Justifying the Means: An Overview of the Philosophy in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Something I really appreciate is when a story isn’t afraid to deal with complex themes. Sure, it’s a risk to do so. The storyteller risks alienating audience members if the theme is too blatant, or he risks sacrificing good story for good theme. Every now and then, though, a story comes along that embeds its theme in the plot, characters, and setting.

Ender’s Game is one such book, and for that I am grateful. However, just because it wove the theme into the story well, doesn’t mean that it necessarily was a good theme. To clarify, I’m only speaking of the first book in the series, Ender’s Game. I haven’t read the rest of the series.

My primary problem with Ender’s Game is that ultimately it seems to endorse a view of “the ends justify the means.” This is a philosophy known as pragmatism.

In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it is expedient. If it works. Workability becomes the determining factor in truth. If something achieves a good end, it is justified. It is true. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend their position.

Nazi’s come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically. Being a pragmatist means that you believe the ends justify the means.

That’s a very basic definition, and if you’d like a more in-depth discussion of pragmatism, I suggest you check out this lecture. I took all the information above from it.

So, how does Ender’s Game endorse pragmatism?

The primary and most obvious way is simple. Throughout the book a simple question is raised: is it right to turn a child into a killer, to put a child through so much pain, so that he could save the human race? Does the end (saving the human race) justify the means (turning Ender into a killer)?

And ultimately, the answer given appears to be yes, for three reasons. 1) The planet is saved, 2) Ender is not harmed, and 3) No real consequences take place because of the militaries’ choice. Most of the characters end up happy. Basically, the goal is achieved without much (if any) harm coming to the characters. The pragmatistic logic used to justify their actions works.

Granted, it’s a subtle message, which is why I say it appears to endorse pragmatism. Because it is subtle and woven so well into the story, it’s hard to figure out precisely what’s being said. But after thinking about it for a while, I believe that this is the message given.

So in essence, I’m going to be careful when I recommend Ender’s Game. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good book–rather, it was a fantastic one. But even good books have flaws; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Instead, it means that we should watch out for the bad, and praise and enjoy the good.