Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Did Catelyn Stark Act Rationally At the Red Wedding?

This post is about the series Game of Thrones on HBO. If you haven't seen the Red Wedding episode yet (and if you don't know what that means, you haven't seen the episode) then you should be advised that there are major spoilers in this post.

In this series, Catelyn Stark is the mother of Robb, a pretender to the throne attempting to forge an alliance with a noble named Walder Frey. To this end, Catelyn, Robb, those nobles pledged to him, and their armies, are all participating in a wedding feast in and around Frey's castle. And as it turns out, this is all a setup for a profound act of treachery—towards the end of the celebration, Walder gives a signal whereupon the Starks and their entire party are attacked and killed.

As it happens, Robb and Catelyn, though shot with arrows, survive for a few minutes. Catelyn takes this opportunity to quickly grab Frey's own wife and hold her hostage. She promises to let Frey's wife go and to never seek revenge against the Freys if they will only let her son Robb leave without further harm. And if Robb is killed, she promises, she will kill Frey's wife.

After several tense seconds, Walder Frey simply says he can find another wife, and one of his co-conspirators slits Robb's throat. So Catelyn now follows up on her promise, and kills Frey's wife in return. A soldier then kills Catelyn, and the episode ends.

It's a truly devastating scene. (Some fairly cruel people have produced admittedly amusing videos recording the reactions of unsuspecting watchers as these events unfold.) And like anything properly and meaningfully devastating, the incidents invite some philosophical speculation.

Here's mine. I'm wondering whether it was rational for Catelyn to kill Frey's wife.

Note I'm not asking whether it was rational to threaten to kill his wife. Nor am I asking whether any of this was ethical. The ethical status of the threat itself is interesting but possibly not discoverable. We don't know whether Frey's wife was an active planner of the treacherous act, a mere bystander, or someone merely cooperating with those she saw as having power over her. As for the rationality of the threat (divorced from the ethical question) it seems like as good a bet as any for Catelyn if her chief goal is to get her son out of there safely.

My question, then, isn't about threatening to kill Frey's wife. It's about actually killing Frey's wife. And I ask this question because, once Robb was killed, it was absolutely clear that Catelyn was not going to escape with her life either. Her killing Frey's wife certainly wasn't going to change that. Indeed, killing Frey's wife had no positive consequences whatsoever for Catelyn. So it becomes an askable question—did Catelyn actually have a reason to kill Frey's wife?

She certainly had promised to kill Frey's wife. And we might think that simply by virtue of that fact, she had created a reason to kill Frey's wife. After all, by making a promise, you arguably give yourself a reason to do the thing you promised to do. And presumably a rational person makes a certain appropriate amount of effort to do the things she has reasons to do. But even if promises create reasons in this fashion, is it always rational to keep them? Suppose I promise to give my son a copy of the last Harry Potter novel once he finishes the sixth novel in the series. And suppose he finishes it, but upon finishing it, tells me my wife already bought him a copy. In order to keep my promise, I'd have to give him a copy myself—but he already has a copy, and doesn't want another one. We could work out something but the fact remains that by not giving him a copy of the Harry Potter novel, I will have broken my promise to him. Yet this doesn't seem particularly irrational. Though I had a reason to get him the novel, (if only because I promised to,) I also had overriding reasons not to get it for him. In this case, breaking the promise was the rational thing to do.

So one kind of case in which the reason created by a promise can be overridden is this kind of case where stronger reasons prevail for some incompatible course of action.

Catelyn's case doesn't seem to be like this, though. Once Robb has been killed, I don't see any particularly overriding reason why Catelyn shouldn't kill Frey's wife. She surely knows (especially given Frey's cavalier statement that he can find another wife) that Frey's wife is just as useless to her alive as dead. (How sociopathic do I sound right now?) She has no particular reason to keep the woman alive—since everyone in the room is just as willing to kill the woman as she is.

So no, it's not as though Catelyn has any particular reason to keep the woman alive. Still, there seems to be a marked pointlessness about killing the woman. Catelyn could kill the woman then die herself, or she could let the woman live and then die herself. All other things being equal, it is better for one person to die and another to live, than it is for two people to die. Just as there's no particular reward to be found in letting the woman live, there's also no particular reward in killing her either. The only point in killing her seems to be in order to keep the promise Catelyn made before. Is this really enough to make it rational for Catelyn to kill the woman?

Suppose I made a promise to my neighbor to mow his lawn once a week for the next twenty years. But then suppose my neighbor dies a few years later, and his property is never bought by anyone else. (Let's say a plague has wiped out a great percentage of the human species, just to explain the lack of buyer and also to make this seem like a bleak scenario to match the bleakness of Catelyn's situation.) It takes a very small effort for me to mow his lawn, and so, I do in fact continue mowing his lawn even after he has died, even after the entire neighborhood has gone to pot (on account of the plague), even as the upkeep of lawns has become completely irrelevant to anything important to anyone left alive. I keep mowing the lawn because—I made a promise, and a promise is a promise.

Is it rational for me to go on mowing the lawn like this? Well, it may be rational for several reasons, but let's ask it this way: Does rationality demand that I keep mowing the lawn? Does the fact that I made a promise make it obligatory that I mow the lawn absent any overriding reason preventing me from doing so? I doubt it. I would think that once things have changed that drastically, the promise I made while my neighbor (and most of the human species) was alive has become moot. Keeping this particular promise simply doesn't serve any of the purposes promise keeping is meant to serve.

That invites the question—what is promise keeping for? What is the purpose of keeping a promise? That's a huge issue, but I think this is a plausible answer: promise-keeping serves the purpose of signaling who is reliable and who is not. (I'm interested to hear what other purposes people think promise-keeping might have.)

Catelyn, upon seeing Robb killed, was no longer in the same kind of situation she'd been in when she made the promise. Even though it was only a few seconds ago, things had now radically changed. She was no longer in a position to make any kind of threat. Nothing she could do to the woman at whose neck she held a knife would make any difference to how anyone around her would act. If there was any reason to keep her promise to kill the woman, that reason would seem to come from one of two possible sources: Either it came from an inherently reason-giving power found in promise-making itself, or it came from considerations relevant to the larger function that promise-keeping is supposed to serve.

As to an inherent reason-giving power, I've just argued that in some cases, this inherent reason-giving power isn't enough to force an obligation on a person to keep their promise. Catelyn's situation after Robb's killing is like my situation after the plague in the above scenario—things are just too different now, and it simply doesn't make a difference whether I keep mowing the lawn, or whether Catelyn kills the woman.

What about the function of promise-keeping? Does Catelyn have any reason to signal her reliability at this point in her story? Arguably not. She's going to die in a few seconds either way. The cause she is fighting for—her son's kingship—is well known to her to be at an end. She isn't signaling to her son's armies that her family is reliable. There's no army to signal to, no family to signal about. (She does believe herself to have two living daughters held hostage by the royal family, but it's very difficult to imagine any particular importance to signal either to them or to those around her that she herself keeps a promise to kill a woman whose death serves her no real purpose.) Frey (or one of his soldiers) is going to kill her either way, and sleep just as soundly in either case, since they apparently care nothing for the life of Frey's wife. So signaling her reliability to them would seem to serve no purpose either.

For these reasons, arguably, there was no demand on Catelyn that she must kill the woman, even if she had promised she would. Her situation was so utterly hopeless that even very basic and primal facts about the reasons for making and keeping promises no longer seemed to apply. Perhaps someone might say she needed to signal to herself, at the very least, that she was in a strong enough position to the very end to be able to stand on her word. But why signal that to herself in this case? If she had hope for a future, perhaps it would be important what kind of person she is. But as far as she knew, she had no hope. So why should it matter, even to her, whether she has the power to keep a promise? Isn't it better to let the woman live rather than to kill her for no purpose?

I don't know, to be honest, but this is where my reasoning leads me at the moment. What are your thoughts?


  1. As far as I can tell, they take promises very seriously in Game of Thrones - it's very bad business to break them. But this isn't seen as a big deal in all the various thought-experiments. They remove data that's quite relevant to the situation (that she's in Westeros, that she promised, that this promise in Westeros is more binding than a promise to a dead person in a Plaguesville that's modeled on 21st century Earth).

    You're also missing the fact that we can read this multiple ways. On one way, the killing was demanded by rationality, and that teaches us certain things about the world in which the killing took place. Another interpretation is that it wasn't demanded by rationality, and that also teaches us things about the world. Both interpretations have many variations. But your task of trying to come to THE CONCLUSION as to whether a fictional character's action was rational is problematic - we can build either answer into the premises (and that's all we can do). You could argue that the actual GoT universe supports one interpretation over another, you're instead ignoring that which could actually give us evidence for a particular position. To put a fine point on it you argue that "this inherent reason-giving power isn't enough to force an obligation on a person to keep their promise," but you didn't do anything to say whether Stark found herself in one of those cases where obligation isn't forced.

    Of course, we can make up a similar situation in contemporary times and ask "Was THAT killing rational," but again the story we tell is going to profoundly influence the answer. It'd be interesting to see where the breakpoints in the story are, though. Perhaps a better way to frame it would be "Suppose that the killing was rational (or irrational). What would could we change in the story to make it irrational (or rational)?" As you identify, it's probably going to come down to how big the reasons generated by promising are, ie how important honor is to the person in question (Starks like honor a lot, Freys not so much, etc etc etc).

    1. Good comments! Thanks!

      They do take promises very seriously in Westeros, but the reason I made them less important in the thought experiments was because it seemed to me that none of the reasons they have to think promisekeeping is important in Westeros still applied in Cate's situation. If she was going to keep her promise, it seems to me right now, it could only be due to a habit of promise keeping. That habit may be a rational one to follow in most cases--especially in Westeros--but I am not sure it's a rational one to follow in this particular case. (I should reiterate my hedge--it may not be "irrational" to keep the promise, but rather, what I mean is, it's not particularly rationally *compelling* to do so.)

      Your points in the second and third paragraph are well taken--I'm using this term "rationality" as though it denotes a single, settled and correct way to do things that applies to every rational agent. I actually don't believe that very confidently, at least not on odd numbered days. Maybe an agents' being rational doesn't settle what is rational for that being after all. "What is rationality" is a huge question of course, and I'll just say up front I was skipping a lot of that. You're right to push me on it.

      Still... even if a person takes promisekeeping to be a fundamental value, and her rationality centers around it such that it is practically definitional of "rational" for them in some sense--even then, do we really want to say that the value of promisekeeping is, itself, not really questionable for them? If not (I wouldn't think so) then, _even given its centrality for them_, can't we imagine circumstances under which it would become open to them, rationally, to question the value of promisekeeping? I guess what I'm assuming here is that rationality requires the ability to question _any_ of one's own values at least in principle--and I'm saying Catelyn was arguably in a situation where, even if promisekeeping had been axiomatically valuable for her before, she could validly question the value of it now.

      Or something I'm not sure

  2. It seems to me you maybe you're being a bit to 'rational' about the whole situation. She just saw her son gutted, she was in shock and grieving, so she did what she said she would — on her honor as as Tully and her honor as a Stark, she would slit his wife's throat if he did not let Rob go. She was no longer a rational being, she was an utterly distraught person committing a crime of passion.

    1. Hi Cousin. I appreciate these observations.

      I would never deny that her action is understandable given her emotional state. But the concept of "rationality" I'm trying to use isn't supposed to involve (at least not necessarily) carefully reasoned steps leading to a considered conclusion followed by deliberate action. The concept of "rationality" I'm trying to use can work at a much more "instinctive" level than that. For example, if I were starving, and were presented with a bowl full of tar and a bowl full of oatmeal, of course I'd immediately, without even thinking about it, go for the oatmeal--but _also_, my going for the oatmeal counts as "rational," because in my brain, it seems a very quick calculus (or something equivalent) was done, which weighed the value of the tar against the value of the oatmeal, and found the oatmeal to be more valuable. Even in quick and instinctive situations like this, a kind of rationality still governs actions.

      Concerning Catelyn's situation, you said it yourself--she did what she said she was going to do. She may have done it without really even thinking about it, but even this very fact shows that part of her "rational structure" so to speak made it axiomatic to do what she had said she would do. And what I'm asking is whether that axiom is a good one or not, given the specifics of her situation. I am not saying she "should have thought of" the kinds of things I'm mentioning. I definitely have the benefit of hindsight and a lot more time to think than she did! But my interest isn't to advise her. (She's fictional after all!) My interest is in analyzing the reasoning behind her actions, so that I can learn a little something about reason itself, and about concepts like promise keeping, the role of consequences in practical reasoning, and other such jazz.

      Did that make sense?

  3. I had not thought that Catelyn's act was related to promise-keeping. I thought that Catelyn killed Frey's wife to communicate something to Frey, namely the following: that she HAD actually intended to kill his wife; that her threat had been real; that she actually DID have a bargaining chip; that she wasn't merely posturing when she made the threat/attempted to bargain with Frey. (I think one could argue that this reason to kill Frey's wife is rational.)

    Why would she have wanted to communicate that to Frey? Maybe so that he could later reflect that he could have prevented the death of his wife? Maybe just so that he knew she meant business? I could think of other reasons as well. Any of these reasons are consistent with the claim that Catelyn's act was rational.

    1. Good points. I guess what I'd say is that I may have been using the term "promise" in a broader sense than I made clear. What you describe, I would put under the rubric of promisekeeping. Basically, showing that you meant what you said.

      As to making him reflect that he could have prevented his wife's death--I assume he was being truthful when he indicated that he truly didn't care about this. But arguably in the heat of the moment, Catelyn might have naturally assumed otherwise. Still--why should she care whether he reflects on this or not? She's dead either way, and so is everyone she cares about* and so is every project out there which she thinks important. She's more than dead--literally everything she cares about has come to nought.

      About rationality--I think on reflection that I should weaken the claim. It's not that Catelyn may have been acting irrationally, so much as that her action may not have been _compelled_ rationally by her circumstances even though, one suspects, she felt that it was.

      Appreciate the comments and I welcome a response!

    2. As to your first point.... I didn't intend to say that she was "showing that you meant what you said." I meant to say that she was showing him that there was an object to her promise or that the promise had a subject matter. I think of those as different things. The first (i.e., your interpretation) is about her intentions. The second (my interpretation) is about the subject matter of the promise (or about the existence of a subject matter).

      It's quite possible that I am assuming a contractual model of promises. (Offer, acceptance, consideration, mutuality).

      "As to making him reflect that he could have prevented his wife's death--I assume he was being truthful when he indicated that he truly didn't care about this."
      I thought it was possible he was bluffing. I guess I also thought it was possible that HE thought SHE was bluffing and that she might have wanted to prove him wrong.

      And with that I'll say that more than half the time I have no idea what anyone is saying in this show and whether I'm supposed to read subtext into it or take it at face value. Basically, is Arya really going to put a sword into the Hound's eye?

  4. I think my comment was somewhat convoluted, maybe I can clarify it a bit. I think there were multiple reasons behind her action of cutting the throat of Frey's wife. One I think was spite. He killed her son, so she killed his wife. It may not be something she would have done if given time to think, but this is where the 'crime of passion' comes into play. She was angry.

    Secondly, she was in shock, so she did what she said she was going to do. She wasn't thinking of what this action would resolve, because she was no longer thinking. Having no clear path to take, she simply did the last thing she remembered saying she would do.

    Thirdly, she had made a sworn oath, which is what this whole argument was about anyway. Somewhere in the back of her mind I think she realized she would be a hypocrite not to keep her oath at this point.

    I think all of these things would have been circling her head moments before she shut down completely, and that was enough justification to make a split second decision to follow through with her threat. She swore she would do it, this whole thing was about keeping your oath, and she was pissed and wanted this little piece of vengeance.

  5. I know this is an old post, but I'll comment on it anyway. The OP had a pretty intelligent argument, but I find one glaring flaw. The whole point of threatening to kill the wife has nothing to do with kingship or to prevent her own death, it is to keep her son alive. She is only going to kill her if the Freys kill her son. The OP's entire argument is that once Robb is dead, she has no reason to kill the wife. That being said, if she is not going to kill the wife, what leverage did she ever have? Why even make the threat in the first place? The OP claims not to question the legitimacy of the threat itself merely the action, but implicitly questioning the legitimacy of the threat is exactly what he does. Fulfilled threats are not synonymous with promises; in law, such a thing would be an illegal and void contract. She carried out the threat because it was not an empty threat.

    1. The act of killing the wife was no more irrational, or 'compelled', than making the threat itself. And there is no complaint that the situation did not compel such posturing. The threat's kinship to a type of promise is completely illusory. Like sharks to whales.

    2. "That being said, if she is not going to kill the wife, what leverage did she ever have?"

      I was thinking the same thing. If she didn't go through it, there was no promise to begin with. I wonder how OP would respond to this because it still feels true that it doesn't actually matter keeping the promise when you have nothing to gain.

  6. I've always thought it was pretty out of character for her to kill a girl around the same age as her daughter who's just another toy for Frey who just wants her sweet honey. Doesn't happen in the books either which makes sense.