The Ethics of Honouring Martyrs

I was thinking today. We give a special respect to the wishes of those who died for a project or cause both we and they believe(d) in. Indeed we generally give certain gravity to the wishes of the dead, martyred or not. 


Of course it is possible to simply debunk. One explanation would be that we simply become emotional in a way which clouds our ethical judgement. The exact psychological details of this story would have to be spelt out, but need not concern us here. You might just think that it is a matter of level setting, the salience of someone having died for a cause sets expectations around what it is reasonable to do for, and in defence of, that cause at a higher level, by a process of interpersonal comparisons.

I would like to see whether we can give our practices here some rational sense though. There does seem to be something fitting about honouring the wishes of martyrs and it would be nice if this intuition could be incorporated.

I would propose that the survival of our projects constitutes a form of extremely partial survival. That is, being survived by one’s projects in some sense constitutes something that is relevantly analogous to the partial persistence of one’s personality. Thus, if one fought for national independence, the achievement of national independence is a reflection of your will upon the world in such a way as to reflect the continuation of your important commitments. What commitments could be more important to you than those you died for?

Of course this story is going to need a lot of things added to work. It seems like it will work best if plugged into a psychological continuity account of personal identity over-time, or else a person-directed practice account of the right sort. In addition it will need some account as to why the continuation of projects of this sort should be seen as relevantly like the partial continuation of one’s mental states or whatever is required by our chosen account of personal identity. Still, something like this seems right to me though, that we honour and defend the projects of the dead because as long as those projects continue they are not quite fully dead.


About timothyscriven

I study philosophy at Sydney University. In the grand scheme, I'm not very important.
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