Many characters in Catch-22 undergo moral crises, wherein they must decide between self-interest (a concern for their own safety and wellbeing) or altruism (a concern for the wellbeing of others). The chaplain, initially a morally-upright and religious man, flirts with immorality by pretending to have a fake disease and asking to spend time in the hospital. He realizes, however, that he ought instead to follow his orders and resist military authority without actively revolting against his superiors. Many commanding officers, however, decide to serve their own interests. Korn wants Cathcart’s job, Cathcart wants to become a general, and Dreedle and Peckem constantly fight for control of the other’s office.
But it is Yossarian’s personal development, his progression from self-interest to altruism that defines the moral arc of Catch-22. In the beginning, Yossarian is content to forge the chaplain’s signature, resist his bombing runs, and otherwise either devise stratagems to avoid responsibility or “go with the flow” in his time with the Army. But as his friends—including Clevinger, Orr, Nately, and Dunbar—either die or disappear, Yossarian’s attitude changes. He loses Luciana and Nurse Duckett; he learns that Aarfy has committed rape and murder; he sees scenes of total destruction in Rome, and of great human suffering. He realizes, like Dunbar, that he can no longer bomb innocent civilians for no reason, just to please his superiors.
Yossarian’s personal development reaches a climax in his full recollection of Snowden’s death. In a bomb-run over Avignon, a man name Snowden is hit by flak in the back of the plane, and Yossarian, caring for a smaller leg wound, misses Snowden’s large chest wound. When Snowden finally shows this second wound to Yossarian, his insides spill into the cabin of the plane, horrifying Yossarian and causing him to see, firsthand, the frailty of human life.
Later, Yossarian is called on to make a moral choice. He can either accept Cathcart and Korn’s deal, leaving the Army and abandoning his fellow soldiers, or continue flying missions. Yossarian accepts neither alternative. He does not choose total altruism—he does not continue to work with his fellow soldiers—and he does not take a deal that would send him home immediately. Instead, Yossarian flees Pianosa, thus recognizing the horrors and immoralities of warfare while maintaining his independence, and refusing to compromise on his decision to stop flying bombing missions. Yossarian, ultimately, takes a moral stand against war, and what it does to the individuals who are forced to fight in it. In the end, Yossarian is en route to Sweden, fittingly a neutral country, where he will wait out the war’s remainder.
Self-interest, Altruism, and Morality ThemeTracker
Self-interest, Altruism, and Morality Quotes in Catch-22
As far back as Yossarian could recall, he explained to Clevinger with a patient smile, somebody was always hatching a plot to kill him.
But Yossarian still didn’t understand how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.
“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”
“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”
“You aren’t letting him sign any.”
“Of course not . . . that would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade.”
You will . . . you’ll tear it up into little pieces the minute I’m gone and go waling away like a big shot . . . because . . .Luciana let you sleep with her and did not ask you for money.
Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined.
What displeased Corporal Whitcomb most about the chaplain, apart from the fact that the chaplain believed in God, was his lack of initiative and aggressiveness.
The Germans are being driven out [of Italy], and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong.
But the Germans are also members in good standing of the syndicate, and it’s my job to protect their rights as shareholders. . . . Don’t you understand that I have to respect the sanctity of my contract with Germany?
“You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you’re at war and might get your head blown off any second.”
“I more than resent it, sir. I’m absolutely incensed.”
Even people who were not there remembered vividly exactly what happened next. There was the briefest, softest tsst! filtering audibly through the shattering, overwhelming howl of the planes engines, and then there were just Kid Sampson’s two pale, skinny legs, still joined by strings somehow at the bloody truncated hips, standing stock-still on the raft . . . .
The War Department replied touchingly that there had been no error and that she [Mrs. Daneeka] was undoubtedly the victim of some sadistic and psychotic forger in her husband’s squadron. The letter to husband was returned unopened, stamped KILLED IN ACTION.
It just isn’t right for a nice girl like you to go looking for other men to sleep with. I’ll give you all the money you need, so you won’t have to do it any more.
“They’re going to disappear him.”
“They’re what? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I heard them talking behind a door.”
. . .
“It doesn’t make sense. it isn’t even good grammar. What the hell does it mean when they disappear someone?”
No, sir . . . it’s generally known that you’ve flown only two missions. And that one of those occurred when Aarfy accidentally flew you over enemy territory while navigating you to Naples for a black-market water cooler.