Wednesday, October 9, 2013

What If The Odds Are Against You? (The Hunger Games and Philosophy)

In a previous series of posts, I used The Walking Dead and Philosophy to look at the worldview issues in AMC’s hit series. Since the release of Catching Fire is not too far away, I am using The Hunger Games and Philosophy as a springboard to dive into some key themes in the trilogy.

The first post looked at the role of entertainment in the Capital; this one will draw from George A. Dunn's “The Odds Have Not Been Very Dependable of Late" to look more closely at the ethical implications of the influence of luck vs. the importance of intention in The Hunger Games.*

What role does luck play in the world? More importantly, if luck is a force to be reckoned with, what does that do to the notion of choice and the possibility of meaningful moral actions?

Many of the events in Katniss’s life would never have happened were it not for luck, both good and bad. Her sister was chosen against the odds; Peeta was chosen against the odds; Katniss and Peeta got a particular team and not another against the odds. When Katniss slept in a tree with tracker jackers and wore a mockingjay pin that just so happened to feature a bird that Rue loves, the odds were very much in her favor.

So, to what degree are luck and choice intertwined? It would seem that the more our lives are shaped by luck, the less culpability we have for our actions. The less luck, the more we deserve praise or blame for the choices we make. Thomas Nagel (who seems pretty good at generating controversy) has attempted to bring some clarity to the discussion by discussing four kinds of moral luck.

Constitutive moral luck. Forces beyond our control shape our moral sense. It's luck about who we are. Haymitch, for example, was so warped by the ill luck of being chosen for the games that he can hardly be held accountable for becoming a shell of his former self.  To what degree are those who run the games responsible for his moral failures? To what degree did he still have control?

Circumstantial Moral Luck. We are caught in morally compromising dilemmas not of our making. Katniss worries she may have to do something horrible to protect Rue; would Katniss then be culpable?

Causal Moral Luck. In some ways, this is intertwined with the problem of free will. If our moral nature is formed by all the influences in and around us, then perhaps neither our thoughts or actions are free. When Katniss covers Rue with flowers, her thoughts echo the speech Peeta made to her that night on the roof. If Peeta’s advice had been different, would Katniss have done something different?

Resultant Moral Luck. This involves the idea of unintended consequences. Sometimes we try hard to make the right choice but inadvertently enable a bad consequence (for example, the confusing causal chain that links Katniss to Prim’s death, or the revolutionaries who enable the bombing of innocents without realizing it).

If morality can be reduced to luck, it would seem to make a discussion about morality not only unnecessary but incoherent. Nagel concludes,
 "As the external determinants of what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their effect on consequences, character, and choice itself, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. Eventually nothing remains which can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised."
In response to the problem of luck, other philosophers such as Immanuel Kant focus on the importance of the intent behind our actions. According to this view, if there is no volition, there can be no moral culpability. Why should people be judged for doing something they could not avoid doing?

In this moral theory, the only way morality can even be discussed is if there is an element of agency. One must be able to first choose, and then choose a course of actions for the right reasons. The moral quality found in intent can never be trumped by the morality of the consequences. The cause, circumstances, and results are irrelevant. The quality of the will is the only criterion by which the goodness or badness of an action can be judged.

Dunn notes that while this view can be compelling, it does face a dilemma:
“The upshot is that taking refuge in ‘good intentions’ to shelter our sense of worth from the stormy caprices of luck may turn out to be just a ply to escape the often unforgiving consequences of our actions.”
To Ms. Collins’ credit, she does not allow her characters to avoid the consequences of their actions. They reap what they sow, for better or for worse. In a world comprised entirely of shades of luck, it’s merely a case of the odds being ever in someone's favor (or not).  In a world of meaningful choices, each person bears the weight of moral agency to at least some degree.

No matter how powerful (or impotent) a role luck plays in orchestrating the parts of our lives that are out of our control, most people agree: moral character is something that has relevance only if it is in our control. We want to know if Katniss, Peeta and Gale will be controlled by their circumstances or rise above it. There is agency there. Intent, will and choice matter.  Was Peeta just lucky that Katniss chose him, or was he deserving of her choice?  Without the presence of people who are moral agents, it's hard to see how the story would be compelling. As Dunn notes,
“The most important thing in life isn’t the hand we’re dealt but how we choose to play it and the sort of people we become through our moral choices.”
The Hunger Games clearly allows luck to impact the lives of the characters, but the deepest moral fiber in people is both created as much as it is revealed in these moments. We may not know to what degree luck impacts our life, and we won't be able to fully see the end result of our actions, but we can seek to be the kind of people from whom goodness flows even in the worst of circumstances.

Perhaps it is personal integrity, not luck, that we need to be ever in our favor.

Recommended Reviews of The Hunger Games:
Deeper Hungers and Darker Games- my thoughts on the series
Christian Reflection on the Hunger Games Trilogy - very thorough post from J.W. Wartick
The Hunger Games, Ethics and Christianity - another post about the role of luck
Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy - good overview and perspective of the series as literature
Blood-Stained Ink has a three-part series worth reading
From Emily Torres' Dystopia Ministries - a series of short articles on how our culture is intersecting with the Capital.

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