The ethics of the maze in The Maze Runner novel by James Dashner

09 January 2024
"The Maze Runner" is a dystopian science fiction novel written by James Dashner, first published in 2009. It's the first book in a series that delves into a post-apocalyptic world. The novel centers around a group of teenagers, with the protagonist being Thomas, who find themselves in a mysterious place known as the Glade, surrounded by a gigantic, ever-changing maze. 

The most intriguing aspect of this novel is the reason behind the existence of the maze and why children, specifically, are placed within it.

The Maze as a Symbol of Desperation and Human Experimentation

The story of "The Maze Runner" is set in a world that has been devastated by massive solar flares and an outbreak of a deadly virus known as the Flare. This virus, which affects the brain, leads to a form of zombification and madness in those infected.

In response to this catastrophic situation, an organization named WICKED (World In Catastrophe: Killzone Experiment Department) is formed. Their primary goal is to find a cure for the Flare. WICKED believes that the key to finding a cure lies in the brain, specifically in those of the immune — a group of individuals, mainly children, who show resistance to the virus.

The maze is not just a physical structure but represents a complex experimental setup. WICKED designs the maze to study the cognitive and emotional responses of the immune children when placed under extreme stress. The hypothesis is that the extreme conditions and the need to survive would trigger unique brain patterns in these children, which could be essential in developing a cure for the Flare.

maze runner novel ethics

Why use Children in The Maze?

The children in "The Maze Runner" are primarily chosen because they are among the few who are immune to the Flare. Their brains potentially hold the key to understanding and defeating the virus. In a world desperate for survival, the ethics of using children for experimentation becomes a secondary concern to the greater good.

The children are introduced into the Glade with no memory of their past, which serves a dual purpose. First, it eliminates any preconceived notions or biases that might affect their behavior in the maze. Second, it symbolizes the innocence and purity of youth, which WICKED believes are crucial in their experiments to find a cure.

Children and teenagers have a remarkable capacity for adaptability and resilience, which are essential traits for surviving in the constantly changing environment of the maze. WICKED's experiment relies on observing how these young individuals adapt, form social structures, establish leadership, and solve problems under duress.

Ethical Considerations in "The Maze Runner"

Central to "The Maze Runner" is the utilitarian ethical dilemma - the notion that the greatest good for the greatest number justifies the means to an end. WICKED's actions are rooted in this philosophy, as they believe that the potential to save humanity from the Flare outweighs the moral cost of experimenting on children. This perspective forces readers to question whether such a trade-off is justifiable.

The novel intensifies the moral conflict by depicting the psychological and physical sacrifices of the children. They are not mere test subjects but complex characters with whom readers empathize. The moral quandary thus becomes not abstract but visceral, as the cost of these sacrifices is felt through the experiences of these characters.

The situation in "The Maze Runner" can be likened to the philosophical thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem, where one must choose between actively causing harm to save more lives or remaining passive, leading to a greater loss of life. The maze is a literal and metaphorical representation of this dilemma, challenging both the characters and the readers to ponder where they stand on such ethical issues.

The children in the Glade face relentless psychological trauma - from the fear of the unknown to the stress of daily survival against the Grievers, the monstrous creatures in the maze. This ongoing stress raises questions about the psychological resilience in adolescents and the potential long-term effects of trauma on their development.

The induced amnesia of the Gladers adds another layer to their psychological trauma. The loss of identity and past life memories creates a profound sense of disorientation and existential angst. It's a manipulation that strips away their sense of self, arguably a fundamental violation of human rights.

The novel also delves into how these children develop coping mechanisms and social structures to manage their fear and stress. The formation of these structures, while a testament to their resilience, also highlights how extreme circumstances can alter societal norms and personal ethics.

The Question of Choice

The most significant ethical violation in "The Maze Runner" is the deprivation of autonomy and consent. The children are not volunteers; they are captives. This lack of choice brings to the forefront issues of consent, particularly in medical and psychological experimentation. It echoes historical ethical breaches in medical research and challenges the reader to consider the value of individual rights versus collective welfare.

The fact that these are children further complicates the ethical landscape. In society, children are often seen as needing greater protection, and their ability to give informed consent is typically non-existent. The novel, therefore, confronts the reader with the uncomfortable question of whether the age and vulnerability of the subjects should influence the ethical judgment of such experiments.

The narrative raises questions about the moral responsibility and accountability of those conducting the experiments. It forces the reader to contemplate the role of scientists and leaders in making ethical decisions, especially in scenarios where conventional moral frameworks are challenged by extreme circumstances.


In summary, "The Maze Runner" is not just a story about survival and adventure; it is a profound exploration of complex ethical issues. It challenges readers to consider the implications of actions taken in the name of greater good, the psychological cost of survival in extreme conditions, and the fundamental rights of individuals, especially those who cannot consent. These themes make the novel not just a compelling read but also a pertinent piece of literature for discussing and understanding ethical dilemmas in a real-world context.


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About the author Jimmy Jangles

My name is Jimmy Jangles, the founder of The Astromech. I have always been fascinated by the world of science fiction, especially the Star Wars universe, and I created this website to share my love for it with fellow fans.

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