Perhaps I am realising something that was obvious to all of you all along, but I was genuinely surprised by how bleak and cynical the Witcher's ultimate moral outlook is. It is highly individualistic and strongly anti-consequentialist, and certainly would lend itself to some serious debates regarding moral intuitions if the story had not already made up its mind as to which of the two opposing ones is right.
When I take a step back from the excellent character work and the deconstruction of the various fantasy/mythological tropes in the Witcher series, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, I am left with one niggling, overarching question about the philosophical orientation and morals of the series:
- should hundreds of millions die if saving them entails morally questionable actions toward the individual that can save them?
Is the saga's (& Sapkowski's) outlook that consequentialism is rotten and deontologist ethics is obviously good?
Now, Sapkowski lets his story revolve around the classic juxtaposition of destiny (predetermination) and choice (free will). The story arrives at a conclusion, in various contexts throughout, that choice should triumph over destiny – or, more precisely, that choice is the 'something more' that makes destiny viable/come true/a force of good. Destiny is, after all, also called a source of hope. But if destiny requires the subjugation of an individual's free will, then that destiny is abhorrent and should die a fiery death (or even, that such destiny is therefore a bunch of humbug thrown around by self-interested parties – a claim that is not entirely true, since the last two novels provide a scientific explanation for the catastrophe awaiting the world).
The story is also extremely cynical about all actors who claim to have a 'higher purpose' in mind, to the point of outright writing all "ends justifying the means" characters as somehow evil, untrustworthy, selfish, and power-hungry. In itself, that is surprisingly biased reading of consequentialism, albeit perhaps telling of the author's own disposition? It seems almost as if Sapkowski does not believe at all that systemic changes brought about by individuals are possible on the large scale of things, because people are inherently corrupt. Whether it is the Lodge, Emhyr, the Northern monarchs, or the Aen Elle.
In rough, layman's terms about these philosophical schools:
- End's justifying the means = consequentialism/utilitarianism.
- No matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden = deontologism.
One is the foil of the other. It seems to me that the viewpoint that emerges triumphant at the end of the saga is heavily tilted in favour of supporting deontic ethics. All one can do is do the right thing about their loved ones and their fellow man – basic decency that takes into account that society consists of individuals. Because ultimately, it is impossible to not choose between a greater and lesser evil. Might as well just try to do as little harm as possible in the immediate surroundings, even if blindly to the big picture. This is fine on the level of individuals, but if one brings in wide-scaling policies, world-altering powers, and so on, the picture becomes far hazier, imo.
Take this iconic bit of dialogue between Emhyr, who wishes to marry and impregnate Ciri, and Geralt, who still maintains that evil is evil, even though he has already seen that neutrality is impossible.
“The ends justify the means,” the Emperor said flatly. “I do it for the future of the world. For its salvation.”
“If you have to save the world like this,” the witcher lifted his head, “this world would be better off disappearing. Believe me… it would be better to perish.”
The line by Geralt is punchy, memorable and moralising, and certainly one I can empathise with given what exactly the Emperor wants to do, but if one is to take a step back from the characters one loves and attempt to do a moral calculation then this stance also argues for a nihilism that is pretty hard to digest if advocated as a general directive.
So, if the Witcher's story were to serve a moral lesson it would be this:
- the inherent inviolability of individual choice should always triumph over demands set on the invidual by the eventual consequences of choices taken/not taken.
In particular, this concerns Ciri.
As long as Ciri is being forced to step before the chariot of predestination, it is perverse and wrong. One can hope she chooses to help out of her own free will, of course, but realistically, that is very unlikely by the end of the saga given how much suffering this world with its people has caused her. It is regrettable that the world contains people who do horrible things, and therefore, Geralt’s dismissal of them is understandable. It is not Ciri’s fault that the world is in peril, and that she could give birth to time-space Jesus. She deserves a break more than anybody.
- However, is it, therefore, fine to leave that world to its fate?
- Is it fine to let innocents fend for themselves and perish even if you could do something about it – esp. if it is known that catastrophe will occur?
- Is it even necessary to fret about the world, or should an individual with extraordinary capabilities serve themselves first and foremost?
- Are they obligated to help, to do anything?
These are all intentionally provocative questions, though I think the reader, more often than not, comes away from the saga with the idea that this world ought to perish. Did you? Should it?
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