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I just saw the movie Gran Torino (which was very impressive). I don't want to spoil the ending, so if anybody wishes to see the movie and doesn't want to know what happens, they should probably stop reading here.

Now, in the ending of the movie, Walt Kowalski provokes a brutal, violent death in front of many witnesses at the hands of gangbangers who have been terrorizing his neighborhood, and specifically his immigrant neighbor family. From a Christian/altruist perspective, it would be tempting to laud him for a heroic sacrifice, liberating his neighborhood from an oppressive gang, giving up his life for the sake of others (and this may well be the intended meaning of the film; Kowalksi even lands in a Christ-like position on the ground.)

When altruists praise, one might expect egoists to condemn - but would they here? First of all, is this morally wrong? If life is the standard of ethics, and one's own life and happiness the purpose, does it follow that provoking certain death is wrong? Or is such an interpretation too deontological ("It is your duty to survive") and concrete-bound, and could one make a case that choosing a death that helps those one loves may well be included in "life" interpreted as an entire lifetime, including its ending? (Remember that in the context of the film, Kowalksi is already an old man suffering from terminal lung cancer, not someone who is throwing very much away by choosing death. On the contrary, he is doing what he judges to be the only way to uphold his values - his neighbors whom he has come to love.)

And, going perhaps even deeper into the theory of ethics, since the choice to live is pre-ethical, has morality anything to say at all about choosing not to live any longer at a certain point? Is choosing one's death (including its time and manner) always immoral, outside the scope of morality, or moral in certain contexts?

asked Feb 10 '12 at 14:39

FCH's gravatar image


edited Feb 11 '12 at 16:40

As you illude to in your question, morality and a (proper) code of ethics is a system that guides man's actions when life is his goal. If life is not his goal, ethics is not his guide.

(Feb 10 '12 at 19:29) JK Gregg ♦ JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

Correct, but I'm wondering whether a proper end to a lifetime isn't included in "life" as a goal, and if so, what morality has to say about such a proper end.

(Feb 11 '12 at 06:25) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Corrections to some premises:

  1. He was not just an old man but also had terminal lung cancer.
  2. I don't think his goal was to liberate the "neighborhood" but to protect the Hmong family that he bonded with.
(Feb 11 '12 at 11:29) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

". . . when life is his goal. If life is not his goal, ethics is not his guide."

So watch out for him, because he's behaving unethically.

To adopt life as the goal is to be serious about being ethical.

Choosing a proper death is a case of living as a man.

(Feb 11 '12 at 13:06) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Humbug, I certainly agree with your point #2, but I could well imagine a Christian/altruist overlooking that important part of it, perhaps even being willfully ignorant of it. Again, I also wonder to what extent Eastwood himself and the writers intended this meaning or not.

Good point on #1, let me add that in the question.

(Feb 11 '12 at 16:40) FCH FCH's gravatar image
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I haven't seen the movie and can't comment on its metaphysical meaning, but the question appears to be asking about the Objectivist view of suicide in relation to the Objectivist view of life as the standard of value. Suicide can take many forms:

[1] Actively taking one's own life by shooting oneself in the head or jumping off a cliff or deliberately ingesting poison, etc.

[2] Gradually dying by slow self-torture for as long as possible.

[3] Non-violently refusing to comply with the commands of an oppressor, and being killed by the oppressor.

[4] Violently resisting the commands of an oppressor and being killed by the oppressor.

[5] Actively attempting to escape from the oppressor and being killed by the oppressor.

As far as I know, Christianity generally upholds [2] and [3] as the greatest forms of martyrdom. It sounds as if the hero in the movie may have been pursuing [4], which is also martyrdom, especially in the Islamic form of ancient, pre-Renaissance Christian existence (although the alleged "oppressor" in the Islamic view, "the Great Satan," is actually an illusion in reality).

In the ending, Ayn Rand's novel, We the Living, concretizes [5] as a highly dramatic way of emphasizing the futiliy of any rational pursuit of live-serving values under totalitarian tyranny. Atlas Shrugged concretizes such a case, also, in the character of Cherryl, except that Cherryl never comprehends how her own sanction serves her oppressors; instead, she is psychologically overwhelmed by the magnitude of the evil that she faces. In Atlas Shrugged, Part III, Chapter IV, a social worker says to an already distraught Cherryl:

It's a disgrace to come to such a state… if you society girls had something to do besides indulging your desires and chasing pleasures, you wouldn't be wandering, drunk as a tramp, at this hour of the night… if you stopped living for your own enjoyment, stopped thinking of yourself and found some higher—"

She ran as hard and fast as she could in revolt -- ending in her dramatic death.

OPAR describes suicide as follows near the end of Chapter 7 (pp. 247-248):

...suicide is sometimes justified, according to Objectivism. Suicide is justified when man's life, owing to circumstances outside of a person's control, is no longer possible; an example might be a person with a painful terminal illness, or a prisoner in a concentration camp who sees no chance of escape. In cases such as these, suicide is not necessarily a philosophic rejection of life or of reality. On the contrary, it may very well be their tragic reaffirmation. Self-destruction in such contexts may amount to the tortured cry: "Man's life means so much to me that I will not settle for anything less. I will not accept a living death as a substitute."

answered Feb 12 '12 at 11:26

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

What the hero does is actually [3], which is the twist of the story because you expect [4]. The interesting part is that in the context of the story (which is a very plausible one, not a highly concocted life-boat kind of situation) [3] is the only way for the hero to actually uphold his values as opposed to just giving up on values and life altogether.

(Feb 12 '12 at 15:07) FCH FCH's gravatar image

When we say that the choice to live is pre-ethical, "live" means a very specific thing: to live as a man, with all the inherent spiritual implications. The pre-ethicalness of the decision doesn't imply the choice to live is arbitrary or value-free. On the contrary: it means choosing to live is choosing the fundamental value which makes a code of values objective and relevant.

Morality is about how to live as a man. That's what it means when we say that man's life is the standard of value.

Mere physical survival as the standard of value is not sufficient to guide man in all his actions once he has already achieved physical survival. And it is also true that to live as a man does not imply a duty to further one's physical survival when important spiritual aspects of man's life are at stake.

Man's life, or to live as a man, requires one pursue and defend one's values, even if the cost might be physical survival. Properly understood, a heroic death in defense of one's greatest values is not a sacrifice, especially if by saving one's skin, one would allow one's highest values to be destroyed.

The value of one's life is not merely physical. Far from it.

answered Feb 11 '12 at 12:58

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦


I liked Gran Torino, and I didn't find the ending to be morally offensive. I found it poignant and appropriate.

(Feb 11 '12 at 13:02) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Thank you, John, that is exactly the kind of answer I was looking for. I knew I was onto something important here, but couldn't quite put it in words.

What I think is significant here is that rather than risking one's physical survival for the sake of one's values, we are talking about certain death here. I think that's an important distinction when we consider the issue of helping other people in supposedly-sacrificial ways (think, for example, of the standard examples of a drowning baby vs. a drowning Hitler vs. your drowning wife - or in this case, your terrorized neighbors).

(Feb 11 '12 at 16:46) FCH FCH's gravatar image

Choosing certain death for the sake of someone you love, especially if the alternative is certain death (by, say, cancer) in a short time, with no upside for any survivors, is an act of embracing life.

(Feb 11 '12 at 17:37) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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Asked: Feb 10 '12 at 14:39

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Last updated: Feb 12 '12 at 15:09