Spoilers to follow (you’ve been warned)!
The 40+ year Star Wars franchise has finally drawn the story of the powerful Skywalker family to a close. Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker served a powerful end to the story first started with A New Hope in 1977.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I absolutely loved Episode IX. It connected all three trilogies and provided a satisfying “passing of the torch” to a new generation of heroes, in particular Rey. There were even references to both Star Wars TV show, The Clone Wars and Rebels, from character cameos to easter eggs (such as The Ghost flying side by side with the Millenium Falcon).
The Star Wars franchise is also well known for its philosophical undertones, and The Rise of Skywalker did not disappoint. The movie raises some interesting questions about our culture’s views of morality, and if they are tenable.
Three types of Relativism
For some time the Star Wars series has been known for its amusing embrace of relativism. In Revenge of the Sith, when Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts his former student, now turned enemy, Anakin Skywalker (who is now called Darth Vader) the following dialogue ensues:
Vader: “If you aren’t with me, then you are my enemy.”
Obi-wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must…”
They begin their duel, leading to the epic conclusion of the film and the subsequent full transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, his new evil identity.
The self-contradictory statement of Obi-wan makes us chuckle, but it highlights the dominant moral framework of our culture today: relativism.
As Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl point out in their book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, there are three types of relativism: Society says relativism, Society Does relativism, and I say Relativism.
“Society does relativism” is easy to understand. Cultures (and by extension, subcultures) differ in their values. Some cultures completely abstain from eating meat, whereas in other countries there are hamburger joints virtually everywhere. Some cultures celebrate the rights of women (think of the Women’s Marches in 2016), some treat women as second class citizens (think of Iran or Taliban-controlled Afghanistan).
“Society Does Relativism” is descriptive; it simply describes the differing values within cultures or societies.
“Society says relativism” is different. Society says relativism declares that all values are relative to the cultures that hold them, and that no culture has superior values to another. For instance, some social scientists decry the influence of Christian missionaries from the United States in places like China, or Africa, as a form of imposing one’s cultural views (in this case, Christianity) on a culture that differs (i.e., Chinese Buddhist or Taoist cultures). Since all views, values, and ethics are relative to the culture one hails from, it’s impossible to say one system is superior to another.
Lastly, there’s “I Say Relativism.” This view is similar to “Society Says Relativism,” albeit at the individual level and not the group level. This view is especially popular in the United States, and among the various political philosophies, including conservatives, liberals, and libertarians.
I say relativism holds that morals, values, or truths are relative to the individual that holds them. In a way, it is the basis of pro-choice views; no person can tell another person what to do, because they may have a different moral framework or set of values imported from culture, family, religion, or elsewhere.
The allure of relativism has increased since the sexual revolution and has been a major driving force in the debates over issues in Bio-ethics and human sexuality. It is the basis for slogans such as “Don’t like abortion, don’t have one!”
Relativism is based on the assumption that there are no overarching moral principles or moral truths. The assumption leads to the conclusion that there are no moral views that are inherently better than others. The view that abortion is the unjust killing of innocent human beings is no better than the view that abortion is a legitimate exercise of a woman’s autonomy. Some people may view premarital sex as morally problematic for themselves, but others may see it as something to be engaged in when one feels ready to do so(with a consenting partner, of course). Using illicit drugs is something each person must decide to do for themselves.
“I say Relativism” is vastly popular in America and Europe today, but it suffers from a number of flaws that prove fatal.
Back to Star Wars
An interesting conversation during Episode IX is instructive here. Halfway through the movie, we see Finn, Rey, and Poe crashland on a planet near where the battle of Endor was fought in Return of the Jedi, seeking a clue to the location of the movie’s villain, Darth Sidious (Palpatine).
After landing, a woman named Jannah and several other humans meet up with Finn and the others to help them make repairs on their ship. While talking with Finn, Jannah reveals that she is a former First Order stormtrooper along with everyone else on the planet. She tells Finn that when her company was ordered to kill civilians, they couldn’t bring themselves to do it. They “just had a feeling” that what they were doing was inherently wrong. Finn, himself a former stormtrooper, says the same feeling is what led him to leave the First Order and ultimately join the Resistance.
The scene helps show one of the major problems with all three types of Relativism: Some things really are inherently evil, which means there is such a thing as objective moral good.
If Relativism were true, and all morality is a matter of social construction, or personal opinion, or socially determined, then Jannah’s line ultimately makes no sense. There was nothing really right or wrong in the decision to lay down their weapons and escape the First Order. All we would know is something about her psychological state, nothing about her moral character.
Back to this Galaxy
As the philosopher J. Budziszewski puts it, good and evil, right and wrong are the things “We can’t not know.” We may try to suppress our moral knowledge or lose the ability to grasp said knowledge through mental illness or social conditioning, but it’s still there. The Declaration of Independence gives voice to this, proclaiming the existence of “self-evident” truths.
Relativism also leads to other absurdities. Consider the real life story of John Newton, the 18th Century British minister. Newton had been a slaveship captain in the 1700s before ultimately renouncing the evils of the British Slave Trade and becoming a Christian(and later wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”). Now, if relativism(in any of it’s three forms) is accurate, then we are left with the bizarre conclusion that nothing of significance changed in Newton’s life; only his psychology changed. He couldn’t be said to be a better or worse man because in relativism those terms are ultimately just social constructs. There’s something deeply problematic with a view that teaches moral reform is nonsense.
The problems get worse. Under relativism, social justice itself becomes ultimately incoherent. Star Wars clarifies:
Did the Resistance actually have moral superiority to the First Order, or did they merely disagree with the cultural values of the First Order? To each their own, right? If the latter, then Star Wars becomes a pretty dull and pointless franchise. Why root for the Rebels when there’s no real difference between them and the Empire worth mentioning? If relativism is true, then there’s no real reason to celebrate the redemption of Kylo Ren or Darth Vader, because nothing of significance changed. As Koukl and Beckwith point out, a relativist can’t even promote praise or blame, because there’s no real basis for either. Kylo Ren turning back to the light at the end of The Rise of Skywalker is not really different than turning to the dark before The Force Awakens.
Talk about boring.
In the real world, what becomes of modern struggles for moral reform? If relativism is true, the only difference between a Martin Luther King and a white supremacist would be a difference of sub cultural values; the difference between Dietrich Bonhoffer and the Nazis was interpretation; the difference between a human sex trafficker and a human rights activist is mere psychology.
There’s something intuitively wrong about a worldview that teaches moral Reform is meaningless. We know better. We recoil from stories of genocide, of racial hatred, of sex slavery, and other evils for a very good reason: These are actually evil. Now it’s possible for a person to be confused about right and wrong. But just like a person might be confused about which direction is North or South, people who are morally confused need to be pointed in the right direction.
The fact that some things are objectively evil means that there are things that are objectively good. And if there’s such a thing as real good, then maybe there is an ultimate Good, from which all other good things are a reflection of. And maybe, as Francis Schaeffer poignantly says it, “He is there, and He is not silent.”
Bottom line: The Dark Side is objectively bad, wrong, and evil!