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?