Virtues of the Jedi

By Jeff Mallinson

Jedi Master Yoda in a scene from Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith

In this essay, I intend to defend the “good guy” status of the Jedi. With speculation that Luke Skywalker might get drawn dangerously close to the dark side in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there have also been several online arguments made that the Jedi aren’t exactly the noble heroes we suppose them to be. Most notable is a piece Jonathan V. Last wrote for the Federalist, entitled “9 Reasons the Jedi Are Actually the Bad Guys in ‘Star Wars.’” This inspired several rebuttals defending the Jedi, one of the best of which is from another Federalist writer, Jeffrey Singer. Borrowing occasionally from Singer, along with the insights of Alexander Martin and Dan van Voorhis, compiled informally by our good friend Kurt Winrich. I will respond, as others have, to the numbered points from Jonathan Last’s original post, though I will paraphrase some his points for convenience.

  1. Midi-chlorians in the blood correlate with Jedi powers. This seems to make concern for identifying and training the Jedi as an exclusive, elitist, and almost racist concern.

This was an unfortunate addition to the mythology, as many fans will agree. There is, however, an argument, forwarded to me by my friend Scott Copeland, from Star Wars Insider #159. According to one interpretation of things: “Despite their biological explanation in ‘The Phantom Menace,’ they still exist on a spiritual level. Just because the Jedi can quantify them doesn’t remove the magic from the topic. The midi-chlorians are merely a conduit into this great and wondrous energy field. They are not the Force itself; they’re just a way to commune with it or tap into it.” Further: “They are no more the Force than the speakers are the music they broadcast.”

Ok, that’s interesting. But what has any of this to do with virtue. Blame the Force itself, or Lucas, or some intern who gave someone the silly idea. Perhaps critics are right that it represents an attempt to tone down the mysterious, spiritual aspect of the Star Wars universe—and that would be a bummer—but it has no bearing on the character and actions of the Jedi themselves. No where do we see the Jedi spending much time on this business about midi-chlorians.. We do, however, see them habituating virtue in the training of young Jedi, and as we learn from Yoda, someone who starts too late might not be able to develop the character Aristotle would have seen necessary for developing virtuous habits. In other words, virtue isn’t just a raw power, it is about fulfilling one’s calling along the lines of excellence. That’s what Jedi pedagogy seems to be all about.

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  1. The Jedi believe they are at the center of the universe.

There are several elements here. Obi-Wan calls Jar Jar Binks a “pathetic life form.” Once again, I do have a nagging fear that there really are uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes in the Star Wars universe, and so that, coupled with this statement, does put a thoughtful gentleman in a tangle. Nonetheless, pathetic means simply “inspiring pity, heartbreaking, or pitiable.” Granted, the famous Jedi’s intonation is dismissive, but it isn’t exactly an attack. Moreover, the virtuous person flows smoothly through life, sometimes playfully. I think Obi-Wan’s comments reflect the freedom and composure of a hero, who is aware of danger but remains unperturbed.

Our problem, perhaps, is that in the Star Wars universe, there are many sentient species. In ours, there is only one: human. For us, to consider a speaking creature “lower” would be to affirm blatant racism. But, as Dan van Voorhis suggests: “Facts are stubborn things. Jar-Jar Binks is a lower life form. That doesn’t make him worthless. Just annoying.” Perhaps Last has in mind here the common postmodern rejection of hierarchies of any kind. To that, one must simply note that there either are or are not hierarchies. The only vice would be to impose a hierarchy on a world that was in fact perfectly level. At a conference I recently attended, the Radical Orthodox theologian Conor Cunningham responded to a scholar who attacked the traditional Christian idea of hierarchy. He said: “On the way here I saw a clever bumper sticker that read ‘I love animals—they taste good.’” Folks laughed. Then, he said, “Would anyone have laughed had I said ‘I love babies—they taste good?” The audience got quiet. “No, you wouldn’t because even those who love animals recognize that there is in fact a hierarchy.” I think he’s right in this regard.

Jonathan Last also seems perturbed that the Jedi aren’t a civilian-controlled military force. They have no governmental mandate or oversight, it seems, in their defense of peace and justice in the old republic. So, they probably do pose a potential social threat similar to that of the Japanese rōnin, samurai who no longer had a master. That is, they are trained in combat, but wander about now of their own accord. In Japan, they were said to have been encouraged to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide in such a state.

Now, one might wish to argue that the best political approach to peace keeping forces is one in which armed warriors are accountable to a legitimate government. But there is no a priori reason why such a universe is required. If in fact the Jedi had a long history of commitment to justice and peace, why wouldn’t a Republic both tolerate and applaud their work? Only statists need the state to be pulling the strings all the time. Granted, we know of the potential for viciousness within private security firms like Blackwater (now called Academi). But that takes us back to the original question: are the Jedi like renegade mercenaries, or are they a virtuous, noble order of galactic heroes? The fact that a system might be unwise because it lacks checks and balances, doesn’t mean that the individuals involved are themselves vicious. On the contrary, it would seem that decent folks would support the role of the Jedi precisely because they had a long track record of virtue.

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  1. They lack transparency.

Last points to the idea that Yoda and Mace Windu decide not to tell the senate about the creation of a clone army, because that information would pose an existential threat to the Jedi order. The concern here seems to be deontological. (Deontology is concerned about the morality of actions, and about categorical duties. Other normative ethical approaches are less concerned with unbendable rules and more interested in either outcomes of actions (known as consequentialism) or the character of the person performing the actions (known as virtue ethics or personalism). Deontologists like Immanuel Kant, for instance run into trouble when the universal principle that lying is wrong is applied to a Nazi’s query about whether there might be folks hiding in the basement. But even here, Kant doesn’t indicate (at least to my knowledge) that we always have to speak, or offer information that could cause us harm. The Jedi didn’t lie in this case, they were simply being wise as serpents and harmless as doves. I believe that transparency is one of the most important qualities in a good leader, but it isn’t precisely a virtue.

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  1. They are totally willing to stage their own coup.

Something like this scenario occurred in real history, to a German pastor, with pacifist leanings. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and I think most will agree that, with respect to his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, he was a good guy. And that was the point of his approach to ethics. While some call him a situational ethicist like Fletcher, I place Bonhoeffer more in the Lutheran virtue theory camp. In his Ethics, he suggests that it is better to do a bad or unlawful thing than to be a bad person. Killing a tyrant is something, therefore, Bonhoeffer thought was unholy and tragic. Such an act required a prayer of repentance and absolution. But it was the right thing to do. It was what a good guy must do in such an odd circumstance. So, only an authoritarian devotee of the Empire would find resistance to tyranny problematic in principle. For those interested in this subject, it is also worth researching Protestant resistance theory from Philipp Melanchthon, to Theodore Beza, culminating in the important treatise Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. The gist is that ethical resistance to an evil ruler should involve a “lesser magistrate” under whom an orderly military force might operate with restraint.

  1. They attempt extra-legal executions.

This is the strongest of Last’s points, and refers to Mace Windu’s desire to kill a Sith lord without a trial. I am of two minds here. In usual circumstances (like when we’ve got Saddam Hussain in his briefs or Pol Pot chilling out under house arrest) this would seem to indeed be a vicious act. Due process is a nice thing to maintain, when dudes who shoot lightning bolts out of their fingers aren’t in office. So, Windu could have at least constructed a decent defense, were he to be tried for such an act by the Jedi council. Nonetheless, assume that the morally superior decision would have been to arrest and try the Sith lord. All this tells us is that the Jedi are fallible. Of course we know this. I’m not even sure this, assuming it is a moral failure, would make Windu a bad guy. It certainly doesn’t mean the Jedi, as an order, are all bad guys. Also, go back and read the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.

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  1. The Jedi are wrong about pretty much everything.

This point is barely worth addressing. First off, no: they were not wrong about most things, but were wrong about a few things, which turned out to be dire miscalculations, and ended up almost exterminating them. As van Voorhis has commented: “Wrong about everything! How about the ability to stage a small rebellion, steal plans to the largest imperial plan/secret in the galaxy and blow it up. Twice.” Secondly, being wrong about facts is not a vice unless it is the result of idleness and willful ignorance. There’s no reason to believe that the Jedi were not vigilant, only that they didn’t see their doom coming.

  1. They can’t tell where tolerance becomes intolerance.

Several parts of Just’s argument here frankly don’t make much sense. The part of most interest is Obi-Wan’s statement to Anakin that “only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This statement threw some conservative evangelicals into fits, since they saw here an endorsement of godless, nihilistic, postmodern relativism. It also is likely an allusion to George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 statement: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” So there’s political baggage here too. Nonetheless, considering this from within the mythical world of Star Wars, this statement is unproblematic. Absolutists love absolutes: Stalin, Hitler, ISIS. They are ideologues who discard human decency and common sense because of an uncritical commitment to an apparently rational concept. Anyone who disagrees is labeled either stupid or evil, and must be removed. Rock on Obi-Wan. Preach. Ah, perhaps the problem for conservative Christians is that Obi Wan seems to be contradicting Jesus’ words: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt. 12:30 ESV). There may indeed be times when there is in fact no neutral ground, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus is endorsing absolutism in the sense that Obi-Wan is rejecting.

The idea that something or someone is absolutely and essentially good or evil is neither entailed nor asserted by Christian theology. Outside of Wesleyanism, most traditions reject the concept of Christian perfection. Lutherans affirm the idea of simul iustus et peccator (the idea that a Christian remains a simultaneous saint and sinner in this life). They also rejected a teaching of a dude named Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who said that humans are essentially evil or evil by nature. No, it isn’t that humans are purely evil, said the orthodox, but rather that every part of them—reason, will, and emotions—were thoroughly infected by sin. Much earlier on in the tradition, St. Augustine taught that evil has only a parasitic existence. Like darkness, which is the absence of light, and cold, which is the absence of heat, evil is a brokenness, misuse, or bending of goodness.

Last is rather inconsistent here. A virtue theorist is flexible. Only a deontologist has rigid rules of conduct that cannot be nuanced. Most of Last’s charges against the Jedi involve their flexibility with otherwise firm rules of conduct. Here, he notes the problem of their opposition to absolutism. But that is exactly what we should expect from folks who operate from the perspective of virtue theory. It irritates some that virtue ethicists are reluctant to identify clear cut, absolute rules of behavior. But the whole point of virtue ethics is that it focuses on the cultivation of character within an individual, in order that they might be nimble when perplexing, and extraordinary circumstances arise.

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  1. They’re militarily self-centered.

Last brings up the Jedi’s private wars. For that, go back to what I said under point 2. But then Last goes after Obi-Wan, suggesting that he seemed unconcerned about the Empire’s operational Death Star. He writes: “… despite a demonstrated ability to affect a wide range of persons with his Force powers, Kenobi was perfectly happy to let the majority of the rebel assault wave against the Death Star die in flames—before whispering last-minute assistance to his preferred Jedi ward. In short: Kenobi lied, Porkins died.” Here, the only real charge is that Obi-Wan could have done more good. As it is, he gets an assist in the books: he was instrumental in helping Luke destroy a genocidal satellite. Here’s what most of us call a “bad guy”: the jack ass who’s trying to blow up innocent planets. That’s what the Sith are up to. Here’s what most of us call a “good guy”: the hero who sacrifices his life to oppose the Sith jack ass who’s trying to blow up innocent planets.

  1. The Jedi are terrible comrades.

Finally, Last notes several incidents when Jedi went with their friends even though they shouldn’t have. Oh, wait, he doesn’t really have any evidence for this beyond the actions of Luke Skywalker. But what does Luke really prove, especially if in the next installment we find that his short-cuts, and his overriding dedication to family over the “cause” leads to his entanglement in the Dark Side? Last asks us to imagine going into combat, and our pal—in this case Luke—all of a sudden is AWOL. Last’s recreation of the subsequent events are witty, though wrongheaded: “Later, you are reunited at the victory celebration and you ask him where he was, at that instant when absolutely everything good and true was on the line. He shrugs. ‘Saw my dad.’”

Now, Mr. Last, you’ve gone too far. It may well turn out that Luke turned to his passions and hatred and thus dabbled with the dark side in order to, 1) defeat the Sith lord behind the entire battle that all his buddies were fighting and 2) redeem his father from enslavement to evil. If so, then that was unwise, but to be expected from an under-developed Jedi student. If there are any problems in this regard, they are precisely Sith problems. Luke lets his passions get the best of him. That’s not a Jedi virtue, nor a Stoic one, but it is a Sith vice. And now we come to the fatal flaw in Last’s position: most of the complaints he directs at the Jedi are in fact instances when they are acting too much like the Sith. The Sith are the bad guys. If the Jedi ever act like bad guys, it is only when they fail to live up to the ideals of Jedi teaching. Virtue isn’t about perfection, it’s about excellence in our vocations. If I’m going into the fray—whatever it may be—I’ll take a Jedi knight along with me before anyone else in the Star Wars universe. Why, because they cultivate virtue and defend the innocent. That, friends, is the kind of good guy we need more of these days.

Interested in more Star Wars conversation? Check out this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland podcast.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping a Bombay Sapphire martini, between chapters of Anne Rice, Memnoch the Devil.

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2 thoughts on “Virtues of the Jedi

  1. First, I have to say that was a good podcast. Good job, Dan and Jeff.

    Second, while the Jedi are far from “bad guys” in the traditional sense, they weren’t exactly the “good guys” either. They could be shifty, underhanded in their dealings; prone to a rigid institutional conservatism that reeks of decay and hypocrisy; and slow to act when action was needed, pietistically waiting upon the Force. (A lot like Christians, when you think about it; we’re not exactly the good guys either.) Anakin saw this — as did others in the EU, Revan being one example — which explains in part his fall to the dark side.

    Lastly, my problem with midichlorians, aside from cheapening the whole Force thing, was how they were introduced in such an offhanded way and never came up again, except for that scene with Palpatine (even then, it was only incidental to the story of Darth Plagueis). Thematically, structurally, it adds nothing to the overall plot. Had it been left out, it would have made no difference at all.

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    1. In a fallen world, the good guys are never perfectly good, and the bad guys are never completely evil. Good characters have depth, gradation, tragic flaws, just like real people. People can be good without being perfect.

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