Ender’s Game, the recent film based on the best-selling science fiction novel, offers compelling insight into the idea of human capital, among many other compelling insights (e.g. this one and this one).

In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II wrote, “besides the earth, man’s principal resource is man himself.” He goes on to emphasize the importance of human knowledge, intelligence, and virtue for human flourishing. In economic terms this idea is known as human capital. While affirming this truth, Ender’s Game challenges viewers to consider precisely what they might mean, demonstrating in the characters of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) that the specifics of one’s definition makes all the difference.

The back story to Ender’s Game is that, 50 years after an unexpected invasion by the Formics, an insect-like alien species also referred to as “Buggers,” the militaristic government of Earth frantically prepares to regroup in order to prevent any future attacks. The first attack left millions dead and was only narrowly averted by the leadership of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who by Ender’s time is mythologized as a hero.

The world government fully acknowledges that “man’s principal resource is man himself.” To this end, they believe their only hope to be training up a new hero commander from the best and brightest of Earth’s children. Ender Wiggen is singled out by Colonel Graff as humanity’s best chance and sent to the military “Battle School,” a space station orbiting the Earth where children are taught strategy through competing in what might be called a game of zero gravity, team laser tag in a special arena known as the “Battle Room.” The following clip of Graff recruiting Ender demonstrates the high value he places on human capital:

Yet, as the movie progresses, it becomes apparent that Graff’s understanding of human capital is one in which human beings are the best capital to be used by others for a greater good. In an argument with Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis), who believes Graff is being too harsh on Ender, Graff blurts out, “My father trained horses, and I know a thoroughbred when I see one.” He doesn’t treat the children at the Battle School with the dignity befitting rational beings, i.e. as persons, and thus his conception of human capital is ultimately dehumanizing.

Ender, on the other hand, demonstrates an alternate view. When he is finally given his own “army” of students to command for the Battle Room games, it turns out to be (or appear to be) a bunch of misfits. One student, Bernard (Conor Carroll), hates his guts. Another one, Bean (Aramis Knight) is comically puny. And Graff prohibits trading members. Ender is stuck with them.

The book is a bit more subtle on this point than the film, showing how Ender struggles to come to value each of his troops, even bullying Bean a little bit, but the result is the same. What Ender realizes is that the knowledge, skill, and creativity of each of his troops is his best asset. He takes a more decentralized, subsidiary approach as a leader and encourages his troops to take risks and experiment with new endeavors. In this, his perspective on human capital shines through in great contrast to Graff’s: for Ender (as for Immanuel Kant), no person ought to be used by others as a mere means to an end, but rather acknowledged and respected as an end in him/herself. The human person is indeed “man’s principle resource,” but what one means by that drastically changes one’s actions towards this supreme asset, even when that “asset” is also one’s enemy.

Both the film and the book draw out this contrast well, and I highly recommend them both. For those whose curiosity has been piqued, check out the trailer below, then go see the film.

For more, an article in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality explores further how the economic concept of human capital was appropriated in Roman Catholic social teaching. See “Broadening Neoclassical Human Capital Theory for the Attainment of Integral Human Development” by Luca Sandonà here.