Fantasy and Moral Ambiguity: Repetition Rears Its Ugly Head


Author Bryan Thomas Schmidt has taken a stab at author/editor James L. Sutter’s Suvudu post on why moral ambiguity in fantasy is a good thing.  In said stabbing, Schmidt makes some well-worn arguments about why moral ambiguous fantasy presents problems for society, but the bulk of his argument — in my mind — rests on a bed of false assumptions.

For example, Schmidt argues that our world is one beset with nihilism and moral ambiguities fermented by the entertainment industry.  He suggests that

We are bombarded with images of violence, sex, language, etc. which of things, people, places being torn apart. We are shown these as motivated by impurities and negative motives more often than pure motives. And we are told that’s because human beings will always go that way by nature. While I do believe in the depravity of man, I also believe man has the capacity to grow and reach beyond natural tendencies and become so much better than that. And that’s what I want from my heroes. While I don’t want unflawed, perfect heroes—who can relate to those either—at the same time, I do want to know who should win; who is on the right side. 

Underlying this argument are two problems:  1) the assumption that the media overwhelming fails to provide us with morally ambiguous or questionable heroes who we can root for, and 2) the
absolutist logic the continues to dominate colonial and imperial ideology to this day — namely, the idea that we can easily determine who is right in a given situation based solely on their apparently moral behavior.

The first assumption is false the second you look at what gets put on our screens and on our shelves.  Most of what we view/read for pleasure contains flawed, realistic characters who are still our heroes.  Is it not possible, for example, that a semi-violent police detective can still be someone we root for even if we disagree with the occasional abuse he launches at his wife?  True, we would mostly all agree he must get help, and perhaps end up in jail, but we can also agree that his pursuit of the bad guy (who may have very difference motivations of his own) is right.  Or perhaps a better example is a police detective who drinks too much, sometimes putting himself and others at risk with his drunken behavior.  Flawed?  Yes.  Needs help?  Yes.  But can we still root for him?  Sure.  Just as we often root for the detectives on Law & Order:  Special Victims Unit, some of which have roughed up suspects and so on in the pursuit of justice which is never pure and almost always slightly disappointing.  It doesn’t matter that Stabler is kind of a douchebag; we still want him to get the criminals.

Most of the right/wrong elements in the above positions are only absolute if one holds to a puritanical view of the human species, one which cannot take into account the variations of human believe, the variations of human psychology, and the variations of human biology.  Schmidt brings up genocide and rape as specific examples of pure morality.  While genocide and rape are certainly detrimental to society, their activity is shaped by ideologies that are absolutist in themselves.  Those who freely commit genocide believe fervently that they are doing a service to society.  We can only say they are wrong because we come from a different moral framework, one which has done little to stifle murder and rape within itself.

But none of this means that those positions are right, nor does it mean that adding moral ambiguity to fantasy means that anti-murder and anti-rape are questionable positions.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite.  What moral ambiguity tells us is this:  things are far more complicated than it is easy to admit.  Murderers may need to be punished, but every murder is not committed for the same reason.  The same is true of genocide and rape.  We punish these people not because they break moral codes (recall, for example, that it wasn’t all that long ago that there were no legal rules to prosecute rapes as rapes), but because they do things detrimental to society or other people.  But their motivations cannot be discounted.  To do that is to shut ourselves away from the variations of selfhood that make up the human species.  We’re a complicated bunch.

The second piece to the above puzzle is a slightly more problematic assumption.  What we’ve learned in the last 50 years is that #2 is always already false so long as there are at least two sides to an issue.  That doesn’t mean we have to agree with the other side, whatever that may be, but it does mean that there are always two sides to a given coin.  We might, for example, argue that Al Qaeda is purely evil based solely on what they say and what they do, but to do so would mean ignoring historical precedence, religious tutelage, and a host of other factors which paint a different picture.  In the end, most of us would agree that Al Qaeda deserves to be stopped, but we might also agree that some of the people who are a part of that organization may not be there for reasons we would consider morally questionable if the roles were reversed.

It is, however, false to argue that America is purely right and Al Qaeda is purely wrong in a moral sense.  To do so would require one of two things:  1) a head-in-the-sand view of reality, or 2) an open acknowledgement that every action made by the “right” party must be questioned unless or until a pure moral position can be found.  Neither of these are particularly good options.

Yet if we take Schmidt’s moral positioning seriously, it’s perhaps his first volley of questions that exposes the fundamentally flawed assumption trapped beneath his entire post:

[How] can it be wrong to write stories which show a clearer sense of morality? What kind of future are we positing for our children? What kind of heroes are we offering them as role models? Don’t we have a responsibility to do better?

One might ask these questions in response:  How it is morally right to tell lies by presenting false images of how things really are?  What kind of future does a purist view of the world, humanity, and human motivations present to our children, who will one day have to navigate that world without the cultural and mental tools to deal with reality?  What kind of heroes are we offering them as role models if we give them heroes who are overwhelmingly perfect,* without the moral questions provided by ambiguity?  Don’t we have a responsibility to present morality as it actually is, not as those of us who pretend purist models of morality exist would like it to be?

The problem here stems from delusional utopianism.  That is that to believe that morality can be pure and absolute comes from a desperate desire within oneself to see unreality become true.  Just as utopias — in the popular, rather than traditional sense — cannot form so long as the variations of the human mind prevent it, so too does the security of the belief that moral frameworks are absolute and without nuance.  But, in fact, the world we live in is not a sea of nihilism and moral non-existence.  Rather, we live in a world where it is increasingly more difficult to ignore the motivations of others, to pretend that we necessarily — by default — have the right answer, and to assume that our beliefs cannot be challenged.  But that world doesn’t throw out moral thinking or moral positions.

To challenge is to make stronger.  If we take into account human variation, we can come to understand ourselves and what lies within us all, and we can take that and make a better humanity (now there’s a utopian thought).  We live in a world at war with its ideological variants:  on one the side, the traditional purist model struggles for supremacy; on the other, cultural relativism and the values associated with moral ambiguity try to give us a nuanced picture of the world.  Only when we can see past old ways of thinking will we be able to move forward.  Nostalgia will never get us anywhere, though it sometimes does us a little good.  Read your nostalgic fantasy epics, but know too that it represents a world verging on the utopic, not the world as it actually must be.

I’ll end this post with a final quote from Schmidt on George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (specifically, Westeros as a world):**

His world is not a fun one to inhabit and not a place I’d ever want to visit. Most of his characters are not people I admire and wish I knew. Some have admirable qualities. Some do admirable things. But overall, I am left wondering why they get up every day. What motivates those people to keep going?

The real question here is this:  for anyone who holds the view that GoT and similar series paint a disturbed picture of humanity, how do you get up every day in a world that, sadly, doesn’t look all that different?  People stab each other in the back every day on this tiny planet.  And not just evil people in the purist sense of the word.  Supposedly “good” people hurt other people all the time, sometimes by proxy.  Nations burn with death, even though our world is slightly less violent than in the past — starvation and disease are the new genocide.  The global market helps some, and hurts many others.  The truth is, we don’t live in a world where absolute good and absolute evil exist, and if people in a fictional universe where that fact is also true can get up day in and day out, it begs the question:  how do we?

Well, perhaps that little insight can tell us something about why so many love Martin’s work.  Because it tells us something very important about who we are as human beings.  Resilient little hairless monkeys…


*When I say “overwhelmingly perfect” I really mean that I take arguments about “flawed, but fundamentally good characters” as lip service to a non-existent ideal.  When people talk about character flaws, they don’t mean defects, but minor infractions on one’s moral purity.  Effectively, “flaws” is a nice way of saying “he smokes, but it’s not really a problem.”

**I could pick a lot of quotes from Schmidt’s article, but I think the selections above will suffice to make my point.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

4 thoughts on “Fantasy and Moral Ambiguity: Repetition Rears Its Ugly Head

  1. Extremely interesting debate, Shaun. Thank you for your contribution.

    I lean on the side of moral ambiguity, obviously, as I am a die-hard GRRM fan. But it's interesting to me to observe the reactions of people I've introduced to the series who haven't enjoyed it for much the same reason as Schmidt. It may be hooking, but it's too depressing. For them, fantasy is an escape. Why would you want to read about depressing stuff when you could just watch the news? I find it interesting that the depressing events of GRRM's novels actually make me, not in a perverse sense, happy … happy because he dared to kill off my favorite character, happy because I'm having a strong emotional reaction, happy because it's ambiguous, happy because Jaime is so pretty …


    The other day two young kids came to my house to play, maybe 6 and 10. We started a pretend war in my basement with model soldiers cribbed from Risk. The three of us were three different teams, and then there was a fourth team, which they branded the EVIL team. When I asked why that team was evil, they could not give me an answer ("because it IS" "because they're trying to be independent" Oookay). I only insisted a few times on an answer, but in the end I let the matter drop. Their two teams very soundly trounced the EVIL team. My team surrendered and was taken to work in labor camps.

    Well, we have different ways of entertaining ourselves.

    To return to the debate, Schmidt's "I do want to know who should win; who is on the right side," does frighten me a bit, because I don't think it's that simple. You've already elaborated on this.

    As for whether Martin's world is nihilistic … it is pretty depressing, yes, but I don't find its overall message to be of life's meaninglessness. Some characters buckle under the weight of everything he flings at them, they twist and shrivel up, but other characters also seem to emerge the other side, and in their own little ways, they endure. Their endurance and growth in such a terrible world is inspiring enough for me.

    I wonder whether Schmidt is arguing more against overdoing moral ambiguity and making everything so gray that you cannot invest in any of the characters. For him, GRRM was in that zone, and for me, GRRM was not. Or this is just an argument about whether morality is relative, and if so, whether fantasy should reflect that.

    When you started talking about the drunken police cop who sometimes abuses his wife, I was so sure you meant McNulty from The Wire. But he goes unmentioned. Have you watched The Wire? I forget. I shall pitch it to you. It's like Game of Thrones in Baltimore, only better. (Normally people pitch Game of Thrones as The Wire in Middle Earth, but that's doing GOT a disservice. Yes, I said that. The Wire > GOT)

  2. Good debate. This is the kind of thing that literature needs.

    I loved the moral ambiguity in ASOIAF. But now, after just finishing The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan and reading this discussion, I'm wondering if there is any morality in Martin's books at all. Morgan's characters are much more gritty, dark, violent and strange than Martin's but they are affected by the suffering of children, rapes or by the horrors of war. They sometimes pause and think about the morality and ethics of their actions. This thing almost never happens in ASOIAF. There is an unnatural and unrealistic absence of empathy in Martin's characters. The evolution constructed us to care and protect the children. To fight with other males but to protect the women. And empathy towards our fellow human beings was one of the most important factors that shaped human history. The suffering of others is very disturbing to us because we feel like it is happening to us. Almost no character in Martin's books is profoundly affected by the suffering of others. As I was reading, I wanted to punch some of them and say "there are dismembered children there! how can you not stop a little and cry?!". There were very few instances in human history when absolute atrocities like ethnic cleansing happened. A human being needs some very special conditions in order to really hate other human beings. But Martin's Westeros looks like a permanent Rwanda. If you read memoirs by those who participated in the 2 World Wars (Tolkien was one of them) you see that what those people felt and thought during wars had nothing to do with what Martin's characters feel and think.

    I think that, from now on, I will read ASOIAF as a dystopia. What will happen if somehow our empathy will be destroyed. It is a very good artistic exercise but it is not a realist portrayal of our world.

  3. Not going to lie, I haven't read all the material, but this exact same debate – the same one, exactly – cropped up a few months ago, too. I'm sure you recall it. Anyway, I suspect this debate of "good and evil" versus "moral ambiguity" can wax, wane and persist because, in fantasy, EVERYTHING IS RESOLVED WITH VIOLENCE. If that fact were not true, the debate would be DOA.

  4. Good article. This debate crops up pretty regularly. Personally, I'm on the side of ambiguity.
    One thing that annoys me about this debate, however, is that the morality/ nostalgia crowds throws around nihilism without seeming to understand what the word actually means.

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