What is the difference between honor and morality, and is one superior to the other? Before reading A Song of Ice and Fire, I didn’t think there was any real, clear answer to this question—after all, wouldn’t a moral person also be an honorable person? Furthermore, if someone has honor, we make the assumption that their honor must be based on the morality of their character. In other words, the two of them should go hand in hand.
Honor is a major theme within the books, and while a character’s honor may be praised, we can see throughout the course of the series that having honor doesn’t always mean having morals. And in some cases, having honor can be downright selfish or harmful to other people.
To start, honor is a concept that is a bit foreign to modern western society. While having honor still exists in some capacity—such as achieving high honors at school or in the military—we are not as concerned with honor as the people of Westeros are. Additionally, it is not necessarily seen as a reflection of our character. Nowadays people don’t always join the military for the sake of honor or study hard for that reason either.
The best way I can think of to describe honor as it is presented in the books is that it is a service, an obligation, or an upholding of certain traditions. Long-standing traditions are important to the people of Westeros, because not only are they honorable, but they keep people safe, such as the guest right—if you have guests, or are a guest, and bread and salt have been consumed, you are not allowed to harm one another. However, when Walder Frey breaks this tradition during the Red Wedding, he sends the realm into chaos. No one feels safe anymore because the Freys proved that tradition meant nothing, and they forsook their family honor in the process. People are obligated in service to their lords and king. They are bound by oaths—protect people who need to be protected, protect the king, protect your lord, etc.—and the breaking of these oaths is not only dishonorable, but can be punishable by death. People who have honor, such as Ned Stark and Barristan Selmy, are seen as truthful and trustworthy. People who break their oaths, on the other hand, such as deserters and kinslayers, are dishonorable and therefore not trustworthy. Ned Stark and Barristan Selmy are considered two of the most honorable and therefore morally righteous people in the realm because they stick to their oaths, uphold traditions, and pledge themselves in service to their king. Because honor plays such an essential role in reflecting someone’s character, whether or not a person has honor can determine their innocence or guilt. This can best be seen during trial by combat.
For us, the entire affair seems primitive—how do two people fighting prove someone else’s innocence? But it does make sense to the people of Westeros, because to them, being honorable is the same as being moral or right. Combatants fight with honor to determine a defendant’s honor. Part of this is also religious in nature. They believe that the gods will intervene to determine the outcome, and that each time, the gods will choose the side that is honorable. A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t just feature honor, though; it also critiques it, and it’s through this critique that we can see that honor is not necessarily moral or right. Near the end of A Storm of Swords, Tyrion’s trial by combat to prove his innocence backfires and makes him appear guilty in the eyes of gods and men, despite actually being innocent.
Probably the biggest critique of honor comes from the characters Ned Stark and Jaime Lannister. Ned is often considered the most honorable man in all Westeros—he’s also one of the most moral men. But having honor and being moral are not the same thing. When A Game of Thrones begins, Ned beheads a man for breaking an oath, he murders Sansa’s direwolf because the king commands it, and it’s Ned’s quest to put Stannis on the Iron Throne which launches the War of the Five Kings and results in chaos and destruction throughout all Westeros. Very rarely will Ned break his honor for the sake of morals. One time he does it is when he raises Jon as his own son, and he dishonors himself and his wife in order to protect him. At another time, he dishonors himself to save Sansa’s life by confessing to attempting to usurp Joffrey’s throne, even though Joffrey is not the true heir. His moral actions are not always honorable, and his honorable actions are not always moral. The beheading of the oathbreaker is arguably little more than legal murder, killing Lady hurt Sansa and punished her for doing nothing wrong, and the War of the Five Kings caused numerous deaths and tragedies.
Ned Stark’s biggest strength may be his honor, but it’s also his weakness, and many times it blinds him to the bigger picture. There are always alternatives to execution; he could have spoken to Robert more about Lady or thought of other ways to save her life, and he most definitely should have thought through the consequences of informing Stannis about Cersei’s affair with Jaime. I certainly don’t think that Ned is incapable of allowing himself to look for alternative solutions so much as he refuses to in order to save his own honor. Overall, Ned might be considered a morally righteous person, but he allows his honor to dictate his morals because he doesn’t often see that there’s a difference between the two.
Standing in contrast to Ned Stark is Jaime Lannister. Jaime is a morally reprehensible person—he throws a child out a window (which breaks the guest right), murders some of Ned Stark’s men, and spends the first three novels being little more than a despicable antagonist. This isn’t even touching on his affair with his own sister and usurping the throne for the Lannisters. While Ned has lots of honor and morals, Jaime has very little of either. But another difference between Jaime and Ned is that Jaime doesn’t allow what honor he does have to compromise the few morals he also holds. We can see this before the start of the series when Jaime murders King Aerys. This murder is an arguably reprehensible action as well as a dishonorable one, because it breaks Jaime’s oath to protect Aerys as a member of the Kingsguard, but what is moral was Jaime’s sacrifice of his own honor and potentially his personal safety in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives. If Jaime had chosen the honorable route, not only would King Aerys still have died, so would Jaime himself, all the inhabitants of King’s Landing, and the armies surrounding it. The casualties would have also included Ned as well as members of Jaime’s own family.
The events leading up to Jaime’s decision to murder Aerys also calls honor vs. morality into question. Is it honorable to protect Aerys, but not to stop him from raping Rhaella or burning people alive? Unfortunately for Jaime, doing what is moral results in his own disgrace. When King Robert defends Jaime to Ned, because someone eventually would have had to kill Aerys, Ned responds that neither of them had sworn an oath to protect Aerys. In other words, when honor comes into question, to the people of Westeros, King Aerys’s murder is only wrong depending on who did it.
When Jaime forsook his honor and murdered Aerys, that action benefited other people more than it benefited Jaime. However, when Ned Stark wrote to Stannis and inadvertently launched the War of the Five Kings, that honorable action benefited no one but the high lords and Ned’s own personal sense of duty. I find it questionable that Ned is willing to dishonor himself for his own family’s protection, but not for the protection of the realm and the potential thousands of lives that he had to have known would be lost in war. I don’t want to sound as though I think that Ned is a completely horrible person and that Jaime is not, because that’s not true—but the books do create this critique by showing the honorable Ned do something morally wrong for the sake of honor and informing us that the dishonorable Jaime saved all of King’s Landing.
As Syng pointed out to me while we were chatting about this, A Song of Ice and Fire’s biggest failing is that none of the point-of-view characters are low born, which undermines the message the books want to send. Lords like Stannis want the Iron Throne because it’s “honorable” no matter how many people die in the process, and the high lords in Winterfell during A Dance with Dragons uphold their honor as more important than the rape and torture of an innocent girl. While some characters can retain both their honor and sense of morals, oftentimes the two do not coincide. The books tell us that honor cannot be all bad. Many honorable actions keep people safe and it’s easy to see why honor came to play such an important role in Westerosi society because of that. After all, Westeros is a dangerous place. But the books also tell us that honor taken to extremes can be harmful. Many lords are more concerned about retaining their honor than they are about what having honor is supposed to mean, and this does result in people being hurt. Oftentimes, honor comes across as little more than selfish elitism.