Eddard Stark’s Ethics of Honor

 Ned Stark~by Kyle Cupp

“Have you no shred of honor?”

Ned Stark asks this question to the ever-plotting Lord Petyr Baelish toward the end of A Game of Thrones. The question exposes the Lord of Winterfell’s two biggest failings: 1) he fails time and again to realize that those around him (deceitful schemers he inexplicably trusts) have less care for honor than the Wall has warmth, and 2) his guiding ethical philosophy, so to speak, is as morally insufficient as it is simplistic. I wish to focus on this second weakness.

No one can say that Eddard Stark isn’t principled and doesn’t endeavor (most of the time) to stay true to his principles. He’s an honorable man, truly, but his overall moral outlook makes for bad moral thought. How so? Consider his conversation with Baelish in which the quote above appears (spoilers to follow).

King Robert lies wounded, near death, and has entrusted the kingdom to Ned, having named him Protector of the Realm. Ned is to run the affairs of the kingdom until Joffrey comes of age, but there’s a hitch. What Ned knows, but Robert doesn’t, is that none of Robert’s children are actually his. Ned can’t bear to add this news to the dying king’s burden, so unbeknownst to the king, he asks for Baelish’s help in transitioning the crown over to Stannis, Robert’s brother, who “by rights” should get the throne.

“So it would seem,” Baelish says to Ned’s assessment of the situation, “unless…” Baelish concedes the right, but suggests that Ned take the power himself, make peace with the Lannisters, and arrange a few marriages that will further unite the kingdom. Ned will have none of this: “There is no seeming to this. Stannis is the heir. Nothing can change that.”

For Ned, the matter is simple. Stannis has the rightful claim; therefore, he should get the crown. To suggest otherwise is to propose treason and dishonor. There’s nothing to discuss. Baelish however, duplicitous and dishonorable as he is, actually puts forward a moral argument for his plan and against Ned’s: putting Stannis on the throne would mean war and social upheaval. Robert’s brother will undoubtedly have the Lannisters’ heads on spikes, prompting Casterly Rock to rise. Those who once sided with King Aerys will have good cause to fear Stannis’ taste for vengeance. “Seat Stannis on the Iron Throne and I promise you, the realm will bleed.”

Ned Stark is unmoved: “It is not a choice. Stannis is the heir.” He dismisses Baelish’s reasoning, but he doesn’t have an answer for it. In Ned’s thinking, it really does not matter, morally speaking, if bloodshed results from giving Stannis the kingdom. What’s best for Westeros and its inhabitants doesn’t enter into his moral calculus. Consequences don’t matter. The most he can come up with is repugnance at the role the Lannister’s played in the assassination attempt against his young son Bran.

Ned’s “ethics” of honor falls short because he doesn’t have a basis for judging what is worthy of honor. He wishes to honor the law governing the transition of the crown—at least now that Robert is king—but his honor gives him no cause to consider how honoring the law may dishonor the people ruled by whoever sits on the Iron Throne. It’s not as though he weighs competing goods and makes a choice between them: he denies there’s even a choice! “It is not a choice. Stannis is the heir.” Ned offers Baelish no moral argument for this assertion because he has none. There’s nothing to argue. The course is clear; the Others take the consequences.

Whether Ned’s conclusion is better or worse than the plan of action proposed by Baelish is not my issue: my problem with Ned is that he’s all principle and no prudence. For all his honor, he lacks phronesis. Only when the lives of his daughters are threatened does he make a choice and commit what he considers to be treason, publicly naming Joffrey the true king. He betrays his honor, but perhaps his honor was worthy of betrayal. It would have been more honorable for him to at least consider the lives of those endangered by a King Stannis before he set about bringing Stannis to power.

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43 thoughts on “Eddard Stark’s Ethics of Honor

  1. I can appreciate the author’s desires for peace, but I would not trust him to watch my cat, let alone guide a leader.

    The law, in this case, is the law. No – that is not intended to be a Judge Dredd-like statement, but where legal precedence has been set and there are legal processes to handle the scenario, then those legal procedures should be followed. By not following them, faith in the legal system falls apart, and anarchy/might-makes-right takes over. And when that happens, that 98% whose might is not great enough suffer.

    In Game of Thrones, once the Lannisters’ incest is made known and they are NOT brought to justice, wars start. It did not matter that Ned bowed to pressure – a war started. Even if Ned had followed Baelish’ plan, war would have started.

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    • The problem here, especially for Ned, is that the law is already a sham. Ned was one of the key agents in overthrowing the actual rightful king of Westeros, which someone (Renly or Littlefinger) has already pointed out at the time of this conversation. It’s a little late for him to decide that he isn’t in the business of picking and choosing rulers.

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    • Agreed in general, but also Ned has already compromised by the time he had the conversation with Littlefinger. By the time he is mouthing the platitudes about Stannis he has already committed treason for he stood silent before the King and allowed Robert to name a child that wasn’t his own as heir. Ned’s hypocrisy is so staggering because, out of love for his friend, he’s already shattered his honor so he’s appealing to something he’s already broken. That he would then cling to the strict word of the law after the fact makes it such a tragic choice.
      It’s also, I suspect, what makes him such an endearing character unlike the unlovable stiff necked Stannis.

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  2. I can’t help but note the irony of using that conversation. Littlefinger might appeal to Ned with arguments about peace, the good of the realm and what have you, but he clearly doesn’t subscribe to that moral system himself. After all, he’s fomenting the coming war when he has this conversation; he almost certainly has no intention of preventing Ned from going through with his stupid, stubborn plan.

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  3. I think that to the extent that A Song of Ice and Fire has a theme, it’s that Ned is wrong, but that we really need him to be right. Let’s look at his options.

    First, he could do what he did. We know what happens then, and it isn’t pretty.

    Second, he could do what Renly suggests, and seize power, imprisoning Cersei and her brood, and declaring for… Stannis? Renly? Casterly Rock would rise regardless, and Stannis would too if Ned declared for Renly.

    Third, he could do what Petyr suggests. I think this probably ends up with Ned just as dead as before, because he knows. As Joffrey goes on to act very much old Aerys II, it seems plausible that a revolt would be in the offing, this time bolstered by Ned’s claims of Joffrey’s basterdy.

    Really, none of those are very good options, and all of them involve bloodshed if not outright civil war. What the realm really needs is for the “right” thing, i.e. what Ned actually does, to also be the best thing.

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    • #5 look his friend Robert Baratheon in the eye and tell him. “Dude, your wife cheated on you with her brother. Them kids ain’t yours. That’s why she assassinated Jon Arryn. Here’s how I know, oh and also when I confronted her with it she confessed it.” Then back the furious anguished King up as he deals with that drama.

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        • The thing is, Ned knew exactly what kind of person Robert was. Robert was not afraid to have Danaeris assasinated. If Robert had found out, all three of the kids would have been killed. Ned had a real dilemma on his hand. Its easy and even fashionable to say that Ned Stark was just stupid, especially when for most modern americans the word honour has all sorts of negative connotations (like honour killings, and the confederacy etc).

          Now, did Ned do some stupid things? In hindsight, definitely. And those of us who are reading it for the second and third time can almost certainly see where he could have done things differently. But, I do remember that when I first read Game of Thrones, the part where the gold cloaks and baelish betray Ned completely took me by surprise. I was thinking “Holy shit how is Ned going to get out of this now?” In fact, the execution at Baelor’s Sept surprised even me. The thing to note here is that even if Ned in the end did not do the right thing, he didnt face easy choices.

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          • Maybe, but he half assed his decision in a way almost designed to produce the worst possible effect: he decided he’d tell the King, told the Queen he was going to tell the King (which led to her attempting to kill the King first), then when her plot failed to outright kill the King and Robert was lying right before him Ned changed course and decided not to tell him. Ned, in essence, reaped all of the negative consequences for himself and his allies of telling Robert the truth without even telling Robert the truth.

            The HBO game of thrones series did this scene quite well. Robert is wounded, lying in bed, and sends everyone but Ned out. Cerci objects but gets shooed out. Consider that at that very point the Queen has failed. She wanted Robert dead before he could be told and she’s failed. As she’s going out the door the actress had Cerci looking utterly stricken; she knew at that moment her fate rested entirely in the hands of Ned Stark and she was wishing to the Seven that she’d taken Ned’s offer and run. It was only Ned’s mercy that saved her.
            So ironically enough Ned Starks mercy killed both King Robert and Ned Stark himself.

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      • Two things. First, I don’t think Ned had actually confirmed his suspicions until Robert left to go hunting. Bringing an unsupported accusation to Robert might have cost Ned his own head, so that wasn’t going to be an awesome move.

        Second, even if he had done this, the result is the execution of Cersei, Jamie, and the children. Which would probably result in Casterly Rock calling its banners. That isn’t the sort of thing Tywin Lannister was likely to take sitting down.

        Third, Cersei didn’t kill Arryn. That was Lysa at the behest of Petyr, remember?

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        • On the third thing you’re quite right. I’d forgotten.

          On the first thing you’re half right. Ned didn’t know for sure until after Robert had left to go hunting. But Ned could have told the wounded Robert the truth. Robert hung on for a couple days even though he was ready to die and was being doused unconscious with opium. A livid Robert struggling to live would likely have lasted longer; certainly long enough to deal with Cersei.

          Now yes, Casterly Rock had ~already~ called its banners, it had been rampaging through the Riverlands for quite some time at that point but had Ned told the truth then it would have been Casterly Rock against all of the rest of the Kingdom (Minus Dorne and the Aerie). Tywin Lannister was no fool; he’d have run back to the Rock and sued for peace.

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  4. There’s a subtext here that should not go unmentioned: The divine right of kings. We may no longer believe in such a divine right, but it is reasonable to infer that a medieval man of honor such as Ned Stark would see putting the correct man on the throne not only as a matter of honor and duty to the law, but as his duty to his gods.

    As often as Stark is taken by surprise by events that he should have seen coming, or was explicitly warned about, one has to wonder if he was written not only as a man of honor, but as being a bit slow on the uptake.

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    • You know, this argument about how Ned’s honor and the Stark’s dedication to their honor code has been done a lot (including by me) but I’ve never seen anyone factor in the Starks’ religion. They are, after all, very religious. And yet, nobody really seems to consider what role that plays (or doesn’t play) in the Starks’ honor code. Actually, I’m not sure if plays any role at all which makes it all the more worth thinking about.

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      • I’m not sure there’s much too Stark’s honor code. I suppose if I could join him for lunch, I’d ask him, “What, exactly, do you mean by honor?” and “What makes something honorable?” and, admittedly, “Can I please hold Ice?!?!?!”

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  5. An interesting post, and one with which I wholeheartedly disagree. If Ned had a moral failing, it was in failing to advise the King of the truth. That, however was a judgment call, given Robert’s condition. I think Stark made the wrong judgment call, but his actions were with the realm of reasonable, in my humble estimation.

    Stark’s failing was not the rigidity of his moral code, but the rigidity of the application of his moral code – his failing was a practical one, a strategic one. Once he was convinced of the truth of Joffrey’s et al. parentage, he felt it incumbent to act immediately on it, without regard to establishing that truth in a way that would be convincing and effective within the competing power circles surrounding the throne, and to greater Westeros. That was his mistake. He was the Protector. Joffrey was not of age. Let Joffrey hang in there for a few years as Prince Regent, even crowned as boy King, if necessary. It could all be undone later. Ned had time to keep the realm on a steady course while he prepared to make and establish the truth of the paternity claim. His failure to do so in the crisis of his King’s death and his discovery is understandable and human. It just wasn’t the right thing to do.

    As far as the criticism of the adverse consequences of Ned’s perceived moral absolutism. I don’t buy the moral argument. Sometimes, right is right, and must be done in spite of the consequences. To allow otherwise is to destabilize a state and to allow law and order to take a second position behind the lives that wrongdoers hold hostage, directly and indirectly. One cannot allow the thugs to dictate policies based on the potential harm to people they will kill if they do not get their way.

    On the other hand, the weakness of the Westeros monarchy does lie in its inability to legally remove an improper ruler, such as one who is simply crazy. The result of Robert’s rebellion was to remove the violent and erratic Targaryen line from the throne. It would have been a great time to consider a failsafe mechanism, such as an automatic transfer of power to the next heir if approved by secret ballot of the seven great houses by 5-2 or so.

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    • If Ned were simply a moral absolutist, I wouldn’t necessarily take issue with his moral thinking. I as well hold to the view that there are some actions that are intrinsically immoral and cannot be justified in any circumstance. I reject these intrinsic evils in part because of their consequences. Ned, however, doesn’t seem to figure consequences into his moral judgment (not to mention tactical decisions!) about what he should do regarding the throne.

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    • Stark’s failure to tell the king the truth occurred prior to the king’s injury and, as Varys pointed out to him in his cell, precipitated the king’s death. Stark chose to warn Cersei that he planned to tell the king the truth, giving her the opportunity to arrange the king’s mortal injury and plot to place Joffrey on the throne. You can’t say she didn’t warn him and, sure enough, she won, he died.

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      • That’s a rather important point. Everything is 20/20 in hindsight, but I remember thinking even as he was telling Cersei what he knew that it was a mistake. I didn’t see Little Finger’s betrayal coming, but I saw no good coming of it. I also didn’t know that it would be the death of Robert, but I did think that a frame-up of Ned was in the works. She didn’t get that far to slink away with her kids in the middle of the night.

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  6. Well, if we still can’t figure out today that you shouldn’t let the first born son of the head of state become himself the head of state, I’m not going to criticize what Ned did a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

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