The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
384 pages, paperback, $8.99
(Given the wide-spread popularity of The Hunger Games and the multiplicity of reviews of it, this review will not summarize its plot; the reader can find a summary here.)
The Hunger Games presents its readers with a nihilistic world in which evil actions can be excused based on necessity. It accurately portrays the potential endgame of a big, centralized government and a population addicted to mass-media entertainment. In such a world, survival becomes the basis of morality and people mere objects in the pursuit of survival. While such a Machiavellian ethic seems realistic given the situation in which Suzanne Collins places her characters, she presents no alternative ethic. Instead, she crafts the plot to mitigate, as much a possible, the moral culpability of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.
Suzanne Collins, intentionally or not, includes a critique of modern mass media and technology and their dehumanizing effects in her story. Panem, a new nation comprising much of North America, has twelve districts all under the control of the Capitol. Because of an earlier rebellion, the Capitol rules with an iron fist, using economic exploitation, superior technology, and psychological intimidation to keep the districts under its control. What becomes evident throughout the story is that the Capitol uses the mass media, in particular the coverage of the Hunger Games, simultaneously to intimidate and give hope. Each contestant hopes to win and escape with his life in this strange inversion of Hobbesian political theory where the government is actually causing the summum malum; winning also brings the prospect of more food supplies for the entire district. Through the Hunger Games, where each district must send a boy and girl each year, the Capitol demonstrates its continued sovereignty.
When Katniss arrives at the Capitol, she is repulsed by its citizens, who are carefree, decadent, and inhumane. They rely on technology to fulfill their every whim and economically exploit the districts to fund their extravagance. Every year, they eagerly await the beginning of the Hunger Games; they live for entertainment. This picture is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the book: Suzanne Collins creates a dystopia using elements from both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a strong and unchallenged centralized government leads to misery and dehumanization for the majority of citizens. As in Brave New World, people are seen as use objects and are kept in check by mindless entertainment. Like others who comment on the problem of disconnected elites in society (e.g., Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites), Collins picks up on the inevitable problems of selfishness and dehumanization that arise when those elites see their social inequals as use objects.
What Collins fails to present, however, is a character who transcends (or even learns to transcend) the lack of morality in this dystopia. Rather we see a heroine who is perfectly willing to engage in an inhuman sport. That she does so to save her sister is commendable; that she then adopts the nihilistic ethic of the Capitol’s inhabitants is not. What is perhaps even more disappointing is that Collins lacks the courage to fully explore her protagonist’s Nietzschean ethic. Collins does not have Katniss boldly slay all her competitors; instead, the majority are killed off by other characters, one dies from poisoned berries, and one is killed by wolf-like mutants. The only characters killed by Katniss are killed in relatively palatable ways: she kills some by dropping a hornets’ nest, and she kills Marvel to stop him from killing her friend Rue. Thus Katniss accepts nihilism without having to act upon it; this is lazy and cheap. To be a well-written character, Katniss would need to face her moral dilemma and make a decision. Collins’s laziness (or cowardice?) regarding Katniss’s ethics can be seen in Katniss’s relationship with Peeta, the other tribute from her home district. During the Hunger Games, Katniss realizes that Peeta loves her and begins to love him in return–but before she can even think about what she will or ought to do if she has to kill him the rules are changed to allow both tributes from any one district to win. Peeta and Katniss join forces and she helps him recover from his injury. When she and Peeta eventually stand as the lone victors, the rules are changed again so that only one of them can win. Again, before any ethical dilemma can ensue, Katniss, who has learned the volatility of the Capitol’s inhabitants, has herself and Peeta act as if they will commit suicide. The rule change is rescinded.
The ethical laziness and cowardice of this story illuminates the problems inherent in (purely) deontological ethics, i.e., one centered around moral rules. “Do not murder” is a moral rule. Yet while Katniss may not do any wrong by breaking moral rules, she is not virtuous, either. Her moral behavior is merely a product of the situation in which she is placed: given the dog-eat-dog nature of the Hunger Games, she is able to kill her competitors without “murdering” them; her behavior is further excused by her being placed in that situation against her will. Virtue remains unaddressed. Katniss’s behavior may not be immoral, but is she virtuous? We are protected from seeing her actually kill any competitors who have not done her harm, but how would she react if she were faced with that situation? We are left to think that, survival being her only rule of action, Katniss would have killed the others in self-defense.
What deontological ethics misses, and what virtue ethics maintains, is that there is more to morality than its rules. Being good is more fundamental than doing good (or, perhaps, merely refraining from doing evil). Doug Wilson points this out in his critique of the book:
Suppose the Capitol bad guys had decided to set up a different required sin in their games. Suppose it were the Rape Games instead. Suppose that the person who made it through the games without being raped was the feted winner. Anybody here think that this series would be the bestselling phenomenon that this one is?
In short, when you have the privilege of setting up all the circumstances artificially, in order to give your protagonist no real choice about whether to sin or not, it is a pretty safe bet that a whole lot of people in a relativistic country, including the Christians in it unfortunately, won’t notice. . . .
This is where deontological ethics come very close to consequentialism : is it better to do a little evil or to allow a large evil to happen?
But think for a moment. Someone tells you to murder a twelve-year-old girl, or they will kill you. What do you do? Suppose they give the twelve-year-old girl a head start? Suppose they give her a gun and tell her that if she murders you first, and she will be okay?
This is what situation ethics specializes in. Suppose a woman is in a concentration camp, and she can save her husband’s life, or her child’s life, through sexual bribes given to the guards. What should she do? Suppose you could save one hundred thousand lives by torturing someone to death on national television. What should you do? The response should be something like, “Let me think about it, no.” As Thomas Watson put it, better to be wronged than to do wrong. It is not a sin to be murdered. It is not a sin to have your loved ones murdered. It is not a sin to defend your loved ones through every lawful means. But that is the key, that phrase. Every lawful means only makes sense when there is a law, and that only makes sense when there is a Lawgiver. Without that, everything is just dogs scrapping over a piece of meat. And once that is the framework, there is no real way to evaluate anything. The history of the Church is filled with families being martyred together. Survival is not the highest good.
Deontological ethics essentially fails to take into account the damage that morally permissible actions might have. It fails to ask the question, “Is it better for me to kill someone in self-defense or to allow myself to be killed?” This life is so transient that damage to one’s eternal soul must be taken into consideration when faced with an ethical “dilemma.” Such consideration is utterly lacking in The Hunger Games.
While The Hunger Games is popular fiction written for teenagers, this does not excuse its pathetic avoidance of ethical issues. The nihilistic tone of the story leaves one wondering why anyone even strives to win the Hunger Games. It is written in first-person present tense which, while eminently suitable for transitioning to a movie script, is not pleasant to read. This book need not be read; if one wants cheap and entertaining thrills, one should rent the DVD for a buck—you’ll likely lose less time from your life. The good messages in the book—those regarding technology, mass media, and entertainment—can be better found elsewhere. The only caveat needed here is that this book is the first in a three-part series; it may be that some of these problems have been corrected in the series’ later installments—but it seems unlikely.