Catch-22, deontologism and consequentialism October 13, 2019

I’ve been rereading Catch-22 (and loving it). I’ve also been reading random pages on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The other day was checking out Kant, which led me to the page on Deontological ethics and its relation to consequentialism.

Very short summary: consequentialism says that to know whether an action is right or wrong, we should look at the consequences of that action. Deontology, on the other hand, looks at the action itself and judgets it according to a set of rules.

As someone who doesn’t know much about philosophy, I find that a useful way to remember concepts is to try to apply them to whatever is happening in my life at the time. Which in this case was Catch-22.

The characters in Catch-22 are so full of contradictions that it might be silly to apply ethical theories to them. But I want to do it anyway.

I had just read the chapters on Milo Minderbinder (who has Wikipedia page) and his syndicate. To me, Milo seems profoundly consequentialist:

“Milo, how do you do it?” Yossarian inquired with laughing amazement and admiration. “You fill out a flight plan for one place and then you go to another. Don’t the people in the control towers ever raise hell?”

“They all belong to the syndicate,” Milo said. “And they know that what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that’s what makes Sammy run. The men in the control towers have a share, too, and that’s why they have to do whatever they can to help the syndicate.”

Of course you could say that he’s doing it all for personal gain, but the story he tells himself and others is that it’s all for the greater good. He could probably also argue well for it: he’s loved in a lot of places for bringing business there:

Milo had been elected mayor of Palermo—and of nearby Carini, Monreale, Bagheria, Termini Imerese, Cefal├╣, Mistretta and Nicosia as well—because he had brought Scotch to Sicily.

Later, he makes a bad business decision—buying all cotton in Egypt—, and his company verges on collapse. He finds a way out: bombing his own squadron.

This time Milo had gone too far. Bombing his own men and planes was more than even the most phlegmatic observer could stomach, and it looked like the end for him. High-ranking government officials poured in to investigate. Newspapers inveighed against Milo with glaring headlines, and Congressmen denounced the atrocity in stentorian wrath and clamored for punishment. Mothers with children in the service organized into militant groups and demanded revenge. Not one voice was raised in his defense. Decent people everywhere were affronted, and Milo was all washed up until he opened his books to the public and disclosed the tremendous profit he had made. He could reimburse the government for all the people and property he had destroyed and still have enough money left over to continue buying Egyptian cotton. Everybody, of course, owned a share. And the sweetest part of the whole deal was that there really was no need to reimburse the government at all.

Yossarian, on the other hand, seems to be more of a deontologist. He’s against Milo’s deals with the Germans, merely because they’re at war with the Germans and one shouldn’t deal with the enemy:

Milo was appealing to Yossarian from the bottom of his soul. “Look, I didn’t start this war, Yossarian. (…) If I can persuade the Germans to pay me a thousand dollars for every plane they shoot down, why shouldn’t I take it?”

“Because you’re dealing with the enemy, that’s why. Can’t you understand that we’re fighting a war? People are dying. Look around you, for Christ’s sake!”

It’s not like Yossarian is particularly committed to the war effort, really. He thinks everyone is out to kill him and goes to great lengths to avoid combat (“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt”). But there’s still an internal set of rules he seems to be following. For example, he refuses to help Dobbs kill Colonel Cathcart, who keeps raising the number of missions and preventing him from going home:

“I don’t think I could do it,” Yossarian concluded, after weighing the idea in silence awhile.

Dobbs was astonished. “Why not?”

“Look. Nothing would please me more than to have the son of a bitch break his neck or get killed in a crash or to find out that someone else had shot him to death. But I don’t think I could kill him.”

“He’d do it to you,” Dobbs argued. “In fact, you’re the one who told me he is doing it to us by keeping us in combat so long.”

“But I don’t think I could do it to him. He’s got a right to live, too, I guess.”