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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the Evil of George R.R. Martin

by Leonard Finkelman

Spoiler alert: People die; it sucks.

The warning issued forth as I handed my Game of Thrones DVDs to an uninitiated friend. We sci-fi/fantasy geeks have been giving similar warnings for the past several television seasons as “A Song of Ice and Fire” has gone from a literary cult favorite to a broad cultural trend. Well: we told you so. (You might not want to click on that link, or the next two, if you remain one of the uninitiated and wish to maintain a virtuous ignorance.)

I’m not immune to (some) broad cultural trends, and so I found myself discussing last week’s much-talked-about episode of “Game of Thrones” with another friend. In particular, we talked about how George R.R. Martin, author of the “Ice and Fire” series, responded to the above-linked video. “Did you see him laugh?” my friend asked. “The man is evil.” My friend is not alone in his judgment. (Again: do not click that link if you don’t want to know why Martin is evil!)

Somewhere down a mental corridor of mine that’s supposed to be closed off for summer vacation, a pedagogical switch flipped. And so here we are, about to evaluate my friend’s claim [1].

It is the height of presumption for a writer to say something like, “that joke works because...” and so I won’t claim that my ambiguous spoiler alert actually does work as a joke. Nevertheless, it’s effectively uninformative because it’s true on such an unfortunately general level. Random, senseless death is commonplace throughout Martin’s story -- just as in real life, his terribly morbid fans remind us. It is for this reason that a series wherein there is potential for a fight between dragons and zombies can be cited for its verisimilitude [2].

This ever-present possibility of death is a problem in real life, to put it mildly. It is especially problematic for Abrahamic theologians. They find it so problematic that they had to give it a name: the Problem of Evil. The reason the Problem of Evil is so problematic for these theologians is that it’s supposed to demonstrate that the God in which they believe cannot exist.

You might think that I’m about to suggest that George R.R. Martin can’t exist because he’s evil. That would be an interesting argument, contradicting the facts as it so clearly does. Alas: I am neither brave nor European enough to attempt such conceptual sleight-of-hand. My relatively modest goal right now is just to explore whether or not George R.R. Martin’s treatment of his characters makes him evil. The Problem of Evil is just a useful tool for that exploration.

The Problem of Evil is one of the more straightforward examples of conceptual analysis through critical reasoning. As the argument goes: one ought to prevent evil (such as wanton death) if it is in her power; by definition, it is always in God’s power to prevent evil; evil happens anyway; therefore, no God. The soundness of this argument depends on a particular conception of God: that is, a being that is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. Omnipotence is the ability to perform any possible action; omniscience is knowledge of the truth values of all logically consistent propositions; omnipresence is location in all times and places; omnibenevolence is complete moral virtue. The theologian is therefore presented with a choice: either accept the Problem’s conclusion or deny that God really is the bee’s proverbial knees [3].

In fairness, there are other responses available, although none of them is particularly compelling [4]. When I discuss the Problem of Evil in class, those are generally the responses my students offer, leaving me to explain why the Problem remains. The responses themselves are beside the point right now. What’s more important is how I try to explain the given conception of God.

The Gospel of John opens with the line, “En archē ēn ho Lógos, kai ho Lógos ēn pros ton Theón”: in the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was in God. The Greek word “logos” is philosophically loaded, to say the least; John (probably) isn’t saying that God created the universe with words [5]. Nevertheless, the phrase is illustrative. Authors stand in relation to their works as God is supposed to stand in relation to the universe.

In creating a story, an author is essentially omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. There are no limits on what the author can create, or how she can make her creation behave, save for imagination and logical consistency [6]. Since the author is creating the story’s world, she has the completest possible knowledge of all states of affairs in the story. Finally, the author stands outside the story’s time and space; by holding the completed work in her hand, she is essentially everywhere relative to the story [7]. When characters in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series speak of their “one true god,” it’s difficult for me not to imagine George R.R. Martin smiling bashfully.

But is the artist omnibenevolent towards her work? Is Martin obligated to prevent evil from befalling his characters? Asking these questions forced me down another mental corridor that I had previously closed for repairs: the one behind a door marked “Aesthetics” [8].

On the face of it -- and I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “prima facie”! -- it’s obvious that an author doesn’t have any obligations towards the characters in a story. After all, the story is fictional; the characters don’t exist. But it’s conceivable that we might have obligations towards non-existent people. Jeremy Bentham made provision for future generations in his utilitarian calculus, and future people are people who don’t exist yet. However little utility I may find in utilitarianism, it should at least be clear that we aren’t self-evidently free of obligations to fictions.

The relation of artist to artwork has long been a matter of intense debate among philosophers of art. On the one hand, some philosophers (including E.D. Hirsch and Richard Wollheim) argue that the meaning of an artwork is derived from its creator’s intentions; on the other hand, others (most notably W.K. Wimsatt, Jr. and M.C. Beardsley in their influential article “The Intentional Fallacy”) argue that the author’s intention is irrelevant to an artwork’s meaning, which is left (at least in part) to the audience. I have no horse in this race. But it does strike me that the side one takes in this debate is relevant to the question of whether or not George R.R. Martin -- or any artist who visits misery upon her creations -- can be considered evil.

Sitting on the debate’s sidelines, it seems to me (although I’m happy to be proven incorrect) that a greater proportion of aestheticians reject the importance of authorial intent. Even in this case, however, the author has obligations: not to the artwork itself, since the artwork’s meaning will be determined by the work’s audience, but to the audience. After all, the artwork must be something interpretable: it must be the sort of thing that generates a response in the audience. By this standard, Martin isn’t doing anything wrong: he presents death as a matter of fact and leaves it to his readers to evaluate those deaths as good or evil. If anything, one might say that Martin is doing us a moral good in providing us with the means to confront our evaluative judgments [9].

I take it that things are somewhat different for our evaluation of Martin’s character if authorial intent does matter. In that case, the author is omnibenevolent relative to the artwork by definition: the artwork is meant to serve the author’s purposes, and so the author’s obligation is to create the work that best fulfills that function. Whatever the author creates ought to be best for the artwork itself, audience be damned. When Martin kills one of his beloved creations, that death is for the best because it serves the work, however vile and despicable the cause of death may be (see note 4). Does it follow, then, that Martin still isn’t evil?

It might, but only if you haven’t read Plato’s “Euthyphro,” and let’s face it: if you’ve spent any time on this blog, there’s simply no excuse for that (it’s free, for heaven’s sake!). Martin may be obliged to do what is best for his artwork, but it doesn’t follow that everything he creates is good so long as it’s created according to his wishes. Even if you accept that the author is a god relative to her art, the author is nevertheless one of us, and so bound by whatever ethics may bind us. Martin may relish the pain and suffering of his characters, or he may want to communicate the revulsion we should feel from the observation of pain and suffering. In the former case, most moral theories would judge him poorly because sadism is pretty uncontroversially bad; in the latter case, many moral theories would judge him poorly because he’s taken the role of the manipulator, either of his creations or of his audience. Martin can create his own new worlds, but it doesn’t follow that he’s created his own new morality.

So: is George R.R. Martin evil? Maybe not, but only if the author plays no role in the evaluation of artwork. If the author does play such a role, then maybe he is.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all, because a rational denizen of Westeros might be justified in concluding that Martin doesn’t exist in the first place.

[1] Besides, I’ve already written enough about this week’s other hot topic.

[2] I won’t lie: my only reason for using that word is to justify memorizing it while studying for the SATs.

[3] I was once faced with the task of explaining this colloquialism to a non-English speaker. The phrase is just homophonous with “the business,” which makes much more sense than my meek offering of “kneed bees beat regular bees, which don’t have knees.” Don’t say that I’ve never taught you anything useful.

[4] My students normally offer up some variation on these responses. God gives us free will! (Wonderful: you deserve a choice between “Teen Mom” and “Real Housewives,” and that’s why we have earthquakes in populous areas.) Without evil, we could have no knowledge of what is good! (That’s great: I won’t be able to stop my nephew from punching me until he learns about the Spanish Inquisition.) She moves in mysterious ways! (I normally grant that one just because it’s such a great song.)

[5] Of course, creation ex nihilo makes just as much sense if a creator does it with words, with hand gestures, with music, or with stacks of turtles. It all amounts to the same thing: magic!

[6] As I’ve said before -- see the second link in my first note -- neither of these constitutes a true limitation on a creator’s power. The inability to perform impossible actions does not impinge a being’s ability to perform any possible action; put (again) in another way, if the only rule of Fight Club is that you can’t fight if 2+2=5, then there are no rules in Fight Club.

[7] I suppose that you could also say that she’s nowhere, but wasn’t my opening line pessimistic enough?

[8] I admire anyone who’s attempted Kant’s third Critique without suffering some sort of cognitive impairment in the process, but only in that I admire anyone who doesn’t have any cognitive impairments.

[9] Leo Tolstoy argued that the purpose of art is communication between author and audience. This is not the view under consideration here. By Tolstoy’s account, the author’s intention does matter: the author intends to convey some message or some emotion to the audience and the artwork is the vehicle of that communication. This has been your One Serious Footnote.


  1. I'd argue that an author's "omnipotence" is not only limited by the rules of logic, but also by the rules of (good) storytelling and the need to keep up at least a minimum level of suspension of disbelief in the reader, especially in a fantasy setting. (That's e.g. what killed the Sword of Truth series for me.) That greatly reduces GRRM's evilness factor, IMO. (For the record, I didn't make it past book 1, too many boring story threads ;-) )

    You probably heard this one: why doesn't George RR Martin use Twitter? Because he killed of all 140 characters...

  2. He's not evil. The idea that he is evil because of what befalls his characters is preposterous. If we want to entertain ourselves by analysing the problem philosophically so as to unpack the issues involved, I'm all for that.

    But to seriously entertain the idea that he is evil is living up to the most negative stereotypes of philosophers. It's Zeno proving that motion is impossible. If any argument seems to suggest he is evil, then there is something wrong with the argument, and it may be informative to identify what, precisely.

    As to the flaw I see in the argument for his evil:

    In order to suffer, one must have an (independent) mind and consciousness. In my view, mind and consciousness are computational processes by brains. There are no computational processes being carried out by the fictional brains of fictional people - and so they have no minds.

    Instead, minds are fictively attributed to them by the author, but these minds are not real so they cannot suffer. If there is any computational process governing what they think and feel, it is only George R R Martin's imagination, and as smart as he is I doubt he's capable of emulating an entire human mind other than his own in his head.

    In contrast, if George R R Martin generated his stories by producing a vast and infeasible computer simulation wherein virtual people of comparable complexity to ourselves had adventures in a virtual world, then (depending on your views on philosophy of mind) real suffering could indeed occur, and he might have a moral duty to them.

    As for people who are yet unborn: as soon as they are born then real suffering can begin. In considering our moral duties to them, we are seeking to limit the potential for real suffering in the future. This is completely unlike the case for fictional characters which have no such potential for real suffering.

  3. This is a nice, funny essay. Its only flaw is the preposterous and snide remark about "European" philosophy. And I am not saying this as a so-called continental philosopher but as an analytically minded one. But contrary to most analytical philosophers around, I am actually well-educated when it comes to the history of philosophy. So let's get this straight: What has come to be called "analytic philosophy" is an invention of people who (with very few exceptions) read and wrote and thought in German. Bertrand Russell, Alfred Ayer, and later WvOQ are the only significant anglophone philosophers from the inception and later refinement of the project that attempted a 'logical analysis of language' - or, as it is known today, analytic philosophy.
    Then again, when one sees what the supposed proponents of this tradition write and teach today, it's easy to forget the once-great tradition of anti-metaphysical, strictly logical as well as reflected movement of Logical Empiricism...

    1. And there is no guarantee that commitment to rigorous logical analysis will get you good politics. Frege's reactionary politics are an example of this.

      Nor is all philosophical skepticism of scientism politically reactionary. Friedrich von Hayek was a classical liberal (the Anglophone world not having the copyright on that position) who disliked irrationality and fanaticism in politics, but was also skeptical of anyone with pretentions to manage human affairs -- such as economic activity -- with what they claimed to be a scientific theory.

      Can't we hear a little more about the "good" Europeans and a little less Anglophilia? Benedetto Croce had some perceptive things to say about literature and philosophy. And Eric Auerbach. Despite both not having been a diet of warm beer and strict empiricism.

  4. So, philosophy really has become nothing more than literary criticism?

    Well, perhaps you're having a bit of fun. Or, you're taking these novels far too seriously. I hope it's the former.

  5. Esthetics is philosophy's growth industry. Go for it.
    I'm not sure how any of this connects to traditional philosophical problems, nor why it should.

    But I would like to point out that there is an excellent chance that George R.R. Martin won't finish the series.

    So the real philosophical issue is the esthetic status of unfinished works, no?

  6. "he may want to communicate the revulsion we should feel from the observation of pain and suffering...In [that] case, many moral theories would judge him poorly because he’s taken the role of the manipulator, either of his creations or of his audience."

    It seems like those moral theories would judge poorly a huge number of storytellers, entertainers, and artists of all kinds, since many of them quite intentionally try to manipulate the emotions of their audiences. It doesn't seem worthwhile to take them seriously.

  7. I sincerely hope this is tongue in cheek as these forms of moralistic literary criticism wind me up no end.

    Even if G R R Martin is a sadist (unlikely but I will grant it), it is a controlled form of sadism, people buy his books knowing what they are getting into. It is a form of mutual, consensual entertainment.

    I know Massimo and many others pose limits on the consent argument fashionable in classical liberalism to modern libertarianism but I completely endorse it when it comes to matters of free artistic expression.

  8. Maybe most sci-fi and fantasy writers are latent or closet Calvinists.

    Just a guess.

  9. //Random, senseless death is commonplace throughout Martin’s story -- just as in real life, his terribly morbid fans remind us.//

    The deaths in Martin's books are anything but random. Random would be if Tyrion Lannister suddenly got hit by a meteorite and died. You cannot have that kind of deaths in a book (although I remember there was a movie such a death happened at the end. That movie was a bad one). Deaths in Martin's books are unexpected at times, but never random. They are all murdered, as result of war, betrayal, conspiracy or something mysterious. They never die boring deaths as in real life.

    1. Yes, and in addition, most if not all of these deaths were completely unexpected by both the characters and the readers who had in many cases come to identify with and root them on. The author in effect has surprisingly yet somewhat justifiably killed what feels to the reader as a little bit of their own self. Only the best authors can pull that off.

  10. Was the barb about not being European an oblique reference to Baudrillard and his "Iraq War [1] didn't happen" "idea"? Your remark about Tyrion reminds me of the post I just finished reading at NewAPPS about GOT characters and in-world theodicy.

  11. Hi, Mr. Finkelman,

    Well, I'm not trying to be impolite or cheeky by posting here a link: just wanted to share this talk, but was unable to shorten my 'tongue' to fit this comment box. So, the link: http://txtpub.blogspot.com.br/2013/06/is-it-bad-to-be-good-in-own-craft.html. Obviously, feel yourself free not to publish it, but if it pleases you, at least have a look.


    1. This comment should , if at all possible, definitely be published here.

  12. Doesn't his PoE depend on the ontological status of the characters in his books? The characters' sufferings are real inside the book, and so George RR Martin is certainly not omnibenevolent from the POV of a character inside the book. But from outside the book where we live, it seems absurd to call an authour to account for what they do to their characters.
    In my opinion George is evil vertically but not horizontally.

    1. Let me introduce here another example, indeed fertile for meditations on almost all the subjects provided by the essay above: Ruby Sparks. What could be said about the evilness of both authors (Calvin, who creates Ruby, and Zoe, who creates Calvin)? The movie seems to be an instance of something Mr. Finkelman alluded, perhaps crucial - according to him - to determine at least one aspect of an author's general ethical responsibility: the role of artwork evaluation played by its author, but this time inside the work evaluated itself. Does the story of Ruby redeem Zoe from whatever faults Calvin has committed? (The work turns out to become even more amazing if we consider that Zoe Kazam is still a child!!!) Anyway, is this question somehow suitable to start such a conversation?

      Also is it possible, since Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and (even) One, No one and One Hundred Thousand, to approach the problem of a general ethical responsibility of a novelist in the same way this is doable with more classical constructions like Tom Jones, Oliver Twist or perhaps GRR Martin's (I didn't read his novels, so I'm not sure their approach is classical)?

    2. You mean he writes in the missionary position?

  13. I am wondering in the syllogism on the existence of God whether the positor has somewhat unfairly filled in some content regarding the attributes of God. To say that the god is omniscient and then to define omniscience for the god seems to be telling the listener that the positer is at that level of omniscience him/herself. But if we take omniscience/omnipresence in a freer sense to mean whatever it may mean to a truly supreme being--thus giving this being the true freedom that would be appropriate for such a person--then another thought may emerge. As morally repellent to us as some of the non-optional aspects of our existence may be, yet isn't it reasonable to think that a truly omniscient/omnipotent (free) supreme being may have a fit for these aspects which are to us repellent. If we haven't defined our god too closely to our image, then there might be a place for all that we see. All that we experience may be consistent with a truly omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent being.
    There may be some existential conditioning to this interesting puzzle, as in: all that we see is not all that is; or all that we experience now is not all that we will experience at some other time.

    1. If omniscience doesn't mean knowing everything to a God, then it either realizes that it doesn't know everything, or doesn't realize it.

    2. and I'm in a befuddle about this proposed semiscient being. Which would be the more respectable kind, he who goes about his divine business blissfully unaware of his limited knowledge or the kind with a more sober self-assessment? Right now I'm seeing it as happy-go- lucky deity vs. the darker, brooding sort. I'm for the first. But that could be because I kissed my wife and had my coffee this morning. Other days I might see it differently.


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