I am looking for the name and possibly deeper development of the system of ethics / morality exemplified by the attitude of Yossarian, the main protagonist of Catch-22 novel by Joseph Heller. Yossarian's primary concern is his own safety:

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

  • Yossarian cannot be really called a coward, since he is not believing in the war in which he is fighting and the necessity of his sacrifice (at least not in the way these are viewed by his superior officers, such as Colonel Cathcart).
  • Neither is he a conscientious objector or a pacifist, since he is not really objecting the war, but only the risks that it poses to him. Unlike his friend Dunbar, Yossarian is not willing to risk a court-martial (indeed, this would compromise his personal safety)
  • Yossarian also cannot be called a free rider, as he is not aiming to benefit from the war being fought by others.

Perhaps, his attitude is some form of individualism or liberatrianism, since his beliefs are ultimately grounded in the dangers the war poses personally to him, and he considers anyone oblivious to these dangers as crazy.

Quote about personal dangers:

“They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly.
"No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried.
"Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked.
"They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone."
"And what difference does that make?”

About craziness (the attitude is apparently shared by the author - at least it is taken as the basis of the discussion):

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

In my answer in another thread I have called this attitude Yossarianism. I am interested in exploring it deeper, particularly in the context of an individual vis-à-vis war.

Remark: Note that the question is not about the logical paradox, also known as Catch-22, and popularized by the novel (as discussed, e.g., in this thread.)

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    It is an instance of (state/buraucracy) Absurdism, as has been expressed in Kafka's writings (eg the Trial)
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 9:30
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    War, in a sense, is the corollary of (state) absurdism. Compare "War is Peace" in 1984 novel by George Orwell
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 9:55
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    Sure I do not intend to bypass your question, simply providing pointers. Well as Camus said, the correct response to the Absurd, is to defy it, and go on. To live it through, defiant. Everything other response being a kind of compromise and a defeat.
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 10:18
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    "I'm not afraid of war, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 15:42
  • 1
    Did you notice that "Catch 22" revealed a thought previously unthunk, unless that be by Orwell's "double-think"? Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 20:26

1 Answer 1


It is worth contrasting what people say, with what they do. It's actually difficult to get people to shoot to kill, with estimates between 25% & 75% of soldiers only willing to do this. In human history war was generally a last resort, with armies being drawn up and then often negotiations done if things were obviously going to go one way - we aren't so good at remembering those cases. It was much easier to find one champion to fight to death, than pursuade an entire army to do so. The ideal in war is to willingly die for your comrades, but when people volitionally do that or seriously risk that, they get special medals - and not many of them get awarded. You can order someone to do something dangerous, but a system of punishment can't force someone into certain death - because what greater punishment could there be to enforce that? It has to be chosen.

It's worth considering the idea that society is created through an implicit social contract. We gain collective benefits, and commit to certain costs, and we get society. The contentions between powers and cultures, have very often come down to who will fight to preserve the system they have, and how fiercely. The fact you can't order people to die on pain of death, has meant people who have shown willingness to take on that risk have often been accorded special sway, from membership of the demos in Ancient Athens requiring military service, to votes for women in the UK being driven by war service far more than suffragettes actions (who admitted with their pre WW1 bombing campaign that their tactics weren't working).

I would look to Game Theory, and the Evolutionary Theory of Multi Level Selection to make sense of this. If a group or class within a society can order others to die, but themselves are insulated from the processes of selection, that risks the creation of a free-rider problem, that can destabilise the system, or create fractures that fragment the society in extremis, like war. Russia is a pretty good example: WW2 where is was a shared existential threat, versus Ukraine where it seems to be about Putin's vanity - shared priorities, versus defence of an elite's priorities. Discussed in more detail here: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

I'd look to the history of sagas epics and religions, to understand the emergence of ideas that people felt were worth dying for, discussed here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

Yossarian is fundamentally an example of an agent with rational self-interest, as assumed in economic theories until very recent times, as summarised in the idea of 'homo economicus'. A freely-associating rational self-interested agent, simply cannot be pursuaded that they should die, unless perhaps they are reacting to kin-selection of protecting family. As I see it that is what Catch 22 draws out: The contradiction between the mythos associated with war and heroism, and the pervasive idea that we are rational individuals (which is not unchallenged, see the homo economics article).

WW1 poetry drew out a similar tension or contradiction, between the mythos of war and supposed rewards of symbolic immortality:

"As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain, As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain." -closing verse of RL Binyon's 'For The Fallen'

And the challenge of the lived experience to find what could justify it's necessity:

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori." -closing lines of Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'

I wouldn't call Yossarianism a fully developed philosophy. But instead an investigation of War, a questioning of whether in truth it can be rational to accept an order to die, and to die for the sake of an order.

I would argue based on a social contract theory of society, game theory, and Multi Level Selection, that ordering people to die for aims which don't serve them or their descendents, is not rational to demand people participate in.

But, what serves us and our descendents, is the product of endless tensions and negotiation, to discover. And is in the realm of mythos and trans-personal meaning, not of rationality. Deciding what we would die for, involves knowing what is required to make life worth living, which is not the result of analysis, but is a felt response to our our entire situation.

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    Great analysis! I think the real contradiction when force is used, is that there is no rational way to stop it. You are forced to reply with force, which is irrational. "War doesn't decide who is right, only who is left." (Maybe we should all go left?)
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 15:53
  • +1 Thank you. I disagree though that war has been treated as last resort throughout human history - a champion fighting to death or fighting till the enemy run was true in ancient Athens, but finished with Alexander the Great (whose major strategic innovation was pursuing the enemy and killing as many as possible.) Death punishment is a good way to drive people into a battle - Trotsky openly stated that this was the only way he could motivate troops in the civil war, and Stalin later used the infamous barrier troops on the massive scale - no one really wanted to die for the Communists.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 16:06
  • @RogerVadim: I said, carefully, 'war was generally a last resort'. I'd in mind the larger scope of human history. I'll accept psychotechnologies involved have got so good at tolerating lose-lose outcomes, we have Mutually Assured Destruction. My core contention, is that following Marshall's research & Holmes' review of it, it's hard to get people to murder each other without a lot of brutalising & dehumanisation first. In Ireland they had a tradition of champions to avoid battles at fords. + en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_of_the_Thirty (1351AD). Coerced forces still have a slim choice
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 17:10
  • @ScottRowe: It wasn't the Allies who saw that dark tide turned. But Russians, and Germans, thirty millions of them Who beat down that fire from when the Reichstag burned. It was in Stalingrad, where their own dead buried them. It was not guns or hope, but deaths that won. Because all tyrants can make, is ruins and dead men. The innocents of that time must not be forgotten - And that tyrants should die, before dead men bury them.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 17:13
  • You would think that people would learn that force is ultimately self-defeating, but it is not chosen by reasoning, at least, not correct reasoning.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Nov 17, 2022 at 19:03

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