A Moral Dilemma in Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game is one of my favorite novels because it’s written for middle schoolers/young adults, but it treats them like adults, just like the characters in the book, because it deals with such a tough topic: moral dilemma. Ender gets forced into situations where he battles enemies, friends, and—in what I feel is the most important for young readers—his own emotions and morals. They frequently put him into a situation where what he knows is right and kind is at odds with what adults are telling him to do. Also, the adults are not “evil” like how other young adult novels portray them, simplifying and essentially removing the most tense part of the conflict. In this novel, the adults are actually doing what is clearly in the best interest for literally the survival of humanity. They are trying to do what is good. The problem? They’ve lost sight of empathy for these kids they are training for war – something no kid should endure. They’re desperate, and one character—Mr. Graff—knows what they are doing is wrong, but like the reader and even Ender, he doesn’t know the alternative. What does one do when the best (and only?) option of saving humanity is morally wrong? Is it okay to hurt someone if it saves everyone else? Do the ends justify the means? 

Throughout the novel, Ender’s intelligence and compassion are the source of his moral dilemmas. Ender is a genius, and he understands the adults are using him, but their use of him is also necessary to save the entire human race. However, his compassion limits his use as a weapon because Ender is deeply sorrowful whenever he hurts or causes pain to someone else. The readers see clear evidence of this when Ender hurts Bonzo; Bonzo is clearly just as ruthless as Ender can be; but unlike Ender, he lacks the controlling element of compassion. Ender, intellectually knowing he needs to control Bonzo in order to be successful as a leader, ends up having to teach Bonzo the way Bonzo learns: ruthless violence. Knowing he can be ruthless, just like his brother, Ender is frightened to do this. He’s faced with the moral dilemma: Do I hurt someone so he doesn’t hurt me back? Do I hurt someone so I can be a better leader and save others? His compassion is the only thing that keeps this ruthlessness in check. The reader sees Ender terrified and sorrowful at his ability to turn off his own compassion and beat Enzo up to where Enzo is unresponsive. 

This moral dilemma becomes larger as the novel continues. Emotionally, Ender does not want to fight. He feels hurting others is wrong. Intellectually, he knows he has to in order to save others – including his own family. For this reason, he knows that NOT fighting would be wrong. Because of Ender’s compassion, the adults realize Ender needs to be manipulated and tricked into his full potential. Games are used to develop Ender’s ability where he believes no one is actually getting hurt. This continues until the final “game,” which Ender finds out after his victory was not actually a game at all. Ender had essentially won the war, including the death of two of his peers. This, not surprisingly, devastates Ender, and Ender spends the rest of the novel seeking how to make it right, seeking to justify the means required to meet the destructive end. 

I like this book because it deals with a real problem, one that simply can’t be entirely answered. Ender is the key to this book because he is not perfect, but he does the best he can. He seeks to do what is right at all times. He always seeks to better himself and to show compassion to others. When forced to do something hurtful to others, he seeks to repair the damage as best as he can. These are the kinds of lessons I think readers and especially our youth don’t always get to learn because so much of children’s literature teaches that the world is black and white. I think it’s important that our youth understand sometimes the “right thing” is not perfect or clear, and our responsibility is simply to do the best we can and to follow through and fix any damage as best as is possible. It’s not a happy book, but it’s an important one. It helps that it’s also an action-packed, exciting one with battles and strategies throughout!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here. Feel free to take a look!

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