The Human Ethics of Care: A Leverage Over Superhumans in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

The Human Ethics of Care: A Leverage Over Superhumans in Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
by Allison Hoe


Scott Westerfeld’s novel, Uglies (2005), details a dystopian society where citizens undergo a government-mandated “pretty” operation at sixteen years of age. While the operation ostensibly beautifies citizens, the government’s dark secret is that it also creates brain lesions to render the populace more complaisant. The Smokies are a low-profile group of rebels who avoid the “pretty” operation by hiding in the woods, but superhuman government enforcers known as Specials appear to have a clear advantage over them. This is because the Specials are physically and mentally augmented via an extreme form of plastic surgery whereas the Smokies are ordinary humans, thus allowing the Specials to easily infiltrate the Smokies’ camp (the Smoke) and capture most of them in the middle of the novel. However, it is interesting that the Smokies’ revolt grows in efficacy after the infiltration, despite being greatly reduced in their numbers and original resources. Teenage protagonists Tally and David are the only Smokies who escape being captured. Yet, they manage to break into the Specials’ facilities (Special Circumstances), catching the Specials off guard and rescuing many of the Smokies, including Tally’s friend, Shay and David’s mother. Through this break-in, the Smokies also secure classified Specials’ data, enabling them to devise a potential cure to the “pretty” operation’s brain lesions. This marks a leap in their progress from the past twenty years of trying to find such a cure while hiding in the Smoke, away from the city.

How is it that two Smokies can find the courage and will to confront an army of superhuman Specials, despite how the latter surpasses them in ability and numbers? In this article, I will explain how Tally and David’s determination and resourcefulness in confronting the Specials only emerges after the infiltration, as they endeavour to rescue their captured friends and family. Thus, I will present my thesis that Tally and David’s strong sense of responsibility towards protecting their close relations enables their eventual success against the Specials. This is because Tally and David are adherents of the ethics of care, which means their sense of obligation towards their imperilled friends and family is far more compelling than their pre-infiltration abstract cause of rebellion for general societal good. This new, more personal incentive rouses them to action and compensates for the reduced numbers and resources after the infiltration, by amplifying the boldness and decisiveness which they need to confront the Specials effectively. While having an exceptionally powerful motivation to act out of concern for loved ones may seem like an expected human tendency, Tally and David’s heroic actions are rendered even more potent because they catch the rationalist Specials by surprise, for whom the ethics of care is impractical and hence far removed from consideration.


The Ethics of Care as Basis for Protagonists’ Actions

The ethics of care is an important conceptual framework for situating Tally and David’s actions as a reflection of their fundamental human nature, which is retained because they have not undergone the “pretty” operation or other artificial augmentations. Caring ethics captures our very human inclination of making subjective judgments when it comes to our loved ones, as this section will explain. In recognising how caring ethics underpins Tally and David’s heroic actions, we are thus able to appreciate how aspects of human nature can be presented as the productive force which begins to unravel a dystopian society.

To illustrate from the novel, caring ethics justifies why the two protagonists’ motivation to confront the Specials only intensifies after the infiltration has endangered their close relations.  After all, caring ethics revolve around the “compelling moral salience of attending to and meeting the needs of the particular others for whom we take responsibility” (Held 10). This implies that adherents of the ethics of care experience a compulsion to act out of concern for the people towards whom they feel responsible or indebted. Individuals may not feel this strong sense of duty towards society at large, but towards particular people whom they have an attachment to, such as family and friends. This is precisely observed when Tally and David are only roused to action after the infiltration jeopardises their close relations, despite how countless members of their general society in the city were already being subjected to the harmful “pretty” operation before the infiltration. Tally and David’s practice of caring ethics can hence be summarised as acting out of a great sense of responsibility towards the wellbeing of their family and friends. Such a decision may seem obvious or familiar to us in contemporary human society; but this article appreciates how practising caring ethics has become so rare in the artificially-augmented society of Uglies that it becomes the key destabilising force of the Specials and the dystopian society which they are ordained to preserve.


The Compulsion to Care—Fuel for Courage and Urgency 

Practising caring ethics facilitates Tally and David’s success by enhancing their boldness and sense of urgency in confronting the Specials, despite the odds being stacked against them. This decisiveness stems from how their feelings of obligation towards the endangered Smokies outweigh their concerns about personal comfort and safety.

Tally’s role in boldly initiating the rescue can indeed be attributed to her great sense of responsibility towards the Smokies. This is seen from the novel’s narration of Tally’s thought process right before proposing the rescue, demonstrating her desire to “[make] things better, [fix] part of what she had destroyed” (Westerfeld 311). After all, through her actions in the first half of the novel, she had inadvertently betrayed the Smokies and led the Specials to them in the first place. Hence, Tally feels particularly accountable towards “mitigat[ing] the consequences of her actions” (Moran 134) by rescuing the Smokies from harm. Furthermore, Tally’s conviction about fulfilling her responsibilities towards the Smokies outweighs anxieties about her own wellbeing, as seen from her dialogue with David. “And you still want to go back [to Special Circumstances] for my parents and Shay? To risk getting caught? To risk your mind?” David questions Tally (Westerfeld 313), reminding readers of the great hazards involved in their decision. Tally’s response, “I have to”, affirms that she acts out of obligation rather than preference. Meanwhile, the description of “a sob [breaking] in her voice” (Westerfeld 313) recognises Tally’s fear, but more importantly her resolve to overcome this fear in order to enact caring ethics towards the Smokies.

Similarly, David’s refusal to leave Special Circumstances until he finds his father highlights how he values the wellbeing of his closest relation, even over his personal need to escape before the Specials catch up. In their journey to Special Circumstances, David’s great concern for his parents also lends him and Tally a sense of urgency, which is crucial for them to travel without too much hesitation and in the most efficient way possible. This is evident from David’s frequent prodding, “We’re taking too long” (Westerfeld 337) and “the sooner [they investigate the Specials’ headquarters] the better” (Westerfeld 340). These reminders spur Tally and David forward, enabling them to break into Special Circumstances in time to rescue most of the Smokies.  

Therefore, Tally and David’s success in confronting the Specials rides on their powerful sense of responsibility towards their close relations’ wellbeing, because these feelings motivate them to act with courage and imperativeness. 


The Heroic Surprise of Caring

Acting out of care and duty towards their loved ones is also key to Tally and David’s success because the abnormally rationalist Specials fail to pre-empt it, allowing the pair enough leeway to complete their mission before the Specials can overpower them.

As Moran notes, the leader of the Specials, Dr Cable, “makes ethical decisions according to abstract principles”, being so fixated on her role of extinguishing rebellion towards the “pretty” operation that she perceives “all other humans as objects—either obstacles that she must destroy or dominate, or tools that she can use to achieve her goal” (131).  This suggests a rationalist approach, which Held suggests to involve being “entirely impartial” and “reject[ing] emotion in determining what to do” (24). The rest of the Specials operate similarly, as seen from their methodical and detached handling with the Smokies. For instance, during the infiltration, the Specials are “[g]raceful and unhurried, as if unaware of the chaos around them”, “[setting] about subduing the panicking Smokies” (Westerfeld 278). The Specials’ indifference towards the Smokies’ distress highlights that they do not experience conflicts of interest between feelings like guilt or empathy and the need to intercept as many Smokies as possible. Furthermore, the fact that the Specials have been augmented via an invasive operation rather than mere external conditioning suggests that their cold detachment and single-minded practicality is heightened to a supernatural extent. Hence, the Specials exemplify rationalism, a stark contrast to caring ethics’ emphasis on feelings of responsibility towards one’s close relations.

Thus, while we as ordinary human readers might not be surprised by Tally and David’s compulsion to rescue their loved ones, an intensely rationalist Special would have been. The Specials would have expected Tally and David to capitalise on their preoccupation with handling the already-captured Smokies, and seize the opportunity to disassociate from the Smoke so that they themselves would not get caught. This is especially since two teenagers logically do not stand a chance against Specials who are products of an operation which “augments all their muscles and rewires their nervous system” (Westerfeld 310). Hence, the rationalist Specials understandably fail to anticipate Tally and David’s rescue attempt, which is motivated not by an abstract sense that rescuing the Smokies is beneficial to them nor a logical certainty that they will succeed, but by their feelings of attachment and responsibility towards their close relations. The novel emphasises how this element of surprise crystallises the success of the rescue, noting how Dr Cable’s “hawklike features twisted in surprise” upon seeing Tally, and “no matter how formidable [Specials] were, surprise still had its advantages” (Westerfeld 366). Therefore, Tally and David’s ability to eventually outwit the Specials also arises from how caring ethics is an unthinkable concept in the Specials’ artificially augmented rationality.


The Conditions of Care

At this point, one might question: if Tally and David were so capable of outwitting the Specials, why did they only do so after the infiltration, when damage had already been done?

Given how the ethics of care is about acting out of responsibility towards one’s loved ones, it follows that one will not feel the obligation to act if they have not developed sufficiently strong attachment to the person in need; or if there are no urgent circumstances which endanger their close relations. This arguably accounts for why Tally and David do not seem particularly motivated to confront the Specials before the infiltration: When Tally complies with the Specials and agrees to betray the Smoke in the first half of the novel, it is because at this point in time, her lifelong dream of becoming beautiful outweighs her sense of responsibility towards her Smokey friend, Shay, whom she has only known for a few months. Similarly, David only gains a compelling sense of responsibility towards his parents’ wellbeing after they have been captured by the Specials and are depending on him to rescue them. While things are status quo in the Smoke, both he and Tally are aware of the horrific nature of the government’s “pretty” operation, where “ninety-nine percent of humanity had had something done to their brains, and only a few people in the world knew exactly what” (Westerfeld 263). Yet, the fact that their beloved Smokies are within the 1% of the population without altered brains renders the threat of government policy a remote one, which Tally and David are in no rush to attend to. This is seen from how on the night before the infiltration, the pair are content to retreat into a romantic relationship within the safety of the Smoke, even after the topic of “pretty” operations in the city had just been raised again.

However, in the aftermath of the infiltration, Tally’s care for Shay and regard for their friendship has grown immensely from their time spent together in the Smoke. This is to the extent that Tally is willing to sacrifice herself as a willing test subject for the new cure to the “pretty” operation, in hopes of helping to cure Shay who had already been forcibly put through the operation before they could rescue her. Thus, Tally’s motivation to confront the Specials is only strong enough when it arises from feelings of obligation towards her close relations, and not if it stems from abstract social responsibility towards people whom she does not feel particularly affiliated to. Furthermore, for both Tally and David, it is only the changed situation of the infiltration and the Smokies’ capture which provides the impetus for them to disregard their personal comforts and challenge the Specials once and for all, before the “pretty” operation is enforced on their loved ones.

Hence, it is a combination of pressing circumstances and strong feelings of attachment towards the people in need which draws out Tally and David’s powerful sense of duty towards enacting caring ethics to confront the Smokies in the latter half of the novel.



Ultimately, Tally and David’s eventual success against the Specials highlights the salience and productivity of the human concept of caring ethics. Even in the novel’s dystopian setting, we as contemporary readers might recognise aspects of our own inherent partiality in decision-making, in how the two protagonists only feel compelled to intervene when the wellbeing of their loved ones is being threatened. However, the good news is that Tally and David’s feelings of responsibility towards their close relations, perhaps seen as an unwanted form of human vulnerability from the rationalist superhuman Specials’ perspective, is actually what gives them an upper-hand in catching the Specials’ off guard. Through practising caring ethics, the Smokies make their first breakthrough in dismantling the dystopian structures of their society, by confronting the Specials government enforcers.




Works Cited

Held, Virginia. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford UP, 2006. 

Moran, Mary Jeanette. “The Three Faces of Tally Youngblood: Rebellious Identity-Changing in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series.” Female Rebellion in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction, edited by Sara K. Day, Miranda A., Green-Barteet and Amy L. Montz, 2016, pp. 123-139.

Westerfeld, Scott. Uglies. New York: Simon Pulse, 2005.