Starship Troopers is a Hugo Award winning science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein. The book was published in 1959, but the
story is set in the future, when earth is united under one government and fighting for survival against an alien species. Everyone in this fictional society has some rights, but only citizens can fully participate in the government. That’s the catch. The right to vote, full citizenship, can only be earned by two years of public service. Public service can take many forms, but the novel devotes almost all its attention to the military. Against this backdrop, Starship Troopers follows the martial career of Juan “Johnnie” Rico, as he moves from being a high school student in the Philippines to a Mobile Infantry officer in outer space. The novel deals favorably with military themes, such as patriotism, loyalty, responsibly to the collective, and the legitimate basis of authority.

In real life, Johnnie Rico’s adventures are controversial. Among the favorable readers are the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, both of whom have put the book on reading lists. Many other reviewers are more negative, accusing Heinlein (and not without some justification) of militarism. Starship Troopers does what good science fiction is supposed to do, providing a simple but engaging story that also takes the time to confront readers with different views of society and life. In this way, the book challenges preconceptions and provokes thought. We can learn from the solid arguments that have been presented by both sides.

But this is also why the 1997 film, loosely adapted from the novel, was so disappointing. By his own account, the director, Paul Verhoeven, never completed the book because it made him “bored and depressed.” Instead, he turned his film version into a satire. We see scenes of misogyny (e.g., a topless female recruit), gratuitous violence (e.g., a man gets his brain sucked out), or both (a soldier gets her arm melted off). Other times, the infantry are wearing Nazi-style uniforms, working amidst Nazi-style architecture, or even appearing in a Nazi-style propaganda video.  As Verhoeven explained, “the movie is about ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.'”

In the film, the book’s philosophically-minded warriors have become comically idiotic. Rather than use … you know … military technology and tactics (e.g., body armor, combat vehicles, artillery, and close air support) their battle “plans” are reduced to homicidal ravings — “I say kill ‘em all,” “Gimme the nuke,” and “Kill everything that has more than two legs.” None of the philosophical themes that were central to the original book – patriotism, loyalty, responsibility, the nature of authority – were taken seriously in the film. It was just a bloody romp through the galaxy, where our human conspecifics were no more sympathetic than the plastic-looking aliens that spewed acidic ichor over them.

Paul Verhoeven had turned an engaging book into a dreadfully superficial film, and I couldn’t understand how he had managed to fail so badly. Doing a reasonable adaption shouldn’t have been that challenging an undertaking. Verhoeven needed only to retain the original narrative. It wasn’t that the director represented the Heinlein’s ideas badly, or even that he debunked them; it was that he didn’t represent them at all. The essence of the book was absent from the film. Lacking this philosophical grounding, the novel’s principled soldiers became the film’s histrionic killers. In other words, Verhoeven didn’t simply disagree with Robert Heinlein. Rather, he didn’t seem to understand what the author was trying to say. That was why he couldn’t incorporate the novel’s philosophical positions into his film.  In some way or other, Paul Verhoeven missed the obvious point of a most unsubtle story.

And this is perplexing because – good heavens! — Starship Troopers is a science fiction novel and not a doctoral treatise on analytic philosophy.  The ideas are easy and accessible, not arcane and difficult. The book is not at all demanding, and it should have been straightforward to present its story on the big screen. Popular and well-known films, such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, have dealt with similar themes.

Let’s think about this puzzle. On the one hand, Heinlein presents a novel that explores what we might call the military virtues – duty to country, responsibility to others, loyalty to teammates, etc. On the other hand, director Verhoeven does not seem to recognize these things as virtues. He doesn’t even appear to have noticed that they are in the book. Consequently, soldiers who, by their own lights, are behaving morally are, to Paul Verhoeven, behaving immorally. The honorable warrior defending his planet has been transformed into an ignorant sadist.

Curious though this may be, people do this sort of thing all of the time. For help unraveling this riddle, I turned to Dr. Jonathan’s
Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind. According to Professor Haidt, people often have trouble grasping the moral choices made by others, and these misunderstandings can sometimes result in bigotry and social conflict. This transpires because our ethical judgments are not as rational as we sometimes believe them to be. To explain these matters, Dr. Haidt presents two conceptual frameworks – the social intuitionist model and moral foundations theory. As we’ll see next, these two frameworks complement each other.

According to Professor Haidt’s social intuitionist model, evolution has bequeathed to us a bundle of moral intuitions. When these intuitions are engaged they guide our feelings and allow us to make relatively quick ethical judgments. We may well reason about moral issues, but these rational deliberations tend to come after the intuitions have done their work. Hence, our conscious thoughts are often rationalizations of what our emotion-laden intuitions have already told us. So important are these intuitions, that they are seen as “moral foundations.”

For the social intuitionist model to help us understand Starship Troopers, we need to know more about these moral intuitions. To address this issue, let’s review Dr. Haidt’s moral foundations theory. This model suggests that there are between five (in earlier versions) and six (in later versions) intuitions that drive much moral and political thinking. In The Righteous Mind Professor Haidt lists each by both its positive (or moral) pole and negative (or immoral) pole.

  • Care/Harm. Care/Harm is straightforward. Care involves taking care of others and making sure they are not hurt. The characteristic emotion associated with this intuition is compassion.
  • Fairness/Cheating. This is the foundation that fascinates us organizational justice researchers. It involves getting and giving what is deserved. The characteristic emotion, when you are treated fairly, is gratitude. When you treat someone unfairly you experience guilt, and when someone treats you unfairly you feel anger.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal. This foundation pertains to the dedication and devotion that you show to in-group members. Loyalty is characterized by group pride, but also by rage if one confronts betrayal.
  • Authority/Subversion. Authority means that you acknowledge and respect legitimate hierarchies. This also includes deference to cultural and societal traditions. Subversion, which is viewed as immoral, pertains to disrespectful or undermining behavior. The characteristic emotions are respect and fear.
  • Sanctity/Degradation.  The foundation has to do with the sense of purity or the desire to avoid behavior that is “unclean” or polluting. Certain acts are held in repugnance, even if we cannot explain why (e.g., cannibalism, incest). Disgust is the emotion that accompanies violations of the sanctity foundation.
  • Liberty/Oppression. This is a sixth foundation (see his Chapter 8), which was added later. It has to do with freedom of action and the avoidance of tyranny. A characteristic emotion is the hatred people feel toward bullies.

People and societies do not cultivate all six foundations to the same degree. For instance, in the United States political liberals place emphasis on the care/harm and fairness/cheating foundations, while political conservatives tend to weight all of the foundations more equally. For political libertarians, as one might imagine, the liberty/oppression foundation has special salience. A key theme of The Righteous Mind is that the differential impact of the moral foundations creates misunderstandings and conflict among otherwise decent and principled people. The problem, according to the social intuitionist model, is that certain intuitions just “don’t do it” for everyone. If people make their moral judgments using different foundations, then they understand events in distinctly different ways. The behavior of another person may seem immoral, and not simply wrongheaded, to them.

To illustrate this, let us return to the idea of patriotism by considering the loyalty/betrayal foundation. If you are a political conservative, then you probably make use of this intuition. Perhaps you are especially devoted to and proud of your country, and are willing to make sacrifices on its behalf. However, if you are a political liberal you probably make less use of loyalty/betrayal and more of care/harm and fairness/cheating. Perhaps you see yourself as a cosmopolitan “citizen of the world,” without strong ties to a particular nation. Thus, the political liberal is likely to interpret patriotic behavior as jingoism, ethnocentrism, or perhaps even racism. Notice that both our hypothetical conservative and our hypothetical liberal are each behaving morally in some meaningful sense, but only as understood from inside of their individual intuitive frames. When we evaluate individuals who weigh moral foundations differently than we do, we need to take into account their intuitions. Otherwise, we may mistake them as people holding unethical beliefs and engaging in immoral conduct. Something like this seems to have occurred in Verhoeven’s film version of Starship Troopers.

Interestingly, Dr. Haidt has found similar effects when he looks across nations. As is true for political groups, societies differ in how much emphasis they place on the various moral foundations. Like political liberals, nations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) tend to employ three foundations to the relative de-emphasis of others – care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression. Other societies – that is, the majority of the earth’s inhabitants – tend to have a more comprehensive moral domain. As one might expect, when our ethical judgments are grounded in different foundations, this can produce cross-cultural misunderstanding.

In this fashion, Professor Haidt’s moral foundations theory does a good job of explaining why Paul Verhoeven missed the point of Starship Troopers. The arguments presented by Robert Heinlein simply weren’t real for him. This was because the novel’s philosophical position drew on moral foundations that were less salient to a wealthy and educated man from a Western nation. For Verhoeven, the concepts of loyalty/betrayal and authority/subversion, perhaps even sanctity/degradation, failed to register intuitively and so they became invisible. Verhoeven’s artistic imagination did not extend past the blinders of his culture or outside the bubble of his political views.

This was why the director of Starship Troopers looked at something simple and obvious, but couldn’t comprehend what it was. The “it” he failed to see were the moral and honorable choices made by soldiers – duty, loyalty, responsibility, and so forth. Verhoeven’s inability to discern the underlying moral foundations rendered the behavior of the troopers unintelligible to him. Lacking a philosophical account of their behavior, he concluded that these warriors were either fools, duped by militaristic propaganda, or else they simply enjoyed the butchery. No wonder he found the novel “boring and depressing.” Having misunderstood the reasons for the troopers’ behavior, the film characters appeared as one-dimensional serial killers.

Dogmatic people don’t seem very good at irony. That’s too bad, because Starship Troopers is very ironic, at least when the film is interpreted through the lens of moral foundations theory. Sometimes we dislike people because they overlook ethical principles. But other times we dislike people because their relevant set of intuitions are distinct from our own.  If we are not careful, we mistake the latter group for the former group, carelessly deciding that they are immoral, only because they are different.