambiguity of the Rebels
Early in the film, Cassian kills a fellow rebel informant, Tivik, to save his own life. The Rebels try to align with Saw Gerrera, despite his spotty history. They ambush a prison transport to free the heroine Jyn Erso, but not even Jyn trusts them and she tries to escape. And, although they say they are going to rescue her father, Galen, they really intend to kill him.
Toward the end of the film, Cassian even admits that he and his Rebel friends have “all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion.” They’ve been “Spies, saboteurs, assassins.” All this might make one think that the Rebels are essentially terrorists. They are fighting a fascist regime, but they use terrorism to do it.
A lot of what the Rebels do is clearly somewhat morally questionable. The Empire on the other hand, however, is not all that good either. Yet again, that doesn’t automatically justify the Rebels’ rebellion against the Empire.
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The Moral Theory of Utilitarianism
So then, what would justify the Rebel Alliance’s rebellion? Well, the easiest answer would be to appeal to utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is a moral theory developed most famously by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They saw pain as the only intrinsic evil and pleasure or happiness as the only intrinsic good. This means that the morality of actions can be determined by how much pain or pleasure in the general populous they cause.
If an action causes more happiness, overall, for people than it causes pain, then it is morally good. If it caused more pain, overall, for more people than it causes happiness, then it is morally bad. If it’s a wash, then the action is morally neutral. Utilitarianism is all about the greatest good—the greatest happiness—for the greatest number.
The End Justifies the Means
We actually see this logic in play during Star Wars: Rogue One. When the generals of the Rebellion decide to surrender to the Empire rather than attempt to steal the Death Star plans, Jyn Erso decides to try to go get them herself. Cassian and a group of rebel fighters volunteer to go with her—and he explains their decision like this:
Everything I did, I did for the Rebellion. And every time I walked away from something I wanted to forget, I told myself it was for a cause that I believed in. A cause that was worth it. Without that, we’re lost. Everything we’ve done would have been for nothing. I couldn’t face myself if I gave up now. None of us could.
The Flaws of the Utilitarian Defense
But there are essentially three things wrong with defending a rebellion against a government on utilitarian grounds. First, it seems that the justification of a rebellion shouldn’t turn on whether it succeeds or not. If a government is so corrupt that it needs to be overthrown, then we need to try to overthrow it—a rebellion against it would be a noble cause. And it’s still a noble cause, even if it fails.
Secondly, the fact that something has a utilitarian benefit doesn’t automatically make it morally justified. You could potentially produce much more happiness than pain by enslaving 5 percent of the population to do all the dirty work of society for the other 95 percent—but that wouldn’t make it right. Indeed, this is why terrorism is usually regarded as morally wrong, regardless of circumstance.
It’s always wrong to target civilians, even if it would save more lives in the long run. The consequences don’t matter. Of course, the Alliance hasn’t done that but the fact that the Rebels aren’t terrorists doesn’t necessarily mean that they themselves are innocent. After all, they have performed military operations knowing that they would also take innocent lives.
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Laws and Morality
As Kevin Smith’s movie Clerks points out, since the second Death Star was not complete when the Rebel Alliance attacked it, there were likely innocent contractors working on it when it exploded—and they likely weren’t the business owners that contracted the job. That doesn’t make it terrorism, but it does make it morally debatable.
The third objection is more complicated. It begins by asking what justifies a government in the first place. What morally binds us to obey the laws of a government we find ourselves living under? It would seem that knowing this would be crucial to understanding when it is permissible to disobey those laws—say, by rebelling against the government.
There are no straight forward answers to these questions. Still, if we assess the moral and political rightness of it, the utilitarian theory and its utilitarian benefit do lend itself, to some extent, as justification of the Rebel Alliance’s rebellion. Sure, they wage war, they kill—they might even have destroyed the second Death Star knowing that there were civilian contractors on it. But by defeating the Empire, they are in reality saving far more innocent lives than they are taking, so their rebellion is the right thing to do.
Common Questions about Star Wars and the Righteousness of the Rebel Alliance’s Rebellion
In Star Wars, the Rebels use the phrase, “May the Force be with you” to greet each other.
Utilitarianism is a moral theory developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The theory explained that the morality of actions can be determined by how much pain or pleasure they cause in the general populous.
When the generals of the Rebellion decide to surrender to the Empire rather than attempt to steal the Death Star plans, Jyn Erso decides to try to go get them herself.