Rogue One: How Cassian is a Neo-Machiavellian

Rogue One is an effective standalone Star Wars film because its characters have a contained arc, while additionally taking a unique turn from the franchise’s traditional black and white conflict between good and evil. One of the most contentious moments of Rogue One comes abruptly towards the beginning of the film when Cassian Andor, the Rebel Intelligence agent, shoots an informant in the back in order to escape from Imperial Stormtroopers. In any traditional Star Wars film, Cassian would quickly be viewed as a villain. But not in Rogue One.

While some viewers have welcomed the moral uncertainty, others have lambasted the departure from ‘clarity.’

In a review entitled “Why the New ‘Star Wars’ Movie Could Use Some Moral Clarity,” Charles Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics, condemned the film for “overturning previously black/white judgments about certain actions” and concludes that “‘Star Wars’ has a moral responsibility to live up to its longtime charge of teaching children that, while people often have various levels of ambiguity, the same cannot be said of certain gravely evil actions that should be always and everywhere condemned.” Similarly, Matthew Gault writes at Motherboard that “Even the Good Guys in ‘Rogue One’ Are Bad.”

Critics might be correct in their condemnation of the moral message portrayed in Rogue One, and, in fact, given some of the extremely subversive messages at play in the film, it is surprising that more critics have not spoken out against it. So when did Star Wars become a measuring stick for our moral framework? As the film so aptly shows, there are no easy answers, and sometimes, no matter how hard one tries, one still ends up choosing incorrectly.

These pervading “gray areas” could be described as “Neo-Machiavellian.”

Machiavelli was a renaissance politician and political theorist who is often remembered as a “preacher of evil” or at least advocating amoralism when it comes to politics. This perception is due largely to Machiavelli’s own words, such as when he explicitly stated that it is necessary “to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it as necessity dictates.” However, when one studies Machiavelli and learns more context, they will uncover what one might call a “Neo-Machiavellian moral framework.”

A Neo-Machiavellian moral framework is comprised of two main components:

1. Morality should not be based on abstract ideals or universalized principles applied to all times and all places. Rather, this moral framework posits that morality must be measured by the results. Wrong actions lead to evil results, while good actions lead to good results. Conventional morality does not contain the flexibility needed for dealing with the non-ideal and non-uniform that one must confront in the real world.

2. One bears the ultimate moral responsibility for one’s actions. The Neo-Machiavellian has the moral courage and fortitude in order to accept this responsibility, rather than merely abandoning it behind the excuse of orders and conventions.

Cassian clearly believes that it is necessary to kill his informant to avoid the Imperials realizing what a large intelligence leak has occurred. If he followed conventional morality, he risked the lives of trillions of beings across the galaxy.

Yet, as Cassian realizes, there is no way of knowing for sure if his decision was the correct one. Perhaps the Imperials would find out the information another way, or perhaps they already knew the extent of the intelligence breach. If so, then Cassian’s killing was pointless. Cassian stated that he and other members if Rebel Intelligence had done numerous questionable things in service to the Rebellion. The morality of those actions hinged upon the outcome they brought about.

In an attempt to do what they believed was right (and redeeming themselves for all their dark deeds), the members of call sign Rogue One take matters into their own hands and disobeyed direct orders and launched the operation on Scarif. This leads to the very clear moral theme of Rogue One: that moral responsibility and agency can never be transferred or given up.

Conventional morality is a key foundation of our authority figures, to such an extent that, as the Milgram experiments demonstrated, some people will follow any orders — from a figure with moral authority, — even if it is wrong. In Rogue One, there are numerous instances of characters flouting authority in order to do what they believe is right. Cassian disobeys direct orders to assassinate Galen Erso, and then commit mutiny when hatching the plan to infiltrate Scarif.

Admiral Radus completely disregards the Rebel chain of command’s instructions not to attack, and brings an entire Rebel battle group along with him. Mon Mothma even encourages General Antoc Merrick to join the attack, effectively abandoning any pretense of holding onto the established rules of the Rebel Alliance. Similarly, we learn that Saw Gerrera had broken off from the main Rebel Alliance and had charted his own course when he came to believe that the Alliance leadership was in error.

So was all that dissent worth it? Well, yes and no.

Had the heroes of the story adhered to conventional morality, the Death Star plans never would have been recovered and countless more beings would have perished under the Imperial yoke. Yet, as the film so magnificently portrays, exercising one’s moral agency can come at an immense cost. The decision to infiltrate Scarif led to the loss of large amounts of vital Rebel ships and material, not to mention the thousands of lives that were lost on both the battle in space and on the planet’s surface. Had the mission not succeeded, the entire attempt would have been nothing but a complete waste, a meaningless gesture that did no harm of consequence to the Empire. Not to mention that this Pyrrhic victory undermined the authority of the Alliance Council, which may lead to more mutinous attacks that won’t end in their favor.

Ultimately, Rogue One makes for a more daring narrative than its predecessors because unlike the Star Wars of old, these characters bear more responsibility for their actions as opposed to merely following order or convention. Luke was brave to oppose the Empire, but once he embraced the Rebels’ ethics, destroying the Death Star was a no-brainer. After all, there was no more pretense of weighing moral options.

Zachary is an op-ed writer and you can visit his personal site here.

Check out the Movie Musing podcast for more analysis. Edited by Mark Febrizio, Demetrios Festa, and Quentin Hoffman.

One comment

  1. Obsession with moral-grayness is standard fare for movies and shows and now boring. Furthermore, it is dangerous…as we have found out when the world stood by and let genocide unfold in Syria.


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