Eddard Stark’s Ethics of Honor
~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.