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Mortal and not selfish – the late John Quinton

On 2nd February 1921, John Alan Quinton was born in Brockley, south London. He would have been 95 today, had he not died, he was killed in a ‘plane crash aged 30, in the following circumstances, as recorded in his George Cross citation.

On August the 13th, 1951, Flight-Lieutenant Quinton as a Navigator under instruction in a Vickers Wellington aircraft which was involved in a mid-air collision. The sole survivor from the crash was an Air Training Corps Cadet who was a passenger in the aircraft, and he has established the fact that his life was saved by a supreme act of gallantry displayed by Flight-Lieutenant Quinton, who in consequence sacrificed his own life. Both Flight-Lieutenant Quinton and the Cadet were in the rear compartment of the aircraft when the collision occurred. The force of the impact caused the aircraft to break up and, as it was plunging towards the earth out of control, Flight-Lieutenant Quinton picked up the only parachute within reach and clipped it on to the Cadet’s harness. He pointed to the rip-cord and a gaping hole in the aircraft, thereby indicating that the Cadet should jump. At that moment a further portion of the aircraft was torn away and the Cadet was flung through the side of the aircraft clutching his rip-cord, which he subsequently pulled and landed safely. Flight-Lieutenant Quinton acted with superhuman speed displaying the most commendable courage and self-sacrifice, as he well knew that in giving up the only parachute within reach he was forfeiting any chance of saving his own life. Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force, besides establishing him as a very gallant and courageous officer, who, by his action, displayed the most conspicuous heroism.

With our recent discussion of genes and selfishness, here was a man, a whole, thinking being, with an infant son of his own, and having survived WW2 as a Navigator in Mosquitos in the RAF, who was, when the ultimate challenge presented itself, prepared to give up his own life for that of a stranger. His example is a reminder that an acting human being is capable of doing things for other than ‘selfish’ reasons. Flight-Lieutenant Quinton’s final act was the ultimate demonstration that a principle – that one should do what is right when in a position of responsibility – can triumph over base instincts, a counter-point to many lesser people who have failed to do what is right in difficult situations, even when not in mortal peril.


53 comments to Mortal and not selfish – the late John Quinton

  • Jacob

    “one should do what is right”

    It remains to be debated why self sacrifice is “right”

  • It remains to be debated why self sacrifice is “right”

    If it is a path you rationally and freely choose yourself, rather than having it imposed upon you, I find it hard to not to see it as admirable. After all, anti-altruist extraordinaire Ayn Rand herself was a great admirer of volunteer military men, and what is a military is not a gigantic machine enabling self-sacrifice in the defence of a state and (hopefully) society?

  • The raison d’être of the military is for soldiers to risk their lives to achieve their goals. The goal of protecting civilians from those who would kill, enslave or oppress them is the one usually stated; aas regards the UK’s armed forces, that has indeed been the true goal in well-known events.

    Young men join the military for fun, for adventure, and sometimes from dim awareness that it will help them grow up; rarely do they spend much time thinking, let alone spouting off about, the deeper meaning of it all. But when they join the military instead of getting these experiences in other ways, that usually means they are OK with the deeper meaning of it all.

    Flight-Lieutenant Quinton’s choice of death for himself and life for a cadet was consistent with what any British soldier, sailor or airman is about. He wouldn’t need to “debate why self-sacrifice is right”, as the comment above states; if he needed to hold that debate with himself, it would have been illogical for him to join the airforce.

    Many would not have done what he did, but not because of philosophical doubts. 🙂

  • Julie near Chicago

    If he had taken the parachute himself, instead of giving it to the cadet, and had survived the jump, he would have lived the rest of his life knowing that he had chosen to let the cadet die when he could have saved him.

    I think that would be a burden on most people’s consciences, even if they were sort-of “all right” with it.

    I think some of those people would prefer not to live, if it meant having that on their consciences all their lives.

    I don’t necessarily think that those who gave up the parachute would have done this calculation on the spot. They might have consciously worked it out beforehand, but also might not, so that it was almost reflex — or, on arriving at St. Peter’s Porch, say, “What was I supposed to do? I think it was perfectly natural.”

  • Johnnydub

    Its also the kind of sacrifice that the likes of Polly Toynbee, Owen Jones, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Galloway, etc etc would never make.

    Their rational never getting past the “I’m too important to the movement/world”

  • Paul Marks

    The gentleman showed Free Will during the most extreme circumstances.

    Such people show the “philosophy” of Martin Luther, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham (and so on) to be a squalid lie.

  • Steph Houghton

    Jacob, even assuming rational egoism to be correct, the Lt. had voluntarily assumed responsibility for training the flight cadet safely. That he upheld that responsibility at the cost of his life is to his credit.

  • Tedd


    I don’t necessarily think that those who gave up the parachute would have done this calculation on the spot. They might have consciously worked it out beforehand, but also might not, so that it was almost reflex — or, on arriving at St. Peter’s Porch, say, “What was I supposed to do? I think it was perfectly natural.”

    In the air force it’s called the fuck factor: What your hands and feet do while you’re mind is saying, “Fuck!” And, you’re right, it’s mostly about pre-made decisions and conditioning yourself to a set of values. When we honour an act like that, part of what we’re honouring is those values and the fortitude to stick to them even when everything is falling to pieces around you (literally, in this case).

    In the RCAF, the similar story of Andrew Mynarski was taught to all new officer candidates when I went through, and probably still is.

  • Jacob

    I can see the logic of people serving in the army and putting themselves in danger (though not always in certain death situations, eg. kamikaze). But it seems this was not the case here, it wasn’t about serving your country, doing you assigned duty, not about doing your military service. It wasn’t even a case of saving some colleagues or fellows in combat.

    It was just Quinton or the cadet. Why does the cadet deserve to live more than Quinton?
    And I do not criticize Quinton, by no means. He choose to do it – fine – his choice, I can even applaud him.

    The question is: why should I think that this is RIGHT ?
    The default choice is self-interest – self preservation. Why is it “wrong” in THIS case? Does always the “other” have precedence over me?

    Why is giving one’s life to save another person (just this – without side justifications) considered desirable and “right”
    Don’t tell me what the tradition is, in the army or RAF, I’m asking about the logic.

  • Jacob

    “Many would not have done what he did, but not because of philosophical doubts. :-)”

    Why is suicide considered an act of valor?

  • Rich Rostrom

    Jacob – February 2, 2016 at 7:23 pm:

    It was just Quinton or the cadet. Why does the cadet deserve to live more than Quinton?

    Because the cadet was a 16-year-old boy, not a man? “Women and children first.”

    This reminds me of the story with which Robert Heinlein concluded his 1973 James Forrestal Memorial Lecture to the graduating class at the U.S. Naval Academy.

  • Julie near Chicago


    ‘What your hands and feet do while you’re mind is saying, “Fuck!”’

    That’s a perfect way of putting it!

    . . .

    Jacob, I think the answer to your point is implicit in Tedd’s second paragraph:

    “When we honour an act like that, part of what we’re honouring is those values and the fortitude to stick to them even when everything is falling to pieces around you….”

    I don’t know whether you’re a Randite, but Miss Rand understood this perfectly well, and understood that there are times when self-preservation realizes itself most fully in the act of choosing to give up (physical) life. The price of physical survival would be knowing that you failed to uphold your values to the end — that you gave up being yourself — that you became somebody else, somebody you didn’t want to be — so, bottom line, that in the way that was most important to you, you gave up being.

    What this would explain is why a person would choose to give up his own life apparently for that of someone else, not why he held the values that led to his making that choice.

    Of course in the immediate, practical, non-theoretical situation, I think it likely that Tedd’s explanation is bang on.

    . . .

    Now here we are, back at that damn lifeboat again. Sigh…how many times have we all been there, chosen, died, and apparently Charon has sent us back for yet another do-over. Still —

    Suppose instead of you and a 16-year-old cadet, it’s just you and somebody else’s great-grandma (and a perfect stranger) in the lifeboat, which is leaking like a sieve, but if it were a little lighter there’s just a chance —

    I think many of us wouldn’t be able to find it in our hearts to throw Great-Grand over the side.

    Maybe if she talked hard enough to talk us into it…but I think it would go against the grain for most of us. I think we’d feel like craven knaves all our lives. I think our guts would be going, “I can’t do that!”

    I think the perfect illustration of the opposite type of personality is Ted Kennedy at Chappaquiddick. I could understand (although absolutely NOT excuse) his being so drunk that he would leave MaryJo to drown. Given that state of drunkenness, I could even understand (though even less excuse) his being too craven to get help when he sobered up enough to know he needed to.

    But I can’t understand how he could spend the rest of his life doing anything but wearing the hair shirt with the scarlet letter on it, and trying his very hardest to atone.

    I suppose you could make an argument that in a twisted way, he was trying to do that.

    Oh yeah? Well, in that case, how would he have conducted his life differently had he NOT been trying to live a life of atonement?

    Actually, I think he probably lived his life pretty much as he would have without Chappaquiddick. Maybe it was a Defining Moment…but more likely not. IMO, of course.

    Which, if this thesis is anywhere near right, raises questions about the people who chose to be his friends, or “buds.”

    (Which is why my gut is so anti-McCain, so anti-Lindsay Graham. The photo of the three of them yukking it up together, just three good old boys, is to me an indictment.)

  • Mac the Knife

    “…a counter-point to many lesser people who have failed to do what is right in difficult situations, even when not in mortal peril.”

    Still more poignant when contrasted against those with infinitely higher responsibility, let’s say ‘greater’ people, who seem incapable of any sacrifice, let alone one so noble…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Of course with regard to the original posting, there is the fact of the infant son. In saving the cadet’s life at the cost of his own, he also saved that life at the cost of his son’s father’s life.

    A son for whom he had all the responsibilities of a father — and if they were not entirely freely chosen (the son was an accident, say), the act by which he was conceived was chosen.

    At this point the “calculus” becomes more difficult.

    Just to say.

  • Mr Ed

    The default choice is self-interest – self preservation. Why is it “wrong” in THIS case? Does always the “other” have precedence over me?

    A very fair question. The ‘other’ is not comparable to Flt-Lt Quinton, as he was a cadet, a minor, entrusted to the RAF’a care. Flt-Lt Quinton also had the opportunity and privilege of preserving his own life, which he judged less important than doing what he did.

    In a Soviet Air Force, it would probably have been ideologically suspect to have put cadets’ survival before that of experienced air crew, the collective needs those who can and will fight for it. But here King George VI himself signed off the GC, the last of his reign, his daughter presented it to the widow.

    The award was also a recognition of tradtions, as the citation states.

    Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force

    Flt-Lt Quinton was following in the spirit of Captain Oates, but he achieved his goal, limited as it was. The starkness of a pure binary choice, ‘Life or death?’, ‘Him or me?’.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Julie – not brute survival, but survival of ones principles (what one stood for – what one was).

    Aristotle and Cicero understood this well.

    But they would have been astonished that a woman (Ayn Rand) understood it.

    Well that is their problem.

    Because a lady can be a “mench” to.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Mr Ed, I like your contrasting of the view of the RAF vs. the view of the SAF. Very, very interesting point and no doubt quite right.

  • Mr Ed

    In saving the cadet’s life at the cost of his own, he also saved that life at the cost of his son’s father’s life.

    Flt-Lt Quinton was married with an infant son, perhaps he considered the cadet as being someone’s son like his own would become. Given his generation’s experience, and that of his parents, the loss of a father was probably far too common to be unusual, but the threat of the destruction of his way of life, and that way of life being something to live and die for, was a constant theme.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes, Mr Ed, I’m sure that’s true. Excellent point.

  • Mr Ed


    The Soviets had two Air Forces, one for offence and one for defence, neither with a shred of humanity -Duplication, stagnation, stability (along with mass murder), Lenin’s MO.

    But, had others in positions of responsibility far higher than Flt-Lt. Quinton had had the decency to think ‘This is a horrific mess, it falls to me to do what I can to sort it out as best I can, whatever the cost to me.’ and act accordingly, a lot of suffering in British military history might have been averted.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I don’t doubt it, Mr Ed. Lot of that going around. Here as well as there; and, of course, the hope is that Sen. Cruz will be the next President and will take exactly that attitude. (To the ambitious, the loss of a career or of standing within it might be everything — whether in the military or in politics.)

    Thanks for the links. I will follow them.

  • Jacob

    “but survival of ones principles”
    “you failed to uphold your values to the end”

    What principle? Which values? That is what I’m asking. What was the principle flt. Lt. Quinton gave his life for? The principle that the “other” is always more important than you, has more claim to life than you? The principle that self sacrifice is “noble”? Why is it noble?
    Nobody answered these questions…
    People mentioned Ayn Rand. Fair enough, but irrelevant. Formulate the principle that is manifest in this case. No need to invoke names.
    Is it: “The other comes first?” or “Sacrificing your life is noble”?

    I could understand a case like this: “the cadet was a minor, entrusted to the care of Quinton. Quinton had a moral obligation to him.” This might be some kind of explanation, I don’t know if it is actually the case. But it seems there was no connection between them, they just happened to be passengers on the same plane.

    It seems that all take for granted that sacrificing one’s life in order to save a stranger is the “right” and noble thing to do. The question is: is it? If so – why?

    “Now here we are, back at that damn lifeboat again.”
    Sure. But people (Mr. Ed) seem not to notice it, and seem to know the answer without giving it much of a thought.

  • Mr Ed


    Read the other comments, if you can’t see the answers, re-learn English, as they are there.

    And how can anyone know what his thoughts were?

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    “It seems that all take for granted that sacrificing one’s life in order to save a stranger …”
    You should, perhaps, re-read the comments with a smidgin of contextual comprehension, and pay attention to what you might learn. Given the circumstances in this story, you have used the word “stranger” in your comment, which suggests a certain absence of “clues” in this discussion: try this, the cadet was not a stranger, he was a responsibility.


  • Fraser Orr

    I think the calculus here is a little different. In this circumstance I doubt very much that Lt. Quinton would have done much thinking or reasoning about morality and the right thing to do.
    Undoubtedly this is primarily a conditioned response of defending the trainee. And frankly the military training is machine designed primarily to brainwash people into acting in exactly this way.

    “Brainwash” carries a pejorative tone which perhaps means I shouldn’t use it but in many ways it is the perfect word. I admire and respect what this guy and all the brave men and women in our militaries do. And it is not to say there is no rational calculation in military action — there certainly is.

    But this is a conditioned response built from years and years of training. And it comes from memetics, which are really rather more programmed to preserve society rather than individual DNA carriers. Generally speaking memetics can be and are manipulated rationally, and so are really quite more rapidly adaptable than genetics.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Fraser, as to your first sentence, I think Tedd and I and probably most of us agree with that.

    As to the rest, while I wouldn’t use the word “brainwashed” myself, let alone “memetic” or programmed, I suppose most of us agree with your core idea, at least to some extent. No doubt the military does work to nurture its members to bond with each other and to identify to some extent with the group as a whole. And if so, then this would be part of “training,” as well as the military culture that’s been established long since — and that the Sith, not to mention Mizz Clinton, apparently are at pains to destroy.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Jacob, I mentioned Ayn Rand because your question almost always results from a brush with Objectivism, asked either by a follower or fellow-traveller, or by a critic (who usually, though not always, puts it sarcastically or scornfully). Therefore, in my estimation the odds were that you are in one position or the other, and that either way you would therefore be interested in her position on the issue — especially as it is so very often misrepresented.

  • Jacob

    There are two elements in this story: 1. Saving a life 2. Self sacrifice.
    Life is valuable, saving a life (even a stranger’s) is the good, “right” thing, and to be applauded. So far, so good.
    But – there is the second element: self sacrifice. Do we need to applaud and glorify this element too?
    Do you, Mr. Ed?
    Does saving a life justify or override self-sacrifice? After all, on the net, no life has been saved – it was just the one life vs. the other.

    What is your opinion about self-sacrifice? Does it need to be promoted? to be brainwashed into military trainees? Does it need to be glorified?
    Would you go as far as advocating kamikaze style attacks (or suicide bombings)? These might be useful tactics toward achieving some societal goal in circumstances of war.

    What appears remarkable to me is that most commenters chose to glorify this deed, without addressing at all the issue of self-sacrifice, as if it were non-existent, or normal, or trivial and not important enough to mention.

  • Jacob

    There is, for example, the typical or famous story about a soldier (or officer) who threw himself on a hand grenade that has landed in his dug-out. He absorbed the shrapnel, and got killed, but saved several lives – lives of his buddies in the dug-out.

    (While throwing himself on the grenade made his death certain, abstaining from this would not have assured his survival).

    One man has sacrificed himself to save the lives of several others (his friends). It can be argued that society gained (simple calculus – number of lives lost). One can understand why such a deed would be promoted and glorified by society.

    Contrast or compare this to our case.
    Does society wish to glorify self-sacrifice regardless of circumstances ? What can justify self-sacrifice?

  • Jacob

    Julie near Chicago
    Yes, Ayn Rand raised the issue of self-sacrifice. It’s an issue that needs to be raised and discussed, and not accepted implicitly, or instinctively, or ignored (while considered as glorious).

  • Mr Ed

    But – there is the second element: self sacrifice. Do we need to applaud and glorify this element too?
    Do you, Mr. Ed?

    Give me a specific instance and I will let you know. In this case, ‘Applaud‘? that is not the right term, I find it incredibly moving, ‘glorify‘, no in this case, but worthy of remembering.

    It seems to me that you may be labouring under an unsubstantiated premise.

    You put it earlier:

    The default choice is self-interest – self preservation.

    But is that the case if you volunteer to join the RAF in WW2, perhaps it is preservation of your nation and way of life, you know the risk and take it, and again when Flt-Lt Quinton rejoined the RAF? It may well be that self-preservation is your choice, but clearly it was not the choice of Flt-Lt Quinton. This might explain your apparent bafflement at the answers.

  • Jacob

    The default choice is self-interest – self preservation. Yes, that is the default choice of any living being. If you want to override it, or suppress it, or change it – it would be nice to have a rationale, an explanation, a reasoning, and not an implicit or arbitrary acceptance.
    Joining an army implies accepting the risk (but not certainty) of being killed, in line of duty.
    In the case of Flt-Lt Quinton – it is not clear that it was “in line of duty” (despite him being a soldier), or that it advanced the goals of the Army or society in general.
    You found it moving and worth remembering? Sure, me too. Nothing but praise for Flt-Lt Quinton. It was not my intention to put that in doubt.
    “Glorify”? He was glorified by the medal he received posthumously.

    So the question remains: should we promote, glorify, applaud, demand self-sacrifice? Why?

  • Mr Ed


    The question does not remain, what remains is your unwillingness to read and/or comprehend. The line of duty has nothing to do with it, it is a red herring. He wasn’t even in the Army. Your comment rather casts doubt on your entire line, and if you won’t assimilate certain key facts, or acknowledge responses, it rather casts doubt on the benefit of pursuing this any further.

    Again you err in assuming that the default choice of any living being is self-preservation, look at a honey bee.

    As for what you say remains, context is everything and that is that.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Mr Ed
    > Again you err in assuming that the default choice of any living being is self-preservation, look at a honey bee.

    Yes it seems to me what is happening here is the intense military training is co-opting the natural instinct of humans (and other animals) to sacrifice their lives for their progeny. This isn’t what happened here, but it is certainly possible with enough conditioning to co-opt that existing neural pathway for different means. (Often mendacious, but here for rather more honorable purposes.)

    (And of course evolution has selected for this “protect the progeny” thing since children are more valuable to DNA than parents since they have yet to reproduce.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    I will add just one thing to what Mr Ed, and Tedd, and the rest of us, have said. Going back to Miss Rand, “sacrifice” has a very specific meaning in her terminology: It means specifically the giving up of a greater value for a lesser value or for none at all.

    “Self-sacrifice” is a very specific buzz-word, to put it vulgarly, in far-too-frequent use by Objectivists and fellow-travellers (of whom I am one).

    Actually there is nothing that any of us has said that “glorifies self-sacrifice.” In fact we have pretty much taken the line that almost certainly Flt.-Lt. Quinton’s act was not one of self-sacrifice, but rather an act done partly out of what would be almost reflexive (“what your hands are doing while your mind is going ‘Fuck!'”) and partly out of his own sense of self and of what would best express that sense of self. He might or might not have recognized this second component prior to the event, of course, and it might or might not have been aware of it and of his hierarchy of values at the instant.

    One’s life and self and sense of self and values are all enmeshed, indeed melded, so that to talk about one is really to to be talking about all of them, with the exception of the technical definition of “life” as the physical processes going on within a physical organism that gives it, as a physical object, the quality that we name “life.” But there is much more to life, my life, your life, anyone’s life, than “brute survival.” Values and sense of self are extremely important in the realization of a human life-in-the-fullest-sense.

    Now, you question why F.-L. Quinton had the values he did, that helped to motivate him to act as he did. Suggestions about that have already been given above, and more than once, but none of us can tell you for certain. It is, however, highly unlikely that “self-sacrifice” was one of them. But speaking purely of psychology (and you are asking for psychological explanations, I think) it may be that indeed X spares Y’s life at the cost of his own survival because he values self-sacrifice as such; however there’s always something that he feels or thinks will be served even by his own particular “self-sacrifice,” and this takes it right out of the category of self-sacrifice.

    But suppose someone does value the life of the other — any other, not some special other person, just because he is Other. Why is that, you ask. How does that come about? Is it good (good in what sense?) or bad (bad in what sense)? Should we praise it or vilify it? Why? (And note, by the way, that that word “should” implies an existing standard of values held by the person deciding the issue.)

    To answer this would take a volume, which I have neither the time nor the expertise to write. But most of us have probably considered this, on some level or other.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Under time pressure, hope no horrible typos above.

    About Mr Ed’s honeybee. It apparently does not in the end act to preserve its life, but it does act according to its nature. In the sense of Aristotle’s Final Cause, it acts to fulfill its nature. As do we all. In our case, we act to fulfill our shared human nature, as instantiated in each of us individually — as an individual human person.

    But, of course, men are not honeybees and our nature is not theirs.

    Still, we are living beings of the Earthly type, not, say, the Venusian or Altairean type, and we do have elements in common with other Earthly critters, and what we humans conceptualize as the “social bond” and its value may be at least in part an expression of something also existent in the makeup of the honeybee.

  • Laird

    Mr Ed, I don’t think you’re being fair to Jacob. He raises a valid question, and if it has been adequately addressed somewhere else in this thread which he failed to comprehend, I must confess that I missed it, too. I think the closest anyone has come is Julie’s point about not being able to live with yourself if you chose a different course of action. That’s a Randian approach, but it doesn’t really answer the question; it merely pushes it to a different level: Why is your value system such that you “couldn’t live with yourself” if you permitted another to die in your stead? It would perhaps be understandable if that other person were a close loved one, but a (relative) stranger? And given that such is your value system, then the choice being made is the only rational one possible so why is it worthy of celebration?

    Jacob’s question is much deeper than you seem to be giving him credit for. Unless I’m being obtuse.

  • Mr Ed

    should we promote, glorify, applaud, demand self-sacrifice? Why?

    appears to be the question, or rather four questions rolled into one, with four supplemental questions.

    ‘should’ as in ‘ought we’, I take it.

    I doubt anyone promotes self-sacrifice here, even less would demand it, nor does anyone glorify it, so that leaves ‘applaud’. That verb carries connotations of approval, and that is perhaps not what anyone did, but they recognise the gallantry. The ‘why’ is personal, but as noted, Flt-Lt Quinton elected to die rather than live (as it happened) and did what was, deep down, expected of him in a position of responsibility, like Captain Oates, but also seniority. He did not pull rank, or abuse either rank or opportunity, but followed tradition, noble tradition. Implicit in the tradition is an acknowledgment that it is difficult to follow it, that is why it is a tradition, as opposed to a practice, and he did not fail the ultimate test. Militaries know that their members are prone to failure, hence they have or had firing squads, such as for Admiral Byng.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Actually, I did directly point out the deeper issue in my comment of 8.59 p.m. yesterday:

    “What this would explain is why a person would choose to give up his own life apparently for that of someone else, not why he held the values that led to his making that choice.”

    and addressed that issue in my last 3 paras. just above (at 8.26 p.m.). But I do think the entire latter comment addresses both of Jacob’s issues — the first part deals with our alleged “glorification,” and ends with somewhat of a segue into the direct issue.

    . . .

    From here on, consider it Musing. :>)

    In the question “Why do you [ = the present Samizdatistas] glorify/applaud/promote/demand self-sacrifice,” we here could be taken as a proxy for what Jacob sees as a general attitude, either in the Anglosphere or in the West or amongst humanity in general. Whether that’s his intent, of course, I cannot say; so, just a note.

    . . .

    I am struck by Jacob’s initial putting of the question: He used the word “right.” At that point, the question as asked was not so much why FL Quinton had the values he did, but why the value of “self-sacrifice” is deemed to be “right.” Ethically “right.” Perhaps even a duty. Perhaps even a Kantian absolute duty? (Searching for an answer to the question of why an absolute duty is a duty is a waste of time. By definition there is no “why.” The duty is a duty, and that’s all there is to it.)

    I may be sewing a vest onto a button, but it may be that Jacob wonders why saving the cadet instead of himself, which he, Jacob, unlike the rest of us, sees as obviously an act of self-sacrifice in the Randian sense (or so it seems to me), is right whereas (by implication) the other choice would be wrong. (There’s a third possibility,of course, and that is to refrain from doing anything. At the probable cost of both lives.)

    So the general question becomes, “Why do Samizdatistas feel that self-sacrifice is right whereas other-sacrifice is wrong?” This can be seen as a version of asking, “Why do you-all approve of putting Other above Self?”

    Which, as several of us have noted, is not in general our attitude.

    But if you allow the close equivalence of the two questions, you (i.e. “one”) might consider them not from the psychological but rather from the libertarian point of view, namely that of justice.

    Would it have been just for FL. Quinton to have taken the parachute for himself? Or would that be like grabbing the nearest innocent bystander to use as a shield between you and the bullet the bad guy is about to send your way?

    And the answer there is, It isn’t right because it isn’t just. Even though you are unjustly targetted, that doesn’t make grabbing some other duffer to take the hit in your place is just.

    But this raises the question, WHY would that latter choice be unjust?

    Because justice is our word for the principle that what is ours is ours and nobody else’s, and that extends to problems as well as property. The bullet is my problem, not the bystander’s. As the senior guy and the captain in command, the hole in the airplane (I forget the exact nature of the catastrophic failure!) is my problem to solve. The aim of the solution is to save whatever lives it’s possible to save, according to a prioritization that in this case puts the cadet in the position of the innocent bystander and the captain in the position of the guy targetted. (This is pure analogy, of course, and not a perfect one since there’s no intent for anyone to do anyone in.) Viewed this way, the only solution is to give the parachute to the cadet.

    . . .

    I don’t know that that really resolves the issue. I’m no cadet, but supposing I were along for the ride when the wing falls off. Would it be right, just, for me to grab the parachute for myself on the theory that the choice is the captain’s problem and he should know that it’s his responsibility to get his passenger (me!) back on the ground safely; so he SHOULD give me the parachute, but just to be sure ….

    I wouldn’t think much of me if I did that.

    Why is that?

    Because it’s who I am, that’s why.

    But why is that who you are? How did you come to be that way? I want a psychological (real-world) answer and also a philosophical (ethical+epistemological+metaphysical), logical answer, as to any problem arising in an abstract system.

    OK, Jacob, but you won’t get it from me. You may get some leads here and in tracts of philosophy and also of human and humans’ histories down through the ages…but you will have to work out your own answer for yourself, I think.

    (No, that does not make me a moral relativist. It makes me realistic.)

  • Jacob

    “In the question “Why do you [ = the present Samizdatistas] glorify/applaud/promote/demand self-sacrifice,” we here could be taken as a proxy for what Jacob sees as a general attitude, either in the Anglosphere or in the West or amongst humanity in general. Whether that’s his intent, of course, I cannot say; so, just a note.”

    Definitely. There is a general attitude of glorification of such deeds.
    Lt. Quinton was glorified by the medal he received.
    And the case was presented by Mr Ed as an inspiring story.
    I asked “why is it inspiring”? What is the idea or principle that appeals to Mr Ed (as a representative samizdatista – if there is such a thing).
    The answer, given so far, as I understand it: Lt. Quinton did a noble thing, took responsibility, saved a human life, upheld tradition, acted courageously, did his duty, etc.
    I found these answers insufficient. Maybe on an emotional level they do – it’s ok, you just feel so. Fine.

    So, yes Julie, you at least understood my question.

    I understand why the Captain of a ship, being considered the leader and protector of his passengers, should be the last to abandon a sinking ship. But in this case – it seems to me (I don’t know the exact details), both Lt. Quinton and the cadet were mere passengers on this plane.

    My question is not psychological, neither emotional but rational, or logic. Could we explain in reason or logic why we consider Lt. Quinton’s deed praiseworthy, inspiring and noble?

    Let’s leave the specific case of Lt. Quinton, and put the question in an abstract way:
    Suppose you’re on the Titanic, and after the women and children were lowered into lifeboats, there is still room for some adult males, but not for all. It’s your turn, and you can take your place in the boat. Should you step aside, and offer your place to the next passenger in line? It seems that this is the thing being praised, and the question is: what is the logic of this attitude? That one should sacrifice himself in favor of the next (other) human being?

  • Jacob

    Another abstract case – using Julie’s example.
    If you are being shot at, and you grab a bystander and try to make him into a shield to save yourself – this is obviously wrong.

    But take the opposite case: there is a shooting going on, you are the bystander (not involved) – should you step into the line of fire and take the bullet to save the life of the intended victim?

  • Laird

    Further to Jacob’s latest posts: Julie’s other example was where a passenger (not the captain) on the plane takes the last parachute, dooming some other passenger. (I guess that’s a variant on Jacob’s Titanic lifeboat scenario.) Why would that be “wrong” (in the philosophical sense we’re discussing here)? Indeed, turning it around, wouldn’t my taking that last parachute afford the other guy the “glory” of making the sacrifice? Why should I deny him that?

    If we all play “after you, Alphonse” with the parachute we all die, so clearly it’s best that someone takes it. I suggest that, absent some positive duty to save the other, there is neither glory in making the sacrifice nor approbrium from declining to do so. And where there is such a duty, performing it is not noble, merely expected.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Actually, Laird, maybe I read the original posting wrong? I thought there were only two aboard the plane: Quinton and the cadet. In my alternative scenario, therefore, I meant it to be just me and whoever was the pilot ( = pilot-in-command, therefore).

    However, I agree with you in this: Where there is no criterion for a decision among alternatives, or where various subsets of criteria give different but equally balanced results, and the various sets themselves of criteria are equally balanced — you might as well toss a coin. It boils down to whomever is comfortable with taking the ‘chute, and who isn’t (and who among the former is strong enough to fight off the others who also would grab it for themselves). And the one who is, if he lands successfully, had better be mighty careful of how he explains things when he gets on the ground or else his name will be Mud forever, amongst an awful lot of people.

    And, Laird, great link! I’ve known about “Alphonse-and-Gastoning” all my life, but I never knew where it came from. Thanks!

    “Performing the duty is not noble, merely expected.” I would argue that accepting the full burden of a duty is noble. That is, worthy of being recognized as an act recognizing the moral status of other human beings, not just oneself; or of the moral status of “duty,” if you are into “duty” in general, which I am not, at least not on the intellectual level. Really, like practically everything else, it depends on what one means by “duty.”

    Jacob, as to your last posting above: No, there’s no reason in libertarian theory at least why the bystander “should” take the bullet. And I don’t think people would have the gut reaction that he “should” have.

    I can’t go into a discussion of your question of 7:51 p.m. above just now, but I hope to tomorrow. It’s a good question, deserves thought. :>)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nag, nag, nag. All right, I re-read the OP. The quote states that Quinton was a navigotor “under instruction,” which seems odd to me if he was already a navigator, but perhaps you had to have training particular to the aircraft in which you’d be working. The cadet is described as a “passenger.”

    Presumably the guys in the front of the plane were either already hors de combat or else there was no way Quinton could help them acquire a parachute; so, effectively, their technical presence is immaterial. This is essentially a story about two men. I would still think that Quinton, who was at least there as a former if not present officer, would have a certain implied responsibility for the “passenger,” the cadet. If so, the analysis is not affected by my misapprehension of details.

    Apologies to Laird for assuming facts not in evidence. :>(

  • Mr Ed

    Julie, FYI the flight was partly a re-familiarisation flight for Flt-Lt Quinton on his re-joining the RAF in 1951, having left at War’s end. He dropped a rank from Squadron Leader (Major equivalent) to become a Flight-Lieutenant (equal to Army Captain). The flight had Air Cadets (a youth organisation) on an Air Experience flight, and the two were in the rear of the aircraft, using the astrodome (used to get a ‘star shot’ for navigation). They had been sent up with another aircraft, a Miles Martinet, a small, target tug (designed to fly banners on a longish rope for gunners to shoot at), the idea being that the airbase radar station would give instructions to guide the two towards each other, it was a clear day but in a sudden fog the two collided, killing 8, with the one survivor.

  • Alisa

    This is a fascinating discussion, and I’m glad Jacob insisted on asking the questions, as I myself have been struggling with similar questions for a very long time. I’m not sure any definitive answers have been provided here, but Julie raised some excellent points that should help me towards that end when I come to rethink this issue again – which I’m sure I will.

    This is the fascinating thing about morality, as most of us – by which I mean moral individuals, or at least such as strive to be moral most of the time (which is the majority of humanity, I think, albeit maybe not the overwhelming one) – tend to decide between right and wrong on a very intuitive level, or at best on a very simplistic one when above the intuitive one, the rationally aware level. This becomes very apparent in some specific dilemmas, such that of self-sacrifice as discussed here. Another such dilemma I usually tend to think of personally is loyalty. And this is where I stop thinking aloud, and go back to thinking quietly 🙂

  • Jacob

    ““The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other”
    This quote is from a book about chronic “do-gooders”. See New York Times review.

  • Julie near Chicago

    While not being particularly a fan of Mr. Brooks, I think his ending remark has some truth to it. Going pretty far out to the margins of the topic, here’s my conclusion, for what it’s worth.

    As I said elsewhere, I think that there is an enormous set of drives, potentialities, and propensities, each of which is shared in some degree of strength or weakness by nearly all humans, and it’s these to which we refer when we talk about “human nature.”

    One of these is the urge or propensity to continue to remain alive ourselves. Another is the urge or propensity to be among friends, or companions, or at least other people with whom we can at least sort of get along. Thus, to be part of a society of some sort.

    Some people, in virtue of the starting degree of potential for being self-centered in the general sense (people with Randian self-centeredness is a proper subset of these) and of the way their life’s experiences have affected them, come to the point where their natural self-centeredness becomes the dominant trait in the balance between the urge for survival and the urge to maintain the society of which they are a part.

    (And in some, the drive to maintain the society overrides the drive to maintain self. –And, of course, the drive or urge or wanting to “maintain” often has a tendency to become a drive or urge or wanting to “improve,” which unfortunately can give rise to inappropriately “controlling” behavior; in fact what started as a healthy wish to help sustain what feels like a social “home” can become, by this route, a lust for the power and sometimes the status (adulation by the society) that being in a position of high authority can give one.)

    And there is a certain propensity to feel that one’s society is in some fundamental but almost inarticulable way a part of oneself: One “identifies with” the society. it is one’s social home, so to speak. So, in trying to look after the society, to do for the society, to “serve” the society, is emotionally to look after oneself; whether or not it is logically (rationally) so. (Think of Stockholm Syndrome. There, one can easily imagine that one sees appeasement of the captors as a rational choice–maybe they won’t kill one, or will go easier on one. But perhaps over time, one “becomes” this character who BY HIS OWN NATURE cares for this horrible “society,” or for at least some of the people in it. The point of the example is to illustrate how serving oneself can exist by “serving the society,” first as a rational (or semi-rational, or semi-conscious strategy but then evolving into a direct emotional involvement as a part of that society, and how the one can become the other.)

    “Do-Goodism” as anger, or as expressive of hatred of self or of humanness: We accuse the leftists, statists, collectivists, all the time, and I believe some of the time that’s true. But not always, not necessarily.

    I can imagine choosing “a life of service” as an honest and un-warped expression of one of one’s stronger propensities. I myself have a feeling of happiness when someone else is happy about something — other things being equal, of course. (There are some people whom I’d prefer to pitchfork. *g*) Is this because I put their happiness above my own? Not as an intellectual matter, no. But being with people who seem to be feeling good, usually makes me feel good. If I find that that condition makes me feel good more than most other conditions, say sitting here in my lonely room writing commentary for Samizdata *sob*, then it’s rational and self-serving (in the healthy sense) to do what I can to foster an upgrade in the happiness of others.

    (If I am highly empathetic, I might not be able to be a doctor or a nurse. To be empathetic is to feel, oneself, what one imagines the other person is feeling, and frankly the idea of a broken bone or of a burn makes my stomach lurch. To “harden” oneself is to suppress this reaction of one’s nature, I think. On the other hand, to be sympathetic is to grasp what another person is feeling, to connect it with what one imagines are similar feelings one has had in the past, and to “relate to” that other person’s feelings to some extent. This is not the same thing as being moved to have those feelings oneself. And there is room here for such emotional grasping of others’ feelings, yet not excusing or not approving, entirely, of the other person’s emotional response or of his acts that either caused or resulted from his feelings.)

    … To be continued …

  • Julie near Chicago

    Continuing from above…

    “Do-Goodism” as anger, or as expressive of hatred of self or of humanness: We accuse the leftists, statists, collectivists, all the time, and I believe some of the time that’s true.

    From the piece to which Jacob links:

    “There’s a philosophy question: If you were confronted with the choice between rescuing your mother from drowning or two strangers, who should you rescue? With utilitarian logic, the rational saint would rescue the two strangers because saving two lives is better than saving one. Their altruism is impartial, universal and self-denying. “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other,” one man [Larissa] MacFarquhar writes about says.

    Others [Susan] Wolf calls loving saints. They are good with others’ goodness, suffering in others’ pain. They are the ones holding the leper, talking to the potential suicide hour upon hour. Their service is radically personal, direct and not always pleasant.

    This sort of radical selflessness forces us to confront our own lives. Should we all be living lives with as much moral heroism as these people? Given the suffering in the world, are we called to drop everything and give it our all? Did you really need that $4 Frappuccino when that money could have gone to the poor?”

    In the pure Utilitarian calculus as generally understood, perhaps the position as stated in the first paragraph is correct. We do see this illustrated all the time in books and plays. The hero manages to save the damsel, or the city, from the two or twenty-million Bad Guys without physically damaging them, or at least without killing them. Our hero’s hands are clean and everybody goes away happy.

    Alternatively, the hero takes out the Bad Guys but is wracked by guilt for the rest of his life, or at least is abhorred by his former friends, or The Public, or The Press.

    Examples: Mike Hammer, at least in I, the Jury; the American TV show 24. (Recommended. Silly here and there, but overall excellent thriller, and the hero is at least clear-headed about what needs to be done and isn’t afraid to do it. Start w/ Season 2, go through Season 5, now watch S1 if you want. Skip S6 & ff.) In both cases the hero has the amount of angst the author thinks it necessary to give him — either for æsthetic reasons or in order not to alienate the audience.

    Some of the writers of this stuff may believe that’s how the world would work, if only we could get rid of a few, or a few tens or hundreds of millions, of actually-existing human beings.

    I imagine most of them believe that this is the line most likely to sell.

    However, I can’t agree that even being Utilitarian would necessitate that saving two is better than saving one, in any and all circumstances. See my example! Two Bad Guys are about to murder one Average Joe. All three of them are standing in the middle of the railroad track, and the locomotive is almost upon them. For whatever reason, you could grab the two Bad Guys off the tracks, or the Average Joe.

    I say, the rational thing is to save Joe.

    Only in the case where the actor has absolutely no criterion for choosing A over 2B except the difference in the number of humans, “should” he choose the two rather than the one. If you know neither the guy on the track nor any of the people on the runaway train, by all means divert the train. But if the guy on the tracks is your best friend, or your thesis advisor, and you know nothing about anybody on the train (or you do, and they’re all Stalinists or supporters of Shrillary or the Sith), then so much the worse for the train.

    So if perfect equivalence is the principle of the Rational Saint, I can only say it’s a position derived from the shallowest of thinking — and of observation of how human beings really are.

    Which brings me to the quote from Miss MacFarquhar.

    Some man uttered the sentence she quotes; I disagree. To be, literally, unaware of a distinction between self and other would be to be either mad or profoundly retarded.

    But “more important” in whose judgment? According to what criteria?

    It simply won’t do to say there’s no difference between A and B. Even if they are equally decent, most likely they are so in different ways.

    In the end, we start from the general assumption of “human dignity,” by which I think is meant the moral status of a human being that is the result of his being a human being. To me, a human being’s “moral status” refers to the fact that he is properly an object of morality: The discipline of morality is aimed at his treatment by others and also by himself, and at the way he treats others and himself.

    A human being elicits feelings of approval or disapproval of him as a human being; of love or hatred or fear or contempt for him as a human being, not as I might say, for instance, “I hate Ebola.” Ebola has no moral status.

    Jesus is alleged, in English, to have said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” I have read, and have had it confirmed by one or two online pals, that a better translation is “Respect thy neighbor as thyself.”

    I take this to mean, “Remember that others are human beings like you, and have the same human moral importance as you, and are as entitled as you to be treated with respect for that fact.” The last part of that, of course, might open the door farther than Jesus meant (if this understanding is correct at all). Because the fact that a man has a moral status because he is human means that his moral stature is available for judging, and may be found wanting, and it may be just to punish him or require him to make retribution to someone for something.

    . . .

    Miss Wolf asks us to “confront our own lives.” Should we indulge ourselves beyond the bare necessities of life, or do we do the best service by living as ascetics and working hard to help those worse off in some way; working hard either directly, say as a doctor or teacher or whatever, or working for the Megabux Corporation at an enormous salary and donating all but the absolute minimum necessary for our own sustenance to charity?

    In the first place, life is always a balancing act. (“Life is an engineering discipline: There are always trade-offs™.”) The fact is that a few people achieve their full potential at wage-earning if they are chronically bitterly distressed by some condition of their lives. Mind you, people chronically in pain or chronically depressed can and often do still achieve a lot; in fact work may help to keep them distracted from their pain. But for most people, an outlook that permits us small comforts and large luxuries, to the extent we can afford them and that is consonant with whatever wish we have to help others, is in the long run beneficial to everyone.

    Furthermore, no A owes any B any sort of debt or service based simply on the fact that B exists (save only the responsibility of the parent to the pre-adult child).

    And most of what we cause to be the state of things, for good or ill, happens as simply fallout from our being whoever we are.

    Here endeth the current musings.

  • Jacob

    “Love thy neighbor as thyself”
    It appears already in the old testament of the bible:

    and this is actually the same as the idea expressed here:
    “The evil in this world is the creation of those who make a distinction between the self and other” = love the other as thyself, don’t make any distinction between self and other.

    This, at least, can be interpreted against self-sacrifice: you owe the other what you owe yourself – but not MORE. You are equal to the other, but not inferior.

    Of course, one is entitled to do what one feels – to “love thy neighbor as thyself” or “love thy neighbor more than yourself” – no one will be condemned for choosing one of these options.

    Individualism maintains that what you owe the other is only “non-interference” or – not to actively hurt him. One can chose to love the other, but this is beyond the minimal moral obligation not to hurt.

    But, the thing that bothered me was the glorification of self-sacrifice. Or the claim that self-sacrifice is “noble” or “the right thing” (morally). The admiration of self sacrifice. The promotion of self-sacrifice.

  • Mr Ed

    But, the thing that bothered me was the glorification of self-sacrifice.

    DIdn’t you mean:

    But, the thing that bothered me was my perception of the glorification of self-sacrifice?

    because I can see no proper basis for any inference to be drawn that there was any glorification of self-sacrifice.

  • Laird

    Really, Mr Ed, you can’t see that? Permit me to quote from the cited article: “Flight-Lieutenant Quinton acted with superhuman speed displaying the most commendable courage and self-sacrifice. * * * Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force.”

    “Commendable courage and self-sacrifice”? “very highest traditions”? These don’t amount to “glorification” in your estimation? I think our definitions of the term must be very different.

  • Mr Ed

    Well Laird, there is a difference between recognising self-sacrifice that is an occupational hazard or a noble choice and the glorification of it.

    For example, the glorification of self-sacrifice is found in totalitarian movements and regimes, e.g the Kamikaze, the North Vietnamese Death Volunteers, you-name-it movement Islamic suicide bombers, yet even the Nazis baulked at using kamikaze tactics, whilst the Soviets simply had penal battalions to kill two birds, internal and external ‘enemies’, with one stone.

    Whereas here the medal was awarded for gallantry, in a situation where death was inevitable, but a choice, and the same award has gone to survivors, e.g. John Bridge a mine clearance officer who had faced extreme danger, where his citation stated:

    For the most conspicuous and prolonged bravery and contempt of death in clearing Messina Harbour of depth charges. The recommending officer stated that he had never before had the fortune to be associated with such cool and sustained bravery as Lieutenant Bridge displayed during the 10 days of the operation

    The award is not for the glorification of self-sacrifice, but the courage that can lead to it. That is my (perhaps to you, Jacob, and others – tenuous) distinction.