Here's the second of Professor Victoria Martin's fascinating three-part investigation of the terms Nice, Good and Right as they apply to characters in the Discworld novels.

Having decided to examine the Discworld characters in terms of the three moral categories of Nice, Good, and Right, I shall turn my attention in this article to the question of Goodness, and in particular to the fact that it appears to have a significant downside. Discworld characters are not, by and large, unambiguously Good, but there are two who would figure on anybody's list: Carrot and Brutha. I intend to show that whilst the characters are unambiguously good, the concept of Goodness is not unambiguously positive, at least not as it is handled by Terry.

We should begin by noticing that our tripartite scheme of moral virtues implies a contrast between Goodness and Rightness - in other words, the Right course of action may not necessarily be Good and, conversely, the Good course of action may not necessarily be Right. In Murder in the Cathedral, TS Eliot's Becket muses that "The last temptation is the greatest treason/To do the right deed for the wrong reason". Terry, however, neatly inverts this viewpoint, seeming more troubled by the temptation to do "the wrong deed for the right reason". Of those characters who attempt to exert influence in the public sphere, he appears to approve most of the Realpolitiker, caring little for motives if only the results are beneficial. Lily Weatherwax's motives in governing Genua are, she believes, Good ("I'm the Good one"): she wishes to make the populace dwell in a safe, clean, happy city, where people (literally) lead fairy-tale lives. But though her motives may be Good, her actions are wrong. She seeks to impose the idyll by force, to compel people to be happy, rather than relying on negotiation and compromise. Indeed, Lily's assessment of herself as the Good one is undermined by the fact that she seeks to control not just the external environment but people's very identities. The freedom to be obnoxious is one that Terry appears to prize very highly.

Since Lily's claim to be Good is dubious, it is hardly fair to use her to attack the notion of Goodness, so we must turn instead to Carrot and Brutha. Terry expresses his doubts about Goodness in a post to in which he wrote that "Carrot is good, but that doesn't mean he's nice or right". In considering why Goodness might be problematic, and how being Good differs from being Right, it is worth recalling how the term is used in Into the Woods. Jack the Giant Killer has killed the giant and his widow is now devastating the Kingdom in revenge for her husband's murder. She makes it known that she will only stop if Jack is handed over to her. The Witch argues that this should have been done, since it is the most efficient way to prevent further devastation, and in making her case observes "I'm not Nice, I'm not Good, I'm just Right". The remaining characters protest that they cannot do this and band together in a rather hopeless attempt to fight the giant, for which the Witch scornfully dubs them "Nice". What, in this scheme of things, would the Good course of action be? The libretto of Into the Woods makes it clear that the giantess does indeed have a moral point; that Jack has behaved towards her husband as a common thief and murderer, but handing him over to vigilante justice would hardly be Good. Perhaps, instead, the Good course of action would be to acknowledge the rights of giants, to set up a court to try Jack, and to punish him in accordance with the legal framework. In other words, to sacrifice an individual member of the community to an overarching principle of justice that can have no meaning for the ordinary members of that community. Jack did not think of his slaying of the giant as murder, and neither did the audience as he chopped down the beanstalk. To see him executed for that act would be abhorrent. This rather abstract danger, of the sacrifice of the individual to impersonal ideals, is the threat I believe Carrot's Goodness poses. Terry seems to care much less about the sacrifice of individuals than pragmatism demands. Vetinari's emotional torturing of Vimes, and his (rumoured) use of the scorpion pit, are means which are apparently justified by their ends. The difference lies, perhaps, in the fact that the pragmatic rulers do not demand that the sacrificed individuals assent to their own sacrifice. They are not forced to conform inwardly; their personalities are left intact. It is notable that Brutha, the most saintly of all the Discworld heroes, achieves precisely this insight. For all his recognition of how people should behave towards one another for maximum happiness, he refuses to issue any kind of guidelines that would inhibit their ability to make up their own minds. Like Monty Python's Brian, be believes that "You've all got to work it out for yourselves." However, whilst Brutha's goodness is so far advanced that it ceases to try to exert even the mildest influence on people's minds, it also renders him ineffectual in the real world of action. It is only the pragmatic Om, cheerfully applying force to compel other gods to obey him, who prevents slaughter on a horrendous scale.

Carrot's Goodness, being less advanced, is potentially more dangerous, since he risks imposing his idealism on others. He believes, for instance, that people should not only pay their taxes but should want to pay their taxes; Angua observes that he brings out the best in people precisely by expecting that they will want to behave in this way. Moreover, Carrot's knowledge of and concern about everyone in the city leaves him curiously untouched personally (again, it is Angua who draws our attention to this). He makes people into what he wants them to be, at least temporarily; he shows them themselves reflected in the mirror of his own idealism, rather than allowing them to be the scum they are and then working with that material. Vimes explicitly alerts us to the danger in being ruled by a Good king, when he muses that an evil man will give you a chance (by wasting time on gloating) but a Good man will kill you without a sound. In an imperfect world, we need all the leeway provided by the human inadequacies of the evil man. A Good ruler will not provide that loophole.

Thus Goodness is shown to be problematic in the political context, though a wonderful thing in itself, because it either tries to control people's hearts and minds, to force them to be Good against their own inclinations; or, having recognised this paradox, must withdraw altogether from this sphere of action.

Victoria Martin

Previous page

Contents page

Next page

Issues index.

Web pages designed by Derek Moody
November 1998