What are some ethical dilemmas in Life of Pi, and how do they impact society?

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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The major question one might ask after reading Life of Pi might be the following: What is humanly appropriate when faced with surviving a traumatic and life-threatening experience? Decent and well-fed people would say that they would never kill or eat another person even if they were starving and in a dire position. Religious people might say it is better to die with clean hands than to die with blood on them. There are two major ethical dilemmas that Pi faces on the lifeboat: Is it appropriate to eat another human in order to survive? Is it ethical to kill another human in order to obtain food in order to survive?

When Pi goes to kill his first fish on the lifeboat, it takes him a lengthy amount of time to accomplish the task, and then he cries when it is finished. He describes the experiences as follows:

"A lifetime of peaceful vegetarianism stood between me and the willful beheading of a fish. . . I was sixteen years old, a harmless boy,  bookish and religious, and now I had blood on my hands. . . All sentient life is sacred" (183).

This act of killing and eating a fish goes against his religious and vegetarian beliefs, but it also seems minor compared to what he eventually faces at sea. Some from his Indian culture would say that this experience is an ethical dilemma. It is for Pi, too, because he weeps over it and he never forgets to pray for that fish. This experience with the fish might not impact society very much, but it does affect Pi.

He is next faced with witnessing the cook butcher a sailor and eat the man's flesh. Pi admits to eating some of the dried flesh himself, which he is not proud of. He also witnesses the horror of seeing his mother killed by the cook, who possibly took a few bites because his mouth is red when he throws her overboard. Without law to satisfy justice, is it ethical to kill the cook? Pi does kill the cook and then eats the heart, liver and some flesh. Is he justified in doing all of this to his mother's murderer, and can he be absolved of eating human flesh by society because of the circumstance in which he found himself? Most people would probably leave the matter alone, but the one who has to deal with it forever is Pi.

In an effort to shield himself and society from the realities and tragedies of survival at sea, Pi concocts the story of Richard Parker, the hyena, Orange Juice, and the broken-legged zebra. He understands the ethical dilemmas that his experiences create and he chooses to reject them in his mind. When the Japanese investigators refuse to leave him alone about the story, he gives in and tells a story without animals. The Japanese investigators represent society, so their reactions help to identify how the story impacts society. When Pi asks them which story they liked better, "the story with animals or the story without animals?" Mr. Chiba says, "The story with animals" (317).

When all is said and done, the story with animals is better for society because it claims intelligence, civility, and faith as its redeeming themes rather than human selfishness and depravity. As far as the book itself is concerned, Life of Pi can be used as a teaching tool to warn readers about how easy it is to forget one's humanity when faced with a life-or-death situation. On the other hand, society benefits from the story because the book also shows how Pi uses intelligence and faith to bring him through the situation. Readers can choose how they might act in his place and discover which character they could possibly represent.