The Big Idea: Richard Swan
Posted on February 22, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 4 Comments
What is justice? And who is it for? And how is it meted out? These questions and others like it are at the heart of The Justice of Kings, and author Richard Swan is here to explain why sometimes, these questions do not have easy answers.
Did you ever watch The Revenge of the Sith, and think that Mace Windu was right to want to lightsabre Chancellor Palpatine to death—even though to do so would have represented an extrajudicial killing? Have you ever found yourself wondering why Frodo stopped Sam from killing Gollum even though Gollum was clearly planning to murder the two of them? Or why the Avengers went through the rigmarole of trying to retrieve the infinity gauntlet, rather than simply blowing Thanos away and pulling it off his smouldering corpse?
This is ultimately a question of ethics (no no, stay with me), and specifically deontological versus consequentialist ethics. The former, at its most basic, concerns how we judge the moral value of an action in and of itself (sorry, actual philosophers). So, in most societies, the act of killing—except in specific circumstances such as self-defence—is always and absolutely wrong. The deontologist would say that the slaying of Chancellor Palpatine in his chambers, absent any due process, would be ethically impermissible—and, indeed, would constitute the crime of murder. But the consequentialist would look at the consequences of the killing of Chancellor Palpatine. They would have a fairly easy time arguing that one brisk homicide at the hands of state-sponsored peacekeepers is clearly preferable to the deaths of those millions who would perish if Palpatine was allowed to escape and continue his schemes unmolested.
I have always been fascinated by this intersection between liberal Western democracies (of which the Star Wars Republic is nakedly allegorical), which tout liberal values—the right to life, the entitlement to one’s freedom, equality before the law, free and fair elections, the presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial, etc. etc.—and how they are forced to act (or claim to be forced to act) when squaring off against enemies which do not share those values. We might call these existential threats, or Outside Context Problems, as Banks might have said.
I’ve also been fascinated by the idea of government by consent, the social contract, and the fragility of authority. Much of the apparatus of state, after all—legislators, policemen, and physical institutions—is small in size and number when compared to the general population. It is our inherent desire to live peaceful and prosperous lives, and the idea that bad behaviour will meet with consequences (though only after the fact) that does most of the heavy lifting in keeping us all in line. If you really think about it, “society” is just one huge collective delusion, and there is very little physically preventing us from behaving very badly. Indeed, if ten years as a litigator has taught me anything, it’s that you can get away with an incredible amount of wrongdoing if you are brazen and wealthy enough.
The Justice of Kings has at its core these issues. Our protagonist, Sir Konrad Vonvalt, is an Emperor’s Justice, a man invested with extensive authority to uphold the common law and a staunch believer in due process. But over the course of the novel, he faces a threat which rides roughshod over these niceties. The brazen and the malicious are on the ascendancy, but there is no lawful way he can stop them. Nicholas Cage as Yuri Orlov puts it pithily in Lord of War:
“I was guilty as sin, but Valentine couldn’t prove it. And he was the rarest breed of law enforcement officer. The type who knew I was breaking the law, but wouldn’t break it himself to bust me.”
With the Empire of the Wolf Trilogy, I have distilled (or attempted to distil is probably more accurate) a decade of GWOT paranoia, another decade of litigation, and the more recent rise of destructive populism in complacent Western democracies, all into a fantasy novel. This is a story about how but a few bad-faith actors can upset the world order, and asks the question: what measures is it acceptable to take to stop them?
The Justice of Kings: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
“… you can get away with an incredible amount of wrongdoing if you are brazen and wealthy enough. ”
Well, that’s just shocking! I am having a very difficult time thinking of any contemporary examples whatsoever.
If the bad faith actor was bad enough (Chancellor Palpatine might qualify), some good faith actor could go ahead and do the unethical thing of killing him, and then put down their sword and accept their own legal system execution for the murder. That seems like an ethical way of doing an arguably necessary but unethical act.
Super interesting essay, and super-relevant book. I wrestle daily with the question of whether it’s okay to punch Nazis. (Only kidding – I say punch ’em.)
Off to check it out!
My all time favourite hero is the early version of Superman, in which he always hands the baddie to the police. Your discussion brings to mind the assassination of bin Laden, which although celebrated in the west was an extra judicial killing. Tricky issues!