Star Wars is a classic story of heroes and villains. In the original trilogy, the heroic rebels fight to save the galaxy from the Empire. The Empire crushes innocent people beneath its boot, coercing, destroying, and killing on a galactic scale. It’s a simple but compellingly clear story of good and evil.

Unfortunately, that clarity doesn’t extend to Star Wars creator George Lucas’s deeper thinking about morality and the essential nature of the story’s heroes and villains. At various events over recent years, Lucas has explained what he regards as the fundamental moral dichotomy of Star Wars:

The bottom line of Star Wars . . . is that there are two kinds of people in the world: compassionate people and selfish people.

The selfish people live on the dark side. The compassionate people live on the light side. And if you get to the side of the light, you will be happy because compassion, helping other people, not thinking about yourself, thinking about others—that gives you a joy that you can’t get any other way.

Being selfish, following your pleasures, always entertaining yourself with pleasure and buying things and doing stuff—you’re always going to be unhappy . . . you’ll get this little instant shot of pleasure, but it goes away and then you’re stuck where you were before, and the more you do it, the worse it gets.

You finally get everything you want and you’re miserable, because . . . there’s nothing at the end of that road. But if you’re compassionate and you get to the end of the road, you’ve helped so many people.1

It’s interesting that Lucas’s argument for selfless compassion is that it will make you happy. His argument effectively boils down to “You should be selfless for a self-interested purpose.” But if there’s nothing but misery at the end of the road for people who “selfishly” pursue their own pleasures, where is the self-interest in that? And if the ultimate goal of being selflessly “compassionate” is happiness and “joy that you can’t get any other way,” how is that “selfless”?

Is Lucas advocating a world in which no one ever enjoys himself, or entertains himself, or does anything for his own sake? Despite the logical implications of his claims, it would be absurd if he were. Among other reasons, it would mean that a producer of blockbuster movies is telling a story whose moral is that it is wrong to entertain yourself.

A look at Star Wars’s villains reveals the key error in Lucas’s thinking. Was Anakin Skywalker being truly “selfish”—was he acting in his own interest—when he chose a path that destroyed his relationship with the woman he loved; led him to battle his lifelong beloved mentor; and left him a burned husk barely kept alive by a life-support suit? Was he really “thinking of himself” when he chose to become a monster responsible for destroying entire planets and murdering billions of people? Was that really in service of his life and long-term happiness?

If Anakin were truly selfish—if he truly valued himself—he would have pursued and protected the things on which his life and happiness depend. To call a character such as Anakin selfish is to invert the proper meaning of that word, as Ayn Rand explained:

The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.2

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests.3

Looking again at the characters in Star Wars, which ones show concern for their own best interests? Which ones fight valiantly for the values they believe in? Characters such as Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia (as they are depicted in the original films). They are the truly selfish characters of the Star Wars universe. They think about what is necessary to live happily and in harmony with others, and they act accordingly. This is what puts them on the light side. They value life—both their own lives and those of others who value life—so saving lives and helping good people brings them joy and fulfillment. Lucas is wrong to say that selfish people are on the dark side. Those on the dark side are precisely unselfish—in that they do not think about what makes human life and happiness possible.

The dark side characters in Star Wars do not value life or the qualities of character or the social conditions that support it. In order to live, people must think and act rationally and, to do so, they need the social condition that makes such thought and action possible—liberty: freedom from physical force or compulsion. Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader are wholly against liberty. They are tyrants who lust for mindless pleasure and political power. More fundamentally, they are emotionalists. They treat their unexamined desires, rather than reasoned convictions, as their guides in life. And they suffer horrible consequences as a result. They are excellent examples of how good, selfish people do not behave.

Unfortunately, although the heroes of the original trilogy clearly pursue good, life-serving values, Lucas’s lack of clarity about morality takes its toll on the heroes of the prequel trilogy. There, the Jedi are depicted as stoic monks who deny their own rational interests in the name of selfless service to others, even going so far as to avoid romantic relationships. The result is a universe in which both the heroes and the villains are working against their own best interests, and no one is clear about what he really values.

George Lucas says that selfishness puts one on the dark side, but it’s really the other way around. Selfishness, properly understood, is the rational concern for one’s own interests. It is the light.

George Lucas (@GeorgeLucasILM) says that selfishness puts one on the dark side, but it’s really the other way around. Selfishness, properly understood, is the rational concern for one’s own interests. It is the light.
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1. George Lucas, Goalcast, January 6, 2017,

2. Dictionary definitions may have changed since the time Rand was writing, but this remains the legitimate concept to which the term “selfishness” refers.

3. Ayn Rand, “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), vii.

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