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.

§ 16 Responses to Some arguments ought to throw themselves on a live grenade

  • Scott W. says:

    I remember in you catalog of failed arguments you attached labels like “appeal to finer detail” “false premise”, “see no evil”. Looks like you ought to add “transitivity-of-bafflement”.

  • It is similar to the “mutilated analogy”, differing in what is implicitly assumed to be transitive (“tortureness” vs “bafflement”, or something.)

    Omitting facts in an analogy is what some seem to find so compelling about (e.g.) amputation. All you have to do is ask “what objective facts is he leaving out?” Yet when I ask that, bafflement often persists as a consequentialist shelter in the truth-storm.

  • johnmcg says:

    This week’s This American Life looked at the 16th Century practice of “suicde by proxy” wherein a person who wanted to commit suicide but save her soul would kill a child, be sentenced to death, and “repent.”

    The other story is an interesting exercise in moral hair-splitting as well.

    Seems there’s nothing new under the sun.

  • slumlord says:

    So if a guy jumps on a grenade for a million dollars and hopes to survive it’s morally licit?

  • johnmcg says:


    I won’t speak for zippy, but because my way of thinking is that jumping on the grenade and hoping to survive is not intrinsically immoral, and thus subject to further PDE analysis.

    At this point, it fails miserably, so though it may not be intrinsically immoral, the action you describe is not morally licit.

  • johnmcg says:

    My analysis may be off as well, since in the case you describe, the guy is actively choosing the behavior that could kill him. Similar to playing Russian Roulette.

    I’m not positive if this is in a category of acts that are classified as intrinsically immoral, but I am satisfied that, at a minimum, they are not prudent.

  • Gosh, I can’t think of a single objective fact to distinguish the cases.

  • slumlord says:


    The act of jumping onto a grenade is not intrinsically immoral. But what the act does is ensure a consequence which is evil. Namely, the foreseeable death of the soldier. Zippy’s argument that the soldier is not guilty of suicide because “the grenade did it” after someone else pulled the pin, defies common sense.

    Clearly, Zippy seems to be justifying the soldiers action through a dual mechanism. Firstly, the soldier is not jumping on the grenade for its own sake but in order to save his friends. i.e good intent. Secondly, the other soldier pulled the pin and therefore our heroic solider is not responsible.

    He satisfies Zippy’s criteria of good action.
    1) He wants to do a good thing. i.e provide for his child.
    2) He was not responsible for his death. i.e the grenade did it.

    But suppose our solider had a life insurance policy which would be enough to cover his kid’s education. He doesn’t want to die but he loves his kid so much that he wants him to succeed, and jumps on the grenade in order for his estate to receive the funds. Zippy’s logic would absolve the soldier of any sin. Most normal people would feel extremely uncomfortable with this.

    A man who steps in front of the path of a moving train does not sin by the act of walking onto the train track, but in placing himself in a situation which will foreseeably ensure his death. He can’t very well say, “When I stepped onto the tracks the train should have stopped and therefore it is not my responsibility.”

    Human actions are mechanisms by which we attempt to instantiate our intentions. Either through direct action or indirectly through the consequences of the act. A man stabbing himself in the chest directly kills himself, a man stepping on the train tracks does so indirectly (he places himself in a position where he foreseeably sees that the train will kill him.)

    Veritatis Splendor is absolutely correct that certain actions are always and everywhere immoral. Adultery, for example, is an example of a direct action that is always and everywhere intrinsically immoral. You can’t commit adultery by consequence.

    Cutting for example, is not intrinsically immoral but may be consequentially. Cutting human flesh is not immoral per se, but the consequences of cutting the flesh are. That is, there is a resultant privation of human form. If cutting the flesh were good, then self mutilation would not gain any censure. Surgery, which nearly always mutilates or scars the body in some way is immoral if considered from the mutilation aspect alone. Surgery is only permissible because apart from the mutilation that it causes it also has other beneficial effects.

    Zippy’s problem is that he can’t separate the act from the consequence and therefore acts gain there morality dimension through a “transitivity of consequence.”

  • slumlord:
    Your attempts to paraphrase my position, and its implications for other cases, have failed completely. That could stem from a lack of understanding, of course. It could also stem from an attempt to lie about my position.

    Either way, it is a complete failure. Your paraphrases of my position are just flat out wrong.

  • slumlord says:

    There’s no lying involved. Lying is deliberate deception. Your arguments are clearly written out as are mine. There is no way I can decieve people about what you have said when they can see it clearly written. The fact that your logic leads to absurdities is more a problem of your logic than a slur on my honesty. If I have mischaracterised your argument then point it out.

    Oh, and Bill.

    Thanks in advance for the help.

  • slumlord:

    Your arguments lead to the conclusion that we should kick puppies and pee on cats. I can’t help it if your logic leads to that conclusion: it is there for everyone to see. If I’ve mischaracterized your argument show where.

  • slumlord says:

    Your arguments lead to the conclusion that we should kick puppies and pee on cats.

    Nope, and the appeal to emotion (puppies, cats,babies, etc) won’t help you here.

    All I have said is that the morality of the act is separate to the morality of the consequences instantiated by that act.

    Surgery, like bombing, is totally impermissible if the negative consequences are the sole considerations only. Surgery, which causes foreseeably causes mutilation is just as wrong as bombing which foreseeably causes civilian deaths by this approach.

  • slumlord:
    All I have said is that the morality of the act is separate to the morality of the consequences instantiated by that act.

    That isn’t all you’ve said, actually. Plenty of what you’ve said has shown a fairly comprehensive lack of comprehension of what I wrote.

  • On the off chance that slumlord actually doesn’t get it and isn’t just trolling, I’ll analyze the insurance policy case.

    In this case the entire scenario is identical except for what goes through the soldier’s mind and why he makes the decision to jump on the grenade: that is, his intentions.

    We’ve already cast doubt on the notion that the action is intrinsically immoral, because it requires the cooperation of others in order to kill him. A slightly clearer scenario is an assassin with a rifle: the assassin has not yet pulled the trigger when the secret service agent jumps in front of the President.

    So let’s assume the action is not intrinsically self-killing, and therefore not intrinsically immoral, because it requires the cooperative actions of others in order to actualize killing. It can now be analyzed under double effect, making reference to the soldier’s intentions: that is, whether the soldier intends his own death.

    Slumlord tells us that the soldier’s intention is not to save his fellows, which – saving his fellows – does not strictly require his own death. If he lives, he has still saved them. Rather it is to cash in on a life insurance policy. He must actually die in order to achieve his end. Because the good effect he intends is caused by the bad effect of his death — if he fails to die, he fails to achieve his goal — the action fails double effect and is immoral.

    The “someone will pay him a million to jump on the grenade” scenario cannot involve the same objective action, because it requires premeditation and preparatory actions. But even if we stipulated that it isn’t intrinsically immoral, it would certainly fail double effect.

  • John K. says:

    Apologies for the necromancy, but I find myself rather troubled by the point about the kamikaze pilot. Let’s say the pilot somehow survives crashing his plane into an enemy ship, or that he manages to eject safely from his plane before crashing it. He’d have achieved his object, namely to damage the enemy ship, but he would still be alive. Would that not, then, pass the Principle of Double Effect? Apologies in advance if I’m being obtuse and not seeing some obvious point here.

  • Zippy says:

    John K,

    Keep in mind that the “object” isn’t what the acting subject intends to accomplish. The “object” is the objective behaviour that the acting subject chooses. It is “intended” precisely because he chooses it, but the “it” in question is an objective species of behaviour, which we then attempt to characterize morally.

    In “hard cases” it can be difficult to accurately characterize the objective behaviour chosen; but this casuistic state of affairs in “hard cases” does not call into question any general principle, nor is the “bafflement” in hard cases transitive to less hard cases: that is the point I made in the OP.

    All that said we can revisit the kamikaze and contrast the behavior in question to the grenade hero, even though the latter is a “hard case” from the standpoint of casuistry. Perhaps there are various “intuition pumps” that can clarify what distinguishes them.

    One thing we can do is put ourselves in the place of someone hearing about the incident secondhand.

    “He threw himself on a grenade to save his friends!” said Mary.

    “Oh my! Did he survive?” asks Ted

    “Sadly no; he died in surgery” said Mary

    “He successfully carried out a kamikaze attack on the carrier” said Mikio.

    “Did he survive?” asked Yakuzi.

    “I said it was successful” said Mikio.

    Other “intuition pumps” are probably possible. But even though I think the behavioral differences between the two kinds of situations are pretty strong once we step back and stop trying to overthink it — philosophy is good as long as it actually clarifies the truth, and isn’t so good when it becomes disconnected from reality — someone who isn’t convinced of the distinction here is making a basic error in judgment in attempting to make that bafflement transitive and apply it to inherently clearer cases.

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