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Posted on June 2, 2015 at 1:17 PM

Isn’t it weird that no one is really talking about the incest on Game of Thrones? I mean, yes, among the fellow inhabitants of Westeros, sure, there are the insinuations and the snickers, the threats from the faithful, and the apparent manifestation of its awfulness in Joffrey. And sure, incest has been mentioned in articles about the show and it’s a core driver of several plot points and emotional arcs for our protagonists. It’s not completely glossed over.

But incest is supposed to be awful. Like as bad as rape. Even most anti-abortionists make two exceptions beyond sparing the mother’s life: rape and incest. A lot of pixels have been spent on the nature, narrative use (or misuse), impact, and meaning of rape in Game of Thrones. Yet there just isn’t a lot out there on the incestuous relationship between Jamie and Cercei that so central to the show. Moreover, none of the normal tropes we associate with incest are present in their relationship (contrast that with the tropes surrounding rape which are seemingly ever-present). This treatment of the Lannisters’ incest by the show, in and of itself, is fascinating. It takes on a further layer of curiosity as we move into the trials of Cercei for incest (this time with Lancel) and the Tyrells for engaging in (and then lying about) homosexuality, not to mention the associated attitudes towards homosexual behavior (both critiquing and condoning it) among those in Westeros. There is something curious about how the show is paralleling the two issues. What I’m getting at is there are some good reasons to write about the incest in Game of Thrones, yet very few folks are doing it. (This was the only real piece I could find)

Why not? Well, it’s hard to write about something that makes you really uncomfortable when it isn’t portrayed as unambiguously bad.

You may not realize it, but Game of Thrones has the most positive portrayal of incest ever presented in popular media. Not only that, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that regardless of what else happens in the show, is not possible to make a compelling argument that Jamie and Cercei’s incest is immoral in and of itself.

Before I actually defend this point, I need to clarify a few things. First, no where in this piece am not equating homosexuality and incest, even among consensual adults. Not by a long shot. At a couple points, I’m equating the way in which arguments against those behaviors are portrayed in fiction and made in reality. They are not analogous forms of sexuality, nor is their moral status connected (though that belief is held erroneously by many moralizers out there). Second, I am not arguing that Game of Thrones settles all debate and proves consensual adult sibling incest is, in fact, moral. Far from it. What I am claiming is that Jamie and Cercei present a version of incest that challenges the major arguments against incest and forces us to move the discussion to a different place. Third, we are talking about consensual incest between two adult siblings. Almost any other form of incest involves some sort of power dynamic that calls into question the possibility of true consent (most other forms of incest, such as Craster and the horrible plight of his wifes/daughters, are immoral precisely because consent is either not possible or not given). The fact that Jamie and Cercei are twins, and thus the exact same age, mitigates this issue further. To be really clear here: any sexual act that is not between consenting adult people is immoral.

OK, so why should we care about the Lannister’s incest in the first place? Well, Game of Thrones is a huge cultural phenomenon. When it chooses to address an issue – be it violence, rape, torture, revenge, honor, love, whatever – people talk about it. Out of all the well-known media that deals with incest that Wikipedia lists (and there is a lot of it) very few portray incest in anything resembling a positive light. I would argue that none of the shows, movies, books, or games that portray incest in a neutral or positive tone have anything even remotely resembling the current cultural cache of Game of Thrones. Meaning that whatever Game of Thrones has to say about incest, it’s saying it to a lot of people who are listening closely.

We don’t really think about Jamie and Cercei’s incest because they are both are kind of terrible human beings. Jamie casually pushed Bran, a child, out a window with hopes of killing him (ah, you forgot about that one, didn’t you?). Cercei has done more awful things than most of us can keep track of anymore. Their eldest son, Joffrey, was a monster. Their father was a Machiavellian statesman who cast the entire family in a pallor of win-at-all-costs zeal. Incest seems to fit. Of course a family of scheming, merciless, hateful people would only, perhaps could only, love themselves. It’s a natural conclusion that Jamie and Cercei would commit incest.

What isn’t a natural conclusion is that the Lannister’s incestuous relationship is not in and of itself immoral. Of all the grotesque and demented things Jamie and Cercei have done, engaging in intercourse and having children is not one of them.

To give my argument some back up, I want to talk about confabulation for a minute. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of Ethical Leadership (what a cool title) at NYU’s Stern School of Business, has a fascinating philosophy experiment related to incest and why we find it morally reprehensible. He presents a scenario in which an adult brother and sister have consensual sex. Haidt then asks test subjects if the scenario is morally wrong and why. Here’s a synopsis from a hilariously titled Psychology Today article

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

If you’re like most people, your response is “absolutely not,” but you’ll find it more difficult than you think to come up with a justification. “Genetic defects from inbreeding.” Yes, but they were using two forms of birth control. (And in the vanishingly small chance of pregnancy, Julie can get an abortion.) “It will mess them up emotionally.” On the contrary, they enjoyed the act and it brought them closer together. “It’s illegal.” Not in France. “It’s disgusting.” For you, maybe, but not for them (obviously). Do you really want to say that private acts are morally wrong just because a lot of people find those acts disgusting? And so on.

The scenario of course is designed to ward off the most common moral objections to incest, and in doing so demonstrate that much of moral reasoning is a post-hoc affair [aka confabulation] – a way of justifying judgments that you’ve already reached though an emotional gut response to a situation. Although we like to think of ourselves as arriving at our moral judgments after painstaking rational deliberation, or at least some kind of deliberation anyhow, Haidt’s model – the “social intuitionist model” – sees the process as just the reverse. We judge and then we reason. Reason is the press secretary of the emotions, as Haidt is fond of saying, the ex post facto spin doctor of beliefs we’ve arrived at through a largely intuitive process.

Alright. So now you know what your brain is trying to do when you think about incest. It’s grossed out and wants to explain itself by any means necessary. Now answer the question: “What is morally objectionable about Jamie and Cercei’s incest?” I can think of a few pretty good arguments beyond those addressed by Haidt’s scenario:

1. “It’s wrong because they had kids. Incest can lead to birth defects. They put their children’s quality of life at risk.”

This is the first and most obvious, so lets get it out of the way.

This is certainly true. But, of course, none of the kids have birth defects (beating the odds!). You might argue Joffrey is a psychopath thanks to incest, but then again that doesn’t explain why a huge number of other characters – such as The Mountain or Ramsey Bolton – are as well. And nurture (or whatever you call the environment that Joffrey grew up in) could easily be blamed as well. Myrcella and Tommen seem fine. So there is no harmful consequence to the kids in the form of birth defects.

Perhaps, instead, you claim that merely committing an act that could result in birth defects is immoral, even if that doesn’t happen.

I grant that, and think there is some moral failure here. However, I don’t think either Lannister intended to commit incest in order to increase the risk of their children having birth defects. They committed incest because they loved one another and, moreover, desired to extend the Lannister bloodline over the Baratheon line. Given that Tyrion was, at the time of their incest, a self-destructive libertine, it is not inconceivable that no true heir would be born to the Lannisters. In a world in which hereditary power is almost as important as real monetary or military power, risking birth defects for a continuation of the Lannister line seems a fair trade.

In the full context, the fact that Jamie and Cercei had children as a result of their incest does not make the incest immoral.

2. “It’s wrong because it was adultery against Robert Baratheon.”

Please. Adultery is adultery. It doesn’t matter who you are having sex with. No one argues hotels are immoral because people use them to have affairs.

3. “It’s wrong because it is against the religion of the Seven.”

First, remember the religion of the Seven also thinks “buggery” is immoral, so ask yourself if you think Loras did something immoral.

Second, neither Jamie nor Cercei strike me as particularly devout. While I do accept the argument that going against the teachings of a religion to which one has committed oneself is a significant moral failing (unless one has a compelling reason to believe those teachings are misinterpretations or contradict a greater, more central tenet of the religion), I don’t think that applies to either party here.

4. “It requires lying and deception.”

That’s only because the broader culture doesn’t accept it as moral. We wouldn’t argue that Loras Tyrell’s homosexuality is immoral for the same reason, would we?

5. “Look at how unhappy Jamie and Cercei are. Their relationship is in tatters.”

I’ll say it again. Jamie and Cercei are not nice people. Their lives are in a bad place because of many, many other bad decisions and poor behaviors. Jamie’s unrelenting selfishness and Cercei’s near universal malevolence are probably a bigger reasons for their current strife.

6. “Cercei is breaking the bloodline of the Baratheons, which is basically treason.”

While I agree this is a serious transgression in the world where true-born heirs are essential for governance, I’m skeptical of it as an argument against incest. Like the decision to have children at all, it does tarnish the decision to commit incest. However, Cercei could have decided to have some children with Robert and some with Jamie. Her choosing not to is a moral violation of her commitment to Robert as a queen, her commitment to her family as a mechanism of uniting houses, and her commitment to her marriage vows (which, whether or not she fully believes them, have some validity).

What I love about this argument is that it a) is set beautifully within the values and motives of Westeros and b) perfectly illustrates almost every confabulated argument against incest. The moral violation here is that Cercei did not give Robert an heir, not that she and Jamie slept together and progeny resulted. If nothing else changed save that no incest happened, Cercei would still be guilty of breaking the bloodline.

To complete the argument, one has to look at all the moral failings that seem connected to the act of incest and then attribute the innate failings of those behaviors to the act of incest. You can never directly argue the incest itself is wrong.

There you have it. After it’s all said and done, the worst thing we can say about Jamie and Cercei’s incest is, “It probably wasn’t their best moment, but wasn’t really that terrible either.” One could argue Robb Stark marrying Talisa was worse (though Walder Fray’s reaction was still grossly disproportionate). What we’re left with is an act that is ostensibly repugnant, yet on calm examination, hardly registers as a moral failing (particularly when compared with the other atrocities we’ve seen throughout the Seven Kingdoms).

What is astounding is that the show, in effect, forces us to see the persecution of Loras’ homosexuality as equal to Cercei’s persecution for incest. The snide remarks and aphorisms, the secrecy, the persecution: both are treated nearly identically within the world of Game of Thrones. Philosophically, the Lannisters’ incest is, like Loras’ having sex with men, merely a sexual act between two consenting adults. Like any consensual sexual encounter, there are risks, complications, and social norms to be navigated, but nothing insurmountable. We, as watchers of Game of Thrones are forced to ask: of all the crimes of which Jamie and Cercei are guilty, is incest one of them?

While I don’t know that any of us can answer that question just yet, Game of Thrones has made the discussion much, much more interesting.

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