Which Side Is The Dark Side? [Moral Resource]

From Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005):

Palpatine: “Anakin, search your feelings.”
Anakin: “The Jedi use their power for good.”
Palpatine: “Good is a point of view, Anakin.”
Anakin: “The Sith rely on their passion for their strength. They think inwards only about themselves.”
Palpatine: “And the Jedi don’t?”
Anakin: “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”
Obi-Wan: “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes. I will do what I must…Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.”
Anakin: “From the Jedi point of view! From my point of view, the Jedi are evil.”

When I first saw Revenge of the Sith in the theater with my wife and some friends, we got a good laugh out of this kind of dialogue. In the midst of trying to be profound through his characters, George Lucas never realizes the absurdity of the supposed wisdom he imparts.

Anakin’s (a.k.a. Darth Vader’s) evil mentor, Palpatine, sounds like a moral relativist. His proverb, “Good is a point of view, Anakin,” is the definition of moral relativism. But does he really believe this? If he did, he wouldn’t be grooming Anakin to destroy his Jedi enemies. Instead, he would just say, “Good is a point of view, Anakin. Jedi ideas are just as good as ours, so let’s just all get along.” But that wouldn’t make for a very interesting six-part epic, would it? Anakin, like his master, Palpatine, speaks relativism (“From my point of view, the Jedi are evil”), but reveals that he really lives by absolutes when he says to Obi-Wan, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.”

But it is not only the Star Wars villains who contradict themselves; so do the heroes. The samurai-like Jedi represented by Obi-Wan (and Yoda) are Lucas’s moral voice for the Star Wars films. Through Obi-Wan, Lucas lectures us about the dangers of the Sith’s black-and-white, intolerant, absolutist views. In other words, Lucas frames absolute truth as being dangerously extremist. The irony is that through Obi-Wan he unwittingly exposes the absurdity of moral relativism. Consider this classic pair of self-defeating statements: Obi-Wan says, “Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes” but then says, “Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil.” (I wanted to yell at the screen, “Isn’t that an absolute??!!”)

Note that feelings dictate absolutes in the Star Wars films just as they often do for moral relativists in real life. Palpatine’s advice, “Anakin, search your feelings” and Obi-Wan’s advice in the original Star Wars, “Trust your feelings, Luke” are two examples. Unfortunately, the shifting nature of feelings make them an unreliable way to navigate through life.

George Lucas does offer us wisdom, but not the kind he intends. He gives us a vivid picture of why relativism doesn’t work. In a sci-fi epic, you can suspend the laws of physics, but you still can’t suspend absolute truth. One must use an absolute in order to deny an absolute (e.g., “There are no absolutes!”)–no matter how  tolerant or inclusive one claims to be.

There is no such thing as a pure relativist, only those who pose as relativists in order to sound morally superior or politically correct. Even people who claim to be relativists must use absolutes (i.e., fixed standards) to determine that relativism is better than absolutism.