Mon
Mar 26 2012 9:00am

WWKD: The Moral and Ethical Issues of The Hunger Games

It’s no secret that The Hunger Games throws around some very serious moral and ethical questions. In a book originally marketed as young adult fiction, it presents questions of government control, deceit, violence and child killing for the reading audience to consider. Yet as people of all ages have embraced the story of Katniss and the society of Panem, conversations are being had all over about the moral implications of activities of our favorite Girl on Fire and her co-characters. Having read the story, fans are getting together to ask the tough questions, such as: if you were put in the same position as Katniss, what would you do?

(Note: There’s going to be a ton of spoilers in the coming post for the movie as well as the whole book series. You have been duly warned!)

The major ethical question of The Hunger Games series comes down to the Games themselves. Our heroine Katniss is forced to consider the fact that she will have to kill her fellow Tribunes before a television audience to return to her family alive. The question of when killing is justified has plagued society forever, and Katniss is presented with killing children to ensure her own survival. Now, while the argument can be made that the other Tributes are out to kill Katniss and therefore her actions are justified as self-defense, Katniss (and the reading audience) is also aware that these kids are nearly all being forced into the games as well. The only Tributes who are seemingly without excuse for their actions are those who volunteer for the glory of winning the games, such as the Tributes from District One. Katniss chooses, early on, to step into the games to defend her sister and therefore takes on this moral dilemma for the best reasons. Yet the question still stands: is Katniss justified in her actions? Is murder for self-defense against the other Tributes justified?

For the most part, Katniss takes a very pragmatic approach to her situation. She knows she must survive to return to her sister, whom she loves and protects. She is unwilling to lay down her own life because she has things worth living for. Yet during the games, her plan to be ruthless to survive is tested by her sympathy for those trapped within the games as well. She often does not engage directly in combat but waits to defend her own life when attacked instead of being the aggressor. She is especially tested when confronted with Rue, a little girl very similar to her sister, and Peeta, her fellow District Twelve Tribute, friend and love interest. When push comes to shove, Katniss cannot separate her feelings for either of these characters to do either of them harm. Her empathy and ethics will not allow her to become the ruthless killer that the Career Tributes easily embrace.

Peeta also presents another interesting moral dilemma for Katniss. When he presents a “fake” story of a burgeoning love for Katniss for the viewing audience to obsess over, Katniss is forced to lie about feelings she does not yet have for Peeta, all to win the support of the viewers. While in the grand scheme of things, a moral dilemma about lying seems trivial in the face of all the questions about murder, the book goes out of its way to deal with Katniss’s discomfort with lying. Author Suzanne Collins in fact spends a lot of time presenting Katniss as a practical but honest person who prefers to be herself rather than presenting a front of manipulation. The fact that throughout the series Katniss is forced to compromise her honesty to manipulate people for survival’s sake seems often more of a problem then the questions about murder and violence.

But let’s get back to that murder and violence, especially in the face of Peeta. While Katniss becomes a reluctant fighter rather than a ruthless killer, the fact remains that only one Tribute may survive the Games. The main question that keeps us guessing throughout the very first book is whether Katniss will be able to sacrifice Peeta so she might survive. As the two grow closer, the moral dilemma changes. It becomes whether or not Katniss will be forced to sacrifice herself to let Peeta live or whether she must kill one person she cares for to go back to her sister, whom she also loves. The dilemma is then whether or not self-sacrifice is something to be lauded or whether or not survival and self-protection has its own merits. Is it better to give up one’s own life for their fellow Tribute, or is it more important to defend yourself? Anyone who has read the series knows how it goes — Katniss and Peeta stand up to the government and defiantly refuse to die. Yet the question raised in the book rings so true that conversations abound all over by fans: what would you do, given the same situation? Is survival more important than the crime of murder?

To say that there are right and wrong answers would be problematic, since these are questions philosophers, law-makers and just people have been fighting with for the longest time. Yet Collins presents the audience with these major issues to consider in Katniss and provides great counterpoints in the supporting cast. Where Katniss struggles with the question of survival versus murder, she is opposed by Career Tributes whose entire purpose in life has been to train for the Games and the violence they’ll do in the arena. She’s also offered a glimpse into the future by Haymitch, her mentor, who has been where she is and has suffered the psychological scars of surviving his own violent Games. Haymitch is a dark mirror to Katniss and as the events of the series progress, Katniss’s trauma at the events she has survived come to closely mirror Haymitch’s own. Author Collins makes sure that the reading audience understands that both characters have been horribly psychologically scarred by the events they have been forced to endure. There is no celebration of violence in these books — murder and violence are not glorified, even when used in the later books as forces of revolution. Instead, they are deeply scarring tools that sometimes prove necessary but leave deep impressions upon the characters that never entirely heal.

These aren’t the only two moral questions in the books. We could talk all day about the ethical problems of the reality TV parallels in Hunger Games and the question of being entertained by other’s suffering. But the questions raised by The Hunger Games about justifiable murder and violence packs a wallop into a young adult novel that is powerful and thought-provoking. And since the books have become so popular, it’s giving a forum for discussions about ethical decisions that people, especially young people, might not have a forum to talk about otherwise.

So next time you and your friends are sitting around, talking about Team Peeta or Team Gale, or which is your favorite Tribute, maybe consider taking the conversation into the ethical realm. Ask yourself, WWKD — What Would Katniss Do? And more importantly, do you agree with her actions? Would you do the same?


Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com

This article is part of The Hunger Games on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
4 comments
Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
Author Suzanne Collins in fact spends a lot of time presenting Katniss as a practical but honest person who prefers to be herself rather than presenting a front of manipulation. The fact that throughout the series Katniss is forced to compromise her honesty to manipulate people for survival’s sake seems often more of a problem then the questions about murder and violence.

The interesting thing is how good Katniss is playing the love game once she realizes she needs it. Of course, the game gets a bit out of control for her as things go on....
Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
... the ethical problems of the reality TV parallels in Hunger Games and the question of being entertained by other's suffering.

That is precisely the question that every movie-goer should be raising. How are we different from the supposed audience of the Hunger Games if we are enjoying and cheering for our favorite Tribute to win (i.e., to kill the other Tributes)? Are we morally superior because we oppose such entertainment ... that we just paid to see? There are a number of good ethical dilemmas wrapped up in the Hunger Games series, and viewer complicity is one of the most pressing, if least explicit, of the bunch.
Eugene R.
3. S.M. Stirling
If someone is actively trying to kill you, you're always entitled to kill them in self-defense. As it says in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin): "If a man come up against thee, to slay thee, slay him first."

(This is not permissive; it says that it's -obligatory- to do that in those circumstances.)

As for the morality of watching the movie, oh, horse-pucky. It's -fiction-. We are not required to censor our fantasy lives.
Anthony Pero
4. anthonypero
There are so many more destructive things being depicted on US Network television every single night... and without the good storytelling and wrestling with morality and life and death that The Hunger Games has... why is this even an issue? Because its kids? The point of the shaky cam work that so many people hate is to not glorify and sanitize the violence into some bloody peice of art like 300.

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