The Ethics of Star Wars?

Published: December 18, 2015

By Jim Lichtman
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Yes, I questioned that notion too when I came across a link on a web search. However, I discovered something interesting.


Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register, a respected resource I’ve visited many times. Greydanus is also the creator and administrator of, “A site of film appreciation, information and criticism informed by Christian faith.”

In an undated post, “The Star Wars Films: Moral and Spiritual Issues,” guest critic Jimmy Akin wrote a lengthy analysis of some of the issues and take-aways from the film series. I’ve pulled out a few interesting segments.

“There is a strong anti-aggression message in the movies. No matter how much fantasy violence the films contain, the anti-aggression point is worked throughout all the films. It is part of the Jedi code of ethics, and is made most explicit in Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, when Jedi master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that a Jedi uses the Force only for information and self-defense — never aggression.”

Under a section entitled, “Lying and mental reservations,” Akin makes some interesting points regarding ethics.

“The good guys in the Star Wars films probably tell fewer lies than the good guys do in many other films.

“With one major exception, the lies tend to be ‘tactical’ lies — that is, the kind of lies that are told in wartime tactical situations (for example, to sneak into an area in order to pull off a rescue, as when Luke and Han rescue Princess Leia in Episode IV). They are not told for fun.

“The one major exception concerns the deception of the hero — Luke Skywalker — in order to avert a potential tragedy of galactic proportions. This deception is perpetrated by Luke’s mentors — by his uncle and aunt initially and then later by Ben Kenobi and Yoda. When Luke finally discovers that he has been deceived by those closest to him, he confronts Kenobi with the fact, and the latter is forced to acknowledge the deception, though he argues that it was a form of mental reservation – that is, what he told Luke was true ‘from a certain point of view.’ Luke is not impressed by this qualifier — nor should he be. Judged by standards of real-world moral theology, the mental reservation employed by Kenobi is not morally licit.”

Obi Wan might have considered some ethical alternatives to the deception.

“In addition to the lie just mentioned, two specific deceptions are particular causes for concern:

“In Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda first meets Luke he pretends that he is not Yoda. Cinematically, the motive for this is to highlight the unexpected and unpredictable nature of mentor figures in mythology. It is also not clear that Yoda strays from mental reservation into outright lying, but the incident remains troubling because (setting aside its cinematic rationale) there may not be significant justification for what Yoda does.

“In Episode VI — The Return of the Jedi, the main characters are in danger from a tribe that is inclined to regard the droid C-3PO as ‘some sort of god.’ C-3PO objects that ‘It’s against my programming to impersonate a deity’ — as well it should be.

“Unfortunately, Luke orders the droid to perpetuate this impression and augments the effect by using his Jedi powers to make it seem as if Threepio has magical abilities. While the life-threatening circumstances are a mitigating factor, and while the whole ‘god’ shtick disappears as soon as the immediate crisis is overcome, the film does not explore possible alternatives, and the relevant scenes are played for comedy, without censuring the manipulation of others’ religious beliefs.”

While it appears clever in  the context of a movie, Akin calls the use of “Jedi mind tricks” (the ability of a Jedi to deliberately mislead or deceive) “morally problematic.”

“The Jedi code of ethics appears to contain restrictions on when mind tricks can be used (e.g., in Episode I Qui-Gon remarks to Obi-Wan that they cannot use mind tricks to affect a political decision that will decide whether two races choose to ally with each other). Also, the Jedi use mind tricks rarely and only when there is a significant good to be achieved (e.g., personal survival through self-defense).

“Mind tricks don’t work on everyone in the Star Wars universe; in fact, Ben Kenobi says that they affect only the ‘weak-minded,’ and certain races (‘Toydarians’ and, apparently, ‘Hutts’) aren’t affected by them at all. What constitutes ‘weak-mindedness’ is not clear, but it may mean that those who are strong-minded in the sense of having a strong resolve not to do something will be invulnerable to a mind trick. If so, a person who complies with the suggestion of a mind trick would be at least partly responsible for his actions in that he wasn’t doing something he was strongly opposed to in the first place.”

Clearly, it’s important to remember that this is a MOVIE, not real life. While the characters, for the most part, use deception to avoid a clear and present danger – some even demonstrate amazing insight into future events – in the real world we need guard against the need to rationalize our choices, and place more thought on the likely consequence of our actions.

Ethicist Michael Josephson reminds us that “People are especially vulnerable to such rationalizations because of the inherent nobility of the causes they seek to advance. Frequently, one is tempted to adopt benign interpretations of deceptions, concealments, conflicts of interest, favoritism, and violation of established rules and procedures under the umbrella rationale of ‘it’s all for a good cause.’

“In as much as people are willing to hold others to high ethical standards, and apply strict tests about whether the behavior of others is proper, perhaps the biggest challenge is for people to hold themselves accountable to those same standards.”

May the ethical Force Be with You!


  1. It all sounds like the Jedi code was lifted out of Hinduism and the idea of ‘dharma’ incorporated into the code, but aligning it to Star Wars, making it easy for young people to have a philosophy of some kind. The Freemasons also has their vids to uphold the law and be helpful citizens. The Jedi code makes use of an old philosophy, but follow your dharma!

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