Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Hunger Games and Just War Theory

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 Catching Fire is currently taking the world by storm,  this seems like a good time to use The Hunger Games and Philosophy as a springboard to dive into some key themes in the trilogy.*

 In “Starting Fires Can Get You Burned: The Just War Tradition and the Rebellion Against the Capitol," Louis Melancon looks at the Rebellion through the lens of Just War Theory. As with my previous posts, I hope to accurately portray the writer's position while adding some comments of my own.

Mr. Melancon begins by noting three positions** people generally take when it comes to war:

  •            Pacifism: violence against others is always unacceptable. This does not seem to be the position of any of the main characters in the Hunger Games trilogy. Clearly, there are no Amish and Mennonite craftsmen making cabinets and fake fireplaces in Panem. 
  •        Political Realism: Thucydides said of the Athenian conquest of Milos, “The strong do what they have the power to do, the weak accept what they have to accept.” Violence is acceptable if it helps fulfill stated goals (Presidents Snow and Coin, and perhaps rebels such as Gale).  
  •        Just War Tradition: Violence may be acceptable if used in a just cause and exercised by just means. This theory, which has Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas in its historical camp, offers a middle ground between do nothing and doing anything. This position is grounded solidly in the Christian tradition, but is not limited to those of religious persuasion.

Just War Theory can be broken down into three categories: jus ad bellum (the right to go to war), jus in bello (right conduct within war), and jus post bellum (justice after war).


Jus ad bellum contains seven subcategories:

  • Just Cause. It must be a defense against a serious evil or grave injustice. 
  • Right Intention. The cause must be for justice, not selfish gain. 
  • Last Resort.  All peaceful resolutions must be tried first. 
  • Probability for Success. The war should not happen if it if it is hopeless or will require unjust means. 
  • Comparative Justice. The attacker must be significantly more in the right. 
  • Proportionality.  The benefits must outweigh the direct and collateral harm. 
  • Competent Authority.  The conflict must be declared by a legitimate legal authority.

In the world of the the Hunger Games, the rebels can make a generally good argument that it is just for them to go to war against the Capital. The competent authority offers the biggest hurdle; however, this criterion may be an area of weakness in just war theory. It’s hard to see why, in the absence of a recognized legal authority, there should be no group with sufficient moral authority to challenge cruel tyranny.

As the trilogy unfolds, the principles of Comparative Justice and Proportionality also take a hit - which moves us to the principle of maintaining right conduct within war.

Jus in bello

The Principle of Distinction requires a clear delineation between combatants and non-combatants.  The Principle of Military Necessity requires minimum force. The Principle of Proportionality requires that the military benefit of an assault outweigh any collateral damage. Unfortunately, both sides fail on this account.

The Rebellion's Siege of the Nut violated the principle of necessity and proportionality; the Capitol knowingly puts children in harm’s way; President Coin and the Rebellion target those children and bomb the first responders. Katniss courageously challenges this moral brokenness in the Rebellion, but with limited success. It's a pretty ugly war all around.

Jus post bellum

In the aftermath of war, how can unjust institutions be reformed? What resources will be needed? How will the victors treat war criminals? Can the Rebellion secure a lasting peace?  Does anybody even have a plan beyond defeating the Capital?

Here is where the Rebellion shows its greatest moral culpability. (The movie version of Catching Fire hints at some changes in Gale, but the truth about the Rebellion is yet to come). Though the rebels have a plan of sorts, part of it includes holding another Hunger Games to punish their prisoners of war. They don’t ultimately do this, but even the serious contemplation reveals a troublesome mindset from which injustice can be done - and justified, because it’s for the gain of the new regime. Melancon sums it up well:

“The rebels actions in the course of the war make them no better than the Capitol, and their behavior at the conclusion of the fighting does little to move Panem towards a more peaceful tomorrow… from the vantage point of our own exceedingly bloody moment in history, it seems like a pipe dream to imagine that organized human violence could ever be completely eradicated.”

**Paolo Bacigalupi's The Drowned Cities uses three characters with great effectiveness to embody these three positions.

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