I once had a long conversation about the ethics of setting a cat on fire (though no one was actually interested in setting a cat on fire…we’re not psychopaths here.) It went a little like this: If you observed some future serial killer about to set a cat on fire, is it ethical to interfere? Can’t the cat just run away, I mean logistically speaking, I imagine getting a cat to sit still while being set aflame would be rather difficult? Okay, well, so the cat is staked to the ground and about to be set on fire. And why is this person setting his cat on fire? I don’t know. He’s a terrible person. Do we know he’s a terrible person beforehand or is this the first time we’ve ever seen him? Is there a context in which setting a cat on fire doesn’t make you a terrible person and future serial killer? Maybe the cat has some disease like rabies (can cats get rabies)? Why would it need to be on fire though? There are a lot less painful ways to kill a cat, probably for everyone involved. Maybe it’s a disease that can only be killed by setting the host ablaze? What disease would that be? It’s a witch cat? Is Wicca a disease? I was just thinking it was something people were set on fire for, but you’re right. It’s a legitimate religion. So what if it’s a vampire cat? Your point being? Well, how do we know the person is a psycho? Maybe he’s just doing the world a favor by getting rid of a vampire cat. If it’s a vampire cat, maybe it should be set on fire.
Like I said, it was a long conversation.
But I bring it up because one of the greatest things about books is that they give people a way to discuss ideas in a sort of hypothetical way. It’s not necessarily reality we’re talking about; it’s just the reality of the book. In science fiction (and high fantasy to some extent), this is especially true because the world we’re all talking about literally isn’t our own. We get to play our own what-if game and see how all the ideas and assumptions about our own reality would shake out. And we get to talk about all the ideas that make up our society with the caveat of “in the book” so no one gets offended.
1) Politics is about profit not principle.
Duke Leto comes pretty close to saying these exact words while explaining to Paul why they have to go to Arrakis when he says “After all, one’s own profit comes first…You can’t let someone pauperize you!” page 43. The Duke seems to accept this bleak statement as a grim reality. But does he really have any choice?
2) War is declared by the rich and fought by the poor.
This is another statement that Duke Leto seems to make when he talks about the Fremen to Paul. He refers to brokering a deal with them as exploiting them by manipulating their hatred of the Harkonnens. The Duke also seems to regard it as one of the only chances the Atreides have of holding Arrakis. Is it right to involve the Fremen in a struggle between noble families?
3) Religion is an invented mechanism of control.
This is essentially the statement made by the Bene Gesserit’s “system of sowing implant-legends…for the protection of B.G. personnel” page 47. Lady Jessica later thinks of it as a sham but also regards it as a way to secure her survival, which gives the manipulation of religion almost a sense of necessity. But is it ethical?
4) Faith is a way for individuals to excuse aggression.
This is a statement that Dr. Yueh seems to articulate to himself about himself and his imminent betrayal. When he gives Paul his Orange Catholic Bible and makes him read a passage from it, Dr. Yueh seems to be giving Paul a kind of last rites before dooming his family to death. Dr. Yueh thinks “thus I may say to myself that he has gone where I cannot go” page 40, clearly showing his reluctance to commit his crimes. And yet, Dr. Yueh knows he will commit them anyway. He seems to try to atone for his future actions, but will still go through with them. It seems the function of his faith at that moment is not to help Paul but to excuse himself of actions he knows are wrong.
5) Conscience isn’t enough to create change.
The ironic aspect of each of these situations, and what makes “Dune” such an interesting book and Herbert such a nuanced writer, is that each situation is presented from a neutral standpoint that encourages readers to think through the implications of these decisions. All the characters feel a certain amount of guilt in their actions and in deception and manipulation. But none of them seem to feel that they have any other choice. Each character’s motivation for survival or revenge seems justified and sympathetic. But as readers, we are left to decide what is right in these situations, and perhaps how the reality of “Dune” mimics are own.