On Answering The Question: Is Game of Thrones A Moral Show?

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” — Cersei Lannister — how can a show where people look this angry be moral? Well..

Introduction: Normativity and Ethics

I have never talked with a fan of Game of Thrones who was disinterested. I have never mentioned the death of a near-universally beloved character or an act of cruelty by a hated despot and had a friend say, “I don’t really care one way or the other.” I think that is significant. Specifically, I think that the fact that the fan does care, often deeply, about the characters and the actions of those characters suggests that she is forming moral judgments almost constantly as she watches the show. After all, if you reflect on your hatred of a certain character after a particularly cruel act, don’t you find that your hatred stems from a moral judgment on that character and his actions? And when you watch a character you care about make a decision that leaves you feeling uncomfortable, doesn’t that suggest your moral judgment is that a character you have hereto thought to be good is acting in a way that you are not sure is actually good?

In contemporary moral philosophy, no question looms larger than that of normativity: we can describe how human beings act (the is of human experience) but how exactly do we arrive at an ought (the should and should not of human experience)? The question of the normative is prior to questions of what ethical behavior looks like in concrete situations. Here’s an example: if I am Jon Snow and I have to make a difficult choice and am unclear what option is morally permissible/superior, I might seek out advice: but if two different advisers give conflicting advice, how do I know who is right, or put another way, on what normative basis can I evaluate competing claims regarding what is ethical behavior? I mention all of this because Game of Thrones is filled to the brim with characters whose ethical behavior and whose assumed norms of ethics contradict with each other. And it isn’t as if some characters are unequivocally good and others unequivocally bad: instead, just like in “real life” almost everyone is a complex mix of virtues and vice.

Here’s the observation I want to make in this introduction: there are two levels of moral judgment available to any person who wants to make an absolute moral judgment on the show Game of Thrones: Level 1: is it moral? Level 2: And how would I know if it is moral? I suspect most of us are interested in answering the question of Level 1: but like a ladder, we can’t skip over the penultimate rung in a rush to answer the first, unless we are willing to let our own assumptions about ethical norms remain unexamined. Just because, going back to the first paragraph, your initial feeling of love or hatred toward a character and/or her actions demonstrates that you are making a moral judgment, that doesn’t guarantee you are making the right moral judgment. Your Level 1 answer may or may not be right: it will take some reflection on Level 2 to argue in support of your Level 1.

Arya Stark’s expression is probably much like yours at the moment. Sorry, it’s gonna get more complicated from here.

Brief summary: Game of Thrones: Level 1: Is it a moral show? Level 2: how do we go about arguing whether it is a moral show or not?


F-Bombs, Euthanasia, and Aquinas

Philosophy is about making distinctions in order to clarify arguments: so bear with me, because I’m gonna add a series of distinctions that I think are vital. In order to introduce these distinctions, I want to illustrate with a film: Million Dollar Baby. For those who haven’t seen it, the Oscar-awarded film is about a female boxer and a central question within the film is that of euthanasia. In other words, the film presents us with a narrative which calls forth a moral judgment from us, of the Level 1 variety, and even presents us with characters deliberating on ethics which can help us viewers reflect on the Level 2 question of norms. Now, regardless of what you think about euthanasia, the point I’m making is that since it is such a morally divisive issue, we almost can’t help but deliberate on the question as viewers: indeed, to the extent that the narrative is successful in its design, we are all but forced to deliberate.

Of course, there is another popular paradigm in which to assess morality in Million Dollar Baby, the paradigm signaled in the movie rating. In this case, the film is PG-13: boxing violence, a sprinkling of profanity, some heavy themes not suitable for children. I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask about the morality of a film on the basis of things for which it is flagged in its rating. Issues like nudity, sex, violence, drug usage, etc., are all worth considering. But it does seem to me that the question of euthanasia and the question of boxing violence are operating out of two distinctive paradigms for evaluating the film. After all, adding or subtracting a scene of boxing violence may help me to evaluate the morality of the film within the rating paradigm, but it does not seem as if simply adding or subtracting that scene will tell me anything about the morality of the film regarding the question of euthanasia.

In Thomistic language (language from Aquinas), we talk about essential properties of a thing and accidental properties. Accidental properties are interchangeable and don’t define the essence of a thing. But if you change an essential property, you have changed the thing itself. I want to suggest that the question of euthanasia is an essential property of Million Dollar Baby whereas the smattering of profanity is an accidental property of the film. You could add more profanity or remove it altogether and it wouldn’t alter the essential narrative. But you couldn’t remove the question of euthanasia from the film and have it still be the same film. Interestingly, the violence of the film is a little trickier. It seems for a boxing film to be true to itself, it needs to depict boxing: that is, it seems like having boxing violence is essential to the film. But we can debate about both the quality of that violence (for example, how bloody) and quantity of that violence, and it seems as though both quality and quantity could arguably be accidental properties, though of course that would be a contentious claim.

Oh, I forgot to mention, A-list cast for this movie. Is that an argument for morality? Probably not.

Distinguishing between the morality of Essential Properties and Accidental Properties opens up some options for us, as pertains to moral philosophy. (For the sake of limiting the argument to its necessary components, we won’t be addressing claims 1 and 4 in either set.)

Essential Properties: Potential Moral Judgments

  1. A film with moral essential properties and no immoral essential properties is moral and therefore morally permissible to watch.
  2. A film with immoral essential properties is immoral and therefore not permissible to watch.
  3. A film with immoral essential properties is not necessarily immoral: and if it is not immoral, it is permissible to watch it.
  4. A film with immoral essential properties is not necessarily immoral: but even if it is, it may still be morally permissible to watch it.

Accidental Properties: Potential Moral Judgments

  1. A film with moral accidental properties and no immoral accidental properties is moral and therefore morally permissible to watch.
  2. A film with immoral accidental properties is immoral and therefore not permissible to watch.
  3. A film with immoral accidental properties is not necessarily immoral: and only if it is not immoral, it is permissible to watch it.
  4. A film with immoral accidental properties is not necessarily immoral: but even if it is, it may still be morally permissible to watch it.
Sansa Stark wants to remind you: no one ever said moral philosophy was easy.

Please forgive me for the minutiae but I promise that it is important. Most of the time when people talk about whether or not Game of Thrones is important, that discussion is rooted in a Level 1 judgment which assumes one or more of these normative moral judgments regarding essential and accidental properties. An example: a scene in an early season of the show features Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) giving a six-minute speech regarding his political philosophy and assessment of current affairs. Within both his story arc and the overarching story arc of the season, the information given is arguably essential. What seems clearly not essential in that scene is that as he is speaking, he is also instructing his newly acquired prostitutes on how best to stimulate pleasure for their future male clients: the prostitutes are nude, the simulations are graphic, and the explicitness of the scene is gratuitous, i.e., accidental. To complicate things even further, Littlefinger is a morally ambiguous character, by which I mean it is not clear whether he is good or bad and often his actions are equally murky. So this essential six-minute speech: is it moral? More broadly, is the scene itself moral or immoral? If the speech was decidedly moral, would that change the moral judgment? What if the speech was immoral but there were no nude prostitutes simulating sex?

Brief summary: dividing moral questions into the categories of Essential or Accidental helps us to clarify just what we are analyzing.


Is Game of Thrones Moral? Essential Properties Edition

There’s a lot of TV-MA (R-rating equivalent) content in pretty much every episode of Game of Thrones. And a good deal of that content is accidental. Even though it’s essential for a certain character to lose his head, so to speak, do we really need to see him literally lose his head? It’s essential for that certain character to break his vow of celibacy (turns out he knows something after all, wink, wink), and maybe even the nudity was essential to establish the conditions of his temptation, but wasn’t there at least some accidental content in that scene in the cave? Regardless, I’m going to claim that people (viewers and non0viewers alike) who claim absolutely that Game of Thrones is immoral are basing this judgment on accidental properties and not essential properties. To defend that claim, I’m going to start by defending the idea that this judgment is not concerned with essential properties. To make this defense, I will combine the language of levels (1 and 2) with the language of essential properties.

You’ll remember that Level 2 judgments are about how we know what is normative. When my two advisers give me two contradicting pieces of advice, level 2 judgment is what let lets me discern between the two. I want to suggest that the majority of people who object to Game of Thrones don’t object to the mere presence of essentially immoral content in stories, provided that the stories don’t influence us into making a reflexive moral judgment (level 1) that runs contrary to our reflective moral judgments (level 2.) An example: if my level 2 says that vows ought always to be honored but the story makes me feel that breaking the vow for love is good (a level 1 judgment), I would probably, upon reflection, decide that the story is immoral. And if before I saw the story, a friend warned me that the story is immoral on this basis and if I feared watching the show would undermine my level 2 moral judgment, I would likely not watch the show. Of course, without being specific enough to warrant a spoiler warning: in the case of breaking the celibacy vow, we are influenced to judge it favorably…initially, but given how things turn out, however many episodes later, that initial level 2 judgment which seemed endangered is arguably reinforced.

Just a friendly reminder from Ygritte that trusting your feelings (i.e., level 1 judgments) is, um, often problematic.

Game of Thrones often operates this way: initially, plot events ask us to make level 1 judgments that might contradict our own level 2 judgments, only to later show the consequences of that move. In the case of those characters who make level 1 errors that we sympathize with, those characters normally die (dishonorably and graphically) and we are left chastised as viewers. Other times, however, level 1 judgments are in perfect agreement with level 2 judgments: when the incestuous couple tries to kill the innocent boy who stumbles upon them, our initial reflex is disgust: our level 1 judgment is that both the incestuousness and the attempted murder are actions so beyond-the-pale that they are morally reprehensible. And of course, the show itself is soliciting that moral judgment from us. If we choose to reflect on this initial moral judgment, i.e., to step back in order to get perspective, we likely find that our level 2 judgment (normative assumptions for ethics) is in perfect accord with our level 1 judgment.

The basic point is this: every story needs conflict and almost every story creates conflict through means of a villain, and almost every villain acts in ways that are immoral, and almost all of those immoral actions are essential properties of the story. So long as the story asks us to see immoral actions as immoral actions, we don’t tend to judge the story itself as being immoral simply because it contains essentially immoral actions. In other words, we never claim that Star Wars is bad because the Sith Lords do bad things. But we as storytellers and consumers of stories are even more sophisticated than this. We are capable of dealing with a hero who often acts as an antihero such as Batman in Nolan’s film trilogy. We are capable of watching Batman violently interrogate (torture?) the Joker and of feeling morally conflicted about whether or not these actions are moral or immoral. And again, most of us do not claim that because there are essentially morally ambiguous actions of the hero of a story that the story itself is therefore immoral. Still more sophisticated is our ability to watch a show like House of Cards, and simultaneously be fascinated with the lead protagonist while simultaneously judging a wide range of his actions to be immoral. And even in this case, provided that the show still allows us to reconcile our level 1 and level 2 judgments in a way that can denounce the immoral actions of Francis Underwood, we don’t (normally) judge the show to be immoral. (A caveat: suppose a film has one essential action that, while immoral, is presented as not being immoral: does that mean the whole film is immoral? If not, could a certain number of such actions render the film immoral? I’m not going to deal with this complication: I mention it just to dispel any illusion that my argument has somehow made all of this simple. Moral philosophy is not nearly as simple as a handy-dandy rubric.)

The astute reader might stop me here and say, “sure most of us don’t tend to say that Star Wars and/or Batman and/or House of Cards is/are immoral, but maybe we should. Maybe if we probed normative assumptions in level 2 deep enough, we would discover (perhaps to our horror) that our normative foundation of ethics requires us to deem one or more of these stories as immoral, even though our level 1 suggests they are not.” I concede the point, and mention also that this works in reverse: maybe the story we thought to be immoral is, upon deeper reflection in level 2, not immoral at all. This is the risk, after all, of practicing philosophy: we might discover that we were wrong.

Oh look, it’s Job from Arrested Development. Don’t worry friend, it’s all part of the human condition.

To sum up briefly: perhaps we should argue that the mere presence of essential immoral actions in a story render that story immoral, but I’ve never met anyone who makes that argument (or even wants to make that argument.) If normative ethics is about how humans ought to act, it would seem weird to say that a prescriptive normative for ethics is ignored by literally everyone, literally all the time. So, to advance in this whole argument, we’re gonna be making an assumption in saying that stories can have essential immoral actions and still be moral, but I think it’s an assumption worth making. Are you with me? If so, then as a reminder of our conclusion: so long as an essential immoral action is presented by the narrative in such a way that our level 1 and level 2 judgments are reconciled (incest and murder are bad, reflexively and reflectively), or in the case of ambiguous tensions (Batman) at least not in contradiction, the story isn’t de facto immoral. In other words: characters on Game of Thrones do bad things all the time: but we know they’re bad actions, so that doesn’t mean we are immoral for watching the show.


Is Game of Thrones Moral? Accidental Properties Edition

Okay, so remember how at the beginning of the previous section, I said: “Even though it’s essential for a certain character to lose his head, so to speak, do we really need to see him literally lose his head”? We haven’t answered the question of whether accidental properties (just how much is shown in that beheading, for example) can render a story immoral? And if it can, how much is too much, how far is too far? We will need to answer these questions too if we are going to answer the question: is Game of Thrones a moral show?

But here’s the problem with accidental properties: they’re harder to deal with than essential properties. We can agree that for a boxing film to be about boxing, it needs, well, boxing, which is a violent activity. But whose to say how much blood is allowable or how many sound effects of bones crunching or whatever other metric for measuring violence before the otherwise morally permissible scene is rendered immoral? And suppose that there’s just one scene of boxing that “goes too far,” does that mean the whole film is immoral or would there have to be a certain number of such infractions first? We introduced this same problem, by the way, as a caveat in the last section. But I think it’s a more pronounced problem in our human experience of accidentals which the boxing film example will illustrate: suppose you find profanity morally objectionable: how much of it you will tolerate in this boxing film seems to depend on a lot of factors that are all relative to you: how much you like boxing, for instance, or which words you find more offensive than which others, or what amount of profanity you are willing to put up with before you’ll turn the film off. This experience is largely shaped by personal taste, but even more importantly, by your conscience.

Whatever you think about Ned Stark, it’s hard to find a character more true to his conscience than he.

This isn’t to say you are a moral relativist in your thoughts or actions, however, as long as you concede that films can be moral or immoral, absolutely, rather than just relative to yourself. But unless you are presumptuous enough to claim that you can reliably and absolutely discern between your taste and your conscience, and further, that your conscience is so aligned with what is moral that all judgments issuing forth from your conscience ought to be understood as morally-binding for everyone else, than answering the question about how much profanity is too much profanity, can’t be reliably answered for everyone on the basis of how much is too much for you.

I lied. We tend to reflexively think our level 1 judgments hold true for everyone and if we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t think they hold true for ourselves. If I reflexively judge that it is immoral to be incestuous, certainly I am judging it immoral for myself, but I’m also judging the incestuous couple, which means I’m holding them to the same standard I’m holding myself. And if I were to hold myself and them to two different standards, I would be inconsistent, which signals a fatal flaw in my moral philosophy, which in turn, suggests that I am very vulnerable to acting wrongly in relevant situations. Likewise, if I judge (whether as feeling and reflex or as reflection) that three f-words but not four is within the bounds but that four is beyond-the-pale, there is a part of me (the level 1 part) that feels this judgment in my bones as if it were absolutely true for absolutely everyone. It is only because we are also capable of level 2 thinking, which allows us to step back and say, “but how do I know four is beyond-the-pale” that we are capable of thinking, “perhaps that reflex judgment was right but perhaps it was wrong?” And in the case of accidental properties, it doesn’t appear as if there is any normative foundation to which we can all appeal from which to say, this amount of profane words and no more.

So, is it beyond-the-pale for Game of Thrones to depict a man getting his eyes gorged out or a naked woman seducing a man? However you answer that question, you’re going to have a hard time defending it in the realm of level 2 normative analysis.


Conclusion?

Another assumption I have: the dragons are essential, but even if they were accidental, I would want to say that it is good that the show has dragons. Very good.

Okay, where are we? We’ve seen evaluating Game of Thrones has to go beyond the initial moral reflexes (level 1) because those reflexes are rooted in normative reasoning (level 2.) In exploring level 2, we distinguished essential and accidental properties, and argued that as pertains to the former, Game of Thrones is arguably a moral show or at least not obviously immoral. But when we got to accidental properties, the almost obvious center of controversy when arguing about the show, we ran into a problem: we can’t remove our own selves, which would be necessary if we were going to have an absolute answer to thorny questions like “how much violence” and “what kinds of violence” and “how can the violence be depicted”, etc., etc.. Finally, we saw that saying we are forced to stay within the scope of our own conscience is not necessarily relativistic, so long as we allow that there can be an objective answer to those questions and that our level 1 judgments could very well be wrong.

Wait, so are we only left with the claim that the question of whether Game of Thrones is ultimately moral or immoral is basically unanswerable? If my arguments are sound, then yes, that is where we end up. But that isn’t a terrible place to be. We know a lot about where we’re at:

  1. we know that the existence of the show itself (as the pretext for this article) and each episode in the show gives us ample material with which to consider ethics. That’s pretty valuable, right?
  2. we know we’ve resolved the question of essential properties, and in the show’s favor.
  3. and we know that as pertains to the accidental properties, it is perfectly legitimate to A): humbly maintain the integrity of our conscience’s response to the show, whether we are led to view or not to view and B): to be aware all the time that we might be wrong in our moral judgment, and C): that despite there not being an obvious way to establish a normative basis beyond our own relative experience of our conscience, that limitation of self does not mean there isn’t an objective answer.

Is Game of Thrones a moral show? Maybe. Should you watch it? I hope that by now, you’ve anticipated my response: I can’t answer that question for you, but I think it’s a question worth your time. (Also, and this is completely irrelevant to my argument: so far, season 7 is among the best television I have ever seen.)