Thursday, February 9, 2017

Neo-Machiavellianism and Rogue One

Several critics have noted Rogue One’s departure from the rather stark black and white conflict between good and evil in the main Star Wars storyline. While some viewers have praised this grayness, other critics have lambasted this turn away from the simple morality of the main series. In a review entitled “Why the New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Could Use Some moral Clarity,” Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, condemns the film for “overturning previously black/white judgments about certain actions” and concludes that “‘Star Wars’ has a moral responsibility to live up to its longtime charge of teaching children that, while people often have various levels of ambiguity, the same cannot be said of certain gravely evil actions that should be always and everywhere condemned.” Similarly, although with less condemnation, Matthew Gault writes at Motherboard that “Even the Good Guys in ‘Rogue One’ Are Bad.”

By what might be considered the widely accepted moral framework of our time, such critics might be correct in their condemnation of the moral message portrayed in Rogue One, and, in fact, given some of the extremely subversive messages at play in the film, it is surprising that more critics have not spoken out against it. For, when it is all said and done, Rogue One is a film about a moral framework that places immense and, when one is honest, terrifying responsibilities of discernment upon the individual. And as the film so aptly shows, there are no easy answers, and sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, one still ends up choosing incorrectly.

The best way to describe this framework would be as Neo-Machiavellian. Machiavelli, the renaissance politician, and political theorist, often gets a bad rap for supposedly being a “preacher of evil” or at least advocating amoralism when it comes to politics. This perception is due, in no small part, to Machiavelli’s own words, such as when he explicitly states that it is necessary “to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates.” However, when one examines Machiavelli with more nuance, it is possible to expand upon his core points into what one might call a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework.

At its core, Neo-Machiavellianism would argue, in the words of political theorist Claes Ryn, that whether he recognized it or not, Machiavelli “is, in effect, not so much exempting politics from morality in tough situations as attempting to to redefine political morality.” Machiavelli speaks of effective truth, in contrast to imagined truth, because he is interested in the truth that “leads to action in the world,” as Machiavelli translator, Wayne Rebhorn, has noted. This real world action is what is at the core of a Neo-Machiavellian moral analysis. In The Prince Machiavelli notes that “in the actions of all men… where there is no appeal, one looks at the outcome." In other words, one must judge the morality of an action by the results that were brought about by the action, not by the intent behind it, or by its adherence to certain abstract principles that are considered to be good in a vacuum.  

Machiavelli urges his reader to acknowledge that humans live in the real world that is inhabited by less than perfect people. In The Prince, he writes that "the distance is so great between how we live and how we ought to live that he who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation; because a man who wants to make a profession of goodness in everything is bound to come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince, if he wants to preserve himself, to learn how not to be good, and use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates." This passage exemplifies the way in which Neo-Machiavellians view Machiavelli as redefining political morality, even though he still operates under the framework of conventional morality.

Whereas Machiavelli at least claimed that what he was urging the ruler to do was something bad, he argued that it was needed, in the end, for the greater good. However, the Neo-Machiavellian would instead argue that such actions are not actually evil at all, but since morality is determined by “looki[ng] at the outcome,” actually good and moral actions that should be carried out, despite their departure from conventional morality. Claes Ryn explains this difference as being that “the point is not that the end justifies the means and that evil means are permissible provided they are for a good end. A good end can only be achieved through good means. Our point is that lying, deceit, violence and other actions which are scorned by the conventional morality of civilized society can be substantively moral, i.e., good, in some circumstances.”

This definition of morality is much more demanding of the individual than the conventional morality based on ahistoric and abstract universal moral ideals that are applicable in all times and places. If one believes it is in all times and all places wrong to kill someone, then one must never wrestle with the decision of whether or not the decision to kill someone would be the correct choice in a specific circumstance. The conventional morality also frees its adherents from questioning the results of an action; one must simply follow the principle, regardless of the outcome. How much more difficult things are for the neo-Machiavellian who must strive to discern what the morally correct action is in each individual circumstance, knowing that since an action’s morality is judged not by the intent behind it, but by its results, it is all too easy to make mistakes and miscalculations.

Rogue One provides the perfect scenario in which to observe a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework in use, and likewise to observe the way in which such a framework requires a much higher level of moral responsibility and discernment than conventional morality.    

One of the most contentious moments of Rogue One is when Cassian Andor, the Rebel Intelligence agent, shoots one of his informants in the back in order to escape from the Imperials. In any conventional moral framework, such a dastardly deed would certainly be viewed as wrong. However, a Neo-Machiavellian, recalling The Prince, would instead look to the outcome of an action in order to evaluate its morality. Cassian clearly believes that it is necessary to kill his informant to avoid the Imperials realizing what a large intelligence leak has occurred. If he followed conventional morality, he risked the lives of trillions of beings across the galaxy.

Yet, as Cassian realizes, there is no way of knowing for sure if his decision was the correct one. Perhaps the Imperials would find out the information another way, or perhaps they already knew the extent of the intelligence breach.  If so, then Cassian’s killing was pointless. Cassian clearly stated that he and other members if Rebel Intelligence had done numerous unseemly things in service to the Rebellion. The morality of those actions hinged upon the outcome they brought about.

In an attempt to do what they believed was right (and all of their dark deeds being rendered meaningless), the members of call sign Rogue One took matters into their own hands and disobeyed direct orders and launched the operation on Scarif. This leads to the very clear moral theme of Rogue One: that moral responsibility and agency can never be transferred or given up.

Conventional morality has largely enshrined authority and authority figures, to such an extent that, as the Milgram experiments demonstrated, some regular people will follow orders to the point of killing someone else, even though they believe it is wrong. However, in Rogue One, we see numerous instances of people flouting authority in order to do what they believe is right. We see Cassian disobey direct orders to assassinate Galen Erso, and then commit mutiny when hatching the plan to infiltrate Scarif. We see Admiral Radus also completely disregard the Rebel chain of command’s instructions not to attack and bring an entire Rebel battle group along with him. When she learns of the infiltration, Mon Mothma encourages General Antoc Merrick to join the attack, effectively abandoning any pretense of holding onto the established rules of the Rebel Alliance. Similarly, we learn that Saw Gerrera had broken off from the main Rebel Alliance and had charted his own course when he came to believe that the Alliance leadership was in error.

Had the 
heroes of the story adhered to conventional morality the Death Star plans never would have been recovered and countless trillions more beings would have perished under the Imperial yoke. Yet, as the film so magnificently portrays, exercising one’s moral agency can come at an immense cost. The decision to infiltrate Scarif led to the loss of large amounts of vital Rebel ships and material, not to mention the thousands of lives that were lost on both the battle in space and on the planet’s surface. Had the mission not succeeded, the entire attempt would have been nothing but a complete waste, a meaningless gesture that did no harm of consequence to the Empire.

The convenient thing about following conventional morality is that for the most part, one’s choices are already made. While surrendering one’s moral agency to following the conventional, one can easily make one’s self believe that one bears no responsibility for the outcome. While this belief, a Neo-Machiavellian would argue, is not true, it is certainly easy to believe that is the case (although certainly not always, as the heroic defection of Bodhi Rook demonstrates). Contrast such a veneer of moral surety with the moral conflict and uncertainty that comes with courageously grappling with the implications of one’s moral agency, as so many characters in Rogue One do. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, as opposed to merely following order or convention, makes one fully appreciate the vast amount of unknowns one faces when making a choice. Such uncertainty can be terrifying and maddening. One needs only to look at Saw Gerrera to see what the cumulative effect of years upon years of making difficult decisions, some of them incorrect, can do to a person. When one is simply following orders or convention one can always pass off the blame for mistakes and failures, but when one has embraced one’s moral agency, one has no choice but to confront the unfiltered consequences of one’s actions in an uncertain world. Clearly, such pressure drove even a hardened fighter such as Saw Gerrera to the brink of madness.      

In summary, a Neo-Machiavellian moral framework is comprised of two main components. The first is the idea that morality should not be based on abstract ideals or universalized principles applied to all times and all places. Rather, this moral framework posits that morality must be measured by the results. Wrong actions lead to evil results, while good actions lead to good results. Conventional morality does not contain the flexibility needed for dealing with the non-ideal and non-uniform that one must confront in the real world. The second component is that one bears ultimate moral responsibility for one’s actions. The Neo-Machiavellian has the moral courage and fortitude in order to accept this responsibility, rather than merely abandoning it behind the excuse of orders and conventions.

The moral themes portrayed by the characters in Rogue One overwhelmingly exhibit these traits. Whether it is carrying out assassinations, committing mutiny, or completely disregard the institutional framework governing the Rebel Alliance, the characters in Rogue One abandoned conventional morality in order to do what they believed was morally necessary. Likewise, they accepted the responsibility for their decisions and actions, even to the point of death.The heroes of the story had the moral courage and conviction to abandon the comfort of convention in order to do what they believed was right.


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