Monday, September 22, 2014

The Ethics of Virtue and Consequence (from Game of Thrones and Philosophy)

Game of Thrones presents Eddard Stark as a good, heroic protagonist, while Cersei stands out among many characters who fit the mold of the classic evil antagonist. Is this too simplistic and judgmental? Is it unfair to think of people in such stark moral distinctions? Should words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ even be used in the conversation?

Games of Thrones and Philosophy, one of many books in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, offers an array of essays over a number of thought-provoking topics (see my reviews on The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Walking Dead and Philosophy).

My first post in this series covered several essays on politics as seen through the eyes of Hobbes and Machiavelli. This post will look at ethical systems discussed in “Lord Eddard Stark, Queen Cersei Lannister: Moral Judgments From Different Perspectives”(Albert F. F. Anglberger and Alexander Heike), and “No One Dances The Water Dance” (Henry Jacoby). 

If we are going to talk about what’s good or evil, we will need at least some idea about what these terms mean.

Aristotle used the the term ‘virtue’ to talk about the good. He claimed that virtues (honesty, courage, justice, etc) were character traits that brought about eudaimonia, or well-being, in the people who had them. In eudaimonia, rationality controls the desires and appetites. Any time people let their appetites override their rationality, they were going to get into trouble. People not controlled by reason may find pleasure in the indulgence of their appetites, but they will never find true happiness since that can only be found in the goodness of virtue. The Big Three – Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle – all agreed on this point.

The prevailing opinion was that virtues cannot be taught; they must be experienced. So people must do honest, courageous and just things in order to become honest, courageous and just people. Socrates called this “the examined life”; Aristotle preferred “the life of reason”; Taoism calls it wu wei, an authentic life that flows like water as it adapts to situations and obstacles. In both Western and Eastern philosophy, people's actions and identity were closely enmeshed.

In the 2,000 plus years since then, moral philosophy has often divided the ethics of doing (how we should live) and being (what we should be like) more sharply. In Game of Thrones, Eddard (virtue ethics), and Cersei (consequentialist ethics) show that while the division is helpful in the discussion of ethics, the reality is that the two must work together if the virtuous want to win the game.


Virtue ethics is primarily concerned with one’s character over one’s actions. A virtuous person will do virtuous things, right? We discover which actions qualify as good by seeing what a virtuous person does. Unfortunately, three problems arise when we rely on virtue ethics alone to inform about what is good or evil.

First, if we can tell who a virtuous person is because they do virtuous things, it seems we have to know ahead of time what actions or states of being actually are virtuous. Virtue ethics does not provide rules for conduct, just people whose actions are supposed to establish which acts are virtuous. But what if people or cultures disagree on what is actually virtuous? Charity matters in Winterfell; the Dothraki see it as weakness.

Second, virtue ethics is not always clear about what to do when obligations clash. If Eddard lies about whether or not he is treasonous, his daughter’s life will be spared. Which is more important: love or honesty? Aristotle claimed that in these situations we have to rely on phronesis, or practical wisdom, which helps us determine which of these is more important. But that is something outside of virtue ethics that must adjudicate.

Third, virtues can become too extreme – but we know this because of the consequences. One can be too honest (and be mean), too brave (and be foolishly ), or too kind (and enable). That’s why the ultimate goal is eudaimonia, a state of flourishing that is found in the Golden Mean, the place between the extremes.


Cersei bases her choices on the likely outcome of her actions. The most common form of this consequentialist approach is utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. This is clearly not Cersei’s approach. She is what Anglberger and Heike call a “minimally extended” – and very successful -  ego consequentialist. She is ruthless, self-centered, and willing to do anything it takes to win every game she plays. Ned's the kind of person we want to win the game; Cersei's the kind of person who actually does. 

Consequentialism is not concerned with the inner state of people, but it does offer guidelines for what they ought to do to bring about the best result. Will charity or cruelty bring about the best consequence? Typically the answer is charity. This at least offers a framework to discuss the good of the community (or city, or state).

And there’s where it gets tricky. Without a sense of what (and who) is actually virtuous, how does one decide which consequences are good in any sense beyond personal preference? I suppose folks on both sides of the infamous Red Wedding could make the case that the consequence of their plan was for the greater good. Tyrion thinks the world would be a better place were it relieved of the burden of his father.  Joffrey thinks his iron fist on a throne of swords is the best thing for the land. Plenty of others disagree.

An ethical system that does not take into account both being and doing seems to result in two less than ideal choices: a virtuous person whose principled position brings about more evil than a compromised position, or a morally bankrupt person whose decisions may happen to bring about a balance of good.

Of course, there are other ethical systems not covered in Game of Thrones and Philosophy (*cough* deontological ethics *cough*) – but that’s a discussion that must happen elsewhere. 

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