Not long ago I asked the question of whether or not robots and androids have souls by primarily focusing on Avengers: Age of Ultron. But after seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a different questioned popped into my mind: is it ethical to use droids as servants? For this question, we will have to discuss the subject of souls once again, as well as some other interesting factors. From a religious perspective, this has certain consequences and could paint our heroes to some extent as extremely problematic.
Souls are often a complicated thing that can be understood as the part of you that lives on after you die or even the spark of God that makes you the person that you are. It becomes even more difficult when we ask who has a soul. There was a time when people believed that people of different ethnic groups didn’t have souls, largely in order to justify their enslavement or genocide. Today pro- and anti-abortion groups argue over whether or not a fetus is alive and has a soul. Animal rights activists argue over whether or not animals have souls, and even whether or not plants have souls has been up for debate. From a religious perspective, most people believe that their souls were given to them by some sort of deity, but what about things that are not human? There are some ways of understanding a nonhuman soul; for example, in my previous post I discussed Thomas Aquinas’s hierarchy of souls:
Famous Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas built upon Aristotelian thought to discuss a hierarchy of souls. Thomas Aquinas believed that everything living has a soul, but that there is also a hierarchy of souls. Plants had the lowest soul, then animals; humans were at the top of the soul hierarchy because of their use of abstract thought.
But what if a nonhuman entity can use abstract thought? Ultron and Vision certainly could and it certainly appears that the droids of Star Wars do too. Let’s look mainly at characters like C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB-8, who all display some human characteristics. It is still difficult to say whether or not these droids have souls, because a soul is not something that can be easily quantified or understood. But for the sake of this article, let’s assume that the droids have a soul.
When something has a soul, then it becomes more than a machine or a simple object. We believe things like computers and hammers don’t have souls and are just objects that we can use. You don’t have to ask a hammer for permission to use it and you can own a hammer without it being considered slavery. You don’t even own it the way we would a pet or plant, where we love it and feel the need to take care of it. Okay, so maybe some people take care of their favorite objects very diligently, but I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that there is a very clear difference. Robots are meant to be created as tools—basically a super complex hammer that can be used to make human lives easier. The question science fiction authors have always asked is: what if those robots gained consciousness, gained a soul, and didn’t want to serve humanity anymore?
In Star Wars, we haven’t seen any droids exhibit the desire to not serve people, but we do see them with a consciousness, the ability for abstract thought, and emotions. It makes more sense that these droids somehow developed this spark of a soul than to assume that Anakin programmed C-3PO to have some pretty severe anxiety. Having a droid who is afraid of things and even hates space travel makes no sense. If we could program emotion, then it would make more sense to program droids to be more like R2-D2—courageous and extremely loyal. But while the ability to program emotions—to simulate emotions and even personality—is possible, it is unlikely that the droids would actually feel these emotions. Mostly they would simulate them and we would project our own understanding of those emotions on them. Well, I suppose that since C-3PO is also a protocol droid built by Anakin to help his mother around the house, he isn’t really programmed to be a droid in the Rebel Alliance, whereas droids like R2-D2 we see acting as copilots in fighter jets. This could explain why R2-D2 is more adventurous and C-3PO is so anxious on all their adventures. But it is still confusing that their response to doing things outside their programming is emotional, instead of “does not compute”. I think it’s very clear from the movies that C-3PO feels real fear, R2-D2 really is that brave, and BB-8 really is that loyal.
We also see that despite being the same type of droid and presumably having the same programming, certain droids are just a cut above the rest. Queen Amidala specifically wants to meet with R2-D2 after he saves her ship in order to commend him. And people like Poe assert that BB-8 is one of a kind, though that could be because of Poe’s own affections for the droid and not simply because of BB-8’s skill. We also see that droids can mourn and can even fear death. C-3PO certainly fears being harmed to the point that he can’t be repaired and worries that R2-D2 won’t be able to be repaired after he helps Luke destroy the Death Star.
Despite the droids having very human characteristics that could indicate them having a soul and will of their own, they are still viewed as servants and objects. They have owners whom they refer to as their masters, they can be given away to other people, despite what they may want, and are often ordered to do things by their masters. It’s true that their owners, namely the good guys in Star Wars, often treat the droids well and like one of the family, but is it ethical to view them as servants or slaves when they seem to have certain qualities that are indicative of having a soul? Is owning a droid similar to slavery?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church there is a reason that slavery is condemned in the Church. It states:
The Seventh Commandment forbids acts or enterprises that …. lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard for their personal dignity. It is a sin against the dignity of persons and their fundamental rights to reduce them by violence to their productive value or to a source of profit. St. Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother …. both in the flesh and in the Lord.”
The Church specifically states that humans cannot be bought and sold as slaves because it harms their basic dignity. All living things have dignity to some respect, because they have souls—this is why the Church is also not okay with destroying the environment or mistreating animals (though doing those things also affects humans which is their primary concern). But again, as Aquinas explains, there is a hierarchy of souls, and while it is acceptable to own a pet, it is not acceptable to harm a human, because it harms the dignity granted to them. From a Christian perspective, all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, giving them value and dignity, giving them souls, a piece of the divine. If the droids of Star Wars have souls I think it is safe to say that their souls would be higher than those of a plant. But would they have a soul of an animal or a human?
If droids have a similar soul to animals, then it would be considered acceptable to own them, but if their soul is similar to that of a human then we have to say it is unethical to keep a droid as a slave or any sort of unpaid servant. I think to some extent the writers intend for us to look at characters like R2-D2 and BB-8 as pets. We are supposed to coo over how cute and funny they are but not see them as anything close to human. And their nonhuman design and their language makes it that much easier for us to view them as nonhuman, but you can’t say that for C-3PO, who looks human and whom we can understand. Furthermore, even if we the audience can’t understand R2-D2 and BB-8, certain characters like Luke and Rey certainly can, so their beeping is really just like having their own language. Droids still have a lot of characteristics that they share with humans that would be indicative of a soul.
I suppose one could come up with a new hierarchy claiming that droids are lower than humans but higher than animals, but that would certainly be up for a lot of debate, because again, you can’t quantify a soul. Even Aquinas’s hierarchy of souls, which we are using here as our measuring stick, can easily be debated. In the end it really is pretty impossible to understand whether or not droids have a soul and thus whether it’s ethical to continue to own them and use them for human needs, because we barely understand how our own souls work. So far the droids don’t seem to mind being owned by humans. That doesn’t make it okay, necessarily, but until more worldbuilding is done in the Star Wars movies whether it is truly unethical remains unclear. However, maybe the answer really is that it doesn’t matter what kind of souls the droids have, they still need to be treated with dignity and respect.