Sunday, May 28, 2006

Captain Oates and Altruistic Suicide

Quentin de la Bedoyere (QB), writing in the Catholic Herald (successive issues, May 2006) raises the question of Captain Oates leaving his companions, on their antarctic expedition, in order to maximise their chances of survival (since he would not be using up stores etc.). Oates simply left the camp and walked into the wilderness to certain death. Was this wrong?
QB addresses one response: it was permissible because Oates's intention was to benefit his companions, and not to die himself. QB replies: Oates accomplished his helping of the others by his own death. Since one must intend one's means, he intended his death.
I reply: Oats's death was not a necessary part of Oates's plan; it was his absence, or better, his non-use of the scarce resources, which was necessary, and this was accomplished by his walking away from camp (to certain death).
Similarly, the man who jumps out of an overladen life-boat, to lighten it, intends to lighten it, and to jump out (as a means to that), but does not (necessarily) intend his own death, which does nothing to advance his plan of saving the remaining people. (On this example see Henry Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology.)
As a matter of fact, Oates is on record as advocating suicide using a revolver as a way out in these situations, and wanted a revolver on the expedition for the purpose. This would obviously involve the intention of death, since the only way shooting oneself brings about one's non-use of scarce resources is by one's being killed. This suggests Oates's intention may have been to kill himself. However this does not change the principles at work in the case.


Daniel Hill said...

I agree with you, Joseph, but note that his name is `Oates', and it was an *antarctic*, not an arctic, expidition.

Joseph Shaw said...

Bless you Daniel! I've corrected it.

Daniel Hill said...

Here is another (imaginary) case, from my paper on torture:
I am in a sealed space with two others half my size. We know that we shall be rescued, but we also know that there isn’t enough air for us all to last out until then. We have a revolver. The others point out that if only one of them committed suicide there still wouldn’t be enough air (thanks to my huge lungs) to last out, and that it wouldn’t be right for both of them to commit suicide when only one life need be lost. They insist that I must commit suicide to ensure that I am not breathing the precious air that would keep them going.
I can see that somebody might assert that in this case I don’t intend to kill myself when I shoot myself, merely to stop myself breathing for the next hour or so. But surely killing is the only way (presently) to stop someone from breathing for an hour or so. What do others think?

Has anything similar to this (apart from the Oates case) ever happened, I wonder?

Joseph Shaw said...

The proposal is to intend to kill the innocent, for a good result: no question about it.

If you were able to stop breathing, to save air, forseeing your death, that would be another matter. Put a plasic bag over your head? I'm not sure about that one.

It reminds me of JJ Thompson's growing baby argument, and the debate about ectopic pregnancies. The life of one person threatens the life of another. But that doesn't mean you can kill; they can't be described at material aggressors, just for respiring and growing.

See also Frances Kamm on respiration cases: breathing out germs and so on.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks for this, Joseph. I'm pleased that your comments help us a little further to a definition of `material aggressor'. (I fear that your earlier definition ‘person who is a causal factor in an impending harm, and harming whom could avert the harm’ was too broad, as the foetus could satisfy this relative to the mother, and I'd satisfy this relative to my fellow captives in my imaginary case.) Surely we'd want to add other things to respiration and growth, however. I don't think you could kill me (e.g. by shooting me) in order to throw my corpse out of a lifeboat just because I'm so heavy I'm sinking it, even if you said `I'm not trying to kill him just trying to get him to be docile so that it's easy for us to chuck him overboard'.

And Oates wasn't a material aggressor just because he was eating and drinking precious resources. It wouldn't have been OK for Scott to have killed him to stop him from so doing, even if Scott had said `I'm intending only to stop him consuming; I'm just trying to knock out those parts of his brain, not the whole thing'. (Would it have been OK for Scott to have refused to have given him rations? Yes, I think so.)

I'm also inclined to think that somebody taking up needed space isn't thereby a material aggressor: we are being crushed in a machine, but I can zap you with a raygun to give myself the extra space I need to survive. It's not permissible for me so to do, and I don't think one could say `I intended not to kill but merely to prevent your body from taking up any space'. (Would it be OK for me to chuck you out in some way to give myself space? Yes, I guess so. Compare the story of Yates and Joe `Touching The Void' Simpson.)

Finally, I don't even think that a person falling on me from a great height can be considered a material aggressor. Again, I don't think one can say `I zapped you with my raygun not to kill you but merely to prevent you from exerting a physical force on me'. (Again, it might be permissible for me to stick up a spike to catch your fall and save my life while impaling you fatally.)

These excuses do suggest that we need either a good definition of `killing' or a list of human goods that one may not licitly intend to deprive. (This is also necessary to prevent Finnis, Grisez, etc. from saying that it's permisisble to intend to cut a baby up as long as one doesn't intend to kill it.) If this list includes long-term respiration then that would rule out your putting a plastic bag over my head to prevent me from breathing for a long time.

Can you give me a reference to the Kamm please?

Thanks very much,


Joseph Shaw said...

Kamm: 'Morality, Mortality' (book), can't remember where. The whole thing is a mass of examples, I'm afraid. If you're keen I can look it up in my notes.

Daniel Hill said...

Thanks, Joe. Which volume of Morality, Mortality? If it's not too much trouble I'd value a detailed reference. Thanks!