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discussing morality in ASOIAF

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I thought it might be productive to create a thread dedicated to the way we discuss questions of morality in the series. It seems the forum is somewhat divided on the issue of how to approach assessments of characters' morality: whether to consider the in-universe norms as the litmus, or to make judgment based on our own moral understandings.

I want to posit that the beauty of the way the series is written only works when we take the perspective modern readers with modern senses of morality. Martin wrote this series for modern readers; though his pseudo-medeival world is immersive, the "norms" presented to us are not supposed to supplant our own sensibilities of morality such that we are meant to see certain enormities as excusable within the context. I strongly believe that when we are confronted by an immoral act (immoral in our own understanding), that we are meant to recognize it as an immoral act. The "beauty" I refer to stems from the moral friction it causes in us as readers, because Martin is extremely adept at presenting many characters' actions as justified, reasonable and sympathetic despite the objective immorality of the acts in question.

To excuse or rationalize these enormities as "what everyone else in the series does" misses the point, in my opinion, and does a disservice to the way Martin subverts the readers' comfort zone. I believe we are supposed to assess these actions from a modern standpoint (as Martin writes for a modern audience), but let ourselves be persuaded into feeling personally sympathetic for the characters despite this. It loses the richness to dismiss these enormities as "normalcies," because I believe we are supposed to feel conflicted by acknowledging wrongness while being simultaneously drawn into personal attachment to characters who do these terrible things. I think Martin achieves this balance of "objective wrong, but extremely sympathetic" in the character of Tyrion exceptionally, though I believe it applies to discussions of nearly every grey character in the series.

I don't believe that the notions of "it's normal in their world," "everyone does it," or "this was better than the way another character would have done it," do the series justice. Not only are these imprecise statements (I've seen a lot of arguments for "norms" that aren't actually even "norms" in-universe), but seeing the story thusly removes the layer of complexity presented by the duality of wrongness and sympathy. That a character is sympathetic doesn't mean that they are behaving morally, or that they are somehow justified in their actions. There's a difference between discussing the reasons why a character does or thinks the way they do versus absolving them of the wrongness.

ETA:

Since there's some confusion about this, the OP is NOT advocating that we only look at ASOIAF with a stringent "modern lens" and harshly judge everything that doesn't conform to this "modern lens."

The "takeaway" is this:

Looking at the story from both an immersive, contextual perspective while retaining our "modern lens" is critical. The OP is a reaction to the idea that we should abandon "modern morals" when reading. That's why it emphasizes the importance of retaining a modern lens.

But further, this "modern lens" isn't even extrinsic to the story. These supposed contextual "norms" are challenged very similarly to the way a "modern reader" would view the issues in the story itself. It's a story set in a time of social crisis and all of these moral, social and political issues are being examined by the characters within the story, so these "in-universe" morals and norms aren't truly all that separate from the way we see them in our own time. At least, in terms of the critique we'd make, as many character themselves critique these issues thusly.

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Where is the like button?

I believe this is basically what GRRM means when he says about his characters being grey. There isnt much black and white. I still think Ramsay is just out and out nasty though.

Like Arya killing people, while sympathetic, is a rather gnarly stain on her dress. Sansa's going to Cersei to blab about them leaving, while not morally wrong, is seen in a less sympathetic light. Most of Tyrion's actions, Dany's duplicity, etc. No one is unmarred when it comes to morality. And that is exactly what GRRM wanted to put out.

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Great topic and post.

My friend and I often argue about Jaime pushing Bran out the window at Winterfell after seeing him and Cersei. We all know that morally, pushing someone (especially a child) out a window because they were a witness to your wrong doing is wrong. However, what Jaime did could have possibly saved many lives and prevented a war.

I know this is off topic but what do you guys think about the above situation? Was Jaime wrong for what he did to Bran? Or did he have no choice?

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Great topic and post.

My friend and I often argue about Jaime pushing Bran out the window at Winterfell after seeing him and Cersei. We all know that morally, pushing someone (especially a child) out a window because they were a witness to your wrong doing is wrong. However, what Jaime did could have possibly saved many lives and prevented a war.

I know this is off topic but what do you guys think about the above situation? Was Jaime wrong for what he did to Bran? Or did he have no choice?

I think an important thing to remember here is how Jaime felt about it. IIRC it was an impulsive act - not one meant to save many lives and prevent a war.

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Great topic and post. My friend and I often argue about Jaime pushing Bran out the window at Winterfell after seeing him and Cersei. We all know that morally, pushing someone (especially a child) out a window because they were a witness to your wrong doing is wrong. However, what Jaime did could have possibly saved many lives and prevented a war. I know this is off topic but what do you guys think about the above situation? Was Jaime wrong for what he did to Bran? Or did he have no choice?
theres always a choice, and yes, he was wrong.

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Wonderful post as per usual. Not much to really add except for- not raping someone is not a feather in someone's cap in any universe.

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Great topic and post.

My friend and I often argue about Jaime pushing Bran out the window at Winterfell after seeing him and Cersei. We all know that morally, pushing someone (especially a child) out a window because they were a witness to your wrong doing is wrong. However, what Jaime did could have possibly saved many lives and prevented a war.

I know this is off topic but what do you guys think about the above situation? Was Jaime wrong for what he did to Bran? Or did he have no choice?

Jaime happens to be my major "moral dilemma" character, but I don't see his pushing Bran out the window to have much redeeming value. It didn't actually prevent a war; it helped contribute to its causes, and I generally think these sorts of utilitarian/ cost-benefit analyses are problematic ways to evaluate the characters' actions (at least in terms of morality). The intention is also important in my opinion, and Jaime didn't have noble aims in mind when he did this.

But given my large sympathies for Jaime, I will admit that this is a case where I'm extremely uncomfortable with how "comfortable" I am regarding his actions, even looking back at pushing Bran. I'm not "ok" with it and find it wrong on every register, but can't bring myself to hate him or think he's without moral worth despite this atrocious act.

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Great topic and post.

My friend and I often argue about Jaime pushing Bran out the window at Winterfell after seeing him and Cersei. We all know that morally, pushing someone (especially a child) out a window because they were a witness to your wrong doing is wrong. However, what Jaime did could have possibly saved many lives and prevented a war.

I know this is off topic but what do you guys think about the above situation? Was Jaime wrong for what he did to Bran? Or did he have no choice?

This and killing Aerys are morally wrong things. We first see both instances as unsympathetic. Peeps going on and on about the kingslaying, and then the Bran deal. When we get Jaime's take on it, even Jaime thinks that tossing Bran out that window was a gnarly thing to do. But he tries to justify it in his mind. Jaime's take on Aerys was that Aerys planned on burning down King's Landing in wildfire to prevent it from being taken. And the brutal rapes of Rhaella. We see the kingslaying as much more sympathetic due to what Aerys was doing, but it doesnt mean its not wrong morally.

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Yes, it is to be judged relative to "the way things were done back then".

AND

Yes, there are certain universal and timeless themes of human morality / ethics / values / etc. to judge it by as well.

In fact both at the same time.

As you say, GRRM enjoys throwing these complexities at us to mess with our heads.

It is very entertaining.

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I want to posit that the beauty of the way the series is written only works when we take the perspective modern readers with modern senses of morality. Martin wrote this series for modern readers; though his pseudo-medeival world is immersive, the "norms" presented to us are not supposed to supplant our own sensibilities of morality such that we are meant to see certain enormities as excusable within the context. I strongly believe that when we are confronted by an immoral act (immoral in our own understanding), that we are meant to recognize it as an immoral act. The "beauty" I refer to stems from the moral friction it causes in us as readers, because Martin is extremely adept at presenting many characters' actions as justified, reasonable and sympathetic despite the objective immorality of the acts in question.

I think Martin wants us to look at the issues in both ways, from our modern perspective and also from that of the relevant culture at the time. Martin has studied history and is well aware of the dangers that can come from assessing people or events purely from a 20th/21st century perspective. Doing that sometimes has unfortunate echoes of colonialism and of religious 'missionaries' (from whatever religion), who were convinced that 'their' culture / way was the only right way ... and who ended up needlessly destroying much that was actually good about a particular people or culture. I am not saying that we shouldn't examine things through modern lenses, but I do believe that we do a great injustice to people and their actions by not also looking at them in context of their times.

Friendly warning: I see someone has already mentioned the word 'rape'. Plenty of threads have already been closed by mods because they get into dangerous waters as regards the topic of rape, so suggest that people be very careful if discussing this.

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I guess this also applies to Theon, who is an extremely grey character. We were somewhat nurtured in the beginning of the books to have a general dislike for Theon since he was always smiling at the wrong time and his eventual betrayal of Robb. I'm sure we were all unsympathetic when he was presumed dead, but when we read about what Ramsay was doing to him, we suddenly felt horrible. I wouldn't wish that type of punishment even on my own enemy. We came to truly sympathize with Theon despite his atrocities in the past. I think this is why I love GRRM, he can really make any character sympathetic.

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It's both, in order for a writer to create emotional context Martin has to give us something to stimulate a reaction. But you can't expect all characters to have the same reaction as we do or vice versa. You can't lock everything down cause different people will experience things in a different way, we do and so do Martins characters. The culture clash is their to stimulate discussion and so are a lot of the occurrences.

What I don't think is appropriate is people using rape, sexism, racism, etc.. to try and score cheap debate points. The book has a lot of morality issues but they are there for a reason, I can't say the same for some members of this board. In fact the discussion of rape on this site which seems to come up o every other thread is a little disgusting to me. Not every person talking about it does that, but there are people who use it as a tool to argue and that bothers me.

It's a nice thought Butters, but I can only imagine where this thread will end, good luck with it though. I like the books, I like the the questionable morality in the books because it is believable, I don't like internet forum fans who have the highest morals ever while hiding behind a computer and have never done anything wrong in their lives and compare reality to fictional books. Again good luck.

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A beautiful post, and one that I mostly agree with; however, one thing:

"objective wrong, but extremely sympathetic"

It's the "objective wrong" thing that gets me here. Even in the "modern audience" that Martin writes for there is a wide range of moral beliefs (see: abortion debate and gay marriage debate for two topical examples). There are of course nearly universal "wrongs," such as rape, murder, taking more than 15 items into the express lane at the supermarket, etc. But, as the debates on this very forum show, these make up a very small percentage of what can be studied and argued from a moral perspective.

So yes, we should use our own moralities to judge characters' actions, but remember that your morality is far from objective, which I think is another point that Martin is trying to make.

Also, now that I think about it, isn't observing whether or not a character adheres to the cultural norms of the universe or breaks them based on his or her own morality a key part of studying the character?

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I don't believe that the notions of "it's normal in their world," "everyone does it," or "this was better than the way another character would have done it," do the series justice. Not only are these imprecise statements (I've seen a lot of arguments for "norms" that aren't actually even "norms" in-universe), but seeing the story thusly removes the layer of complexity presented by the duality of wrongness and sympathy. That a character is sympathetic doesn't mean that they are behaving morally, or that they are somehow justified in their actions. There's a difference between discussing the reasons why a character does or thinks the way they do versus absolving them of the wrongness.

The main point for me is that a lot of the 'westerosi norms' arguments don't hold up very well. The authors goes out of his way to establish that, slavery, and other things etc are seen as wrong in westeros.

However, I think GrrM gives westeros a more modern understanding of morality anyway, there is probably not such a gap between accepted behaviours as there is between modern times and the real middle ages.

Though I do think while certain acts can be immoral from an absolute point of view, their widespread acceptance in any given society inevitably means any individual who performs those acts is not as bad/morally repugnant as an individual who undertook those acts in a society where those acts were not the norm. Someone who starts advocating slavery now seems worse to me than an ancient athenian aristocrat who grew up with it, and had Aristotle telling him it was ok (and natural ~ sometimes). I don't think this is what happens most of the time when this sort of thing gets brought up though: nearly all the stuff Tyrion gets criticized for is meant to be bad in westeros anyway.

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Excellent post. I thought it said mortality when I clicked in and started reading, I was confused.

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It's both, in order for a writer to create emotional context Martin has to give us something to stimulate a reaction. But you can't expect all characters to have the same reaction as we do or vice versa. You can't lock everything down cause different people will experience things in a different way, we do and so do Martins characters. The culture clash is their to stimulate discussion and so are a lot of the occurrences.

What I don't think is appropriate is people using rape, sexism, racism, etc.. to try and score cheap debate points. The book has a lot of morality issues but they are there for a reason, I can't say the same for some members of this board. In fact the discussion of rape on this site which seems to come up o every other thread is a little disgusting to me. Not every person talking about it does that, but there are people who use it as a tool to argue and that bothers me.

It's a nice thought Butters, but I can only imagine where this thread will end, good luck with it though. I like the books, I like the the questionable morality in the books because it is believable, I don't like internet forum fans who have the highest morals ever while hiding behind a computer and have never done anything wrong in their lives and compare reality to fictional books. Again good luck.

Jesus. I've read this post three times and it still doesn't make any sense.

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I strongly believe that when we are confronted by an immoral act (immoral in our own understanding), that we are meant to recognize it as an immoral act.

This is so clear to me I'm not even sure how it could seriously be disputed.

For instance, Stannis is a popular character on this forum, and Stannis commits fratricide and human sacrifice for political power. Yet I doubt any modern reader, even a Stannis fan, could fail to see such acts as fundamentally immoral.

What's the specific context that inspired the post?

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I think Martin wants us to look at the issues in both ways, from our modern perspective and also from that of the relevant culture at the time. Martin has studied history and is well aware of the dangers that can come from assessing people or events purely from a 20th/21st century perspective. Doing that sometimes has unfortunate echoes of colonialism and of religious 'missionaries' (from whatever religion), who are convinced that 'their' culture / way is the only right way ... and who end up needlessly destroying much that was actually good about a particular people or culture. I am not saying that we shouldn't examine things through modern lenses, but I do believe that we do a great injustice to people and their actions by not also looking at them in context of their times.

The bolded is what I mean with regard to the issue of crafting our sympathies. I agree that in-universe norms (provided that they actually are norms) are part of what constitutes our sympathies for characters, and mitigates how we feel.

What I'm trying to get at are discussions of the character's actions that declare them "moral" or "immoral." I do believe that we can and should approach morality from our own modern standpoint-- it is a contemporary series. I don't believe we are meant to be moral relativists when reading, but I do believe acknowledgement of the in-universe ideas of morality and culture are highly appropriate and relevant. I think, however, that these in-universe morals speaks more to creating sympathy in the reader rather than absolving the immoral nature of the characters' actions.

It's the "objective wrong" thing that gets me here. Even in the "modern audience" that Martin writes for there is a wide range of moral beliefs (see: abortion debate and gay marriage debate for two topical examples). There are of course nearly universal "wrongs," such as rape, murder, taking more than 15 items into the express lane at the supermarket, etc. But, as the debates on this very forum show, these make up a very small percentage of what can be studied and argued from a moral perspective.

Yes, I agree; I suppose I meant the obvious, universal ones that you mention (especially the express lane one). Thing is, many of these universal immoral acts are also considered similarly immoral in-universe, just "practiced" more perhaps than in our world. But I did mean the morality of actions that are universal taboos.

Also, now that I think about it, isn't observing whether or not a character adheres to the cultural norms of the universe or breaks them based on his or her own morality a key part of studying the character?

Yes, I would say this is part of what makes the discussion rich, though it's crucial to establish what actually is an in-universe norm. For example, forced marriages, like Lady Hornwood's and Jeyne's to Ramsay, are not accepted as morally sound even within the context of their world, and I think issues like that often get lost in the debates. I think in some cases, it's not the action of going against a monstrous norm that is important as much as the intention of why a character is going against a norm. But yes, I think in-universe friction between monstrous norms and non-monstrous reactions to it make a difference for me as a reader.

What's the specific context that inspired the post?

I spend a lot of time in Tyrion threads.

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