Some arguments ought to throw themselves on a live grenade
August 26, 2012 § 16 Comments
Plenty of interlocutors invoke a kind of transitivity of bafflement in a way which supposedly fogs up the moral requirement not to kill the innocent. It goes something like this: “Golly, look at this baffling case of self-sacrifice, when a soldier throws himself on a grenade to save his fellows! Is it suicide? I’m so baffled! Therefore(!) the bombing of Hiroshima might have been morally licit after all!”
Supposedly moral bafflement is transitive: because moral questions of self-sacrifice putatively give rise to bafflement, it follows (through the implicit property of transitivity-of-bafflement) that other moral questions are baffling; especially the ones that Zippy talks about, like contracepted sex and blowing up innocent people with bombs.
The whole approach to argumentation is silly, of course, and is even alluded to by my favorite papal encyclical which goes into detail about the moral theology of human acts. (It is my favorite papal encyclical which goes into detail about the moral theology of human acts partly because it is, as it says itself explicitly, the only papal encyclical to go into detail about the moral theology of human acts). It says:
Although the [Catholic moral tradition] did witness the development of a casuistry which tried to assess the best ways to achieve the good in certain concrete situations, it is nonetheless true that this casuistry concerned only cases in which the law was uncertain, and thus the absolute validity of negative moral precepts, which oblige without exception, was not called into question.
Transitivity of bafflement is hokum and we really shouldn’t take it seriously once we recognize what is going on rhetorically. Nevertheless the question of self-sacrifice, and what distinguishes it from suicide, is interesting in its own right.
In the first place we should note that it is possible to commit suicide in multiple different ways.
Two of those ways are obvious: one can commit suicide either as one’s own act, or as formal cooperation with the act of another. In the first case I might blow my brains out with a gun; in the second, I might contract with Dr. Death to administer a lethal injection. In the first case my guilt arises from the intrinsic evil of my own chosen objective behaviour; in the second, it arises by formal cooperation: through the fact that I intend the intrinsically evil objective behaviour of another. In both cases the moral species depends upon the object of someone’s act: the objective behaviour chosen. My personal responsibility in the second case though arises through my formal cooperation with the intrinsically evil act of another person. If I don’t intend for Dr. Death to do the deed, I’m not committing suicide.
But there is a third kind of case. In this third kind of case, I can set someone else up to accidentally kill me. In such a case, the person who kills me attempts a certain act and kills me by accident. His material act is not the behavior he was attempting to choose, so it is not the moral object of his act. Nevertheless, because I snookered him intentionally, his material act is intended by me. The act is someone else’s, but as with the previous example of Dr. Death I am guilty by formal cooperation with the material behaviour of another person. My moral responsibility arises because I intend an evil action, even though the person who actually performs that action quite literally did not choose it.
A fourth kind of case is instantiated in, for example, the concept of “suicide by cop”. I don’t choose the behaviour that kills me, but because I intend my death I am nonetheless guilty of suicide: formal cooperation once again.
In general, then, suicide consists in either choosing an intrinsically self-killing action myself, or in intending my own death even though someone else does the deed. If my death requires the cooperation of others in addition to my own actions, it is only suicide when I intend that cooperation in addition to my own actions.
So how about the soldier and the grenade? He clearly doesn’t intend his own death. At the same time, his death isn’t predicated on his own behaviour in isolation, without the cooperative acts of others: it depends on the bad guy pulling the pin and throwing the grenade. If he were attempting suicide our soldier would have pulled the pin himself.
A kamikaze pilot, on the other hand, is himself choosing an objectively self-killing behaviour.
I don’t think this necessarily ends the discussion of the morality of self sacrifice. But I think self sacrifice may not be the wellspring of unanswerable bafflement that the bafflement-transitivitivists seem to think it is.