The philosophical ethics of Game Of Thrones

Feature Andrew Blair 13 Nov 2012 - 08:39

Andrew looks at the arguments surrounding the world view advocated by George R.R Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire series...

George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series is one of those series that, as someone who has worked in a bookshop, seemed to saunter off the shelves. In the wake of the television series, small boys' mothers told me that their offspring loved the telly programme but were concerned that the books might be a bit beyond them. Said offspring then explained to me their favourite bit was the part where the horsey's SPOILER got SPOILERED with a big thrusting SPOILER. 

(This article contains spoilers). 

Enthusiasm for equine decapitation aside, Game of Thrones (the TV version) brought an already popular book series to an even larger audience. This is a good thing. Quite often when novels are this popular they are described as stepping stones towards bigger and better things (this is the most positive spin many can put on Twilight: 'Well, now they're reading that, they might end up reading something good'). A Song of Ice and Fire is considered to be one of the bigger and better things. 

When the discussion about sexism in Game of Thrones was reaching its peak, I noticed a trend in post-article commentary threads where a number of posts seemed to be denigrating the series for advocating the ethical theories of Thomas Hobbes. Sadly, what this ultimately means is that George R. R. Martin is inculcating a deep-rooted adherence to such morals in our younglings. 

I know. It's devastating isn't it? 

Let's assume, for a second, that we're all Hobbes novices. Thomas Hobbes is an English philosopher who is probably most famous for his phrase  "...and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Leviathan, 1651, not to be confused with the excellent 2000 AD comic of the same name [though that's your next holiday reading sorted]). Often, his ideas get misrepresented as advocating brutish and short lives. Instead, Hobbes believes this to be an accurate portrayal of mankind's nature, which is why people adhere to social contracts (ceding some rights in return for protection from a governing body) in order to avoid a crippling struggle. 

Obviously no-one wants their children growing up to believe in the writings of a seventeenth century philosopher. That would be dreadful. Adults are probably immune due to their great intelligence (although Hobbesian social contracts do sound a little bit like a synopsis of the small print on It's also been one of the consistent trends of fashion that absolutely no-one ever announces things like: 'Well, I'm going to strictly adhere to Hegelian ethics. You can stuff Adam Smith up your arse.' 

Ethical Philosophical theories do not hold sway over a great many of the populace. This is because, when it comes  philosophers constructing and analysing them, practical application is of secondary concern. Like modern art or Noel Fielding's Luxury Comedy, Ethical Theory is largely abstract, self-congratulatory, and entertaining to a few. Attacking a book/television series with reference to a specific ethical theory seems like a niche approach to castigation, especially when it could be argued that A Song of Ice and Fire reflects the work of Nazi-influencing Frederick Nietszche instead. Small children watching the TV adaptation have so far not picked up on any ideals of Master Race supremacy, being more concerned with the *Neighs* *Splats* *Dies* sections. 

Until a book becomes moving pictures, any moral issue with it doesn't seem to reach national press levels, because it shows these contentious issues to a wider audience. The 'Show, don't tell' rule is especially pertinent when it comes to immoral acts. If you show the act, but don't tell anyone what to think about it, the fact that an author or film-maker hasn't clanged down a big sign saying 'And this is bad' is tantamount to advocation. There's a strange, momentum-gaining hysteria that wreaks havoc with reasoned arguments. 

For example; when confronted with something morally repugnant, some people automatically use the word 'glamourise'. Trainspotting is another book accused of glamourising dubious behaviour. It's one of the least glamourous books ever written. The transition to moving pictures seems to exacerbate this phenomenom, as if having a cool soundtrack is going to persuade people to take heroin over the tenuous negative of a dead baby crawling across the ceiling. 

Irvine Welsh uses multiple narrators in Trainspotting. George R. R. Martin's use of multiple third person point-of-view narratives isn't being used to make the reader agree with something, for example, a Lannister does, but to make them understand why they do it. His main characters are nobles and associates, not everyday folk. If there were Wombles in Westeros they would have to cope with a metric fucktonne of stuff left behind, assuming they hadn't been desecrated and burned first. The notion that, without protection from the Iron Throne, the land falls into an every-man-for-himself struggle does echo the ideas laid down in Leviathan. 

If you disagree with Leviathan then obviously this means it is advocating a flawed code of ethics. Anarchists could possibly be annoyed at the perceived advocating of the social contract, but really, if they're trying to persuade people to live outside of a political system, A Song of Ice and Fire is not their most pressing problem. There are, ethically, worse crimes than saying some sort of governing body prevents chaos. 

Advocating a philosophical theory is not something that is going to drastically alter many people's lives. The Bible has both immoral and moral passages according to contemporary secular thought (this idea existed before Alain de Botton smugged it around like a cloud of raw guff). It doesn't mean that the book itself is an inherently immoral book (and, for those who defend aspects of Game of Thrones due to its medieval setting, can't the worst passages of The Bible be defended based on the time it was written in?) The difference is, of course, that there aren't two billion people adhering to a Hobbesian worldview because they've read the books of George R.R. Martin. 

From a purely technical point-of-view, a subtext is good. From a moral point-of-view, it depends on what that subtext is. A Song of Ice and Fire might very well deliberately echo Leviathan. Let's not kid ourselves that this could hugely influence people in a negative way. Twilight plays up its fairy tale rapist aspect as romantic wish-fulfilment (like Todd Akin had decided to make a Snow White movie). It seems intuitively a more damaging a message to convey. You get national campaigns to raise awareness of domestic abuse, but nothing about 'One in four people have been affected by the writings of David Hume'. People don't complain about the Wittgenstein jokes in Family Guy

The fact that a lot of intelligent people like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey suggests that subtext isn't a huge influence on most people's reading habits. What's going to sound better: 'Hey, there's this really romantic book where this girl falls in love with a vampire' or 'It's about how women should abandon all their ambitions and enslave themselves into a child-bearing marriage after some unbelievably violent sex'? 

Most people don't care about subtext. If they did, we'd have to have separate charts for 'Reading for Enjoyment' and 'Reading it to Check it was Definitely as Awful as I Thought It Would Be'. If I'm going into a book looking for subtextual meaning, I'd rather pick up on references to ethical theories than sexually regressive insinuations. Because there definitely aren't any of them in Game of Thrones. 

In conclusion, my advice to aspiring writers who value success over art would be this: Your subtext can be as clever or as repulsive as you want, because most people just want to be entertained. 


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Interesting article, but felt slightly uncomfortable with "and, for those who defend aspects of Game of Thrones due to its medieval setting, can't the worst passages of The Bible be defended based on the time it was written in?"

They can, but that's missing an important point. If someone in GoT decries homosexuality or insists the only role for women is in service of a husband, it's unlikely anyone reading will take that as the literal truth and live their lives by it. When the worst aspects of the Bible are highlighted, it's not just to prevent sensibilities from being offended.

Is the philosophy of the series intentional though?

To me it seems as though with most stories, as with life, any particular philosophical bent is normally bolted on in hindsight.

As you say most people don't choose a philosophy and live by it, they make their choices and then philosophers come along and try to make sense of it and think through the implications.

That Martin has a clear vision for how his written world works is admirable but from what I understand, the way he's written the story (and the reason why it's taken so long for each book to arrive in recent times) is because he is solely concerned with where his characters take him but I've not seen that there is any intentional subtext other than from those who overthink the story.

If any message can be gleaned from these books it's that people totally fail to think in the long term other than for the self-interest of a privileged few who are willing to manipulate the masses in order to gain wealth and power for themselves. Something that still seems to be going on today.

I agree, though I would add that this literal truth is enforced by the Church. The bible is merely a collection of stories which base themselves in history, tales which have a didactic purpuse, simalar to fairy tales. The church is to blamefor the literalisation of these tales. The bible is just a story book.

It should be Friedrich Nietzsche, not Frederick.

The questions about ethics and some subtexts are clearly itentional. For example Ned Stark was clearly written as example of character who
always follows the law and does his duty (for me he represents
Kantian understanding of moral law). Should we act according to law even if we don't like it? What is just? What is evil? How evil is evil? Is doing evil things sometimes justified? Should we do our duty even if it's against our nature? etc.

I could even make an argument that the whole series is about ethics.

This is a tricky one. Its true that as the feudal society in the books breaks down, only anarchy is left. So GRRM might be a supporter of the divine right of kings. On the other hand, the character and mouthpiece of Sandor Clegane is alway happy to lambast the ruling lords and knights as hypocrites. And of course, the most honourable character of Ned refuses to do anything but the right thing, and is promptly killed for his trouble. Have to think about this...

Martins work no doubt shows the influence of Hobbes but this isn't the same as endorsing him. Many philosophers are influenced by each other and go the opposite direction. I think Martin is endorsing the idea that under certain circumstances, ANY form of government can be preferable to brutal, merciless civil war. A lot of this influence just comes from the simple fact that Martin and Hobbes were influenced by similar historical periods and both recognize how horrible civil war is.
One thing that is often missed is that to some degree, Martin is endorsing the moral views of Ned Stark. People think Martin is making him out to be stupid, and he is on a practical level, but he also shows the folly of the more cynical worldview, and how it isn't sustainable for a society. Basically what is needed is for people in general to be more like Ned Stark, because if everyone acts like the Lannisters it results in nothing more than a constant brutal, and deadly competition that ultimately helps no one.

"The fact that a lot of intelligent people like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey suggests that subtext isn't a huge influence on most people's reading habits."

No. It merely suggests that what these books have to offer has nothing to do with intelligence.
Anyway, GoT has much more to tell us about our society, the one in which it was written, than it has about Leviathan, or the world in which that was written. Just as 24 and other noughties hits told us a lot about the neocon world view. Future historians (assuming "civilisation" continues) will understand what we were really like from these, whatever pompous postures we and our political leaders adopt for public consumption.

This is along the lines I was thinking. As you mention, you do feel that Martin is Ned Stark as he makes you feel every moment of injustice and dishonour that happens and you feel the same righteous anger and sense of powerlessness that Stark felt as these stupid, selfish idiots with power screw things up for everyone else.

You think if you act with honour and fairness that people would say 'Yeah, you know what, we should all put aside our selfishness and personal ambitions and do what's best for everybody' unfortunately you just become what's known as a 'useful idiot' for those who are greedy for more of what they already have. The story is all about the weakness and fallibility of human nature to to always take the easier option of self-indulgence rather than one of self-control, but also a cautionary tale for those who do want to make the world a better place.

TBH though, this story functions on so many levels and is written so honestly that you can read anything into it.

Of course it has a Hobbesian subtext. So does almost every Sci-Fi or Fantasy story that does any world building. Lets face it, Rousseau's take on human nature (that we are basically good) doesn't make for exciting stories where the heroes must overcome the corrupt nature of humanity.

Who are these mothers that are letting their "young boys" watch Game of Thrones? Theres far too much nudity for me to allow my 12 year old to watch it and my 16 year old would be too uncomfortable watching with me in the room.

And if my wife knew that either of them had seen the show, she'd have a fit.

The show is amazing. Probably the best thing on television currently.

But its not appropriate for anyone who needs their mommy to drive them to the bookstore.

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