No Greater Good in the ‘Verse

"Mal" | Art by Nero749. Used with permission.
I’m drawn to characters with complex morals. I don’t know why. I’m not talking about the Han Solo “kind of a bad guy, but with a good heart” type; I mean characters who have very strong belief systems, understand right and wrong, but make choices that are empirically bad anyway.

That’s why I like playing paladins in RPGs. They’re sworn to a code of defeating evil and empowering good, but killing evil people along the way is part of the price they pay for justice.

From a paladin’s point of view, murder is bad, but killing a murderer who won’t be stopped otherwise is an act of justice. If they hadn’t killed the murderer, another innocent person might have died. Their actions are always governed by a sense of duty to a greater good and not their own impulses; they are free from the moral weight of such decisions.

Something about that idea of justice makes sense to me. But is that what I really believe about right and wrong?

The danger of fighting for “a greater good” is that it allows someone to justify things they know to be wrong.

The villain in Serenity, referred to as the Operative, illustrates my fascination with this complexity better than anyone.

Consider this exchange between Mal and the Operative to see what I mean.

The Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don’t murder children.
The Operative: I do. If I have to.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?
The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?
The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

The Operative isn’t a fanatic who thinks he’s doing God’s will through acts of cleansing violence. Instead, he believes that by doing horrible things, he removes that burden from others. His goal is to create a world where no one will need bad things done any longer: a world without sin.

“What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.”

There’s almost a hint of Christianity in the Operative’s goal for a perfect world. I believe that Christ took on the sin of the world so it would no longer be our burden. The important difference is that Christ didn’t sin in the process.

We already know Mal lives in the fuzzy area between right and wrong, but in Serenity, he and his crew are prepared to give their lives in order to tell the ‘verse about the terrible secret the Alliance has been keeping from them.

The Operative’s belief in the alluring “greater good” is unwavering and he knows he must kill Mal to accomplish his mission—to keep the secret.

When Mal and the Operative have their final showdown, Mal manages to gain the upper hand in the fight. But he doesn’t take the simple path of murdering the Operative. Instead, he starts to broadcast the recording of government experiments—the ones that created the Reavers and killed an entire planet—over Mr. Universe’s signal booster.

He leaves the Operative paralyzed, unable to turn away from the graphic images of what his sinless world might be built upon. This time, as he is forced to watch innocents torn apart, the Operative can’t simply turn his back and cleanse himself of his guilt. When Mal runs into him at the end of the movie, he has been changed by what he saw. Mal says “I’d like to kill you myself if I see you again,” and the Operative replies, “You won’t. There’s nothing left to see.”

The Operative believes that by doing horrible things, he removes that burden from others.

The danger of fighting for “a greater good” is that it allows someone to justify things they know to be wrong in the name of goodness, absolving themselves of any consequences.

Christianity offers no such respite to the morally confused. James tells us it’s even a sin to see something good we could do and not do it.

There’s no hiding there. Do good and not evil, says the Bible. By a relationship with Christ, prayer to God, and communion with the Holy Spirit, I don’t have an excuse to deny knowing what “good” looks like.

I love morally complex characters because I don’t want to watch a movie where the protagonist turns the other cheek. Fiery explosions don’t consume warehouses when cheeks are turned.

But in real life, I can’t escape the reality that sometimes the “good” choice in life isn’t very clear. I don’t have the luxury of being a paladin and heaping the moral obligation onto a faceless deity. I don’t have the apathy to be like Mal and pretend I know what is best for the people of the galaxy without a second thought. But what I do have is the opportunity to spend time with God, the source of all the good in existence, and find out where the murky grey morality ends.

Jason Dueck

Jason Dueck

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
From Captain Kirk to Commander Shepard, Jason's love for science fiction extends to the final frontier. When he's not geeking out, Jason can be found studying communications at Red River College in Winnipeg.
Jason Dueck