Last week, Lady Geek Girl asked whether it was ethical to keep droids as servants, in the Star Wars universe. Her answer centers around the idea of souls, and whether droids might qualify as soul-bearing beings. Ultimately, she concluded, it doesn’t matter if they have souls, these machines need to be treated with dignity and respect.
I’d like to expand on the idea, because it’s a good one. If we assume souls exist and are part of what makes us fully human, then we have to deal with the question of non-human beings that exhibit traits that philosophers like to assign to souls. Our favorite geeky genres are a great place to experiment with a lot of these ideas, with all sorts of beasts and beings with all kinds of abilities. So if you’ll indulge me for a few moments, I’d like to take a look at how droids are basically the Harry Potter house-elves of the Star Wars universe, and what that could mean about their place in their own universe.
First, let’s take a look at how droids function in Star Wars. Lady Geek Girl already covered this in detail, so I’ll summarize. Star Wars droids function as robotic servants and technical helpers, and perform all sorts of jobs. According to Wookieepedia, they all possess artificial intelligence but some exhibit emotions. They don’t learn, but they possess specialized programming. They are obedient to their “masters” and cannot sense the Force. Whenever particular expertise is needed, especially in a difficult (or dangerous) situation, a droid can be assigned the job. They’re built, not born. Droids don’t age or heal like a fleshy being might, but they can be repaired and their parts wear out.
On one hand, it may seem like we can obviously say droids don’t have a soul any more than my computer or phone has a soul. Siri, Cortana, and the woman in my Google Maps app might talk to me, but they don’t have souls. They’re highly intelligent, but in the same way that my TI-89 Plus graphing calculator is more “intelligent” than me. But these machines don’t experience emotions or relationship attachments, either. The droids of the Star Wars universe certainly do. They exhibit loyalty, creativity, fear, and affection. Humans and other human equivalent “beings” talk about certain droids being special and unique, more valuable than other droids of the same model. Emotions and unique identity are both traditional aspects of a soul. This is why I think it’s less appropriate to compare a droid to my laptop, and more appropriate to compare them to house-elves.
House-elves are small creatures that are bound to serve (wealthy) wizarding families until their death. While they’re never explicitly identified as “beings” (rather than beastly) in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, they seem to exhibit a lot of “being” qualities. They have intelligence that is similar to humans. They’re intensely loyal and faithful to those who are kind to them, but begrudgingly obedient to cruel masters. They do service work around wizarding homes, from cleaning and laundry to cooking meals. House-elves can also be given specific jobs by their masters, as Harry has his house-elf Kreacher track Draco Malfoy’s activities and find Mundungus Fletcher. House-elves have their own brand of magic that doesn’t require a wand, a magic that can sometimes be more powerful or difficult for wizards to match. While the typical house-elf personality seems diligent, loyal, and humble, we meet three particular house-elves with different personalities.
Dobby is the first house-elf that we meet, and he’s clearly exceptional. Most elves are content to work for their families, no matter how nasty they are, but Dobby hates his. He helps Harry during the Triwizard Tournament and gives his life while trying to save his human friends. Dobby is brave and loyal and wants to work, but insists he be paid. Other house-elves find the idea of payment for their work and freedom from slavery to be shameful. We meet Winky when she’s fired by the Crouch family for “letting” Barty Crouch Jr. escape from her supervision, thus “disobeying” an order. Dobby gets her work at Hogwarts, where he works, but she falls into despair and alcoholism. Other elves show her a bit of sympathy, but are mostly embarrassed by her, as she has the audacity to weep and drink in front of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Kreacher is the old elf who served the Black Family, and is inherited by Harry upon Sirius’ death. Without a family in the home he let the place fall into total disarray, mourning his vile and racist mistress. He’s grumpy, rude, and only followed the direct letter of a direct order. But as curmudgeonly as Kreacher is, he’s loyal and kind to those who were kind to him (even if they were pureblood supremacists). Kreacher hated Sirius, but Sirius was never kind to him. Once Harry, Ron, and Hermione begin living at 12 Grimmauld Place and give Kreacher the false Horcrux locket as a memento of Regulus, Sirius’ brother, their act of kindness changes Kreacher’s attitude toward them; he uses his magic to tidy the place, cook delicious food, and happily serve them.
So we can see that each house-elf has hopes, emotions, personalities, fears, and their own magical abilities. They’re clearly individuals and respond personally to their environment. They have their own particular brand of magic that is similar to human wizarding magic, but unique in its own right. It’s easy to argue that, in a world with souls, house-elves must have some kind of soul.
Compare these house-elves to our key droids, R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8. R2-D2 is adventurous and independent, but loyal to the masters “he” serves. R2 is an astromech droid, meaning he’s a skilled mechanic and computer technician. He goes on secret missions for our heroes, carrying messages and technical plans to defeat the Sith. C-3PO is a protocol droid, a skilled linguist (and other forms of communication) and an expert at etiquette. Originally built by Anakin Skywalker to help his mom at home, he eventually became an aid to Leia Organa. If R2-D2 can be described as courageous, C-3PO is fearful in the face of danger. He’s quite chatty, and so received a memory wipe twice. He’s polite and prefers diplomatic, peaceful solutions. BB-8, from The Force Awakens, is a small astromech droid carrying a partial map to the location of Luke Skywalker. BB-8 seems young and unpredictable. It’s intensely loyal to Poe Dameron, but develops a quick friendship with Rey and Finn, and is more adorable than R2-D2, which is a pretty big accomplishment. Each droid seems to have a unique personality and has talents humans don’t have, simply because they’re droids.
Both house-elves and droids serve their human heroes, but they’re so much more than that. Their usefulness alone demands respect, but the fact that they show actual character traits means they’re worthy of dignity. While most house-elves and most droids function as mostly-silent background servants in their stories, each of the few key characters are beloved, trusted, and cared-for by their masters. Both have a “regular” function of some kind of service, but are also given special missions of great importance.
But droids are built by humans, so how can they have souls? My computer doesn’t have a soul, even if it seems like Cortana sometimes cops an attitude with me. So why would droids have souls? Humans who believe in souls don’t (usually) believe that souls can be created by us. There isn’t a ritual to gain your own soul. Souls aren’t sexually transmitted, either. Souls are endowed by a mysterious divine entity. If God gives people a soul, it stands to reason that the Force may spark a soul in a droid. If all the humans in the Star Wars universe have souls, and some of the humans aren’t Force-sensitive, then it stands to reason that maybe, just maybe, some droids have souls.