Friday, October 18, 2013

Morality and Star Wars

Star Wars is kind of an iconic film from my youth. I've definitely enjoyed the films, but I'm definitely not an uber fan that acts as a living Wikipedia of background material. I like the original three films, try to ignore the second three, and only have a rough idea of the fiction that has cropped up since the first three films. I am a huge fan of the Knights of the Old Republic games though. 

In the first film, Ben Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker that Darth Vader, one of his former pupils, betrayed and murdered Luke's father. We all know by now that this isn't true. Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader are the same person. We also know that Ben Kenobi is probably trying to keep Luke's mind from exploding by telling him that his father is actually a half machine, tyrannical despot with magic powers and breathing problems. Never mind the fact that you've just told a young man who misses his father who "killed" the father. Never mind that very shortly Luke is going to be all hopped up on "Oh shit bro, I'm a fucking Jedi Knight with a laser sword!" Never mind that when you give a youth magic and he suddenly feels invincible he's more than likely going to run off and try and do something stupid, like try and kill a half machine, tyrannical despot with magic powers and breathing problems. 

Recently, Eric and I had an interesting conversation about whether or not Ben Kenobi told a lie. Eric's take was that it depends on perspective and at most it is a white lie, which is still a lie to me, because it is a lie. We talked extensively about this topic and I don't feel we reached a point where we were in an agreement. I see it as a lie, and a stupid one at that, because it immediately sets Luke up to go after Vader while he's all hopped up on that feeling of invincibility all youths have combined with the fact that he will shortly have magic powers, which will amplify his feelings of invincibility and blind him to the fact that Vader has had his magic powers and a laser sword way longer than Luke has. I also broached this topic with Jason and Jeremy, and they kind of agreed with me. 

The reason I felt like calling it a white lie or talking about perspectives and Vader being a different person from Anakin (Thank Dog for that! If we're calling the prequels canon, Anakin was a whiny bitch and Vader was badass.) is bullshit is because a lie is a lie is a lie. A falsehood, deceit, misleading through vague language, etc, etc, etc, is a lie. Is it the truth? No? Then it is by definition a lie. Without even analyzing anything beyond the words, we already know Kenobi's phrase was a lie. Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are one man, since they are still alive and have not committed suicide, Vader could not have murdered or been responsible for Anakin Skywalker's death. Because he's not dead. Boom. Lie. Huge lie. You just told Luke his father is dead you lying hermit fuck. 

The problem is that most people think lying and deceit are innately wrong. I don't, which is not to say I'm a pathological liar or enjoy deceiving family and friends or am not deserving of trust. Lies and deceits are like lots of things, you can do them for good reasons and bad. I don't mean "good" reasons like "Oh, I didn't tell her I cheated because I didn't want to hurt her." Bullshit. That's a completely self-serving lie to save your own ass and hurting her never entered into it. I'm not here to be any sort of moral compass, but to me, morality and good and evil has always been fairly grey and confusing. You can lie, kill, steal, and so on, for good reasons or bad reasons. Killing to defend/save your family and friends is something I call good. Most people on some level agree, otherwise the citizens of the United States would have voted to disband the military and police forces by now. You can come up with all the synonyms and euphemisms you like, but soldiers kill people. That's a fact. But we call it war so it's not as rough on our tongues as a word like murder. Guess what. Soldiers murder people. That's what all the guns and knives and brutal training are for. So they can unmake living people. So they can murder them. When your beloved pet is sick and in pain and life is agony for it and you euthanize it, you and the vet are murdering it. When you eat hamburgers and whatnot, cows have been murdered to do it. When you read a paperback book, trees were murdered to do it. Living things were murdered. 

But murder is a word with certain connotations, there's a certain quality to it, perhaps a "bad" quality. So we use words like euthanize, the death penalty, or engaging hostiles, or just don't think about the criminals being paralyzed, sedated, and murdered by chemicals, or the cows waiting in line for a bolt to cave in their skull and mush a part of their brain so they can be hacked up and fed to us while the leavings of their corpses are ground up into a delicious paste and fed to their brethren (in some instances). 


Welcome to Earth, taking lives is bad, but only against certain living creatures and sometimes it's ok (like if you're bat shit crazy or if it's war or it was an accident or if the legal system fucked up and didn't dot all the eyes and cross all the tees).

Anyway. Morality is grey, this is why alignment is stupid. "Good" and "Evil" aren't easy things to define. Some things are stark black and white, rape is Evil, acts of pedophilia are Evil, cheating on someone is Evil (to me at least). Like I said, I'm not here to be the moral compass (per Nine Inch Nails, my moral standing is lying down), and I don't even have all the answers for my own system of morality. I said there are good reasons to lie and bad, but what about the consequences of a lie? Does that determine whether it is an evil act? If Kenobi's lie was a good lie to save Luke's brain from imploding because the truth would have shattered the idealized image he had of his father in his head, what if Luke had torn off with a blaster and clumsy lightsaber skills to kill his father's murderer and lost his life? Does that make it a bad lie? What if Luke's mind, coping with the knowledge that the man that his mentor told him killed his father is actually his father, and now knowing his father is a half machine tyrannical despot after thinking his father was a noble warrior, couldn't resist the pull of the dark side of the Force and he became Darth Skywalker? Then he and his father depose the Emperor and begin a never ending reign of father and son tyranny that cannot be defeated? Would it still be a little white lie and not Evil?

This shit gets complex if you so much as poke the surface, let alone scratch the surface.

I told Eric that I think his problem stems from the fact that old Ben Kenobi is a good guy. He's the last remnant of a noble order of knights dedicated to justice and truth and protection. He's a kind mentor that guides Luke on a path into that same role. Thus, he can't be a liar, because good guy heroes don't lie. I'm not sure he agreed with me, and that's ok, morality is complex. Almost as complex as people.

I posed this question to my friend Fred, which spawned a few hours of conversation about the complexity of morality and good and evil. One of the things we discussed was the cultural aspect of morality. Specifically, he mentioned India. In India's caste system, the role of priests is spreading love and joy and peace to others. For warrior castes, it is their role to murder others. That is the highest good in that culture, to perform the role of your caste. For a priest to pick up a weapon and murder an enemy soldier, even to preserve the life of children or innocents under his care, that is a grievous sin on the part of the priest. His role is not to take life. For a warrior to do it, that is a noble and righteous deed. 

So the priest that kills an enemy warrior to protect people under his care, is he Chaotic Evil or Chaotic Good? He's obviously Chaotic, he's broken with every law and stricture of his caste and culture. The Good or Evil component depends on perspective, heh. He has committed a wrong and immoral act in his culture (being a priest and taking a life), but his intent was to preserve life. I don't know enough about the culture of India to say whether or not intent matters in a situation like this. Is he something of a martyr? I mean, his role is to spread joy and peace, and he saved lives so that they may survive and experience life and joy in the future, and to do so he knowingly sacrificed his chance for ascension in the whole reincarnation thing that is an aspect of his culture (again, I know jack shit about the culture and mythology of India, aside from lots of gods with lots of arms and reincarnation). 

I dunno. Morality is complex, alignment is stupid, and detect alignment spells are a joke. 

Is a wolf evil? Wolves are hunters, predators, carnivores. Settlers lost cattle to them and so wolves became evil to settlers and were hunted by men. The actions of the wolves potentially led to families starving and other bad stuff, because cattle were necessary to a frontier settler's survival. The wolf was following his instincts though, the wolf can't conceive of good or evil or how he'll make the family suffer. He is hungry and sees prey collected one spot. He is acting like a predator. If wolves had morality and whatnot, he'd be a righteous wolf to lead the pack against the buffet of caged cattle. If they could understand that the alpha's actions led to wolves being hunted super hard by settlers, would he then be a pathetic and evil figure in wolf history? 

Sort of in that vein, is a demon from the Abyss really evil? In Planescape, alignment is much more than just two words on a character shape. The Abyss is a Chaotic Evil plane, the hyper idealized philosophical Chaotic Evil. It is the most Chaotic and Evil place in the planes. It is the essence of the Chaotic Evil alignment and the tanar'ri (demons) are the physical manifestation of this. Their instincts, culture, nature, everything about them is built around this essential nature. They don't choose to be a gibbering horde of torturers and bloodthirsty monsters. It is what they are. They cannot truly conceive of something like genuine love and honesty or self sacrifice. Similar to the way a wolf can't. Is a shark evil? Fuck no. Terrifying as fuck, yes. But evil? No. I don't believe demons and devils in Pathfinder are either. These are alien creatures with different sets of instincts and racial attributes than humans. Do they kill and rape and spread misery and pain to humanoids? Yes. Do they enjoy it? Yes. Do they understand that others consider them evil? Yes. But their behavior is their essential nature. They are following their instincts. They have no concept of not doing this. A world without the possibility of these things does not exist for them. At their core, they're no more evil than wolves, it's just that their instincts are to commit acts perceived is evil. 

I'm not trying to say that demons and devils should be neutral or good aligned. That's just crazy. Everyone knows that demons are evil. No, I'm just trying to give stupidly in depth insight into why I think alignment is stupid. 

To bring things to my own campaign. Look at the Children of Volung. They are a warrior race, their noblest pursuits are bloodshed for pay, dueling for honor, and so on. They are a race of killers, and strong and accomplished slayers are their heroes. They're also cannibals. There is a certain amount of pragmatism to their cannibalism, especially on the field of battle or during a siege of some kind. At its core though, the consumption of the flesh of their dead is something of a holy ritual. Because they are immortal with caveats, their culture holds that there is a purity and power to their flesh, and letting it rot on the ground or be buried in the earth is sinful. They believe that by consuming their fallen, they not only allow the dead to live on in them and serve their race in one final way by sustaining the still living, but they also protect the purity and power of their flesh by taking it into themselves. They don't eat the dead because they're callous monsters, they do it to protect the spark of immortality that they believe lives within the flesh. Maybe cannibalism is icky and taboo, but to them, it is a holy ritual of sorts. 

For the Elduman, secrets and manipulations are the norm. They are liars. They deceive the other races about their nature (perhaps unknowingly) and their intentions in The Known World. They actively seek to delay the technological advancements of non-Elduman, and they 100% oppose the use of sorcery with violence. In short, they are liars, bigots, and whatever the word is for sticking your fingers into the industrialization of The Known World and trying to ruin it. But what motivates them? I'm not talking about weird pseudo-outcasts or young Elduman like the Seven, Vanden, or Donovan. If they were "normal" Elduman, they'd still be in The Old Empire and be more subtle in their manipulations of the world. 

The Elduman are masters of psionic powers, a power only they truly know how to wield properly. Coupled with their immortality, this makes them demigods compared to the other races. Sorcery approaches the power of their arts, but any dipshit with a mouth and fingers can start slinging fireballs and not worry about the consequences of his misfires. This is unacceptable to them. You cannot in good conscience give a rocket launcher to a ten year old to dick around with and expect everything to come out just peachy. This is how they view non-Elduman sorcerers. It's not a matter of maintaining their superiority (at least not wholly), it's a matter of these ten year old rocket launcher wielding fucks obliterating the world because they're dumb and incompetent and ten years old with the power of a demigod. They're liars, but what adult doesn't lie to a ten year old as a matter of course? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Buster the dog is just "sick" and he's going to stay on a farm because the fresh air will help him run around and chase his tail, etc etc etc. Grown ups are lying sacks of shit, that's their nature. The technological advancement issue is mostly self serving and partly along the lines of the ten year old with a rocket launcher thing. Finally, if you know something to be true, but it's not and you (and everyone else in the world) have no way of knowing it's not true, are you lying? Everyone thought the Earth was flat, and maps indicate it was a widespread belief, are they all liars lying to one another because of this?

Morality is complex. Alignment is stupid. It's science. 

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