What can Game of Thrones teach us about moral philosophy?

 

I was as disappointed as everyone else by the final series of Game of Thrones, but when someone suggested that the programme as a whole was an example of modern moral nihilism, I found myself jumping to its defence. Of course, this person had not actually seen Game of Thrones, because anyone who has knows that it has a clear moral position. It is not in any way suggesting that ‘anything goes’ or that ‘might is right’. There are good people and bad people in Game of Thrones and many that lie somewhere in between. There are those who become better people as time goes on (Tyrion, Jaime) and those who become bad (Daenerys). The good characters, like Ned Stark, Jon Snow and Varys, are the ones who act not out of self-interest, but for the good of others; for the common good. The bad include the psychopaths (Ramsay or Joffrey, for example), hell bent on their own gratification who positively revel in others’ suffering, but also the more complex villains (Cersei or Tywin) who seek power and wealth for themselves or their families at the expense of others.

Over and above this, the series is really a reflection on what it takes to be a good ruler. The ending suggests that being a good ruler is not quite the same as being a good person- Jon Snow, who like his adopted father, Ned Stark, embodies goodness more than anyone, [SPOILER ALERT] does not become king. He is not going to be able to make those difficult decisions that are necessary for a ruler to make. Daenerys, on the other hand, who can and does make difficult decisions, such as executing the slave owners, ultimately does not become queen because she is corrupted by power and loses sight of necessary ability of a leader to see and act in the general good. Power ultimately falls to the pragmatists, Tyrion and Sansa, but they are by no means cynical pragmatists. They are simply people who have learnt what it takes to survive and be successful in this cod medieval world of power politics. The ultimate message of the series is, surely, as Ned Stark’s story teaches us early on, that if you cannot survive, you cannot do good.

In terms of its political morality, Game of Thrones is clearly Machiavellian, but not in the simplistic way that Machiavelli is often understood to mean anything can be justified in the name of power. For Machiavelli, the point of power is to ensure good and stable government in the interests of the people. The ‘end justifies the means’, but not just any end, and not the desire for power in itself.  The sort of government that Machiavelli believed should be defended and upheld was something resembling the semi-democratic republics of Rome or Florence. In Game of Thrones we get a monarchical figurehead and an appointed bureaucracy with a rather unconvincing attempt to present these as a satisfactory outcome (see this critique of the politics of Game of Thrones).

Game of Thrones lends itself to a broader consideration of moral philosophy, however, because it reflects modern ideas about what it is to be a good person. The fact that we can all recognise the good and bad in Game of Thrones, and that we are carried along by the moral tale it tells, suggests to me that we have a clearer idea of morality in our current age than is sometimes suggested.

Morality became a problem in the west with the decline of religion because, for centuries, the will of God had determined what was right and what was wrong. For ordinary people, at least, further scrutiny was unnecessary. As religion lost its influence alongside the rise of ‘reason’ during the Enlightenment, philosophers started to look for other grounds for justifying what we should do and how we should live our lives.

Machiavelli challenged traditional Christian values such as honesty, patience and meekness by suggesting that they encourage weakness and that strength is needed to advance the general good. Adopting rigid principles of behaviour, such as always being honest, keeping promises and never killing is not consistent with being able to successfully defend a regime that is needed to uphold the good of the people. For the ultimate good of all, individuals need to be adaptable, and they sometimes need to lie, break promises and to fight and kill.

Such ideas made many people uncomfortable, however, because acting for the general good can easily become an excuse for acting in your own interests (somewhat like Daenery’s final actions in Series 8), and who is to judge what the general good consists of in any case. Throwing away the idea that there are general principles about what actions are good and bad seems to be close to the position that anything goes.

Immanuel Kant is one philosopher who wanted to reassert the notion that there are absolute principles of right and wrong and he tried to defend this position in a logical manner. His idea is that we should always act in the way that we would want everyone else to act – in a way that is universally applicable; this is what he refers to as the categorical imperative. We cannot excuse ourselves in certain circumstances because it suits us because then there could be no principles at all. If we think it is alright for us to lie in a particular situation, for example, then why should anyone ever tell the truth?

The trouble is, as Game of Thrones illustrates, that rigid principles of this sort easily conflict with each other. If I think that it is a universal good to preserve life and not to take it, what do I do when confronted by someone who is hell bent on killing people? Jon Snow has to choose between killing someone he loves in cold blood or letting her continue to massacre thousands of innocent people. We know he did the right thing – but not by Kantian standards!

 

Various other attempts at grounding goodness have been attempted. Utilitarianism, for example, another variety of the ‘ends justifies the means’ approach, suggests that action should be guided by the ultimate goal of maximising pleasure and minimising pain for the greatest number of people, or in Mill’s version, promoting overall human happiness.

More recently philosophers have gone back to Aristotle to look for an objective grounding of goodness with Virtue ethics, such as that propounded by Alasdair MacIntyre. For Aristotle, existence is purposeful, and each species of living being is oriented towards fulfilling a purpose, which is to realise its essential nature. What is good is what enables a being to realise its potential. For all living beings this includes survival and reproduction, but different organisms have different potentials. Hence the good for birds is what enables them to realise their capacity for flying, and the good for human beings includes that which enables us to build the complex social communities that it is within our nature to do. The ‘virtues’, such as courage, temperance, friendliness and fairness then become the characteristics that enable an individual to fulfil their role in such a community.

Karl Marx had a similar notion that each person should be able to fulfil what he called our ‘species being,’ that is the potential of our species. For Marx, capitalism prevents the majority of people from being able to achieve this, and a socialist society is desirable because it will set all the people free to express their full human nature.  Hence, in opposition to the old idea that Marxism was not an ethically grounded philosophy, modern authors, such as Paul Blackledge, have argued that ethics is important to Marx and Marxism because it provides the justification for the struggle for a new society (see the interesting and highly readable book, Marxism and Ethics).

Against these attempts to find some sort of objective anchor for morality, some philosophers have argued that concepts of good and bad are intrinsically subjective, and simply reflect what people feel, or what people like and dislike. This is sometimes referred to as emotivism or moral relativism (there are distinctions within this broad group of approaches of course).

There seems to be some truth in moral relativism. What constituted good behaviour in Aristotle’s society surely wouldn’t easily match how we think of this today. All attempts to ground morality in something other than our own desires seem to involve an irreducibly subjective element that leads to the suspicion that the ethics on offer are simply what sort of behaviour their philosophical proponents prefer. Kant’s categorical imperative assumes that general principles of behaviour can be devised that are independent of context, which seems unlikely, and also does not really tell us why we should regard some ways of behaving as universally valuable. Utilitarianism hinges on someone’s definition of pleasure or happiness, and virtue ethics too on how we conceive of the good life or human potential or ‘species being’.

Like all decent literature and drama, Game of Thrones reflects something about what the society that produces and consumes it values and the way we see good and bad. And surely it tells us that we have a strong, shared sense of right and wrong ways to behave and also of the complexity involved in working out what these are. We may not agree with the show’s moral compass exactly, and especially what the ending suggests about the nature of politics and rulership (see https://thefilmblogger2.blogspot.com/ for how Game of Thrones betrays its early leftist credentials), but that is not the point I am making. Morality may not be universal, but it surely exists as something above and beyond what we just want to do. We have a sense of what we ought to do in various situations which is distinct from what we want to do. Illustrations and analysis of morality from Aristotle to Game of Thrones grapple with what this ‘ought’ ought to be exactly and how it can be justified. For Christianity and Kant doing the right thing is in conflict with to our underlying, animalistic nature, for Aristotle and Marx it is part of our human potential. But wherever you look, it seems that what we ought to do involves looking out for other people in the best way that we can.

 

With thanks to Ross Moncrieff, Ursula Moncrieff and Andrew Chitty.

 

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