The Plight of Star Wars’ Droids

Erik Sofge has an interesting Slate article about the oppression to which droids are subjected in the Stars Wars universe:

George Lucas doesn’t care about metal people. No other explanation makes sense. In a kid-targeted sci-fi setting that’s notably inclusive, with as many friendly alien characters as villainous ones, the human rights situation for robots is horrifying. They’re imbued with distinctly human traits—including fear—only to be tortured and killed for our amusement. They scream while being branded, and cower before heroes during executions….

When we meet C-3PO—in the original, 1977 Star Wars—he’s a nuisance. He’s a coward aboard Princess Leia’s besieged spaceship, and, after being sold to Luke Skywalker’s uncle (as part of a package deal, with the invaluable R2-D2), he spends nearly every moment aghast or needling at his braver companions. But C-3PO’s grating state of constant terror isn’t unwarranted. When Luke discovers that R2-D2 has left his post to look for Obi-Wan, the protocol droid practically swoons. “It wasn’t my fault, sir,” he wails, “please don’t deactivate me!”

It’s a throwaway line, part of C-3PO’s responsibilities as resident comic foil. But the implications aren’t so easily dismissed. As the movies progress, we see further evidence that droids experience fear, joy, and misery (even the redoubtable R2 is prone to the occasional whimper-whistle). And yet, they’re bought and sold like property. They are property, with C-3PO passed from owner to owner, his consciousness shut down temporarily when his nattering is too much to bear, or permanently rearranged without a moment’s hesitation or apology. C-3PO isn’t (simply) craven, when he quails before his new master. C-3PO knows the score. They deactivate droids, don’t they?

As Sofge suggests, the interesting thing about the role of droids in the Star Wars universe is not that they are an oppressed class, but that George Lucas and the “good guys” in the story don’t seem to be bothered by this. The same can be said for most of the audience. I didn’t give it much thought myself, until I read Sofge’s article. Presumably, we are insensitive to to the oppression of the droids because their artificial nature suggests that they can’t really be entitled to human rights – even though they are clearly intelligent, sentient, and capable of experiencing fear and pain. Sofge contrasts this with the oppression of elves in the Harry Potter series, where the injustice of their status is noted by Hermione and most readers sympathize with her position. Elves get more of our sympathy because they are more clearly human-like than droids. Interestingly, science fiction that does advocate for the rights of artificial beings usually portrays them as physically very similar to humans, as in the case of Star Trek’s Data and Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw. We are much more willing to extend equal rights to robots if they look like us.

Such moral blindness isn’t a serious problem today. Obviously, we don’t have intelligent robots comparable to C-3PO and R2-D2. But it could become a real issue in the future if artificial intelligence develops far enough.

UPDATE: Timothy Sandefur points out that famous science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer made a similar argument in this 2008 podcast.