When Competing Moral Claims Get in a Fistfight

The result is how you judge moral complexity.

Morality anchors the universes of Middle Earth and Star Wars. Both stories revolve around the classic battle of good versus evil – Star Wars sets this battle in the reaches of deep space, while Lord of the Rings casts it in a mythological version of our past. In both universes, evil is real, alive, and powerful. But good is just as real.  Even though it may appear outgunned, it is worth fighting for. And in the end, good proves its true strength by triumphing over evil.

But moral complexity is a trickier matter. Morality makes transcendent claims about right and wrong and imposes those claims on the conscience. Moral complexity occurs when two of those claims get into a fistfight.

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In Star Wars, there is only one moral question: Will you take up arms against the evil Empire?  Luke Skywalker shows his moral courage by joining the Rebels in their darkest hour, while the seemingly invincible Death Star closes in on their secret base. When Han Solo refuses to join in the Rebels’ hour of need, he comes across as callous and mercenary – and when he flies the Millennium Falcon in at the last second, we cheer, because he  has chosen the side of the angels. (Or at least the side of the Force ghosts.) Even the dramatic redemption of Darth Vader – a touching, nuanced scene – works because Vader is, in the end, joining the Rebels.

In Middle Earth, by contrast, we see characters constantly choosing between competing moral claims. When Faramir has Frodo in his power, he is torn between his duty to his Steward (“bring me that One Ring”) and the claims of justice (“let the Hobbit finish his quest”).  Later on, when Beregond defends Faramir from being burned alive, he must break his guard’s oath in order to save his innocent lord from death. And when Gandalf counsels Theoden to spare Wormtongue, he is presenting the king with a contest between the claims of justice and the claims of mercy.


Jonathan Bales is a lawyer and amateur geopolitical strategist. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Northern Virginia.

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