‘The Last Jedi’: A New Look at a Classic Ethical Dilemma

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Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

A lot of fans really, really do not like The Last Jedi.

The reasons why are legion.

There are the trolls who say the film is being too inclusive, that it’s pushing diversity and a political agenda. These fans are best left ignored.

There are people who had certain expectations that were not met, expectations about Rey’s parentage, or about Snoke’s mysteries.

Also within this group were people who expected to see Luke Skywalker as a badass warrior.

Some of these expectations about Luke were generated by the Legends/Extended Universe novels, in which Luke is often presented as just that kind of figure.

Some of these expectations were a result of conditioning from the prequel trilogy, in which we saw Jedi Masters like Yoda and Mace Windu whip out their lightsabers for some impressive action scenes.

The Last Jedi deliberately fails to deliver in this regard, and even chides fans for expecting it. Luke may as well be speaking directly to the audience when he says to Rey, “You think what? I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order? What did you think was going to happen here?”

But then there are the fans who were disappointed by The Last Jedi’s treatment of Luke in other ways, and these criticisms seem more substantive, at least on the surface.

One of the film’s pivotal moments gives us a flashback of Luke attacking Ben. This serves as the catalyst that transforms Ben into Kylo Ren, and is so pivotal a moment in the story that we’re given three variations of it.

The first is told by Luke, and is framed as him being attacked by Ben. This is a deliberate lie of omission on Luke’s part, as he is ashamed to admit the truth to Rey.

The second variation is Kylo’s recollection of events, and from his perspective, Luke lifts his lightsaber intending to strike a killing blow, and young Ben acts purely out of self-defense.

The third and final variation is told by Luke, but the film presents it as if this is the objective truth of that moment, as opposed to just Luke’s memory of it. In this version, Luke never strikes at Ben, but he does ignite his lightsaber with the intention of doing so, before changing his mind.

This scene is where the film loses a lot of fans. It has been called by many the “character assassination of Luke Skywalker.”

The same man who allowed Darth Vader to live, whose hand was stayed by compassion, never would have even considered attacking Ben. Or so the argument goes.

I’m not sure that makes sense.

What we see play out with Luke is actually a new take on a classic ethical dilemma:

If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill baby Hitler?

A few years ago, the New York Times Magazine official twitter conducted an informal survey, asking its readers what they would do if faced with the classic dilemma.

42% said yes, they would kill baby Hitler.

30% said no.

28% said they were unsure.

For my part, I would have to say no. It’s not ethical to kill a child for any potential crimes they may commit in the future.

That seems obvious in the abstract, but when you’re talking specifically about Hitler, a man directly responsible for the genocide of 6 million Jews alongside the 75–80 million casualties from the war at large? It’s no longer quite as obvious.

I did eventually come to the conclusion that I would not kill baby Hitler, but it was not an immediate hard no. Even now, I’m not entirely certain of my position. When you see a number like 86 million people, you start to think, well, maybe infanticide might be acceptable in this one case. That’s what makes it such a juicy ethical dilemma. Because the answer’s not obvious.

I would hazard a guess that most of the people in that 42% would probably lack the will to follow through if they were the ones who actually had to pull the trigger.

Just like Luke. He made the right decision in the end, and he did not strike.

But I can’t blame him for thinking about it.

Because Kylo Ren is Hitler.

As to the argument that it’s out of character for Luke, because he refused to kill Vader: that argument ignores the context of both situations.

To invoke the Hitler analogy again, Luke’s showdown with Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi would be the equivalent of an Allied soldier storming Hitler’s bunker and finding him still alive, and then being faced with the ethical decision of whether he should execute Hitler on the spot, or take him prisoner in order to stand trial for his war crimes.

As you can already see, this is a vastly different ethical situation from the dilemma over killing baby Hitler.

There is no real benefit to killing adult Hitler. It would just be an emotional act. A fulfillment of a revenge fantasy, a display of pure bloodlust. That’s why killing Vader would have pushed Luke to the dark side.

But killing baby Hitler is an act that could be done with the purest of intentions — saving the lives of 86 millions people. It wouldn’t be an act committed out of anger, but one motivated by protecting the innocent. Even if you believed that killing a defenseless baby was enough to doom you—to Hell, or to the Dark Side, or whatever else—there is an argument to be made that you should do it anyway. That it’s worth the personal sacrifice, as long as it saves 86 million lives.

And that’s why it’s not out of character for Luke to consider killing Ben even though he spared Vader’s life.

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