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.