Morality is weird and complex. If two people have an equal chance of dying, is it moral to save the one you like better? Philosophers are having drag-out fights about that question as I type this. However, despite morality’s frustrating ambiguity, we generally agree on a few things: killing someone who hasn’t done anything is wrong, slavery is wrong, saving someone from death is good, etc. So why do these stories violate those basic moral rules?
1. Lightning Evil, Laser Swords Good: Star Wars
In Star Wars, the Force gives Jedi* great power. Levitation, precognition, preternatural reflexes, extraordinary feats of agility, the list goes on. Most Force powers are fairly benevolent, but there’s a subset that are generally considered “dark side,” or evil. Choking another person and shooting lightning from your hands are the two most prominent.
While no character explicitly says on screen that lightning and choking are dark side only, those who use them are always evil, and they are always filmed in such a way as to make them look scary. Numerous soft-canon sources, from books to comics to video games, have backed up this assertion. It’s well understood by Star Wars fans that if you use lightning or choking, you’re a bad guy.
Meanwhile, light-side Jedi chop off limbs with their lightsabers all the time, and no one bats an eye. It’s usually agreed that they use the Force to guide their blades, but that isn’t seen as a problem. Why is it OK to kill someone with a laser sword, but not a direct application of the Force? Choking is almost certainly a more merciful death than dismemberment.
It could be argued that Force Lightning is only useful as a torture instrument, as demonstrated by Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. If that were true, then its use would be a purely dark-side act. However, it’s usually accepted that the Emperor could have killed Luke quickly if he’d wanted to and stuck with torture because he’s a sadist.
Taking the various factors into account, we are left with a world in which it is immoral to shock or choke people, but acceptable to cut their legs off. At best, this makes the Jedi Order a bunch of cosmic-rules lawyers. They’ve discovered a way to kill all the people they want, without getting any of that nasty dark side on them.*
Why Did This Happen?
By accident, as far as I can tell. I don’t think George Lucas had the Force and all its potential applications mapped out back in 1977. Darth Vader choked people because it made him more threatening. How were you supposed to fight someone who could kill you by raising his hand? Palpatine used lightning on Luke because it was a cool visual metaphor for frustrated rage.
When other creators came to Star Wars, they saw bad guys using these powers and kept the theme. They produced books, cartoons, and all manner of other media with this idea in mind. And that’s how we arrive at a universe where shooting lightning out of your hands is evil.
2. It’s OK to Let People Die: Star Trek
When Gene Roddenberry and his team of co-writers created Star Trek, they envisioned something called the Prime Directive. This grand doctrine boiled down to the idea of not interfering in the affairs of other cultures, especially cultures with less advanced technology.
That’s a great idea for the enlightened future Roddenberry wanted. Throughout human history, from European colonialism to modern conflicts in the Middle East, we’ve seen the great harm of interfering with other cultures. The Prime Directive ensured no one from the Federation would use advanced technology to impersonate a god and that the Federation itself couldn’t exploit weaker neighbors for its own gain.
Then The Next Generation (TNG) rolled around, and something changed. In season one, they almost forgot the Prime Directive existed at all, considering how often the crew beamed down to talk with the locals. Then it roared back with a vengeance in season two, with the episode Pen Pals. The Enterprise comes across a planet in danger of breaking apart, which will kill all the inhabitants. The Enterprise can save the planet, except they almost don’t, because doing so would violate the Prime Directive.
What? The Prime Directive was created to protect other cultures from harm. How can letting everyone in a culture die fit into that goal? What possible damage could arise from the Enterprise saving them that would be worse than complete destruction? When the characters discuss the situation, their logic for letting the planet break apart is laughable. They invoke a “cosmic plan,” which they have no right to tamper with. Did the Prime Directive become God when I wasn’t looking?
Fortunately, the Enterprise eventually saves the planet in Pen Pals. But this situation comes up over and over again in TNG and beyond. We’re left with a Federation that thinks saving people from death, even when it would cost almost nothing, isn’t worth doing. In fact, it’s morally wrong. That doesn’t sound like the enlightened future I was promised.
Why Did This Happen?
I suspect Gene Roddenberry’s failing health had something to do with it. He had a lot of very strange ideas at the beginning of TNG, such as children on the ship and that no one in the future experiences grief. In the two decades when there was no Star Trek, he may have become so fixated on the idea of non-interference that he took it to ludicrous extremes.
After Roddenberry passed away, certain voices on the Trek creative staff* decided to keep non-interference alive at all costs. They probably thought they were honoring Roddenberry’s memory. We can only hope the next Star Trek series will leave this trope in the past where it belongs.
3. Magical Caste System: Harry Potter
The Wizarding World is a place of magic and wonder: living photos, flying carriages, chocolate frogs hope around and croak!* Also species-based slavery, because why not? In the second book, Harry meets Dobby, a house elf.
Through Dobby, we learn that all house elves are slaves. They’re born slaves, live their lives as slaves, and die as slaves. The implication is that of American-style chattel slavery, in which the slave has no rights at all and killing them is at worst destruction of property. That’s really dark and clashes with the book’s theme of childlike wonder. Or at least it would if it was examined for five seconds. Instead, Dobby gets his freedom, and that’s treated like the end of the story. Never mind all the other house elves slaving away.
House elves aren’t the only casualty. Goblins are forbidden from carrying wands. Giants are forced to live in isolated colonies deep in the mountains. The list goes on. The more we learn about the Wizarding World, the more we discover a horrible structure of institutionalized speciesism. While modern day Western countries are no strangers to prejudice, it’s usually social or indirect, not enshrined in law. The wizards have turned discrimination into an art form that Dark-Ages Europe would envy.
At no point do the characters stop and say, “This is messed up.” Hermione does make a half-hearted attempt to liberate the house elves, but it’s mostly played for laughs. The house elves enjoy being slaves, you see. They wouldn’t know what to do with freedom. Wow.
Worst of all, this isn’t portrayed just as something evil wizards do. It’s widely accepted that oppressing other species is correct and just. Nor do we see any organization against these injustices. Even in the worst days of American slavery, there were abolitionists fighting against it.
Once you realize the full extent of discrimination in the Wizarding World, it badly damages the books’ stakes. If Voldemort wins, there will be a slightly more evil wizard in charge. That’s hard to get excited about.
Why Did This Happen?
For the same reason we have time turners and all the other magical gadgets that should change the Wizarding World forever, but don’t. Rowling is good at a lot of things, but worldbuilding isn’t one of them. A race of elven house servants probably seemed harmless when first introduced, and if she ever realized how ugly her world was, then she probably didn’t do anything about it because the story was too focused on fighting He Who Must Not Be Named.
4. More Caste Systems: Legend of Korra
If some people had access to magical powers and others didn’t, inequality would almost certainly follow. We have plenty of that in the real world, where humans are all really close together in ability. So it was exciting when we found out that Avatar: Legend of Korra’s first season was going to feature an uprising of normal people against the bending* elites.
At first, the story looked promising. The Equalists had worthy goals but inexcusable methods. We saw in several episodes how non-benders were disenfranchised and taken advantage of. The Equalists’ grievances were legitimate, but their violent solutions made them a menace. A great setup for a bad guy organization.
Unfortunately, the Equalist story never goes anywhere. Korra defeats their leader, and that’s it. The show acts as if removing one person can end a movement with broad popular support. The root causes are never addressed, leaving non-benders’ resentment to fester until the next time it explodes. Governments make this mistake in real life all the time, and it always comes back to bite them.
At no point do the main characters stop to consider why the non-benders are so angry. They come off as a bunch of privileged benders with no clue how anyone else lives. The one non-bender in their group, Asami, is rich enough that she doesn’t have to care either. Her money insulates her from the discrimination that plagues other non-benders.
This cluelessness is particularly bad for Korra herself. As the Avatar, her entire job description is keeping the world in balance. The dynamic between benders and non-benders is clearly out of balance, yet she does nothing. Instead, the show starts season two as if the Equalists never existed, and the characters go off to fight some nonsensical spirits.
Why Did This Happen?
Legend of Korra was, by all indications, written one season at a time. When making season one, the creators didn’t know if they would get a season two. So it makes sense to end the first season with a climactic fight between Korra and Amon, the Equalist leader. With only 12 episodes, there wasn’t time to wrap everything up.
What I don’t understand is why they didn’t revisit the issue in season two, even in passing. Perhaps the creators thought it would be beating a dead horse to bring up the same problem a second time. If so, they were mistaken. That was a rich story vein, and leaving it untapped hurt the show.
5. Killing Baby Vampires: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Perhaps the most recognizable scene from Buffy is the Scooby Gang* patrolling through the Sunnydale graveyard, staking vampires as they rise, and enjoying a few witty quips. At first, this seems really brutal. None of those vampires have done anything; they haven’t had time. But vampires are really, really dangerous, right? They’re so focused on exsanguinating humans that a kill-on-sight policy is the only solution.
So it would seem. But later in the series, and even more so in the spin off Angel, we see lots of vampires walking around not murdering humans. They hang out in bars, play cards,* and work as bodyguards. Perhaps they’re killing people offscreen, but if that’s the case, why isn’t the Slayer doing anything about it? Buffy knows where these vamps hang out.
Another explanation presents itself: If every vampire we see in Buffy and Angel killed humans for food, the murder rate would go through the roof, even in a city as big as L.A. In a small town like Sunnydale, it would be national news. Even if the bodies were never found, the sheer number of missing persons would be impossible to overlook. FBI task forces would descend on the town, politicians screaming at them to do something about the crisis.
But none of that happens, so perhaps these vampires are not killing anyone at all. We know vamps can survive off blood packs, so maybe they’re just going about their undead lives in peace. If that’s the case, it would show that the kill-on-sight policy isn’t justified and make Buffy the true villain.
Or vampires could be just as dangerous as the show claims, but if that’s the case, the Slayer is spending her time in the wrong place. Let the normal humans go after newborn blood suckers; they can handle it.* Then Buffy can deal with the vamps and other monsters who are already up and about. Otherwise, we’re left with the implication that graveyard patrol is more important to the Slayer than saving lives.
Why Did This Happen?
At Buffy’s conception, vampires were little more than monsters hiding in shadows and sewers. They had no culture or personality to speak of. Even the Master, the only vamp with any screen time, was limited to ominous mutterings about doom. DOOOOOOOM.
That changed with the introduction of Spike and Drusilla. While still villains, now vampires could be witty and fun; the kind of characters a writer wants to keep around. From there, the show evolved into the urban-fantasy trope of monsters having their own culture, hidden from human eyes. To do that, there had to be a relatively stable population of vampires who weren’t constantly out murdering.
At the same time, the writers were unwilling to ditch the scenes with Buffy staking newborn vampires in a graveyard, so we were left with this bizarre contradiction.
6. Wizards Don’t Care About Humans: Dresden Files
Like Harry Potter, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files portrays a world where magical beings have their own secret society, hidden from the eyes of humanity. Each magical species has their own culture, interacting with each other the same way nation states do in real life. Unlike Rowling’s books, wizards in the Dresden Files do not live completely segregated from the mortal population. While their existence is secret, they mingle with non-magical humans more than the students at Hogwarts ever do.
In The Dresden Files, wizards are born of mortal parents, date mortal lovers, and have mortal friends. This may not apply to some of the really old and crusty gray beards, but it’s true for every younger wizard we see in the series. As such, it’s hard to understand why magical practitioners are so divorced from events in the human world.
One of the most powerful wizards in the books is a Native American named Joseph Listens-to-Wind. The book implies that his tribe was wiped out when he chose not to intervene in the European colonization of the Americas. Why would he do that? What could have convinced him that allowing the slaughter and forced removal of his people was a good idea, when he clearly had the power to stop it? If the White Council* ordered him not to intervene, surely that would be a source of conflict for him?
Listens-to-Wind is not the only Native American with magic. Even if he decided for his own reasons not to oppose the European and later American settlers, there would have been others who didn’t make the same choice. The same problem crops up in other conflicts. Were Jewish wizards content to sit back and do nothing against the Third Reich? In the present, are there no Syrian wizards who would object to the atrocities being committed in their country?
If the White Council is actively stopping wizards from helping their oppressed kinsmen, that puts a much darker lens on the world than Butcher wanted. The only other explanation is that the moment a person’s magical power manifests, they turn their backs on all ties of friendship and family.
Why Did This Happen?
The Dresden Files is meant to be a story about the titular Dresden dealing with largely supernatural threats. As a white man from a first-world country, it makes sense that the largest threat to Dresden’s group would be fairies and demons, rather than other humans. But many of the magical practitioners Dresden meets are from far less well-off groups and cultures.
Butcher is to be commended for including wizards from diverse cultural backgrounds; however, he does introduce other issues the narrative is not able to address. It would certainly be a distraction if Butcher stopped the story every five minutes to explain a new wizard’s motivation for not trying to end global poverty or another serious problem, and so the questions remain unanswered.
7. Mathematical Right and Wrong: Fallout 3
It’s no surprise that video games have a twisted sense of morality. For the sake of entertainment, electronic protagonists rack up kill counts that would make even the most over-the-top action hero cringe. Obviously, this is done for the sake of gameplay and not meant as a commentary on murder.
However, Fallout 3 has a system specifically designed to measure your character’s morality, called karma.* You are awarded positive points for moral acts and negative points for immoral acts. For example, stealing is an immoral act, so you would lose karma for doing it. Giving water to a thirsty old man is a moral act, so you gain karma. When a character’s karma is high, they are a paragon of virtue. Sounds simple, right?
Not so fast. The game has some odd ideas about what constitutes immorality. Often, killing enemies is fine, especially if they attacked you first. But then, when you go loot the stuff in their camp, the game counts it as stealing. Come on, game, I’m pretty sure the bullet-ridden corpse outside doesn’t need it anymore!
Most of the time, attacking someone without provocation loses you karma. So if you run around murdering people willy-nilly, that makes you evil, right? Yes, unless you have a lot of water. Remember that thirsty old man? He’s a specific NPC outside the town of Megaton, and it turns out his thirst is unquenchable. You can give him as much water as you like, and each time it increases your karma. Water isn’t hard to get. You can slaughter half the population of Rivet City, and so long as you make a stop at the Water Man, everything is fine.
Adding to the absurdity, having super-high karma or super-low karma will get bounty hunters sent after you. This happens even if you do your deeds in a way that couldn’t possibly be tied back to you. The bounty hunters aren’t after you because of your reputation; they have a Paladin’s Detect Evil ability, and you’re registering too high on the scale!
Why Did This Happen?
Morality is complicated, so trying to measure it mathematically couldn’t help but produce comical results. We all know on some level that there are crimes that can’t be made up for. We’ll forgive a litterer if they make a donation to charity, but the same isn’t true for a murderer. The concept was doomed from the start.
Being able to gain infinite good karma by giving water to an old man only made the situation more hilarious. I’m not sure why the designers added that feature, because it’s not as if a high karma is required to finish the game.
None of the creators on this list meant to send these messages.* The bizarre implications arose because they didn’t think through their world and what its rules meant. When crafting a setting for your story, especially if it’s a long story, be more careful. Don’t sacrifice your world’s integrity for narrative convenience or to make a quick point. Audiences are clever; they’ll see what you’re up to. These creators were fortunate enough to succeed despite their mistakes, but we can’t all count on such luck.
P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.