Ethics vs. Morals in A Game of Thrones

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The binary pair of philosophical terms in my title has for twenty years served me in class lessons on Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it seems an update is in order.  Though little has changed, philosophically speaking.  As I write, on my left hand I observe striking workers with signs decrying Verizon corporate greed, and on my left, a candidate who has never held public office, yet has occupied eerily similar positions to Verizon’s CEOs, has effectively secured the Republican nomination for President of the United States.

Both the terms “morals” and “ethics” denote codes of behavior with regard to right and wrong.  They don’t even differ most materially in the kind of behavior; the real distinction lies in the source of the code, and the extent of responsibility.  Imagine three concentric circles, each larger than the last.  Smallest, at the center, is the personal sphere of the individual.  Largest and farthest reaching is the moral sphere: this encompasses all one’s relations to other human beings, and covers behavior as diverse as killing and how to drive an automobile.  Between these two circles, much closer to the individual and covering far less area, lies the ethical sphere: here, the code is much more murky, because laws and rules simply don’t / can’t cover every nuance of all human relations.

The epitome of an ethical commitment is a promise (giving one’s “word.”)   With few exceptions, no police officer forces these upon the individual; no court passes sentences on the breaking of them.  If you promise your daughter to spend more time with her this weekend, and you break your word, there may indeed be a consequence, but it won’t come in the form of a fine or time served, and thus the violation can be easy to ignore/forget.

In my textual analysis and application, I’ll confine myself to just two pairs of parallel scenes in the recent season 6 debut episode of Game of Thrones. These issues are of course shot through the entire series.

The screenshot above shows Tyrion Lannister attempting to bestow a coin on a beggar with a child, yet unable to speak her language.  Varys must complete the act of charity for him.  Tyrion has a conscience and compassion, but he’s smart enough to know that the city’s unrest can’t be solved by treating the symptoms.  He’s probably identifying with the smallest and most helpless person he finds on the steps of the beggars, epitomizing Hobbes’ principle that nothing is done without some shade of self-interest.  Moreover, his detachment as Varys must translate for him accurately models the cold distance of government welfare programs.  The morality of his act is understandable; we sympathize; but ultimately empty.

A direct analogue to this scene is not far to seek, as we catch up with Arya Stark, recently blind, reduced to destitution, rags, and a money-bowl.  Rather than a handout, she receives a beating with a quarterstaff from the Waif.  She has only words, at present, with which to defend herself: “I can’t see.”  Her antagonist isn’t buying: “That’s your problem, not mine.”  So much for handouts.  In fact, the Waif promises “See you tomorrow,” and leaves Arya the staff, presumably with which to practice for the next encounter.  What looks on the surface like an act of petty cruelty, I predict is actually an attempt to break Arya out of her cycle of dependence upon charity.  Clearly of mixed motive, Waif’s actions have no relation to the established moral level, and their good component belongs to the ethical realm only, serving a “greater good” than most people can see on the surface.  “Tough Love” is ethics in practice.

Second parallel.  Sansa Stark is rescued in the wilds by Brienne of Tarth, who formerly served her mother.  Brienne’s oath: “I will shield your back and keep your counsel and give my life for yours if need be.  I swear it by the old gods and the new.”  Sansa’s reply: “And I vow that you shall always have a place at my hearth, and meat and mead at my table, and I pledge to ask no service of you that might bring you dishonor.  I swear it by the old gods and the new.”  Vows and oaths, especially ones that can be learned by rote, are an artificial means of encouraging both moral and ethical commitments, and sometimes oathbreaking is punishable, as on the Wall.  So they occupy a sort of nether-ground between morals and ethics.  But my concern here is with the nature of this agreement.  First, notice it works both ways, as an exchange.  One might argue that Lady Stark has the better of the bargain, as her commitment involves no hazard to her life, as Brienne’s does.  Hers might even be claimed to be a token response; however, this is hardly true in the world of Westeros.  Aristocrats often demand immoral and dishonorable acts of their thanes, and maintain their very hearths and tables by those same acts.

As for the Maid of Tarth, it’s important to notice that her vows (accompanied by the laying of her sword at Sansa’s feet,) and her earlier commitment to her mother, are undertaken wholly voluntarily. We might, having witnessed the fate of Ned Stark in adhering to a standard of honor, worry about Brienne’s future in making such alliances.  There is one vital difference: Ned was essentially pressed into service as the Hand by King Robert, and forced to import a vulnerable code of behavior into a hostile environment at King’s Landing.  Brienne, by contrast, remains a free agent and bestows her service where and how she judges it is most needed and deserved.

If I can for a moment contrast their relationship to that of a modern day employer and employee, the analogy is not as tortured and uninstructive as it might first appear.  After all, Sansa offers sustenance in exchange for labor.  But what’s more useful is to notice what else is in this agreement that is absent today.  In offering to shield Sansa’s back, Brienne essentially promises not only competent service, but loyalty.  Ask any professional ball-player today what loyalty is, and you might be baffled by the response.  As for the average corporate or industrial employee, they might, not without legitimacy, reply that they don’t give any where they don’t receive any.  On the other side, Sansa’s pledge not to demand dishonorable acts might find little recognition in today’s competitive workplace.

So this reciprocity agreement, or quid pro quo, has a strong ethical component that many human relationships sorely lack.   If the reader doubts this, consider how other players engage in the Game of Thrones.  Jamie Lannister to his sister/lover Cersei: “Fuck prophecy, fuck Fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us. We’re the only ones who matter, the only ones in this world.  And everything they’ve taken from us we’re going to take back, everything and more.”

Our lives are infused with ethical problems, great and small, for which no “official” or actionable rules exist.  We receive guidelines and encouragements to “do the the right thing,” but no consequence exists for a multitude of transgressions. “Shall I take thirty seconds of my day to return the grocery cart to the corral, against the off chance that it will damage someone’s car and the certainty that someone else will have to collect it for me?”  As my common example suggests, the number of people out there operating in the world without any ethical sense, again demonstrating Thomas Hobbes’ claim that people only act out of selfish motivations, is high enough to cause concern.  Once the cart has served the shopper, she abandons it on the spot with no regard to the hazard it poses to others–there’s nothing in it for her, that she should bother with it any longer.

Because few people’s ethical commitment is as high as Brienne’s or Ned Stark’s (or Captain America’s,) a civilization must have a set of moral rules, in Westeros enforced by the Sparrows: “Sinners confess.”  Yet moral codes often reside in the custody of sadists, hypocrites, and people who believe they are personallyA  above the rules.  Hence the need for codes of honor, promises, and ethics.

Westeros, though clearly a land where moral codes function often to shield the actions of ambitious power-players and where ethics are rarely and cryptically rewarded, still may be offering us incentives to be more ethical in our own society.  On a visceral narrative level, we hate the bad (paradoxically “moral”) characters and, with as little love as some of the others may invoke, we are invited to explore how their motives might be put into better practice.

Students can especially benefit from training in how to distinguish the moral decisions and acts of fictional characters from ethical ones.  And these are visually observable as well as narratively.  In a late, brief moment absent from Steinbeck’s novel, for example, Tom Joad in John Ford’s screen adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) observes a water faucet that careless children have left running in the government camp.  He wordlessly shuts the tap and moves on.  An easily missed moment, and some audience members might puzzle at its inclusion.  Ford wants us to connect with how far Tom has come, ethically, from the man who bitterly smashed a whiskey bottle in the road in an early scene.  Who thinks of other people?  Conserving water, if only for a generation that might not appear on Earth a hundred years into the future, serves as a pertinent example of how ethical people may be far ahead of their time, spearheading good actions that only become moral imperatives, for the masses, at a late and convenient hour.

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