Looking Through a Millian Lens: The Morality and Ethics of Katczinsky

In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes the effects of war on the ethics and personal morals of soldiers. In the novel, the main character, a young Paul Baumer, and his fellow soldiers are subjected to the brutal reality of war while led by Katczinsky, an experienced soldier and a 40-year-old father. Katczinsky is an example of how war can exacerbate the moral choices of the individual, particularly after being immersed in the destructive environment of warfare for years. However, as both an experienced soldier and someone who has lived in the outside world prior to the war, his resourcefulness, intelligence, and empathy are the main influence on his personal ethics and values, while the war forces him to strongly adhere to his morals in extreme situations. All of these factors will be used to evaluate the overall morality and ethics of Katczinsky’s character by John Stuart Mill’s ethical standards.

According to John Stuart Mill’s ethical principle of promoting happiness, Katczinsky’s resourcefulness in All Quiet on the Western Front reflects Mill’s values. Mill believed that, “Happiness is the sole end of human action, and the promotion of it the test by which to judge of all human conduct.” (Mill, John Stuart Mill, Section 4.2) Here, Mill states that happiness should be the ultimate goal of all humans and morals should be judged based upon how much happiness a person can inspire. Katczinsky’s resourcefulness can be seen as a way to increase the happiness of himself and his fellow soldiers. For example, when the soldiers were sleeping in a factory, Katczinsky noticed the horrible conditions and retrieved a horse box filled with straw for them to sleep in, as well as bread and horse meat as food. This act of resourcefulness improved the comfort and well-being of the soldiers, contributing to their overall happiness. Additionally, when he and Paul Baumer stole produce and livestock from a farm to feed themselves and the soldiers, they were acting in a way that would increase their happiness by providing sustenance. Although Mill would disapprove of the action of stealing as it reduces the happiness of the owners, Katczinsky’s use of the resources for the benefit of all soldiers increases the happiness of the soldiers who receive the supplies. The overwhelming happiness of the soldiers in a desperate time outweighs the distraught caused by Katczinsky to the owners of the supplies and therefore aligns with Mill’s principles. Overall, Katczinsky’s resourcefulness ultimately generates the most happiness for the most people and therefore shows an approved, and practical application of Mill’s ethics of happiness.

Katczinsky’s characteristic insightfulness stemming from his experience and personality leads him to draw strong moral conclusions about the cause of war and potential solutions. During a conversation among the soldiers about the war, Katczinsky says, “Give ‘em all the same grub and all the same pay / And the war would be over and done in a day.”(All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 41). Here, he suggests a practical solution to end the war, while also revealing the underlying cause of the war. Katczinsky believes that social and economic inequality between soldiers and their leaders is the root cause of war. This aligns with John Stuart Mill’s philosophy on war, which claims that, “As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other.” (Principles of Political Economy, 1848). Mill believes that war is justifiable and morally acceptable if social inequality and injustice are present. In this sense, Katczinsky’s insightfulness regarding recognizing social justice and equality as a potential resolution of the war aligns with Mill’s beliefs that war should be fought for the sake of social equality for the people as his solutions are aimed at ending the social and economic inequality that has led to war, rather than promoting selfish interests. Overall, Katczinsky’s insightfulness, which is a defining trait of his character, morally and ethically aligns with Mill’s beliefs.

Another one of Katczinsky’s defining traits, his intelligence, can also be used in the moral evaluation of his character by John Stuart Mill’s philosophy. Katczinsky’s intelligence leads him to provide critical commentary on the nature of war and the reason why Germany is fighting the war. In Chapter 9, Katczinsky comments that, “…every full-grown emperor requires at least one war, otherwise he would not become famous.” This shows his clear disapproval of a war where the leaders receive all of the benefits from war, while the soldiers and the people suffer the consequences. John Stuart Mill echoes this sentiment, as shown in his work, Principles of Political Economy, where he writes, “When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people.” This quote from John Stuart Mill’s work echoes Katczinsky’s belief that war fought for selfish reasons can be immoral and that individuals should be held accountable for any harm they cause to others, even indirectly. Furthermore, Katczinsky provides insight from the side of the common people as well, stating that their French enemies, “…weren’t asked about [the war] any more than [they] were.”(All Quiet on the Western Front, p. 205). Here, Katczinsky further emphasizes how war is fought mainly for the sake of the rulers while the soldiers are mere weapons for the rulers to utilize to win their wars. Through his commentary and intelligence, Katczinsky’s morals can be evaluated to align with Mill’s philosophy of condemning wars fought for selfish purposes and emphasizing the need for wars to be fought for the betterment of all people, rather than the advancement of a select few.

Although Katczinsky’s important resourcefulness, intelligence, and insightfulness align with Mill’s moral standards, it is important to ethically evaluate a defining aspect of Katczinsky that conflicts with Mill’s moral beliefs: Katczinsky’s empathy. An example of Katczinsky’s empathy conflicting with Mill’s morals is shown in chapter four of All Quiet on the Western Front when a new recruit sustains a critical injury, Katczinsky debates what he should do with the new recruit, asking Paul Baumer, “Shouldn’t we just take a revolver and put an end to it?” Here, Katczinsky’s extensive experience with war and empathy for the soldier’s pain can be seen to have conditioned him to think rationally about all situations, even when involving someone’s life. Katczinsky’s experiences and empathy have led him to believe that it would be better for the young soldier to be killed quickly rather than suffer for a few more days and die. While he may have been thinking about the young soldier’s well-being, his suggestion of killing the soldier goes against the principles of empathy and human compassion. According to John Stuart Mill, in his work On Liberty, “A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury.” By suggesting the young soldier should be killed, Katczinsky is not only suggesting an action that goes against the soldier’s wishes and autonomy, but also potentially causing harm to him by depriving him of the opportunity to receive medical treatment or recover from his injuries. While Katczinsky’s experiences and his way of empathizing with the soldier’s suffering may have led him to believe that this is the best course of action, Mill believed that inaction can cause harm to others, and in either case, the person is accountable for the injury caused. Here, both Katczinsky’s recommendation to kill him and his wish to enforce an act of mercy upon the soldier against his will are morally unacceptable according to Mill’s ethical standards.

Katczinsky’s character, while not completely aligned with Mill’s ideas about infringing upon others’ happiness, is overall aligned with Mill’s ethical and moral philosophy in regard to the importance of human happiness, the avoidance of harm to others, and the promotion of human dignity and worth. Katczinsky’s empathy towards the young soldier who had been severely injured and his commentary on the motivations behind war highlight the larger philosophical and ethical questions surrounding the war. Overall, the character of Katczinsky in All Quiet on the Western Front provides an interesting case study for examining the application of ethics and morality of war through the lens of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy.

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