Episode 104 – “The Thirty Fathom Grave”

It is not uncommon for individuals who have  survived multi-casualty events, such as  wars, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, floods,  and other disasters, natural and human-induced, to struggle with their good fortune, in the midst of so much bad fortune. This phenomenon,  widely labeled “survivor’s guilt,” is the subject of “The Thirty Fathom Grave.”

Chief Bell, a petty officer on a U.S. Navy vessel, is subject to a broad range of  affective and cognitive impairments whose onset appear to coincide with the discovery that their ship is directly over the wreck a U.S. Navy submarine. The sub sank twenty years earlier, during World War II. Chief Bell was the sole survivor from the sub.  Bell’s symptoms, and his subsequent behavior, including his eventual suicide, have something to do with his belief that he is somehow to blame for the sinking of the sub, and his intense sense that he is being drawn to join his long-lost crew members.

There are several complications in the story that encourage us to think that Bell’s deceased crew members really are communicating with him and are drawing him to their “Thirty Fathom Grave.” What is philosophically interesting is not whether one can be literally haunted by the dead. Rather, what is of interest is the fact that memories, beliefs, and feelings about incidents that occurred twenty years in the past or longer, can have a powerful effect on one’s beliefs, feelings and well-being in the present. If anyone suffers from intense survivor’s guilt, Bell certainly does.

What exactly is survivor’s guilt? First, it’s important to be clear about the fact that there is a difference between having guilt and being guilty. Having guilt is a psychological state, or a cluster of psychological states. It is typically taken to be a feeling, but it’s clearly more than just a feeling. It is a feeling associated with an assessment of one’s responsibility for the existence of some problematic state of affairs.  For example, suppose I invite some friends over for dinner, but I fail to plan the menu properly, and there isn’t enough food to satisfy my guests. I may feel guilty that they leave hungry. I am responsible and  can only blame myself for the situation. I feel guilty and I am guilty. In this case being guilty need not be a moral or legal assessment, though we most frequently speak of being guilty in moral and legal contexts.  Changing the example slightly, suppose that I’m not in charge of the dinner, but that my housemate is, and she invites me to the dinner for her friends. Suppose now that the failure to have enough food on hand is hers, and the guests leave hungry. In this case I may feel guilty for the sorry situation, though I am not guilty. I’m may not responsible for the unfortunate state of affairs, even if I believe that I am and even if it is true that I could have intervened in such a way as to change the outcome.

A person experiences survivor’s guilt when they have survived an event in which others have not survived, and where the surviving individual believes that they bear some or all the responsibility for the death of some or all those who didn’t survive. Here too, feeling guilty does not require being guilty. In fact, usually those with survivor’s guilt are not responsible for the tragedy that has occurred. Thus, survivor’s guilt is often due to false belief, or lack of insight, on the part of the survivor about the survivor herself or himself.

An individual with survivor’s guilt often has a false belief about himself or herself. So is the survivor self-deceived?  As philosophers have traditionally understood it, a person is self-deceived when they believe something that they already believe to be false. If Ignat is trying to lose weight, and, offered a doughnut, thinks, “Oh, one little doughnut can’t hurt,” it’s plausible to say that he is deceiving himself.  [So self-deception isn’t just having a false belief about oneself – it also seems to involve having a conflicting true belief that is being supressed.]

“The Thirty Fathom Grave” brings out the complexity of the survivor’s condition.  Officer Bell’s feelings of guilt and associated beliefs about his responsibility are triggered by the his proximity to the sunken submarine where his crew-mates perished. While there is no rational basis for the beliefs and feelings that torture Bell and lead to his own tragic end, we are well-positioned to understand the causal factors at work that lead to that end. Unfortunately, those entrusted with his well being are not so positioned. It can be difficult enough to understand a person’s motives for action, but the difficulty is even greater when the person’s motivation depends on false interpretations of their past actions and their role in past events.

Further Reading:

de Sosa, R., 1978, “Self-Deceptive Emotions,” Journal of Philosophy, 75: 684–697.

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