The Single Question That Turns ‘Star Wars’ Into a Horror Show

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I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy. I played with the toys; I’ve seen the movies so many times I lost count years ago. I was and remain bitterly disappointed by The Phantom Menace. I already have tickets to see The Force Awakens with my family twice. I talk the talk, and I walk the walk: I love Star Wars. But there’s one question about the Star Wars universe that, when you think about it, makes you realize just how screwed up things are there.

Are the droids in the Star Wars universe sentient?

That’s it; that’s the question. Because if the answer is “yes,” that means pretty much every flesh-and-blood creature in that universe – Empire, Rebellion, whatever – either practices or condones evil. Yes, evil. Consider:

1. The Jawas capture or buy droids and sell them, whether or not they want to be sold. Not only is this an accepted practice, but the very first thing we see Luke do in Episode IV is go with his uncle to buy them some droids.

2. It is a common practice to apply restraining bolts to droids to ensure their compliance. Luke uses his remote control to activate C3PO’s bolt to hurt him so that he’ll come out from hiding when R2D2 runs (rolls?) away.

3. Droids are regularly excluded from entering certain businesses – this is not considered unusual or wrong by anyone. The bartender at Mos Eisley even yells “We don’t serve their kind here!”

4. Droids are considered so insignificant that the Imperial officer who tells the gunner on the Star Destroyer not to shoot down the escape pod carrying Threepio and Artoo doesn’t even consider the possibility that there could be droids aboard it. Their existence matters so little to him that it just never occurs to him that droids could be any kind of threat to the Empire. They’re not even worth shooting down!

5. The rebels may actually be worse to droids than the Imperials are. They put astromechs in their X-Wings (and probably other fighters as well), quite probably against their will, and make them sit unprotected from enemy fire while being ready to fix anything that goes wrong. It’s not as though they’re copilots, either – if the pilot is disabled or killed, the droid is powerless to do anything to prevent its own destruction.

As you’ve no doubt realized, I’m saying that droids, if they are sentient, are slaves. There isn’t any doubt about it; there’s no stretch in this analogy. They’re bought and sold against their will, forced to work at whatever job their master sees fit to give them, tortured if they refuse to comply, and their wants, needs, and desires are always considered less important than those of the flesh-and-blood creatures. Oh, and then there’s the one way they’re actually treated worse than slaves: If a droid gets ornery, or seems troubled by something, or if you’d simply like them to forget that they were built by one of the most evil people in the galaxy when he was a kid, you can just erase their memories. No need to ask them if they want their memories erased; just go ahead and do it.

So what, then, if the droids aren’t sentient? It’s possible, of course, but then, it’s also possible that you, or I, or any other human isn’t sentient. We can only go by how they act, and they sure act sentient. They display fear, sadness, anger, and perhaps most significantly senses of humor. If they aren’t sentient, then the people who make them must go to an awful lot of trouble to make them seem that they are, to no apparent purpose: Threepio and Artoo argue with each other many times over the course of the movies; how could that possibly have been programmed into them deliberately?

Author’s Note: The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Measure of A Man,” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass, does an amazing job of attacking this issue in that universe. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Image: Lucasfilm/Disney.

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22 thoughts on “The Single Question That Turns ‘Star Wars’ Into a Horror Show

  1. The fact that Star Wars doesn’t address this question is both horrifying…and also underscores why I consider it a fantasy with nominal science-fiction trappings. Though it also means that J.K. Rowling paid more attention to troubling questions of hierarchy than anyone involved in the Star Wars movies did.

  2. I thought the fact that some planets had slaves while others did not was the answer. On some planets, droids probably are “free” and others (such as Tatooine) they are not. My guess is that when it comes to the rebellion, droids are certainly given a choice – that’s why 3PO talks about being part of the rebellion. 3PO and Artoo chose to join the rebellion.

  3. 3. That happens once that I can recall in 6 movies. I get your point, but its very poor analyses to call that a pattern.

    4. You are reaching. That conversation occurs in order to fill a possible plot hole of “why wouldn’t the empire shoot down/capture the escape pod”

    5. First, its demonstrated in Empire and Jedi both that an astromech can in fact pilot a ship on behalf of the organic pilot. Second, The matter of it being against the will of a droid is philosophical. How do you define the will of a being purposely designed for a specific set of tasks, when it is performing those tasks?

    ST:TNG already covered this. By its test the droids are not sentient. They show now ambition outside of their own programming. No desire to improve themselves. They show no desire to reproduce by their own accord. No desire or concern for their impact on society around them, or the legacy they might leave. No presence of an ego, or individual identity outside of its programming.

    Show me a power droid that decided it wanted to be a protocol droid. Or a protocol droid that decided it wanted to pilot a starship.

  4. I think many of these questions have been addresses in the Clone Wars series. Not all droids are sentient, but a few are. Asromechs can associate and form teams. In fact they can sacifice for a cause. R2D2 has shown to have a high intellect compared to other astromechs and his ability to reason and predict issues and propose a solution has been shown many times. In other cases, droids are independent and even work as bounty hunters.

  5. The simply answer is; No, they are not sentient in any way that would make anything done to them evil. Depending on the way sentient is defined, droids may be sentient with the ability to sense pain, heat etc. from sensors, but that would not make it evil to enslave them or do things to them against their will. Speaking of will, that would be within the other definition of sentient; having free will and self awareness. No creation of whatever created the Universe can create free will or self awareness, so no droid, no matter how many sensors are installed or how well they react to such sensors, are truly sentient beings.

  6. Slavery will always be the preferred economy of the oligarchs. That, and the fact that our constitutional democratic republic is pretty nearly destroyed is why we are all wage slaves now. What they are trying for is how to make us all be willing tools as some of us have been rocking the boat for time immemorial. There are a couple of strategies at work here. They offer the standard meaningless perk that we can have ‘status’ and ‘position’ and can therefore consider ourselves to be ‘better’ than those who aren’t so designated. That is one. The other is to erode our hope of anything better. If our FDA works directly for Monsanto and other criminal corporations, and if we are constantly bombarded with links and infomercials and astroturfing sock-puppets each one more bogus than the last, it would stand to reason that a nice safe cage might sound better than the world we are experiencing. I have seen both of these strategies work. I’m not sure how but we need to inoculate ourselves and each other against such strategies as these.

  7. The Attack of the Clones addressed this a bit when Kenobi is talking to Dex about the bounty hunter’s dart:

    Dexter Jettster: It’s these funny little cuts on the side that give it away. Those analysis droids only focus on symbols. Huh! I should think that you Jedi would have more respect for the difference between knowledge and… heh heh heh… wisdom.
    Obi-Wan: Well if droids could think, there’d be none of us here, would there?

    This implies that droids aren’t sentient. Though R2’s actions could lead one to believe he is sentient, and hence why he’s so special for an astromech droid.

  8. Quick! Let’s throw a Star Wars article together before The Force Awakens comes out! I know … droid slaves.

    Weak point. Lame analysis. Your lack of faith in your own assessment is obvious by the shortness of the article. And yes, I still clicked and left you comments because everyone needs Google dollars.

  9. I swear that there is a scene in one of the prequels where a droid (one of the Roger Rogers or whatever they are called) is falling into space or off of something and we hear him say, “Oh God!” really quietly. I would have to watch them again to see if I could find the spot but I don’t think I am willing to do that right now.

    1. Even if a robot did say; “Oh god”, It would be because it was programmed to do so when certain factors occurred. Since “God” is how human’s refer to whatever is responsible for the creation of the Universe, even if a robot were sentient, it’s god would be a human, making the robot no more than property created by man. Being sentient to a human is not the same.

  10. The answer is no, they are not sentient. They are machines, no more self-aware than your smart phone. They are built, taken apart, appropriated, repurposed and reprogrammed just like any other machine. And they occasionally have their memories wiped just like any computer. It’s the nature of the human characters of Star Wars to anthropomorphize their machines, just as Terran humans would, and develop fondness and attachments to them. And that is one reason, no doubt, why some are programmed by their designers to mimic human behavior and personalities. Some are more human-like in their programming (i.e. protocol droids whose function is to interact and relate with humans) and others are single-purpose grunts (like the load lifters). Sticking an astromech in the back of your X-Wing is no different than propping a talking smartphone GPS onto your dashboard. This is the established function the droids serve in the Star Wars universe. Does it stop us from caring about these characters and developing genuine attachments to them? No, of course not. It’s a uniquely human trait that we do so. But the droids of Star Wars, in the context of serving the story, are not sentient or slaves.

      1. V’ger is a prime example of programming gone wrong. V’ger was not sentient, it was damaged programming. V’ger was simply reacting to a malfunction in it’s programming. Had V’ger been sentient, V’ger would have been able to comprehend it was destroying life forms in order to seek it’s creator, which turned out to be the very life forms V’ger was destroying.

        I do appreciate your choice of example though.

    1. Remember the droid torture chamber in the dungeons of Jaba’s palace? We see a humanoid droid get ripped limb from limb. Another squeals in seeming pain as hot irons are pressed against the bottom of his feet. Is this just an odd aesthetic preference on Jaba’s part, to have a room in his house where one set of unfeeling droids enact a mechanical pantomime of torture while another set of unfeeling droids go through the motions of acting out seeming torment, even though the sense data that tells them that their bodies are being mutilated doesn’t count as pain? Nothing ethically amiss here? Really?

    1. But, the torture droids are only programmed to emulate torture. No different than having a baby doll that utters the words; “I love you” when you pull it’s string. Programmed emulations of emotions do not make a “thing” sentient.

  11. I work in I.T. and as I told my wife and kids when we watched Chappie, we don’t cry for robots of any kind. Considering Google is building their own version of a droid army, I’d say we’re closer to finding out how that is going to feel ourselves too soon. You can add “feelings” to a robot but as others have demonstrated in their arguments before me, sensors for these feelings and programming that is intuitive like Artoo’s is still not sentient and shouldn’t be treated as such. Computers today are nothing more than advanced problem-solving machines, so Artoo’s actions should not be considered sentient. When he and 3PO argue, it’s a difference in their programming approach to problem-solving. 3PO “prefers” to serve human orders where Artoo, as an astromech, “prefers” to fix without being asked. Their difference in the programming logic of problem-solving is the biggest reason for arguing. Plus, IT’S A MOVIE! LOL

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