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the moral of the story

I've been reading through the Hunger Games books and am about halfway through the final book. I'm enjoying them for their own sake, definitely, but I'm also thinking how useful they would be as a way to structure philosophy courses. In fact, as I've been reading the books, I've been impressed how pretty much all the major theories and concepts we teach in the core ethics course (or at least, that I teach) could be illustrated with scenes from those books. So I thought I'd make a list of different scenes and how they illustrate the things I teach. I'm doing this for my records, but you're more than welcome to read and comment.

Do expect spoilers, both below the cut and in the comments...

Egoism says we should look at how an action affects us (rather than people in general) when determining if it's the right thing to do or not.

When Prim's name is pulled at the Reaping, Katniss volunteers - but she observes that no one does for Peeta or for Rue. Would an egoist think Katniss had done the right thing here? How? (Egoists have no problem with people helping each other, but think we ultimately help them - including family - because it helps do us some good.

Gale and Katniss consider running off to the woods together at a few points: first before Katniss's reaping, and second after Katniss's Victor's Tour. They decide not to, both times with disastrous consequences and at both points they decide to stay behind to save other people. Is this the right thing to do?

When the people of Thirteen take into refugees, some characters say this is selfishly motivated: the citizens of Thirteen are sterile due to a plague, and need breeding stock. Does this selfish motive keep them from being altruistic here?


Utilitarianism says we need to look not just to our own needs but to everyone's. It also defines the test for what makes something right: it must have the best outcome and, for classic utilitarianism, maximize happiness.

One classic criticism of utilitarianism is it can't guarantee justice. If executing an innocent person will result in more happiness (say, because everyone else will enjoy the spectacle, or because they will mistakenly think justice has been satisfied if they don't realize he's innocent). The Hunger Games seem to be just such a situation: twenty-four deaths is outweighed by the pain caused by the games - or at least could be in principle

May the odds be ever in your favor! Utilitarians (at least most varieties) only look at the consequences and not whether you "meant" them. Here the concept of moral luck comes in: if you meant well but by accident your action has disastrous effects, are you to blame? The concept of luck (verging on fate) is a constant in all the books. How do we justify the fact that two children out of several thousand are selected to suffer and die, and not because they've done anything wrong?

Mill and Kant differ on the reason we punish people. (Nutshell: Kant is all for holding people responsible for their actions; Mill thinks it's wrong to make someone suffer because they've caused pain in the past, but is okay with punishment if it cuts back on the pain the criminal will cause.) In light of this, what should we make of the arbitrary laws we see in District 12? What purpose is served by punishing Gale for trying to sell that wild turkey? Is it justified?


Kant argued that it was the motive that mattered. Something is moral if it's done because you have a duty to act that way. So giving to charity because reason requires it is moral; giving to charity because it makes you feel good isn't wrong, but it's not the kind of thing morality is concerned about, either.

After the first Hunger Games, Katniss questions whether she was acting morally to save hers and Peeta's life. She decides that if it was just to survive or out of love, it's not really praiseworthy - but if it was an unocnonscious act of rebellion, that's the right thing to have done. Does Katniss's motive change whether she did the right thing or not?

Her discussion of love is important in its own right. Kant says that if we act a certain way because we feel a certain emotion toward someone, our action isn't moral (maybe amoral rather than immoral, but definitely not the kind of thing that's praiseworthy). Katniss agrees - if she saved Peeta out of love for him, that's not as praiseworthy than if her motive was tied to rebelling against the oppressive Capitol. Why? Is this correct?

For technical reasons I won't go into, Kant thinks the human will - our ability to choose - is the highest good, and that happiness and other good consequences don't hold a candle to respecting human dignity. Specifically, he thinks it's wrong to trick someone to helping you. Katniss and Peeta both trick and are tricked by different people at different points. (E.G.: the incident with the sleeping-syrup, the victors' tour, Gale's and Plutarch's trying to keep Katniss in the dark about how Snow was using Peeta to break her, etc.) Were they right to lie here?

For Kant, motives matter much more than results. There are some things you simply cannot do and they be moral; a prime example comes up in war, where a lot of people think bombing innocents or acting in horrible ways isn't justified by the ends you're aiming for. Gale obviously disagrees. (I'm thinking about the conversation between him, Katniss, and Beetee over the delayed bombs.) Is he right?


Libertarianism springs from Kant's idea that the human worth, and in particular the human choice is of paramount importance. Basically, anything that takes away our freedom - even if it results in great happiness, things like collecting taxes to help out lower incomes - is deeply immoral.

President Snow gives tributes like Finnick a choice: have their loved ones killed, or be prostituted to Capitol citizens? Is this a free choice on his part? Does it become a free choice because he accepts some payment for them, namely, their secrets?

Each District child between 12 and 18 has his name in the Hunger Games drawing once, but the poor children can take on extra entries (making it more likely they're chosen) in exchange fro food. Is this the most fair way to allot entries? Nozick and Rawls obviously have very different opinions here.

Libertarians hate paternalism, the idea of someone else deciding things for your own good. Katniss and Prim often decide to lie to their mother because they realize she can only bear up under so much. (She notices and sort of resents not being told certain things in Mockingjay. Is this right? Should they try to protect her?


Aristotle looks not at the principle that motivates us but whether we have a good character. A central part of his philosophy is the doctrine of the mean - basically, do what is appropriate to a given circumstance, being guided in the right way by emotion.

Katniss observes that no one good ever seems to win the Hunger Games. For Aristotle, good is defined in terms of doing your characteristic function well. Whatever task defines your group, a good member of that group does that well. E.g.: a good carpenter builds furniture well; a good teacher teaches well, etc. What does Katniss mean by good. In some sense, isn't being good in the abstract sense different from being good in the games?

... Similarly, Gale notes that while it would be reprehensible to kill humans like you'd hunt an animal, in the games it's "no different." Would Aristotle agree with this line of interpreting good-ness?

The Doctrine of the Mean doesn't reequire us to do what's impossible. Apply this to how Katniss handled Rue's death. In what ways did she handle it virtuously? Is she to blame for not being able to help her? Is she praiseworthy for helping her die the right way? (Thresh seems to think so.) Why or why not?

Many of the victors, most notably Haymitch, deaden themselves using alcohol or drugs? Is Haymitch responsible for what he does while drunk? Does he have a responsibility not to get drunk in the first place, so he doesn't live a bad kind of life?

To what extent, if at all do Katniss and Gale have a true friendship? Is Katniss's freiendship with Peeta better according to this test? Why or why not?

Cinna says that he pours himself into his clothing design, so no one else gets hurt. Is this kind of self-martyrdom a good way to handle situations like the one he's in? Do any of our actions really only affect ourselves, given our connection to our community that Aristotle emphasized?

MacIntyre (in many ways a modern Aristotelian) emphasized the imprtance of narrative. Bieng born into a certain story, some actions are immoral where they would be in other circumstances, and ehtics involves a certain degree of working within your narrative. Consider the fact that Katniss feels so at home and takes to the first arena so naturally, whereas the second is different from her home so she finds it so challenging. I'm only beginning to understand MacIntyre, but I think there's something to this as a way to show that our narratives matter (that Katniss really could be good in the first arena in the way she couldn't in the second).


I've also become increasingly interested in Katniss's aversion to having children,i specifically her reasons (she'd have kids if not for the Games). Snow says she's desperate to live at their conversation at the beginning of Catching Fire; if I was working with a certain set of authors (Sartre, maybe?) it would be really interesting if her aversion to produce future generations is really still living.

Also, if I was doing Hume's theory of ethics as sentiment (which I usually don't) I'd definitely bring up Peeta's art. It's technically well done but because of the subject matter Katniss hates it. Is she right? Looking at more morally relevant ideas: does my feeling toward it make it good or bad?

**********************

That's all I've got, at the moment. Am I missing any scenes? (I've only read to up to Peeta's rescue in Mockingjay.) Thoughts on any of these bits?

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