With the ever-expanding canon of the Star Wars saga, the writers elucidate Sith philosophy. Comparing this with real world beliefs, especially Friedrich Nietzsche’s master morality, we can draw key conclusions about the nature of morality and of the universe itself.
Lords of the Sith
Approximately ten years after Revenge of the Sith, rebels on Ryloth led by Cham Syndulla assault a Star Destroyer, stranding Darth Vader and the Emperor in a tropical forest, and proceed to hunt them down. This novel, Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp, includes the thoughts and dialogue of apprentice and master, giving insight into their worldview. (No significant spoilers follow.)
The introduction includes Vader’s meditation:
Fear was a tool used by the strong to cow the weak. Hate was the font of true strength. Suffering was not the result of the rule of the strong over the weak, order was. By its very existence, the Force mandated the rule of the strong over the weak; the Force mandated order. The Jedi had never seen that, and so they’d misunderstood the Force and been destroyed. But Vader’s Master saw it. Vader saw it. And so they were strong. And so they ruled.
Vader doesn’t seek power just because he wants it. He’s not guided by selfishness alone. According to his worldview, his moral duty requires that he seeks and exerts power because he is a powerful individual. The Force even “mandates” it.
The Sith, of course, do not exist. Do we find their beliefs in our galaxy?
Master and Slave Morality
In the Genealogy of Morals, Freidrich Nietzsche maintains societies such as the Roman Empire initially function with “master morality” until movements like Judaism and Christianity grow up and oppose it, which he calls “slave morality.” In the former, the aristocrats and nobility create value, determining good and bad depending on what benefits them, also believing their good ultimately benefits society. Similarly, Vader contends that the rule of the strong brings the order society needs.
In response, Nietzsche argues, the lower classes hate the upper class, identifying them and their virtues as evil. Out of resentment, they value what the nobles disregard. Hence, as Wikipedia puts it, “Master morality values pride and power, while slave morality values things like kindness, empathy, and sympathy.”
Nietzsche praises the nobles for their power and criticizes the lower class as vulgar, weak, cowardly, and petty, supposing their love and forgiveness serve as pretext for weakness. Whether or not he correctly states that the nobility in various civilizations believed they ought to rule on the basis of their strength, pride, and ambition, Nietzsche believes they should. In this way, his master morality lines up with Sith philosophy.
Natural and Non-natural Moral Realism
To understand the implications of Vader and Nietzsche’s morality, we must introduce a few philosophical terms. Starting with moral realism, this belief contends that moral principles are true and real. While they may manifest differently in different situations, morality is not relative or merely a human construct.
[For the sake of brevity, this article assumes moral realism, but for more information, check out Inspiring Philosophy’s video series on moral philosophy.]
Assuming moral principles exist objectively, as even Vader believes, are they part of the natural, material world (i.e. natural moral realism also known as ethical naturalism) or do they exist apart from it (i.e. non-natural moral realism)? Using insights from Star Wars and Nietzsche, we will see that morality should not be grounded in the natural world, which means moral principles exist supernaturally.
Which Morality Do We Find in Nature?
As Vader and Palpatine walk through Ryloth’s forest, they hear the sounds of predator eating prey. Darth Sidious comments they can learn from nature: the strong survive, the weak die.1 As they prove their supremacy by fighting Ryloth’s apex predator, another character identifies them as the galaxy’s apex predator.
The symbolism is not subtle. Sith morality functions like the natural, material world. It says that what “ought” to happen is that which “is” happening.2 In other words, if morality is grounded in the natural world, if the “ought” is in line with the “is,” then Sith morality would be correct.
In Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche even makes a case from nature, comparing the nobility and “vulgar” man with birds of prey and lambs. In this context, he defends the rule of the strong, saying it is absurd “to require of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a wish to overpower, a wish to overthrow, a wish to become master, a thirst for enemies and antagonisms and triumphs.”
So called “slave morality,” which agrees with the morality of the Rebellion, New Republic, modern society, and Judeo-Christian scripture, on the other hand, clearly does not reflect nature.3 Scripture maintains that all people are made in the image of God, and modern society says we all have human rights. This reflection of God and rights are equal, even when we cannot find this equality in our physical bodies or minds, even when individuals vary in ability, intelligence, competency, and self-awareness.
Hence, we “ought” to respect one another’s rights. We “ought” to love others, even if no one else “is” doing it or if no one thinks we should. The “ought” exists apart from our understanding (i.e. moral realism), and it exists apart from the material universe (i.e. non-natural moral realism).
To clarify the argument:
- If morality is grounded in the natural/material world, what we “ought” to do is based on what typically “is.”
- In the natural/material world, the strong typically dominate the weak for their own benefit.
- From 1 and 2, if morality is grounded in the natural/material world, then the strong ought to dominate the weak.
- It is not true that the strong ought to dominate the weak because, you know, Alderaan and everything else we learned from Star Wars!
- From 1 and 4, it is false that morality is grounded in natural/material world.
A Jedi Retort
Based on his interaction with Rey in The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker might disagree with point 2, saying the premise is a Sith interpretation of world. Instead, he sees life and death in balance. The struggle of life and death, even when the strong defeat the weak, produces a greater good, i.e. the continuation of living beings.
With this interpretation, nature uses the life and death of individuals to continue the species and ecosystem, which leads to the flourishing of life throughout the galaxy. Hence, if “ought” is based on “is,” we must work towards the flourishing of life… even at the disregard of the individual.
There, of course, lies the problem. While we must balance concern for the individual and the community, understanding that Western culture leans too heavily towards individualism, we must also acknowledge that nature gives no regard to the individual. A moral understanding without individual human rights might be better than the Sith worldview, but it will still justify murder.
Conclusions and Implications
As nature does not value the weak or the individual, we cannot conclude that morality is grounded in or found in the natural, material world. The “ought” does not coincide with what “is.” We must acknowledge that something—namely moral principles of what we “ought” to do—exist apart from the material universe.
- They perceive the predator-prey relationship to flow from the will of the Force. Does this mean they have a supernatural foundation for their morality? No. The Force, unlike God in real-world beliefs, does not exist apart from the creation, but part of the material universe, itself “created by all living things.” ↩
- Morality is about “ought.” It says what “ought” to happen and what we “ought” to do. Philosopher David Hume noted the is-ought problem, also known as Hume’s guillotine. He argued that people, which includes the Emperor, err when they assume an “ought” from an “is.” ↩
- Nor is it a hateful reaction to master morality as Nietzsche says. ↩