The Ethics of Avasarala
By Gerald Browning
The complexity of the characters and the moral ambiguity of the storylines on The Expanse create compelling programing. And no character is as morally ambiguous and mysterious as the cool, calculating Chrisjen Avasarala (played exceptionally well by Shohreh Aghdashloo). With a stroke of a pen or a whisper in an ear, she has destroyed many lives at a whim. In one of her very first scenes we see that Avasarala is not above torturing others to get what she wants. As devious and deceptive as her actions are, is Chrisjen Avasarala a good person?
Chrisjen Avasarala comes from an aristocratic family. Martian separatists killed her father, and her son was a Marine who was killed in the line of duty defending Earth from “Belter revolutionaries.” So we see how invested Avasarala may be. I use the terms “may be” simply because Avasarala effectively hides her emotions behind a stoic exterior. There are certain people she is close to, but to almost everyone else, she seems almost cold. Indeed, she seems to view emotions as something to control. We even see instances where Chrisjen uses emotions (such as sentimentality) as weapons (or tools) to accomplish a particular goal. One example of this can be seen in the first season of the show with her friend, Franklin DeGraaf, who is an ambassador to Mars and a personal friend of the Avasarala family. He had close ties to her father and has been to Avasarala’s family home on a number of occasions. Avasarala manipulates her friend by lying to him in order to monitor certain Martian stealth ships. When DeGraaf’s superiors find out about this, they accuse him of revealing secret information, which leads to his banishment from Mars, a place that he considered a home and wanted to retire to. DeGraaf falls into a deep depression and it appears that he committed suicide in a later episode of season two. However, this suicide is questionable because it appeared to have been staged. Before this, in Avasarala’s last talk with DeGraff, he tells her of a story where she demonstrates her desire to win at all costs. He tells her he “doesn’t want to play” with her anymore. One could see that Chrisjen Avasarala was hurt by this, but she tries not to let it show.
Avasarala seems cold, but she assures her colleagues that she is saddened by her loss, even going so far as to blame herself for certain minor details that she missed. Another “convenient” situation that she exploited was to go through DeGraaf’s office soon after his death. DeGraaf’s widower, upon seeing Avasarala at his home, acted very cold to her. He knew how manipulative she could be, and told her that even though DeGraaf had a soft spot for her (since he was friends with her father), the friendship did not extend to him.
Avasarala has repeatedly been proven to be a person who can compartmentalize her emotions (which leads to the potential manipulation of others’ emotions). She has worked with her enemies and people who distrust her to accomplish her goals. After being wounded during an attack by Jules-Pierre Mao and Sadavir Errinwright, Avasarala recuperates on board the Rocinante with Holden and his crew. She works with them even though Naomi Nagata does not trust (or like) her.
Real stoicism, though, is about more than controlling emotions. In order to be a good person and a good stoic, one must act virtuously. So even though Chrisjen keeps her emotions in check, and rationally uses emotions to accomplish her own goals, she is not a Stoic. The fact that she can keep her emotions in check serves her well throughout the series, of course. As she uncovers Project Caliban, we see that she had to deal with assassination attempts and experimental human hybrid creatures. Having nerves (and emotions) of steel may have helped her to get through difficult situations.
Utilitarianism is the moral theory that tells us to act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The end can justify the means. Avasarala violates moral rules, but her endgame (or final objective) is moral. She is willing to lie or cheat to get the results that she wants. Avasarala is a master at the political game, and she expresses an interest in avoiding war (between Earth and Mars) at all costs. With her main goal to prevent a war, to protect Earth, and potentially save millions upon millions of lives, she may be committing evil actions for a greater good.
Even though her thoughts may be focused on her perception of “the greater good,” Chrisjen’s actions are deceptive. Avasarala conspires with Cotyar, who is a noted spy and is not held in good esteem by other politicians and government officials. In order to get what she wants and achieve her goal, Avasarala will do whatever it takes. That is what Franklin DeGraaf refers to in one of his last scenes with her. The viewer can see another example of this “greater good” mentality in season two where she allies with Cotyar to get a connection to Col. Fred Johnson. Once Cotyar gets the connection between Avasarala and Johnson established, he reminds her that conversing with Johnson could be considered treasonous by the United Nations. Avasarala responds, “If I do nothing, millions could die.” Her motives appear utilitarian. She seems to be keeping the best interests of the citizens of Earth in mind when she makes the moves that she makes. Chrisjen reaches out to a man who she has publicly bashed in the hopes of getting one step closer to peace. Throughout season two of The Expanse, we see Col. Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala working together. So we see that she is doing something that is wrong (consorting with “the enemy”) in order to do something that is perceived to be righteous.
Utilitarianism is often contrasted with deontology, which argues that morality is all about following one’s duty no matter what. Avasarala is happy to commit nefarious actions and break moral rules when it suits her purposes. In other words, to Chrisjen Avasarala, the ends justify the means.
Avasarala is a person with a vision and a plan. Few, if any, know of her true intentions and she has no qualms about running over anyone who comes between her and her goals. When she finds out that Undersecretary Sadavir Errinwright and Jules-Pierre Mao are involved with instigating a war between Mars and Earth, Chrisjen Avasarala mounts an investigation to collect evidence to bring down the duo. She confronts Errinwright to give a message to Mao. In that message, she threatens Mao’s family and the empire that he has built. Avasarala had a mission and would not let anything stand in her way. Not even morality. From Avasarala’s perspective, the morally correct goal is to avoid interplanetary war.
However, there are others who view this situation differently. Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobby” Draper is an officer within the Martian Marine Corps. Having seen a unit she belonged to decimated in a conflict, Draper is eager to go to war with Earth.
With Avasarala’s son killed by Martian soldiers, it would make sense for the Secretary General to not trust Draper; however, that is not the case. Draper defected to the UN after she learned about Project Caliban, a hybrid creature that was weaponized by Jules-Pierre Mao and his company. Draper, who seems to move from a soldier who acted purely on orders from the Martian Marine Corps, acts more from her moral compass.
Another character who acts as a stark contrast to Avasarala is Naomi Nagata (as we see in season 3). When a wounded Chrisjen Avasarala arrives on the Rocinante, there is no love lost between Nagata and Avasarala. Even though Nagata harbors a lot of self-loathing due to being forced to abandon a child, she has a very strong sense of right and wrong.
Nagata (a belter) seems to take particular issue with Avasarala. Nagata knows that Avasarala is very manipulative, so she has concerns about Chrisjen’s motives. After Nagata gives a valuable sample of the coveted protomolecule that Chrisjen wanted to Fred Johnson, Avasarala and Nagata have a conversation in which Naomi warns her about trying to obtain a sample of the protomolecule and Avasarala tells Naomi that they will NOT be friends. They have different codes of ethics and perceptions of right and wrong, but they both believe that their methods are for the greater good.
The juxtaposition of these two characters is compelling. It can be argued that Naomi Nagata has not always acted morally and is in no place to cast aspersions. She abandoned her child. She went behind Holden’s back to give the protomolecule to Fred Johnson. So, even though Nagata’s choices and actions have seemed more honorable than Avasarala’s, she does not have clean hands. Nagata and Avasarala may be coming from (literally) different worlds, but I would argue that they are both fundamentally good. Avasarala is more used to planning for the long game. She is better at strategy and making decisions that affect the future. By contrast, Naomi Nagata (and to an extent Roberta Draper) are very good at making moral decisions that affect the here and now. With the fact that both Draper and Nagata have both made virtuous decisions (and many of them, by the way), they may be viewed as “good” people.
What Does Virtue Have to Do with It?
Chrisjen Avasarala is a politician. And as a politician, she can tell you that she is doing the right thing, and have you believe it! Part of what makes Avasarala such a compelling character is her ability to tell you what you want to hear. She is a convincing politician. She also will do whatever it takes to win and achieve her goals. With Chrisjen’s duplicitous nature, her true motives may not even have been revealed yet. The compelling thing about her is the fact that she can always surprise you. Even though her actions may not be good, her overall reasoning for doing what she does is good. I would argue that ultimately Avasarala is a good person, who is trying to accomplish a good goal.
Gerald Browning is a professor of English and Self Defense at Grand Valley State University, Muskegon Community College, and Montcalm Community College. He has contributed to works such as Black Panther and Philosophy, Deadpool and Philosophy, and American Horror Story and Philosophy. He has published a horror novel and several short stories in the mystery and horror genres.