thewolfofStarfall

"Moral ambiguity" is overrated and overestimated

72 posts in this topic

No, it is not overrated/overestimated. It's simply misunderstood, taken into the exact same absolutes as is the good/evil dichotomy: it's usually understood as a uniform "grey" governing all aspects of a human character/personality/emotional world. 

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i think GRRMs genius is that he constantly portrays moral dilemmas and our reactions to each event is shown by our preconceived ideas and our own strong or lacking moral compasses. If we consider "good" as being able to sacrifice or risk your own welfare to help/save another and to try to follow a defined moral code that I think we can sum up what he does by the following:

1. Good men make hard choices, which may force them to break their own moral code - eg Ned's lies, Jon and Aemon's choices

2. Good men make bad choices due to ignorance or lack of understanding -eg Ned's head chopping of lady and I think Gared.

3. We cannot judge the moral code of the middle ages by our current code - eg the capacity of the Lord of the region to give summary justice with out a fair trial - Robb, Ned, Jon, all the people at the wall etc and just about everything to do with sex including the age of marriage and fidelity. Punishment for crimes is another - but it is not long ago that this was the norm in OUR societies. In the time of Jane Austen or Dickens a 10 year old was hanged for theft and deserters were executed in WWI. Do murders/killings in brawls and altercations count. probably NOT for the times.

4. Our judgements of right and wrong are coloured by who people are - thus it was OK for Robb, the 15 year old war leader to cut of Karstark's head, but not for Arya age 11 to act as Lady of Winterfell -which technically she was - either by her marriage to Ramsay or by perceived right of inheritance - by Southern law she WAS the Lady given Rickon and Bran are presumed dead and Sansa attainted.

5. The whole issue of the right of soldiers and servant to commit appalling acts because they were ordered to - Sandor killing Micah is the obvious example. Note that in the trial of battle he was acquitted - after all his Lord had ordered him to chase the "boy who struck the the Prince."  The fact that he was 10 years old and had not had a trial is irrelevant  - for the era. Like any good soldier he did not apply his own moral judgement - any more than modern soldiers when shooting civilians or child soldiers. However it is MY theory that his event triggered Sandor's moral awakening - together with his infatuation with Sansa.

6. Essentially good men commit some bad acts. This is where the real greyness in character comes in. By good I mean people who demonstrate capacity to good deeds and have empathy for others. Thus Robert tolerating and indeed supporting the murder of the Targ babies, Tyrion murdering the singer, Shae and his father, Arya killing the guards, maybe the stable boy, Dareon and her role as assassin. Most of Ser Jorah's story

7. Can acts which we at normal times would consider repulsive and evil somehow be seen as positive.  Frey pies is my stand out here. Just about everything in Dany's story also fits. are dragons good or evil. Most acts of vengeance eg LS fit here too.

8. Finally and most controversially - are essentially bad people - ie people who lack a moral compass or who have committed unconscionable crimes (Sandor, Jaime, Theon), capable of redemption.

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I should add there are three other moral issues that GRRM poses for us

 

9. Does the end justify the means - think Stannis and willingness to sacrifice Edrik. His justification is that one like may save thousands of others. Jon swapping babies?

10. Are offences against Gods more serious than offences against humans. Somehow I thin in GRRM's world they ARE. Think the Rat Cook, the Red Wedding, kin slaying,  breaking an oath etc. In our world these while caddish are not seen as more serious than equivalent crimes. Not the case in the GRRM world

11. Does religious belief justify actions that would otherwise be unacceptable - eg human sacrifice, slavery etc.

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Honestly, the whole thing about grey characters and moral ambiguity in fiction comes down to writing skill. A bad writer can have grey characters, and they'll be bad characters. A good writer can have good and evil characters, and they'll be interesting and FUN characters. Superman is no fun with a bad writer, but get him a good writer and he's amazing.

 

 

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I agree with the overall vague notions that propagating and excusing gray morality is the justification of weak willed and that grayness of ASOIAF is overestimated.

But somehow I have gotten the idea this goes beyond that. Moral ambiguity of the characters (or RL people) is highly personal judgment, and people can and do view the same actions with same circumstances and same motivation in a different way. This isn't necessarily moral relativism, myself for example I am not morally relativistic, if people don't follow my moral guidelines I find them wrong and immoral, but many people fail to see error of their ways and instead consider me immoral, and neither I nor those people can do anything to change this fact or one another's mind. Some people think it is always wrong to kill another human, I can think of the numerous situation were killing another human is perfectly moral and most of them don't even have anything to do with time traveling and Hitler. Eddard Stark killed Gared so he is morally ambiguous from the start for those in no killing whatsoever group. For some homosexuality is morally wrong, so Loras can't be good guy.  For others having sex with women forced into prostitution constitutes rape and so Tyrion is evil.

Who is in the end right and who gets to decide morality for all? It's not relativistic attitude but realistic one, you don't have the power to make everyone subscribe to identical moral codes. And you seem to be understating moral ambiguity of ASOIAF protagonists, most of them engaged in some questionable acts and who among them is a real saint?

 

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On 3/7/2017 at 11:36 PM, thewolfofStarfall said:

Another issue I find is that the perceived notion of morally ambiguity in this saga is grossly overestimated by fans, thus leading to wild conclusions. The most prominent one being that it's impossible for the Others to be evil because ASOIAF isn't a "black and white" story, whatever that actually even means in the first place. This is despite the fact that there is literally no evidence pointing to the Others having any good or even neutral intentions, and the clearer than day evidence pointing to their sinister nature. Even if they had intentions we aren't aware of, simply having reasons behind acts of atrocity in no way mitigates or excuses those acts. The idea that having an explanation behind immoral actions can can shift a person from ultimately evil to "grey" aggravates me to no end. Intentions, whether good or bad are irrelevant to the ethics of an act. It also makes no logical sense, everyone has "reasons" behind what they're doing, so why even bring it up? The Others seek to annihalte human life.  Tywin wants to mantain his family legacy. Ramsay, the Moutain, the Mad King, and about a million other people seek to gratify their sadistic urges. None of these characters' intentions changes the impact they have on their victims. 

Discuss.

I think we will most likely come around to seeing the others as not purely evil. I also think we are presented the dragons as though they are the opposite of the others, the embodiment of fire rather than ice. Though Dany and her dragons seem like the the hero of the series at first blush, I think as we look closer we also see they are not purely good, just like the others aren't purely bad. We have seen more evidence of the dragons not being good, that's why I make the connection.

I think your statement in red is the exact opposite of the truth. Killing a dog because it's in uncurable pain and you want to put it out of it's misery is less evil than killing a dog for fun. This is not the same as self-justification or utilitarianism.

If anything I think GRRM has so far not presented the others as evil. We know they mean to kill humans but that's not evil in and of itself.

Consider if you will, a deadly virus. Let's say the black plague. Can a virus be evil? Viruses just like bacteria, humans, parasites, bugs and trees are forms of life trying to pass on their genetic material. Is a lion evil for eating a deer? How is it any different?

If two species are incompatible and fight until one of the species is dead is that species evil? It's an interesting question, because the species that has done that to an exponentially further extent than any other species is humans. We killed every species remotely close to us. Does that make us evil?

All the others have really done so far is fight a people who have historically fought them, men. Who's to say which one is right and wrong when we know virtually nothing about the nature of the conflict.

 

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10 hours ago, Aegon VII said:

I think your statement in red is the exact opposite of the truth. Killing a dog because it's in uncurable pain and you want to put it out of it's misery is less evil than killing a dog for fun. This is not the same as self-justification or utilitarianism.

 

A similar example from the ASOIAF universe would be the difference between Dany's mercy killing of Drogo and Aerys killing Brandon Stark and his father. I suppose one could argue that those are acts with the same ultimate intent - to kill someone - but in my opinion not only the intent is fundamentally different in the two cases but they are also two fundamentally different acts. Dany killed Drogo in order to put an end to his suffering, to finish a life that was already over, to save a loved one from "pain and humiliation" (to quote Dumbledore); while Aerys finished off two lives that were by no means over and he maximized the pain of his victims. The two actions (Dany's and Aerys') were also carried out very differently. Thus I agree that intention matters because the morality of the intention is an integral part of the action itself.

However, I also agree with the OP that the mere existence of a reason in itself does not change the morality of the action and does not make it more acceptable. Morally acceptable or commendable reasons will tend to coincide with more moral actions, of course, but few people do anything without a reason. So the fact that Ramsay found some base pleasure in hunting, raping and killing women does not make his action acceptable the least bit in my eyes. Similarly, Tywin's need to assert his authority (however legitimate a need it is) does not justify, in my eyes, the mass killing he committed when he killed the Reynes down to the last baby. A family's need for power and authority is simply not worth - from a moral viewpoint, in my opinion - such a sacrifice, even though I understand that the need was real and legitimate.

GRRM frequently creates situations where characters have to choose between to "evils" with the result that they will be condemned both in and out of universe whatever they choose to do. I think it is a way of testing moral values and their relative importance rather than denying the existence of morality though. 

With regard to "grayness" in general: It would be difficult to find a morally completely flawless person in real life, and literature recognized this fact long ago even if the idea of "gray" characters may be somewhat new in the fantasy genre. Still, it does not mean that moral flaws are not flaws, or that it is somehow "wrong" to be unselfish or "good" or to want to do what is right (instead of gratifying our own needs) either in real life or in fiction.    

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On 3/20/2017 at 11:00 PM, Aegon VII said:

I think we will most likely come around to seeing the others as not purely evil. I also think we are presented the dragons as though they are the opposite of the others, the embodiment of fire rather than ice. Though Dany and her dragons seem like the the hero of the series at first blush, I think as we look closer we also see they are not purely good, just like the others aren't purely bad. We have seen more evidence of the dragons not being good, that's why I make the connection.

I think your statement in red is the exact opposite of the truth. Killing a dog becauyse it's in uncurable pain and you want to put it out of it's misery is less evil than killing a dog for fun. This is not the same as self-justification or utilitarianism.

If anything I think GRRM has so far not presented the others as evil. We know they mean to kill humans but that's not evil in and of itself.

Consider if you will, a deadly virus. Let's say the Black Plague. Can a virus be evil? Viruses just like bacteria, humans, parasites, bugs and trees are forms of life trying to pass on their genetic material. Is a lion evil for eating a deer? How is it any different?

If two species are incompatible and fight until one of the species is dead is that species evil? It's an interesting question, because the species that has done that to an exponentially further extent than any other species is humans. We killed every species remotely close to us. Does that make us evil?

All the others have really done so far is fight a people who have historically fought them, men. Who's to say which one is right and wrong when we know virtually nothing about the nature of the conflict.

 

True, I think my statement in red was poorly communicated . Intentions are important, but having good or ambiguous intentions to an act does not automatically mean the act is moral. Daenerys may or may not have had good intentions when crucifying random slavers without trial, but that doesn't mean it's justified.

About your statements in bold. The human species as a whole has not actively participated in wiping out other species. As in not everyone is trying kill elephants and other endangered species. There are a lot people trying to stop poachers. This can't be said of the Others who are actively trying to eradicate humans.  It's possible the Others we see are just an extremist faction, and "normal" Others do not want to kill humans, but we have no idea.

Also, none of the life forms you listed are sentient, so they are not comparable to the Others IMO.

I'm actually not utterly against utilitarianism btw. In  some circumstances, actions that are not  traditionally seen as "right" are simply necessary. An example of this, maybe when Miri Maaz Durr was acussed of killing Rhaego by Daenerys. It's likely she killed neither Drogo or Rhaego, and Daenerys being the self righteous bitch she is just wanted to punish her... but I would have no problem if Miri purposefully killed either of them. I'm wondering what your opinion on utilitarianism is? Do you think is an example in ASIOAF where a utilitarian coarse of ethics is taken and you agree with it?

Edited by thewolfofStarfall

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On 3/21/2017 at 9:58 AM, Julia H. said:

A similar example from the ASOIAF universe would be the difference between Dany's mercy killing of Drogo and Aerys killing Brandon Stark and his father. I suppose one could argue that those are acts with the same ultimate intent - to kill someone - but in my opinion not only the intent is fundamentally different in the two cases but they are also two fundamentally different acts. Dany killed Drogo in order to put an end to his suffering, to finish a life that was already over, to save a loved one from "pain and humiliation" (to quote Dumbledore); while Aerys finished off two lives that were by no means over and he maximized the pain of his victims. The two actions (Dany's and Aerys') were also carried out very differently. Thus I agree that intention matters because the morality of the intention is an integral part of the action itself.

However, I also agree with the OP that the mere existence of a reason in itself does not change the morality of the action and does not make it more acceptable. Morally acceptable or commendable reasons will tend to coincide with more moral actions, of course, but few people do anything without a reason. So the fact that Ramsay found some base pleasure in hunting, raping and killing women does not make his action acceptable the least bit in my eyes. Similarly, Tywin's need to assert his authority (however legitimate a need it is) does not justify, in my eyes, the mass killing he committed when he killed the Reynes down to the last baby. A family's need for power and authority is simply not worth - from a moral viewpoint, in my opinion - such a sacrifice, even though I understand that the need was real and legitimate.

GRRM frequently creates situations where characters have to choose between to "evils" with the result that they will be condemned both in and out of universe whatever they choose to do. I think it is a way of testing moral values and their relative importance rather than denying the existence of morality though. 

With regard to "grayness" in general: It would be difficult to find a morally completely flawless person in real life, and literature recognized this fact long ago even if the idea of "gray" characters may be somewhat new in the fantasy genre. Still, it does not mean that moral flaws are not flaws, or that it is somehow "wrong" to be unselfish or "good" or to want to do what is right (instead of gratifying our own needs) either in real life or in fiction.    

Yeah, my previous statement was not properly stated. I completely agree that intentions are integral to one's moral descion making, but I was just trying  to re-empazise that simply having an intention is not what dertimines an action to be right or wrong. The mere existence of one is what I deem "irrelevant", not what the intentions actually are.

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Great to see such an interesting discussion about moral philosophy. 

For anyone really interested in this topic, I very highly reccomend the lecture series "Maps of Meaning" by Jordan B Peterson  

https://www.youtube.com/user/JordanPetersonVideos/playlists

This is absoloutly mind-blowing, by far the best and deepest thought I have ever heard articulated on this topic or indeed anything. If you put the time in and also go through his reading list, it will be... well... amazing.

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On 3/13/2017 at 8:51 PM, Liver and Onions said:

Honestly, the whole thing about grey characters and moral ambiguity in fiction comes down to writing skill. A bad writer can have grey characters, and they'll be bad characters. A good writer can have good and evil characters, and they'll be interesting and FUN characters. Superman is no fun with a bad writer, but get him a good writer and he's amazing.

 

 

I agree completely moral ambiguity or lack of it does not dertermine whether a  story is well written and enjoyable. What some people would determine a "black and white" story can be harder to write than a story full of "grey" characters

Edited by thewolfofStarfall

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On 3/14/2017 at 6:52 PM, Equilibrium said:

I agree with the overall vague notions that propagating and excusing gray morality is the justification of weak willed and that grayness of ASOIAF is overestimated.

But somehow I have gotten the idea this goes beyond that. Moral ambiguity of the characters (or RL people) is highly personal judgment, and people can and do view the same actions with same circumstances and same motivation in a different way. This isn't necessarily moral relativism, myself for example I am not morally relativistic, if people don't follow my moral guidelines I find them wrong and immoral, but many people fail to see error of their ways and instead consider me immoral, and neither I nor those people can do anything to change this fact or one another's mind. Some people think it is always wrong to kill another human, I can think of the numerous situation were killing another human is perfectly moral and most of them don't even have anything to do with time traveling and Hitler. Eddard Stark killed Gared so he is morally ambiguous from the start for those in no killing whatsoever group. For some homosexuality is morally wrong, so Loras can't be good guy.  For others having sex with women forced into prostitution constitutes rape and so Tyrion is evil.

Who is in the end right and who gets to decide morality for all? It's not relativistic attitude but realistic one, you don't have the power to make everyone subscribe to identical moral codes. And you seem to be understating moral ambiguity of ASOIAF protagonists, most of them engaged in some questionable acts and who among them is a real saint?

 

Well I agree with this. Its impossible for me to force anyone to believe in a particular moral code nor do I want to, but that doesn't mean mine is less legitimate or I will stop believing in it.  So yeah, I agree that not every person will believe in a specific moral code, but that of coarse doesn't mean society can't come to a consensus of what is right and wrong in general.  However, when it comes some moral situations. "who is right or wrong" or "who gets to decide morality for all"  are not questions worth asking because people can have  "logical" justifications behind their actions, but those actions can still purely and essentially wrong. For example, Stannis and Melisandre's sacrifices. Those are rephensible from the point of view of any code of ethics besides religious extremism. Also, in other cases, such questions may not be possible to answer clearly.  

I'm not ignoring the shortcomings of of these characters. I simply disagree with the notion that someone cannot make a wrong decision, - especially one they regret- without being completely "grey"  or morally ambiguous. I don't see how that's any different from moral absolutism. Just because people make bad choices, doesn't people are incapable of being essentially good. If you want call it "being a saint", then okay I guess you could call it that. I would call Davos, Ned, Jon, Sam, Robb, Brienne, Meera, Bran, Jojen, Sansa, Shireen, Renly, Hordor, EdriDayne, Berric Dondarian and the BWB, good people. There are also characters on the road to redemption like Jamie and the Hound. The would call the show counterparts of Arya and Tyrion good people, but I hear they are much darker in the books, so I don't want to be completely consclusive.  The only Stark I would call almost completely selfish is Catelyn and Lady SH is obviously not a good person.

Edited by thewolfofStarfall

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