Morality in Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule

Brian G Turner

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SPOILERS!





I did - mostly - enjoy the book Wizard's First Rule. I thought for the most part the storytelling was very effective.

However, it's left a really bad after taste with regards to the morality of the characters.

Now, I don't mind being challenged on issues of morality - heck, I read a lot of mediaeval history and would personally like to see more of the mentality of that age represented in fiction - even though that would mean following characters who do things morally reprehensible by our own standard, but who believe they are doing the right thing.

The reader, of course, would see this conflict of morality and would not be expected to adhere or support the character's actions.

The problem I have with Goodkind's major characters in Wizard's First Rule is that they - specifically Kahlan and Zedd - appear innately evil by modern standards of morality, but we are given no counterfoil to put this into perspective.

In short, we must accept their "evil" and support it, else abandon the story, and I don't think that's a fair challenge.

Hence I'll get this off my chest to stop thinking about it:


1. Kahlan

We learn with suitable shock and horror what a Mother Confessor actually does.

When someone is accused of a crime, her job is to destroy the individual's sense of person in order to extract a willing confession.

She is essentially a cross between a Witchfinder General and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.

She destroys people for no other reason than she is asked to.

Goodkind tries to reduce the impact of this by her stating that she has only ever done this to 3 innocent people - and one of them, Brophy, is happy with the outcome, having been turned into a wolf.

Which still means that she conducted what is, in effect, full frontal lobotomies on at least 2 completely innocent people.

And those are just the ones she's conducted personally. As the head of the Confessors, her job is mostly to oversee that her employees continue to practice this.

The internal logic of the story here becomes flawed.

The numbers seem too low. It is made clear from the backstory provided of the Midlands that corruption among the nobility has always been a problem, and we see how this occurs through the example of Queen Milena.

Yet when Kahlan visits Queen Milena's prisons she never uses her power to judge the prisoners as would be expected - she simply looks at them and pronounces everyone innocent, out of convenience. Apparently, murder, rape, and theft, no longer occurs in this kingdom.

The expectation is that normally Kahlan would have had to destroy every single one of these accused to ascertain their guilt.

This all - IMO - makes Kahlan the moral equivalent of a death camp commandant. Her job is to oversee the destruction of people, for no other reason than it is her job to.

Numbers don't count here - someone who commits First Degree Murder against 2 people is not morally superior to someone who commits the same against 3. The law is clear that they are both morally reprehensible and must be subject to punishment by society.

Yet Goodkind never follows this logic, and presumes the reader will excuse her. I cannot.

It's interesting to see the Mord-Sith later on, as they attempt to achieve more or less the same result as a Confessor, simply through use of torture instead of instantaneous magic.

IMO this makes Kahlan little different from Mistress Denna. It is telling that Richard feels devoted to both, and pities each for the way they have their original innocence taken away to perform terrible duties. Though their methods are different, they are morally indistinguishable.


2. Zedd

The original, powerful, wizard of the First Order. An order that - when faced with the problem of male Confessors, solves it by killing every single child. And it's clear there are many.

It isn't simply genocide, it's eugenics on a massive scale. When faced with a problem, Zedd's order uses magic to implement a Final Solution.

We repeatedly see from Zedd's character that he's long-lived and seen many terrible things. Because of the backstory provided, my reading is that it implies that Zedd has directly had a hand in much of this, and justifies it all as serving a "greater good".

And yet - when faced with the original threat of the Rahl's, his solution is to shut a door on it and walk away, disgusted with rule in the Midlands. He abrogates his existing responsibility to protect people - even for the "greater good" until Darken Rahl rises and kills people left and right.

Because of this, he is left to force his own grandson to finish the responsibilities he himself abandoned, even though it threatens certain death and definite suffering.

IMO this makes Zedd look little better than a Joseph Goebbels.

He actively supports a social system that excuses the use of genocide and controlled extermination of his own people. And he takes no personal responsibility for any of it.

When he fails to keep to his original program, his forces his only grandchild to complete this for him, even though it means, at best, terrible suffering, and at worse, terrible suffering followed by death.

Of course, there's also the point that Zedd is absolutely happy to work alongside a Mother Confessor, and experiences no moral conflict in doing so. In fact, he seems to support the role of Confessors in this world, further condemning him.



As above, I don't mind morally challenging characters. But Goodkind - IMO - makes every effort to make it clear that Kahlan and Zedd are equivalent to Nazi's. As a modern reader, I would find that acceptable if there was a counterfoil that provided a separate moral perspective on this. But Goodkind never provides it.

The reader is left having to empathise and sympathise with the Nazi leadership, and worse - excuse them - without ever calling them to account for it.

It's that which really makes me uncomfortable.

Of course - I may have completely misunderstood the morality inherent in the story. These are my presumptions after reading it. I'm happy to read counter suggestions that I'm wrong. :)
 

SirSamuelVimes

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I completely agree with most of what you said. It always left me feeling a bit odd about the books, but I continued reading because the overall plot interested me.

The only thing I disagree with is part of the bit about Kahlan. The way I read it in the story, and I may be wrong, is that she would only confess someone who requested it. If someone was convicted of something, they could request her confessors touch to prove their innocence. She would touch them, then they could no longer lie. It's been a long time since I read the first book, but that's how I recall it. I could be wrong.
 

Brian G Turner

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The only thing I disagree with is part of the bit about Kahlan. The way I read it in the story, and I may be wrong, is that she would only confess someone who requested it. If someone was convicted of something, they could request her confessors touch to prove their innocence. She would touch them, then they could no longer lie. It's been a long time since I read the first book, but that's how I recall it. I could be wrong.

Yes, I remember something like that coming up, but it also seemed part of the inconsistency - because the only people who would request a confessor would be innocent people - innocent people about to have their personality destroyed.

Yet earlier, we were told that Confessors were used to extract confessions from the accused. In a sense, "the touch" as part of the punishment for the guilty.

It's also interesting that both Zed and Kahlan fear to tell Richard what a Confessor is. When he is finally told, he is suitably shocked. But then immediately forgives anything Kahlan may ever have done because he's deeply in love with her.

Didn't Kahlan explain that Confessors were feared by the general populace as well?

Almost a shame I didn't buy this on Kindle as I could have looked for specific quotes. However, I wanted to raise an issue for discussion rather than claim I'm entirely correct. :)
 

SirSamuelVimes

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Yes, I remember something like that coming up, but it also seemed part of the inconsistency - because the only people who would request a confessor would be innocent people - innocent people about to have their personality destroyed.

Yet earlier, we were told that Confessors were used to extract confessions from the accused. In a sense, "the touch" as part of the punishment for the guilty.

Yeah, I remember the touch being used as a punishment as well. I also thought that only innocent people would request the confessor's touch. I rationalized her still having to touch them, because if all it took was requesting a confessor to prove your innocence then everyone would do it.

The Confessors were definitely feared by the general populace. It comes up multiple times throughout the series. Kahlan goes to some places and inspires genuine terror, but others all she inspires is respect. I always thought it was meant to symbolize how justice inspires terror in the guilty, but respect in the innocent.
 

Werthead

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The morality in the series has always been very bizarre. Richard and Kahlan and their side often commit what can only be called atrocities, including the butchering of unarmed peace protestors, inflicting physical torture on enemies to get them to talk, abusing children (did you note the scene where Richard kicks an 8-year-old girl in the face after she calls him a nasty name?) and, when engaged in warfare against an enemy nation, engaging in the genocide of the unarmed civilian population. There's also another scene where Zedd and Kahlan brutally murder the ambassador from a friendly country after he declines to give them military support in a dubious foreign adventure.

Goodkind's philosophy seems to be Bush Neo-Conservatism write large ("If you are not with us, you are against us, all of you,") combined with his own, somewhat juvenile, worship of Ayn Rand and her school of Objectivism ("Behave like an arsehole, as long as it has no consequences for yourself,"). It makes for a series that may be unintentionally comical genius.

Goodkind does give us two of the finest scenes in the history of fantasy. First, when an evil shapeshifting entity intent on killing Kahlan takes on the form of a chicken, for no immediately (or indeed eventually) discernible reason and clucks menacingly at her, but doesn't actually kill her. People are still trying to figure that one out. It's such a weird scene that it's been parodied at least twice in other fantasy novels (Steven Erikson definitely rips the mickey out of it in Reaper's Gale, and I'm pretty sure Joe Abercrombie references it in Red Country when talking about some chickens that are suspected of evil deeds).

The second is when Richard, imprisoned by the evil enemy empire, breaks out of his cell and kills several dozen enemy guards. Rather than being executed, re-imprisoned, put in solitary or whatever, the impressed prison commandant gives Richard a star role on their football team.

Amazing.
 

SleepyDormouse

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Wow, its been a while since I read some of these (not all and not in order thanks to the library) but most of these scenes seem to have missed me! Maybe I read a lot less of the books than i thought, or perhaps my teenage brain just slid past most of it unseeing.

I do remember the chicken scene, and thinking it was very odd.

Didn't Richard have to be vegetarian to "balance" his killing?
 

Toby Frost

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Basically, from what I could tell, the book wasn't coming from the perspective of normal western morality (not necessarily left-wing or 'progressive' either), and so the things that he would consider good or just (assuming that there is justice in the Goodkind world beyond Vae Victis) simply aren't those that you or I would. Mercy, it seems, is just weakness. Since our heroes are inherently righteous, they are incapable of sin no matter what they do. I'm tempted to ask where Norman Spinrad is when you need him.

Add to that the rather intense interest in ladies with whips, and the whole business begins to look quite... odd.

Incidentally, someone once did a good spoof crossing Wizards First Rule with 1984. The chicken turned out to be hiding in Room 101.
 

Moggle

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Brian,

Kahlan made the decision to free the men based on two factors. The handful of men in those dungeons were not rapists or killers, but simple villagers. Their only crime had been to disagree with the Queen's policies openly. All of them were willing to be "confessed" by Kahlan to prove their innocence, something which no criminal would ever do, or so it is claimed in the book. Yet, in another part of the book we hear Kahlan speaking about the countless confessions she has had to take. So right there is a contradiction. Which are we supposed to believe, I don't know. Ultimately, what it boils down to do is that Confessors only come when they are asked for by the accused, and they only confess those who are slated to be executed. They don't just visit dungeons and voluntarily confess criminals accused of stealing or beating their wife.

Additionally, a little boy of perhaps 4-6 years old, which Kahlan actually knew, was also in those same dungeons. He was kidnapped by Darken Rahl earlier. It was upon hearing what the accused had to say and witnessing this small child in the dungeon that that Kahlan made the only logical decision, which was to set them free. She did not do it because it was convenient for her. That is the completely twisted version you have conjured up in your head. Does any of this in any way make Kahlan sound like a death camp commandant?
 

Brian G Turner

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Yet, in another part of the book we hear Kahlan speaking about the countless confessions she has had to take.

...

She did not do it because it was convenient for her. That is the completely twisted version you have conjured up in your head. Does any of this in any way make Kahlan sound like a death camp commandant?

What I mean is that her job is to take confessions to determine someone's guilt. As you've pointed out, there's an inconsistency in the internal logic here - she says she's taken many confessions, but it's also implied only the innocent would risk asking for one.

With regards to freeing people in Queen Milena's prisons - the assumption she makes is that everyone here must be guilty only of insulting the queen. This implies that Queen Milena's kingdom actually suffers no other crime, which I find hard to believe. Hence it's convenient - and seems inconsistent with the world already created.

Someone who destroys people - but it's okay, only a few are actually innocent - is someone I'd personally consider a morally reprehensible character. :)

It's funny - I was playing Skyrim last night and a similar issue comes up. A key part of the game is that the character you play can choose to help the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebellion.

At the beginning of the game it's implied your character has been wrongly sentenced for execution; someone who protests their innocence and tries to run is shot down in cold blood; and when escaping from the dragon you encounter a dungeon where Imperials have been torturing captives.

Yet I'm sure a lot of people would have no qualms about supporting the Imperial cause as they play the game. Heck, it was my choice when I played. Simply on the grounds that one of the Imperial's acts sympathetic and tries to help.

I'm curious - what do you personally recall about Zedd? I can't remember whether he was directly tied to the murder of the male confessors? Certainly the history of the Midlands seemed politically messed up!
 

Moggle

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What I mean is that her job is to take confessions to determine someone's guilt. As you've pointed out, there's an inconsistency in the internal logic here - she says she's taken many confessions, but it's also implied only the innocent would risk asking for one.

With regards to freeing people in Queen Milena's prisons - the assumption she makes is that everyone here must be guilty only of insulting the queen. This implies that Queen Milena's kingdom actually suffers no other crime, which I find hard to believe. Hence it's convenient - and seems inconsistent with the world already created.

Someone who destroys people - but it's okay, only a few are actually innocent - is someone I'd personally consider a morally reprehensible character. :)

It's funny - I was playing Skyrim last night and a similar issue comes up. A key part of the game is that the character you play can choose to help the Imperials or the Stormcloak rebellion.

At the beginning of the game it's implied your character has been wrongly sentenced for execution; someone who protests their innocence and tries to run is shot down in cold blood; and when escaping from the dragon you encounter a dungeon where Imperials have been torturing captives.

Yet I'm sure a lot of people would have no qualms about supporting the Imperial cause as they play the game. Heck, it was my choice when I played. Simply on the grounds that one of the Imperial's acts sympathetic and tries to help.

I'm curious - what do you personally recall about Zedd? I can't remember whether he was directly tied to the murder of the male confessors? Certainly the history of the Midlands seemed politically messed up!

Confessors are nothing more than tools. Do you find the noose that ends up hanging all these convicted men morally reprehensible? What about the axe that cuts off their heads?

Male confessors were around during a completely different age. Zedd may be old, but he's not that old. He just has the normal lifespan of any man.
 

Brian G Turner

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Confessors are nothing more than tools. Do you find the noose that ends up hanging all these convicted men morally reprehensible? What about the axe that cuts off their heads?

Fair's fair - inanimate objects such as ropes and axes are not normally considered to have the capacity for morality. :)

If someone is simply following orders, and simply tools of their government, does this excuse anyone from being judged?

It's interesting, though, because Goodkind does make a big point about relative morality in the story, and I really liked seeing that - not many fantasy stories will do that. Zedd explains that Darken Rahl does not consider himself evil, but instead, good, and it is a driver of Darken's belief that he is doing the right thing.

In fact, I presume Goodkind put in the Darken Rahl scenes in after raising the point of relative morality, precisely to ensure the reader isn't encouraged to to sympathise with Darken Rahl as potentially misunderstood.

Similarly, Kahlan thinks she is doing the right thing, and does not consider herself evil, but instead, good. The distinction here is that we never see her taking confessions, which might otherwise raise doubts about her moral position.
 

Werthead

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Goodkind certainly does believe in absolute morality: the absolute righteousness of Richard and Kahlan (and everyone else on Team Good Guys) is something that is emphasised throughout the series and excuses all manner of atrocities they commit. He allows them to make bad choices based on incomplete or falsified information, but no more than that. There is one sequence where a former evil villainess is convinced to join Richard's side by him showing how awesome and right he is, but the moral justification for Richard agreeing to is appears to be that she's good-looking.

I think Goodkind may have tipped his toe in the pool of relative morality because that thing was big in the mid-1990s (even before AGoT came out), but ultimately chose to portray Richard as a flawless ubermensch instead and show him and Kahlan being right about everything.
 

Moggle

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Fair's fair - inanimate objects such as ropes and axes are not normally considered to have the capacity for morality. :)

If someone is simply following orders, and simply tools of their government, does this excuse anyone from being judged?

It's interesting, though, because Goodkind does make a big point about relative morality in the story, and I really liked seeing that - not many fantasy stories will do that. Zedd explains that Darken Rahl does not consider himself evil, but instead, good, and it is a driver of Darken's belief that he is doing the right thing.

In fact, I presume Goodkind put in the Darken Rahl scenes in after raising the point of relative morality, precisely to ensure the reader isn't encouraged to to sympathise with Darken Rahl as potentially misunderstood.

Similarly, Kahlan thinks she is doing the right thing, and does not consider herself evil, but instead, good. The distinction here is that we never see her taking confessions, which might otherwise raise doubts about her moral position.

That would depend on what this person is being asked to do. Kahlan's job is the equivalent of the guard who has to flip the switch to the electric chair as far as I'm concerned. Should the guard be judged using your line of thinking? I suppose you can, but it would be a rather pointless evaluation of his morality.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I can't imagine that in any country that was not under a cruel and tyrannical regime choosing someone to do that duty if that person were morally opposed to it. So either the government is cruel and tyrannical, or he has a choice, and when he exercises that choice and agrees to be the one to pull the switch, then his morality is open to question by those who consider capital punishment to be immoral.

Even under a tyrannical regime, he could still say no and face the consequences. Any person with free will can always say no. So the question is, what would happen to Kahlan if she did not play that role? Does she play it willingly? Does she agree with what she does? If so, she leaves herself open to questions about her morality in doing so. Even if there would be consequences to her if she didn't do it, would those consequences be serious enough that readers would be willing to agree that moral or immoral they might do the same thing?
 

Moggle

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I can't imagine that in any country that was not under a cruel and tyrannical regime choosing someone to do that duty if that person were morally opposed to it. So either the government is cruel and tyrannical, or he has a choice, and when he exercises that choice and agrees to be the one to pull the switch, then his morality is open to question by those who consider capital punishment to be immoral.

Even under a tyrannical regime, he could still say no and face the consequences. Any person with free will can always say no. So the question is, what would happen to Kahlan if she did not play that role? Does she play it willingly? Does she agree with what she does? If so, she leaves herself open to questions about her morality in doing so. Even if there would be consequences to her if she didn't do it, would those consequences be serious enough that readers would be willing to agree that moral or immoral they might do the same thing?

Whether Kahlan agrees or disagrees has very little to do with it. The accused ask for her and she obliges, as per their request. What she does is neither moral nor immoral.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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So are you saying that if you or I did something that somebody asked us to do to them, we would be free of any moral responsibility for the action, whatever it was?
 

Foxbat

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Perhaps it's worth folk having a look at the words of Doctor Allan Ault who continued to carry out executions despite his growing misgivings.

BBC News - Electric chair haunts US former executions chief

From one standpoint, Ault was just doing his job. On the other hand, he could have walked away (and eventually did, but admitted by then it was too late). There were no real consequences to speak of (apart from losing the job) if he walked away, but it took him a long time to do it.

I think this shows that morality is never clear cut and never immune to other pressures. We can say they should do 'this' or they should do 'that', but we're not standing in their shoes.
 

Moggle

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So are you saying that if you or I did something that somebody asked us to do to them, we would be free of any moral responsibility for the action, whatever it was?

If that is how the legal system within that society works, then yes. Confessors are born, raised and trained for this very purpose. No one is confessed unless a formal request is made by the accused and only when the accused is slated to be executed. Sorry, but there really isn't much of a debate here.
 

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