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.
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.
In the eternal quest to anthropomorphize everything, I think it’s pretty normal to occasionally look at generally featureless objects and idly wonder if they have a gender. After all, gender is typically a pretty significant part of identity for humans, and part of being human is to project humanity onto non-human things. Of course, most people can easily recognize that in reality, gender (as it exists separate from biological sex) is a uniquely human concept that can be applied to animals only in a very limited capacity, and to objects not at all. Thus, it was deeply surprising to me that the question of a robot’s gender became such a source of contention amongst Star Wars fans surrounding the release of The Force Awakens. It’s unclear who first voiced speculation about the gender of the adorably rotund new droid, BB-8, but it has spun off into a debate about the gender of every significant droid in the Star Wars universe, and opinions are bafflingly strong over in the gender binary camp. The more fascinating question, in my opinion, is whether an artificial intelligence can have a gender at all, and if so, what informs that aspect of its identity?