The Ethics Of… Game of Thrones

Ok, I’m going to get this out of the way up front: SPOILER ALERT. This article event right up to the end of both the last book and the last episode of the show, so if you’re not up to date, there’s a good chance of spoilers here. I’m going to try to do these in chronological order and mark them before they happen, but read with care!

Got that? Good stuff.

Well the world of Game of Thrones is in a right mess, isn’t it? Over the course of the series we descended from a (moderately) functional kingdom into a fractured patchwork of petty lords, bandits raiders, psychopaths and religious fanatics. Sure the world portrayed at the start of the series might have been horribly corrupt, rampant classism, and slavery a common practice in half the world, but at least the average person could go about their business with a fairly high chance of not being murdered, skinned, raped and/or burned alive. As anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the show knows, this definitely not the case now. And to round it all off, winter is coming, the white walkers and an army of the undead are planning an invasion and the end of the world itself may be on the way.

You’d think such a catastrophic state of affairs would give us plenty to discuss when it comes to ethics, but honestly that’s not really true. I mean what is there to say about wholesale slaughter, rape and pillaging? That it’s not very nice?

Some might expect an ethical analysis of this series to focus on the evil characters like King Joffery ‘There’s no cure for being a cunt’ Baratheon, or the indescribable psychopath that is Ramsey Bolton. But such obviously evil characters are really quite one-dimensional when you get right down to it: they enjoy hurting people and the current turmoil has not only made that easier for them, but actually rewards them for being brutal. They’re just insane, and since Westeros lacks good psychological care, killing them was/is definitely the best thing for both of them.

Joff and Ramsey

Gonna to be a good day when number 2 gets what’s coming to him.

It’s also tempting to focus on Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, the scheming creep who (SEASON 3 SPOILER) basically masterminded the slow collapse of Westeros so that he could take advantage of the chaos in order to gain more and more power. But if you read up a bit on Littlefinger’s history the guy is essentially acting out of spite. He’s a selfish little coward on a power trip, who doesn’t give a crap about who gets hurt in the process so long as he gets what he wants. From an ethical perspective he’s a big subscriber to the ‘Might Makes Right’ philosophy; you deserve what you can take, and you deserve to lose what you can’t hang on to. As I’ve discussed before, this is an idiotic philosophy because;

  1. There’s always out there stronger/smart/faster/more powerful than you and they will absolutely wreck you given half a chance; and,
  2. Destroying the world to get power completely defeats the point of having power in the first place. Burning the world might make you king, but you’re still left with nothing but ashes.

Seriously, five minutes of honest self-reflection would destroy the guy, so no, I’m not really all that interested in him.

He’s essentially an internet troll with unlimited resources.

Nah, what’s really interesting about Game of Thrones is the good characters in this show, or at least, those characters that believe they’re serving some greater good when they go about wrecking shit up. Because while a LOT of the blame for the current disaster can and should be laid at the evil characters’ feet, we know from last week that responsibility for any given situation cannot be divided: each person’s responsibility needs to be calculated independently of what anyone else may have been doing, and what it comes down to is their capacity to intervene in that situation. If a character could have prevented the world of Game of Thrones from sliding further into disaster then they should have done so, regardless of whether some psycho elsewhere was destroying things or not.

And the funny thing is that, when you bear this point in mind, a huge amount of responsibility for this disaster falls directly on the so-called good guys of the series. Specifically I’m looking at Ned Stark, Rob Stark, Stannis Baratheon, Jon Snow, and most of all, Daenerys Targaryen.

GoT characters

Ned, Rob, Stannis, Jon and Daenerys, respectively. Mopey buggers, the lot of them.

First off, there’s everybody’s favourite, Ned Stark. (SEASON 1 SPOILERS FOLLOW)

Even his enemies considered Ned an honourable man, meaning that he had a code of behaviour that he stuck to no matter what. He knew what was right, he knew what was wrong, and nothing could corrupt him from this path, no matter how tempting it might be or how much it hurt him. He conducts all executions himself because “The man that passes the sentence should swing the sword”, he leaves his home to serve as Hand of the King even though he reeeealy doesn’t want to, and he even kills his daughter’s pet direwolf to atone for a different daughter’s direwolf attacking the prince. Ned was a stand-up guy, someone you could trust, someone to be admired – and he’s also responsible for nearly every evil the kingdom of Westeros currently suffers.

Remember in the first book/season how Ned knew that Queen Cercei was planning on putting her illegitimate son on the throne, and had likely conspired to get King Robert mortally wounded to do it? And remember how the King’s brother suggested they seize power first, before Cercei and her son Jeffrey got their claws on the throne? And Ned was too honourable to even consider it, because “I will not dishonor Robert’s last hours by shedding blood in his halls and dragging frightened children from their beds”?


That little decision got Ned killed, got nearly his entirely family killed, put Joffrey on the throne, started multiple wars and basically created the chaos necessary for psychopaths like Ramsey Bolton to thrive. Yeah sure, Cercei plotted against him and Littlefinger put him up to it, but so what? Ned was given a clear chance to prevent a highly predictable catastrophy, but decided his precious code was more important.

In terms of ethics, a solid code of right and wrong like Ned’s is known as Deontology, and Ned’s enormous fuckup right here is a perfect example of its major flaw: such codes cannot deal with complexity. Sticking to your code is all very well and good, so long as life only throws you situations that your code can deal with. But the second you run into a situation where you need to choose between kidnapping and a decade of war, you’re screwed because you’re basically wedged between two conflicting principles and have no way of making a decision. Most times you’ll likely do what Ned does; stick your head in the sand, ignore the long-term implications of your decision and take the option that makes you feel less bad. Not exactly solid decision-making there.

This leads us nicely to our next candidate for biggest-moron-of-the-series: Rob ‘thinking with his dick’ Stark. (SEASON 2-3 SPOILERS FROM HERE)

When daddy gets chucked in jail by the triumphant Queen Cersei and the new King Joffrey, Rob does the obvious thing and heads south with an army to demand his release, as well as the release of his sisters. When Ned’s head gets chopped off, Robby-boy has a tantrum and declares war on half the country because it’s owned by Cercei’s family.

Presumably this was a Lannister tree.

Now Rob was a fan favourite, likely because his motivations were very understandable; he’s out to avenge a murdered husband, rescue his hostage sisters and make the evil Lannisters pay for their crimes. But when you sit down and do the maths, you might notice that what he’s actually doing right here is starting a war involving thousands of people and tens of thousands of civilians, which will almost certainly involve theft, destruction, disease, rape, the end of law, and all the other lovely things a medieval army brings with it, and why? For the sake of two fairly useless teenage girls and a dead guy. That’s bad maths right there.

Robb Stark: I sent two thousand men to their graves today.
Theon Greyjoy: The bards will sing songs of their sacrifice.
Robb Stark: Aye, but the dead won’t hear them.

Number of lives saved by this campaign: -1,998. Good work there Robby.

But Rob’s trail of idiocy only gets worse as it goes on. In the pursuit of allies he send of his friend Theon Greyjoy to ask his family to fight against the Lannisters as well. The fact that Theon was a hostage that the Starks had been holding to keep the Greyjoys in line seems to slip Rob’s mind. So does the fact that the Greyjoys are essentially Vikings, who are extremely proud and whose religion is essentially based on theft and rape. And the reason the Greyjoys needed keeping in line? Because Ned led a campaign to subdue their last rebellion, burned their fleet and men, and also killed all of Theon’s older brothers in the process. All in all, the worst possible candidate for an alliance you could imagine.

Next thing you know, the Greyjoys invade Rob’s lands while he’s poncing about down south, and now Rob has destroyed the lives both of the nations he is invading, AND his own people back home.

And yet, unbelievable as it may seem, it gets worse. See to gather his army and take it south in the first place, Rob had to promise to marry the daughter of Walder Frey, who owns the only bridge across a major river on the way.

Apparently no one thought this insane monopoly on transport might cause problems.

So with a major supporter thus secured – a supporter who supplies a huge number of his troops and completely controls his ability to return back to north – what does Robby-boy do? He thinks with his dick, that’s what. He goes off and, despite repeated warnings, hooks up with some hot chick he found around camp, marries her in secret, knocks her up and for all intents and purposes, farts right on Walder Frey’s face in front of everyone in the Kingdom.

The fact that the Red Wedding, where Rob, his wife, his mother and practically his entire army was slaughtered, was such a surprise both in the books and on the TV series, is a massive testament to George R. R. Martin’s abilities as an author. Because looking back, it seems pretty much inevitable.

Number of lives saved by this campaign: -199,998 and counting. Good work there Robby.

Ethically Rob Stark fell for a similar trap as his Dad, putting high and mighty principles above the simple facts of the situation. Worse, while Ned at least stood for principles that made some sense, Rob charged south with virtually no idea of what he was there for. Was the aim to rescue his sisters? Then maybe he should have negotiated with the Lannisters before going apeshit across the countryside. Was the goal to avenge his father? Well getting thousands of your countrymen killed in the process is a pretty stupid way of achieving that, yah? The goal couldn’t have been to overthrow the illegitimate and terrible King Joffrey, because Rob never even tried to do that. So really, what the hell were you fighting for Robby-boy? Might have been a good question to ask before smacking up trees.

Meanwhile on the complete other end of the spectrum, we have Stannis ‘the mannis’ Baratheon. (SEASON 5 SPOILERS AHEAD)

This sour-faced bugger is so driven by principles that he makes Ned Stark look limp-wristed by comparison. This is a man who rewarded a smuggler that saved his men with supplies during a siege by making him a knight – and then chopped off his finger tips for being a smuggler. In his own words; “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward.”

Sir Davos is now one of Stannis’ closest supporters. Probably Stockholm syndrome.

Stannis correctly believes that, as all of his brother Robert’s children are illegitimate, Stannis is the rightful heir to the throne. And from Stannis’ point of view, that’s all that needs to be said. See whereas Ned Stark got into trouble when two of his principles came into conflict, Stannis doesn’t have the problem, because whereas Ned tried to value all his rules equally, Stannis is quite happy to rank them – and his rightful claim to the throne trumps absolutely everything else.

So far in his pursuit of this goal, Stannis has;

  • Allied with a sorcerer who powers he magic by burning people alive;
  • Killed his own brother using aforesaid sorcerer’s magic (which she gave birth to);
  • Attempted to invade the largest city on the continent and (getting thousands of his men killed in the process (which was debatably a good thing given what those soldiers would have done if they had conquered the city);
  • Attempted to burn his nephew alive to give his pet sorcerer more power;
  • Marched his army into a highly predictable blizzard, forcing many of them to resort to cannibalism (guess what he did to the cannibals);
  • And last but not least, burned his own daughter alive so his sorcerer could melt the snow, so he could attack an enemy army, which promptly annihilated him.

“I’ve made a huge mistake…”

This is Deontology in action again, the same inflexible set of rules that got Ned Stark into trouble, just cranked up to 11. Stannis was so fixed on his end righteous goal that he got thousands of people killed, tortured close friends and allies, and consorted with some dark and dangerous magic in the process. It’s possible those sacrifices might have been worth it, given his sorcerer had convinced him he was going to save the world from the white walkers, but Stannis’ complete and total disregard for the practical barriers in the way meant all his efforts, all the terrible things he did, were ultimately pointless.

As a nice contrast to this all-principle, no-practicalities approach, we have Mr Jon Snow. (LAST EPISODE OF SEASON 5 SPOILER HERE!)

Jon Snow has for the most part, managed his life at the wall pretty well. He played the game, did what was right as much as possible, but compromised when he had to in order to get things done and reach a higher goal. But as anyone who’s got to the last book and/or TV episode now knows, he’s now bleeding out under The Wall.

Fucking Olly.

Jon had only just found himself elected as leader of The Nights Watch, guardians of the realm against everything north of the ridiculously high ice wall across the top of Westeros. The watch has, for the past few hundred years, primarily been fighting Wildling – a bunch of rag-tag raiders from north of The Wall who like to climb it occasionally and steal food, women and other things. Recently however, the near-invulnerable white walkers have turned up and it turns out that they can turn any human soldier into part of their zombie army. Needless to say this forms something of a problem for anyone they don’t like, which is to say, everyone who is currently alive.

Faced with this terrifying reality, Jon makes the extremely pragmatic decision to ally with the Wildling and let them through The Wall, lest they get converted into hundreds of thousands of recruits for the white walkers and overwhelm the Nights Watch as well. All in all, an extremely sound decision.

So why is Jon Snow currently bleeding out on the ground? Because he made the exact opposite of the mistake Stannis did; he focussed entirely on the practicalities of the situation and ignored the principles that were being waved right in his face.

When an institution spends several hundred years fighting an enemy, and then a young upstart rocks up, forces that institution to ally with said enemy and then lets them into the place you’ve spent multiple generations keeping them out of, it’s a fair bet to say that you are going to meet some resistance! No one likes having their goals in life questions, and nearly everyone is likely to get hostile when their life’s work is called into question, let alone pulled down around their ears. Both book Jon and TV series Jon acknowledged the Watch was pissed about letting the Wildlings into the realm, yet spectacularly failed to do anything about it.

Book Jon was bad enough; allying with the enemy is one thing, but announcing he’s going to take an army of wildlings to conquer part of the realm he’s meant to be protecting is completely another. At least book Jon was stabbed during an unexpected disaster he was trying to sort out at the time, so he has some excuse for not keeping a tight body-guard around him at all times. But TV Jon? What sort of idiot alienates his entire army like that then progressively sends away everyone he trusts, while keeping all his enemies nearby? And as much as I hate Olly for his betrayal of Jon, how did they not see that coming? The kid had literally stated that he was pissed at Jon multiple times, and then Sam goes and tells him that ‘it’s ok to do something that seems wrong if you really know it’s right!’.


Seriously. Sam might as well have shanked Joh himself.

Ignoring practical realities in pursuit of principles like Stannis may be blind, but doing what is necessary while completely ignoring the principles of those around you is liable to get you shanked. Hopefully Jon will bear that in mind when Melisandre revives him next book/season.

Oh come on, you know it’s going to happen.

And finally we come to the crown jewel of the good guys; Daenerys Targaryen. Or to name her formally, Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of Meereen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.

To say life has been hard on Dany is a bit of an understatement. Orphaned freshly after having her entire family line slaughtered and exiled from her home land of Westeros, she was a refugee for her entire childhood, before being sold to a giant barbarian in return for an army for her dick brother.

Who would have been hilarious if he wasn’t an incestuous, abusive, megalomaniac little douche. Would’ve been great in a 90’s sitcom.

But her brother ends up getting his punk arse killed, she wins over her barbarian husband and after surviving an assassination attempt, she manages to rally the entirety of his people to go to war to win her kingdom back.

Once again, Danny is a fan favourite because she not only has a relatable goal, but has also overcome massive challenges to achieve it. And she deserves all the praise she gets for that fortitude – few of the characters in the world of Game of Thrones have fought as hard, endured as much and worked so fiercely as she has.

Bit of a pity then that she’s devastated half a continent in the process. You thought Ned Stark was bad, failing to prevent a massive house war in Westeros? Well this girl has, over and over again, managed to rally huge and terrifying forces, unleashed them on the surrounding countryside, lost them all, the done it all over again. And why? In pursuit of a throne she’s never seen, in a country she’s never been to, for a people she’s never known and who likely don’t know her. And before you argue that she’s done her best to prevent the carnage that been done by her various armies, have a look at her brilliant plans:

  • Recruited a band of merciless barbarians (well known slavers and big subscribers to the brutal ‘Might Makes Right’ philosophy)to invade and conquer Westeros (the land she hope to rule and protect, if you remember). She is subsequently shocked when these barbarians proceed to rape and enslave neighbouring villages to fund this war.
  • When her band of ravaging horsemen abandon her, Dany has a brainwave and, rather than selling the dragon eggs which could buy her the ships and armies she needs to accomplish her goal, sets them on fire and births three dragons into the world. These dragons eventually grow massive, get out of her control, eat a child and then go on a backpackers trip across the continent, likely eating whatever the hell it feels like along the way. Dany is thoroughly shocked that her man-eating nightmare creatures would act like this.
  • Since her newly hatched dragons aren’t quite terrifying enough early on, Dany tromps her few remaining followers through a god damn desert (again, shocked when people start dying of thirst) before rocking up to the city of Qarth. Here she wanders smack bang into a game of politics she is clearly aware of but is completely unable to deal with, gets more of her followers killed, and gets trapped by an ancient order of magicians – who she promptly wipes out.
  • Fleeing this city she decides she needs an army, goes to the slaver city of Astapor (once again, horrified to discover that slavery hurts people) and through a nice bit of trickery, buys and army, turns it on the slavers and liberates the city. All of which she immediately abandons, taking the entire army with her, and trailing a few hundred thousand refugees into a desert. Again. Naturally, she is shocked when Astapor is almost immediately taken over by a ‘butcher king’, who restarts slavery with barely a pause.
  • After making a quick stop off to liberate more slaves from the city of Yunkai (who she leads off into another desert, again shocked that they start starving) she rocks up at the city of Meereen, which she conquers and decides she’d like to rule. She’s subsequently shocked when the local resist this and attack her occupying forces, and wanders into yet another complex political game she completely fails to negotiate, narrowly avoids an assassination attempt (in the book), rides of on her dragon that happen to turn up conveniently, and totally abandons the catastrophe of a city she has single-handedly created.

“Oooh, my bad guys. Did not see that coming at all. Totally out of character for him.”

Now as a lot of you are likely pointing out, it’s a tad unfair to say Dany blundered through all of this cluelessly – indeed she tried extremely hard to come to grips with every situation, tried hard to be just, fair and strong to her people and even her enemies, and was extremely righteous in overthrowing the slave trade in the process. But while many of her efforts were indeed admirable, they don’t count for much when everything she build falls down again the second she moves on to something else. As brutal as the salve trade was in Astapor and Yunkai, how much worse will it be now as the salvers re-assert control over the cities and replenish their stocks of slaves? Dany might have stopped the slave trade, but she didn’t stop slavery – she just put it off for a little while.

And yes, she did indeed try her best to prevent bad things happening during all these events; she forced the horse lord to stop raping slaves during their raids, she didn’t use her dragons to simply steal the things she needed, she freed and supported slaves wherever possible, and she showed mercy to her enemies even when she really didn’t have to. But you know what she could have done that would have been a whole lot better? The one thing she could have done that would have vastly improved her own life, while preventing all the horrors that have followed her across the continent?

Given up the throne she’s never seen, sold the dragon eggs, lived comfortably for the rest of her days and left everyone else alone. Or hell, if she’s so dead set on the Iron Throne why not just go there? Take your dragon eggs, hire an army and take the throne? At least then you’d be limiting your mess to Westeros, I doubt they’d even notice one extra army rampaging around.

From an ethical point of view Daenerys is pretty much Stannis, with a touch more self-awareness and without the bloody-minded zeal. She has one massive and driving goal that all her other decision are shaped around, and while all her other decisions tend to be quite a good balance between pragmatism and principled ideas, they are all twisted and blemished by her ultimate goal to hold the Iron Throne.

Sure a lot of this stupid, blind and unethical behaviour Game of Thrones characters exhibit happens on a backdrop of the end of the world, and I have no doubt that all the destruction they wreak will lead to a hardened few heroes who will face down the white walkers and win (probably at least, I mean this is George R. R. Martin we’re talking about), but as a justification for their stupid decisions it just doesn’t cut the mustard. Seriously, what do you think stands a better chance against a white walker invasion; a few hardened heroes on the ashes of a shattered kingdom? Or a unified nation, with fresh armies, plentiful resources and strong leadership? Context is king when it comes to ethics and the supposed ‘good guys’ on Game of Thrones would do well to pay a bit more attention to the bigger picture.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Game of Thrones

  1. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I suppose I’m a bit surprised that you’ve gone through all of this analysis – including a bit of ‘might makes right’ – without acknowledging Machiavelli and cold statecraft based pragmatism here. Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen – they all repeatedly say that the only thing that those who would threaten their ‘rule’ will respond to is strength. So gaining strength, consolidating strength, projecting strength; all of it suffuses the other types of things that they do (even if they manage this thoughtlessly.)

    I figure we’d need to take our historical perspective with a pinch of salt, but these are characters who are more or less operating without Thomas Aquinas/Aveorres and therfore without access to Aristotle or really even the Valyrian-Marcus Aurelius and the Westerosi-eqiuvalent of Immanuel Kant doesn’t seem to exist yet as they haven’t hit an equivalent period of development. So perhaps the more appropriate ethical codes are chivalric ones, traditional codes of hospitality in Celtic/Gallic culture or whichever equivalent systems are operating in the ‘Near-East’

    I enjoyed the read all the same. Thank you.

  2. Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I suppose I’m a bit surprised that you’ve gone through all of this analysis – including a bit of ‘might makes right’ – without acknowledging Machiavelli and cold statecraft based pragmatism here. Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen – they all repeatedly say that the only thing that those who would threaten their ‘rule’ will respond to is strength. So gaining strength, consolidating strength, projecting strength; all of it suffuses the other types of things that they do (even if they manage this thoughtlessly.)

    I figure we’d need to take our historical perspective with a pinch of salt, but these are characters who are more or less operating without Thomas Aquinas/Aveorres and therfore without access to Aristotle or really even the Valyrian-Marcus Aurelius and the Westerosi-eqiuvalent of Immanuel Kant doesn’t seem to exist yet as they haven’t hit an equivalent period of development. So perhaps the more appropriate ethical codes are chivalric ones, traditional codes of hospitality in Celtic/Gallic culture or whichever equivalent systems are operating in the ‘Near-East’

    I enjoyed the read all the same. Thank you.

    • Thanks for the comment catchmeup! Good point; the characters will inevitably be influenced by the political norms of the time, which as you rightly point out, aren’t terribly advanced as far as we know. Oddly you’d expect The Citadel where the Maesters are trained to produce the sort of intellectual/philosophical advances you describe, since it appears to function as a university and supplies advisers to all the rulers – but then again those seeking power do tend to revert to ‘might makes right’ since its simple, effective (at least initially), and conveniently self-justifying.

      An analysis of the governance practices in Game of Thrones is an article all in itself! Machiavellianism definitely has a brutal pragmatism to it, which is very appropriate for the violent world of the series – Rob in particular would have likely been in big trouble if he appeared weak before his vassals after Ned got the chop. That said of course, Machiavellianism is really just a slightly more devious version of ‘might makes right’ and has all the same problems; instability, betrayal and collapse are almost certainties over the long term. Might be fine for the powerful families so long as they STAY strong, but since the point of a ruler is to rule its kinda self-defeating; maybe not burning the world to rule the ashes, but definitely seriously scorching everything.

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… War Drones | The Ethics Of

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