General Jaime Lannister Tywin Lannister

“Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?”: On Consequentialism in Game of Thrones

Yi Li is a London student studying public policy. She previously wrote on teenagers in Game of Thrones, and is a member of our Small Council.

When Tywin Lannister asked this in “Mhysa” I couldn’t have been the only one who thought, hey…that sort of makes sense. It’s an appealing notion: If we can do a relatively small evil now to prevent a much greater evil later, why shouldn’t we?

That’s why, when Jaime Lannister reveals the reason he killed his king in the oft-quoted bath scene from “Kissed By Fire”, we’re sympathetic. Here, we had been slandering this man for going against his oath when doing so was the only surefire way of preventing a great horror. Surely, if we had been there, sword in hand, making the choice between killing a single despicable man and putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk, we’d make the same choice Jaime did, even if it meant breaking our oath. I’d bet that’s just what Brienne was thinking.

We’re sympathetic, too, when Mirri Maz Duur reveals her motives for killing Khal Drogo and Rhaego….

 

Killing innocent child is admittedly, quite a lot worse than killing a tyrannical king bent on leveling a city, but even that seems morally permissible if that child seems sure to unleash great destruction on the world. A small evil now will save a much larger one in the long run: “Now he will burn no cities, now his Khalasar will trample no nations into dust.”

Grand Maester Pycelle articulates this type of reasoning most clearly when he argues for assassinating Daenerys to Robert’s Small Council: “I bear this girl no ill will, but should the Dothraki invade, how many innocents will die? How many towns will burn? Is it not wiser – kinder, even – that she should die now, so that tens of thousands might live?”

Pycelle, Mirri, Jaime, and Tywin have in common their consequentialist reasoning. Consequentialism, a moral philosophy popularized by 19th century philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill, argues that the right action is the one that maximizes the good in the world. For a consequentialist, morality comes down to the math— adding up the good you’ve produced and the bad you’ve caused. So even something like killing isn’t always bad if in killing a tyrannical king or the heir of a destructive destiny, you do more good.

We can easily imagine why Game of Thrones is rife with instances where characters must decide to swallow their moral code for the greater good. In a world where enormous power is vested in the few, the fall of a single sword or the stroke of a pen can change the course of history. Our major characters, for the most part, wield direct political and military power or have the potential to dramatically influence it—their decisions have literally life or death consequences for the Riverlands smallfolk or the masses of Wildlings or the denizens of Flea Bottom.

By the same token, it’s easy to see why it’s almost impossible to resist. If Jaime is our hardcore consequentialist, Ser Barristan Selmy is the opposite. Yet even Barristan is sick with regret at having spent his life doing the bidding of bad kings when he could’ve done something about it.

But as I argue, consequentialist reasoning is destructive, particularly because of the unpredictability of life in Westeros.

For starters, the Westerosi brand of consequentialist reasoning is subject to the same troubles as real-life attempts at consequentialism. As even a casual observer of history and politics can attest, it’s awfully hard to predict just what the consequences of a decision might be when the chess pieces are fallible, fickle humans. Tywin wins the war, sure, but he dies leaving a North that is desperate for revenge and less willing than ever to make peace with King’s Landing. The attempt to assassinate Daenerys spurs on war rather than preventing it, by triggering Ned Stark’s resignation and Lannister aggression.

And besides, whether or not your action was justified often depends on when you tally up the sums. Mirri Maz Duur’s plot to save future lives by killing Rhaegar backfired, big time, because her actions resulted in the birth of war machines that have the potential to do far more damage than any Khal ever could. But if the dragons end up being an indispensable tool against the Others and save the whole of Westeros, as many suspect, the tally changes. Does her action become more justified?

If it’s tough to predict things in any political climate, it’s even worse in a pre-industrial society where the threat of famine is omnipresent and the petty dealings of a few families snowball so quickly into hugely chaotic wars. And if the famine and war of pre-industrial society seems terrifyingly unpredictable, the world of ice and fire adds on a whole other dimension with fickle forces of magic and extreme weather toppling the best-laid plans of…Varys and Littlefinger, as it were.

But this unpredictability is exactly why people like Tywin, who would use consequentialist reasoning to justify their actions, are wrong. When Ned or Barristan harp on about codes of honor, it’s easy to roll our eyes. I did. Why should a vow matter when thousands of lives are on the line? But that’s easy for me to say when the biggest source of uncertainty in my life is whether the tube will run on time. In a world as unpredictable as Westeros, seemingly insubstantial promises are all anyone has to keep chaos at bay.

One of my favorite philosophers, Hannah Arendt, wrote in The Human Condition that the ability to make and keep promises is “force that keeps [political actors] together,” that for a moment, serves as a “remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future.” Arendt points out that behind everything we do to obey the laws of our society, to live up to our side of the bargain, and to take care of our friends and family is a kind of promise. In making them, we trust that others will live up to their end of the bargain as well, and on that trust, we can build stable relationships and an orderly society.

Arendt wrote about politics in our world, but this particular insight could apply doubly to Westeros. Life in Westeros is bad enough without adding the worry that our dinner hosts might just break out the poison wine or if our own sworn shields will turn their cloaks at any moment. It’s easy to imagine how in such a world, qualities like honor and loyalty take on a nearly sacred level of importance.

Oaths and traditions like guests’ right provide a handhold of stability for people in an uncertain world. It’s that trust that people like Tywin Lannister destroy, and in the long term, the loss of that trust is likely to rack up a body count much higher than the Red Wedding.

Tywin may have felt pretty darn confident in his justification for the Red Wedding, but as he watched his heritage crumble throughout Season 4, you can bet that certainty was likely fading fast. Olenna Tyrell’s comment “War is war, but killing a man at his own wedding…horrid” is a nice chuckle for readers of the books that she was about to do just the same, but it’s also a nice reminder that the very same consequentialist reasoning that made the Red Wedding seem acceptable to Tywin got his grandson killed and his legacy spiraling out of control. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Olenna wouldn’t have killed Joffrey had Tywin not killed Robb. I only mean to say that in a world where you feel free to break the oaths and traditions that bind people together, you can be sure others will feel free to do the same—and you might just end up at the wrong end of the sword–or crossbow, as it were.

Words aren’t always wind, at least not if we don’t act like they are. And the political actors of Westeros can’t afford to.

26 Comments

  • I know this has little to do with the essence of your article but Tywin only mentioned the dozen in the hall. He failed to include the thousands outside that were slaughtered. Perhaps more of them would have lived in a battle, no? Prisoners, hostages, even deserters… but the drunken revellers with no warning of impending battle don’t seem to be taken into Tywin’s account of those lost.
    Again, my apologies, I know that is not the subject of your article.
    The Khalasar, however, is another story. They will still go on to ‘trample nations into dust’, just not Westerosi (yet).

  • Interesting article. Tywin’s justification of his actions in front of Tyrion are plainly nonsensical when you actually have in mind that he didn’t kill just couple of people, but actually thousands. This article also touches on long-term consequences for Westerosi diplomacy. In a world where everything is allowed, how any possible confrontation can be resolved peacefully? I would argue that unpredictability isn’t the biggest problem here, but the shortsightedness of what the consequences are. So, even though that there is a theme “for the greater good” in ASOIAF, especially having Jaime in mind, we simply can’t use Tywin as an example. His line in “Mhysa” is nothing more than hypocritical justification of the man who understands how important PR is (which is why the conversation where Olenna talks to Tywin about benefits of royal marriage is kinda pointless).

  • In today’s day and age it is hard to fathom our society sanctioning the death of a few to save millions. But our history is full of examples of consequentialism. GRRM draws on this trope to show the human condition. Tywin sanctions the Red Wedding as he believes it is the best for his family and throne. He is in the business of winning Joffery’s war. The how may be repulsive but to men like Tywin it’s about the end result. Tywin did not fathom that his children would turn on him and ruin his legacy.

    Tywin, like Cheney, beleive they are right. They are not worried about the aftermath or likes or dislikes. They are interested in winning. Defeating a few thousand to win and end the war is a risk worth taking.

  • Michael,

    Exactly!!! This has always confused me. Doesnt Tywin know that the whole northern army was destroyed that day? Or is he just being a hypocrite?

    PD: Nice essay!

  • Comparing Jaime’s killing of Aerys with Mirri Maz Duur’s killing of Rhaego is outrageous. Mirri Maz Duur based her murder of an unborn child on a prophecy and the blind assumption that, a decade or two down the line, he would carry on raping and pillaging like the khals that came before him despite his mother being of a different culture with starkly different views, as clearly evidenced by her saving of Mirri, and despite this mother’s—and her khal husband’s—intent to leave Essos altogether. Jaime, on the other hand, based his murder of Aerys on the immediate and virtually guaranteed threat of the deaths of millions of people. I am a consequentialist myself and believe Jaime was absolutely right to kill Aerys, but I can’t justify murder based on a fear of something that has a slim chance of happening twenty years from now when there’s good reason to believe that it won’t happen at all.

  • Tara,
    It was not fear, but belief. Mirri Maz Duur believed that Rhaego was some prophesized coming: and one peoples’ messiah is another peoples’ Beast. Religious superstition is an exceedingly powerful (and dangerous) thing. One thing unites all of the greatest atrocities in human history: the perpetrators believed that they were fighting evil. Even in today’s society, people justify sexism, homophobia, racism, etc., on the moral grounds that such bigotries represent “good” traditional values. Martin simply provides us with an example of this in his world.

    That written, you are correct that what Jaime does is different. Jaime is not really motivated by morality: he seems to be motivated by ethics. Basically, morality fails him in this instance: he swore an oath to protect Aerys, which makes him morally obligated to prevent Aerys from being harmed. On the other hand, he also swore oaths to protect the people, which makes him morally obligated to stop Aerys. In other words, it is immoral for him to be moral in either choice. (This also echoes our real world.) Jaime takes the ethical choice: i.e., Asimov’s Zeroth Law! If you have to hurt people, then hurt the fewest possible.

    One common theme throughout SoI&F is that believing leads people to do horrible things, whereas thinking actually leads them to do things that help, or at least to minimize the harm. Both of these fit that theme.

  • Roose Bolton is warden of the north, the Lannisters don’t seem to be at much risk from them even with Tywin gone.

    I don’t agree with Matthew Yglesias on the scale of Robb vs Wadler, but he makes a similar point about the importance of oaths in the world of Westeros here.

  • The difference is: in war your opponent also has the chance to kill you. The mutual agreement to give an opportunity to kill each other makes the difference between a kill in battle and a murder.

  • Great article!

    You make great points. My only quibble is that I think Consequentialism has a certain amount of merit, but only when you are damn sure of your consequences.

    In the examples you list, Tywin, Mirri Maz Duur, and Pycel had no way of being sure of the consequences of their actions. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but due to them not actually being sure, it backfired. Pycele in particular was being ridiculous because he was trying to predict something that wouldn’t happen for many years and had about a hundred different ways of not happening. Mirri and Tywin had good reason to expect certain consequences, but Tywin didn’t consider Northern backlash or the consequences of breaking the bread & salt tradition. Mirri…I actually really wonder about Mirri. Even if she bought into horselord prophecies and really believed in the Stallion that Mounts the World…well, by the time Dany asked her to save Khal Drogo, with Miri’s own knowledge of what the result of that would be…how could she have really thought that the StMtW was still on? His father was obviously done for; Drogo would clearly never be khal again in his waking coma. Without a khal for a father, how could the StMtW ever happen? I don’t think that saving the world was really part of her motivations. I think she was just angry and wanted revenge. Even if Khal Drogo had followed her instructions and survived, I think she would have found some way of getting revenge on him and as many Dothraki as possible.

    Jaime, on the other hand, was damn sure of his consequences. He knew for a fact that the king would burn the city because the king had just ordered the city burned. Does anyone really think Jaime shouldn’t have done that? No. And why was he right? Because his murderous actions saved thousands. So in admitting that we admit that consequentialism has merit. But it only has merit in the very few circumstances where consequences are certain.

  • Decent article. A little bias towards consequentialism. Also what about the fact Robb failed to keep his promise to the Freys? That is easily the biggest broken promise in the series so far due to its consequences.

  • Great article, best I’ve read on this site ever. I’d say that consequentialism is as futile in our society as in Westeros though, our world is as full of uncertainty and fast changes as any. Intelligence Agencies might try to justify torture with preventing acts of terror, but how much hatred and new terrorists does it create? Cops might justify rough methods to put a criminal behind bars, but what is the cost of loss of people losing trust in cops and the justice system? Probably much much higher.

  • Calle,

    These really are cases of people failing to think through the consequences of their actions. Too often consequentialism is almost Orwellian: the claimed goal is a lie, with the true goal veiled. You mention torture: the goal of torturing prisoners in Gitmo was not long-term security, but short-term security, and re-election of the administration that sponsored it. However, they obviously were not going to put it like that: it would have backfired greatly. When dealing with an electorate that believed that this could terrorize “lesser” peoples into submission (when they, themselves, of course, could not be so terrorized!), this worked.

    Consider what else Tywin says: let the North remember. He concludes that they will think twice about invading the south again. Well, he certainly wants that to be true: but he is applying the classic double standards of assuming that the “lesser” people will be cowed when I suspect that he feels that he (and his westermen) would redouble their efforts.

  • “Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10,000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner?”

    Uh…because, in battle, both sides are armed and have the chance to defend themselves.

  • It boils down to a matter of morality, not numbers. Evil begets more evil (ie, retaliation). This fantastical justification of the situation only works if you assume that there will be no retaliation (read: more deaths as a result), and that immorally killing people (regardless of the number) is then justified. I applaud the writers, as Tywin’s justification rings authentic–many leaders would reason such a decision in exactly the same way (for instance, part of our justification for Iraq–sacrifice some of our soldiers over there, so we aren’t attacked over here). However, it doesn’t make it RIGHT–and not even very logical, as (like I stated) you have to be a bit naive that “murdering 12 people” will be the end of it.

  • A good example of this is in STAR TREK II THE WRATH OF KHAN. The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the few or one. Tywin uses this to justify his actions. As sad as this sounds his sanctioning of the Red Wedding gives the opportunity for Lannister soldiers to make it home.

    In war one has winners and losers. Maybe we would feel better if Roose had requested the surrender of the remaining Stark forces but he knew the only way to win was to eliminate the Stark army ala what Tywin did to Rhaegar’s children.

  • This is a very good article. Wonderful comments – especially agree with Mladen, Blind Beth, Tara and Wimsey(particularly your points regarding the difference between morality and ethics and the failure to think through consequences). I too agree that Tywin was being disingenuous and a hypocrite when he made those comments. Also, Consequentialism seems to imply a knowledge of ‘the greater good’ but how does one judge this? It can all be very relative.

  • Being honorable is clearly a superior way to live…as long as everyone else in the game feels the same.
    The problem is that adhering to an honorable moral code and sticking to your vows, the way Ned and Robb Stark did, when others will do anything to win, like Tywin Lannister, usually results in the honorable people losing their heads.

  • Some of these examples are taken at face value too much, and then explained through logic while ignoring the variables that allow us to chalk it up as simply irrational. Mirri had just been raped by a Khalasar and seen other innocents suffer the same and worse. When she reveals her motives, this is among one of them, which clearly affects her motive in killing Danaerys’ unborn child.

    No matter what sort of character you create, they can be pigeonholed into a philosophy or sphere of thought. But you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. These philosophies don’t exist in a vacuum with these characters. There is clear cause and effect: Tywin’s philosophy is influenced by his father’s ineffective leadership. Jaime’s is influenced by his carelessness in lightly swearing oaths if it meant being with his sister (the man would never have joined the Kingsguard and sworn oaths he did not hold true if his relationship with Cersei never existed), and Pycelle’s consequentialist opinion is born from the fact that he’s a cowardly Lannister sychophant.

    It’s an interesting concept in the books, but I think it’s intentionally muddied to show that there are different roads that lead to a consequential perspective and its a part of the decision making process in most human beings.

    Consequence is another term for “outcome.” It’s not black and white, and the trash of one man’s consequential outcome may be the treasure of another’s.

    For instance, Cersei feels that doing anything to bury Tyrion will prevent the prophecy from Maggy that her little brother will kill her. So, she acts with this in mind. But, since Jaime is also her little brother, it could be him that kills her eventually. If that comes to pass, then her blind focus on Tyrion is actually an advantage for those who want her dead. If she thought it was going to be Jaime who ends her, she would have tried to prevent that particular brother from killing her.

  • It’s telling that 1) Tywin never even considers the third option, peace and 2) he frames what is essentially cheating in terms of what is noble. His rationalisation fits in very well with his winning is everything attitude.