Two ethical questions seem to dominate this story. First, what is the moral distinction between murder and such forms of killing sanctioned by society as self-defense during war? To kill at all, the story implies, the killer must first believe in his superiority to the victim. Rainsford’s belief that animals cannot feel and the general’s conviction that they cannot reason provide convenient justification for both men in their lifelong careers as hunters. However, the smugness of their attitude is demonstrated to be dangerous to both of them. Rainsford is forced to play the hunted and must rely on the instinctive behavior of animals to survive (indeed, his vision of himself as a beast at bay justifies the murder of Zaroff), and Zaroff has been driven into madness by the extremity of his sense that no animal is equal to his prowess as a hunter. Rainsford, who fought in World War I and claims not to condone “cold-blooded murder,” has nevertheless learned to kill efficiently enough to fool the general and trap him in his own bedroom. There is certainly a suggestion at the end of the story that any experience with killing—through sport, soldiering, or self-defense—contributes to the idea that the victor deserves to survive and makes the idea of murder conscionable.
A second question raised by this story is how successful civilization really is at controlling or diverting the instinctive, often brutal, behavior of man. Zaroff, who appreciates the cultural opportunities of society (evident in his clothing, food, and the snatches of opera that he hums at bedtime), has perverted the civilized convention of the game and sportsmanship to achieve insane, self-indulgent ends. His idea that “life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if need be, taken by the strong” is in some measure reinforced by the society that has given him tremendous wealth and sanctions his passion as a hunter.
Rainsford, too, is the moral victim of a society that directs men to amuse themselves by intentionally risking death. The ease with which he oversimplifies the world into the hunters and the hunted parallels Zaroff’s satisfaction with a world consisting of the strong and the weak. Forced to play the hunted for a time, Rainsford may learn empathy for the victim, but he never questions the dualistic thinking that allows him only to kill or be killed. The story thus forces the reader to question the civilization that assumes that man needs to kill, and at best will only provide him with equally brutal alternatives to murder rather than insist on more creative responses to conflict.