23 April 2009

Ender's Game

This science fiction novel for children and its sequels, by Orson Scott Card, are some of the most popular science fiction ever written. They focus on a little boy who goes into space and is bullied a lot, and naturally manages to rise above it. They're pretty well-written for children's books. Interestingly, though, they have an appalling ethical lesson. They are a modern treatise in a sort of warped virtue ethics.

Do not read the rest of this post if you haven't read them and mind having the ending spoiled, by the way.

Virtue ethics are the sort espoused by the ancient philosophers; Plato, Aristotle, and so on. They were wildly popular for a long time, and advocated that the path to morality lay in being a good person, rather than doing good deeds. Accordingly, one had to live up to the virtues (which varied depending on the advocate) and one's deeds would have a rather lesser importance in one's moral worth.

This is a rather comforting way to look at ethics, since it is fluid enough to embrace error and tragedy without condemning someone in their own mind. People are predisposed to considering themselves "a good person," regardless of what they are actually doing, and so it is a natural enough line of thought. It was supplanted with such approaches as deontology (following some manner of gifted or created rules) and teleology (examining consequences). Philosophers will please excuse my extraordinary brevity here, as I move on to the main point:

Upon reading a delightful essay, "Creating the Innocent Killer" by John Kessler, I discovered that in the Ender books, espouse that it doesn't really matter at all what one does, as long as you remain a good person. This is an astonishing leap, to entirely discard one's actions, but it nonetheless is strongly argued for by Card in these works. The biggest example is how Ender commits genocide at the end of the novel, but it's okay because he was entirely ignorant of that fact. This is just compounded with a dozen other similar examples throughout the book, detailed by Kessler. He notes:
In relating Ender Wiggin’s childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse. Ender’s parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.

Through this abusive training Ender becomes expert at wielding violence against his enemies, and this ability ultimately makes him the savior of the human race. The novel repeatedly tells us that Ender is morally spotless; though he ultimately takes on guilt for the extermination of the alien buggers, his assuming this guilt is a gratuitous act. He is presented as a scapegoat for the acts of others. We are given to believe that the destruction Ender causes is not a result of his intentions; only the sacrifice he makes for others is. In this Card argues that the morality of an act is based solely on the intentions of the person acting.
I highly recommend you check out this essay for a great examination of this matter; the lessons found in children's books often go surprisingly unscrutinized, except in the most ham-handed way ("There's a gay guy in this book!").

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