At Religion Dispatches, George Schmidt offers an analysis of the morality in George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, looking in particular at what Reinhold Niebuhr can tell us about the differences in leadership style between Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister:
Placing traditional theodicy aside for a moment, the question after all this misery is simple: Why did Eddard die? At the outset, identifying Eddard’s death as a simple tragedy misses an important point that is often made by Christian realists. Tragedy, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed in The Irony of American History, elicits “admiration as well as pity” for a man like Eddard. We pity him for such a terrible finality while we admire his conviction and compassion for Cersei and her children.
However, tragedy does not account for the way in which, to quote Niebuhr once again, “virtues are vices.” This lack of dialectical thinking, according to which human agency is essentially either virtuous or sinful, is unthinkable in Christian realism. An idealist who quickly classifies an event as tragic fails to take into account the evil that is an “inevitable consequence of the exercise of human creativity”: the evil that is in the good.
Irony, however, notes that the very quality that made Eddard worthy of praise ultimately led to his downfall. For Niebuhr, irony is fundamentally a religious category, presupposing a divine judge who “laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.” The Christian realist interpretatively locates irony in spaces of “hidden meaning” that “elicit not merely laughter but a knowing smile.” This “knowing smile” in turn acknowledges the failings in the virtues themselves by revealing absurd juxtapositions of “strength and weakness; of wisdom through foolishness; or foolishness as the fruit of wisdom; of guilt arising from the pretensions of innocency; or innocency hiding behind ostensible guilt.”
By contrast, Tyrion does not trust in the nobility of others:
Upon the execution of Eddard Stark, in perhaps the major juxtaposition of the series thus far, Tyrion Lannister is then appointed to the newly vacant office of Hand of the King. Eddard’s moral sentimentalism prompts his trusting of those who would ultimately betray him, whereas Tyrion devises elaborate ruses to trick would-be enemies. Unlike Eddard, Tyrion is not deluded by moral illusions and therefore capable of predicting the direction of self-interest in the pursuits of those around him.
This leads him to a consideration of Niebuhr's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, in which Niebuhr reflects on the way in which niavety about the role of self-interest in political life has hobbled the ability of Christians to effectively and sucessfully fight for social justice:
It’s the charge of the transcendent that differentiates Christian realism from pure realism. Which is to say that Christian realism’s emphasis upon transcendence, provides an enduring, critical judgment, centered on the Gospel, upon any accommodation of the ideal in politics. In Simon Critchley’s formulation, this imperative is experienced as an “infinite demand” that interrupts the politics of accommodation that so often weigh down realist efforts. Christian realism, in other words, finds its fulfillment in a synthesis between the two Hands of the King, Eddard Stark and Tyrion Lannister.
In the main, I agree with Schmidt's analysis, though I still have cause to wonder whether or not Martin has any such transcendent moral vision in store for us at the end of his story. Thus far he's been fairly scornful of the idea that the end result of the political struggle is the establishment of social justice, and seems to be suggesting that, in the end, all succumbs to dust and entropy, or that on the whole those willing to give themselves wholly over to their will to power will ultimately prevail.
How he ends his story will tell us much about the moral world in which he dwells.