Bite the bullet

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To "bite the bullet" is to endure a painful or otherwise unpleasant situation that is seen as unavoidable.[1] The phrase was first recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 novel The Light that Failed.[1]

It was suggested by the movie Bite the Bullet that biting the bullet meant using a shell casing to cover an aching tooth, especially one that had been broken, and where a nerve is exposed. In the film, the slug was removed from the bullet, the cap was hit to expend that charge, and the casing was cut down to allow it to sit level with the other teeth.

It is often stated that it is derived historically from the practice of having a patient clench a bullet in his or her teeth as a way to cope with the extreme pain of a surgical procedure without anesthetic, though evidence for biting a bullet rather than a leather strap during surgery is sparse.[1] It has been speculated to have evolved from the British empire expression "to bite the cartridge", which dates to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but the phrase "chew a bullet", with a similar meaning, dates to at least 1796.[1]

In philosophy[edit]

A more specific meaning of the phrase is to accept unpleasant consequences of one's assumed beliefs.[2] Sound reasoning requires its practitioner to always sustain a consistent set of beliefs. This may involve accepting a disturbing belief that is a consequence of one's currently held beliefs. It may be disturbing because it is counterintuitive or has other disturbing consequences. Given a philosopher's currently held beliefs that he or she is not prepared to give up, he or she may have to bite the bullet by accepting a particular claim offered as an extreme case or putative counterexample.


  • A strict utilitarian will be forced to admit that, if it can be shown that punishing an innocent person would increase the total happiness of the whole society, then there are times when it is morally right to punish an innocent person.[2] (See telishment) An ethically "easy" example would be when an informed person—such as an army cadet—voluntarily accepts the "punishment" or risk of "harm" for the greater good.
  • The Euthyphro dilemma can be resolved in the mind of a divine command theorist by simply accepting that if God tells us to do something which appears to be immoral, then we are to accept that it really is moral in the bigger picture, and that it only appears to be immoral.[3]
  • A consequentialist believes that what is called right or wrong depends on what consequences come about as a result of a proposed action. As a way to test this view, some counterexamples may be considered which are intended to find out if this view holds up in extreme cases. For example, one may object that some actions appear to be right in principle even when terrible consequences have resulted from them. Also, there may be times when an action appears to be wrong in principle, but has wonderful consequences. A person wanting to stay faithful to the consequentialist view in the face of an extreme case may have to bite the bullet by taking the position that, even though these counterexamples do exist, the original view still holds up:
Even though both drivers were driving recklessly, only the one who gets in an accident gets a severe penalty. It's okay that some people are treated differently based solely on their luck.
Accepting the existence of moral luck may seem counterintuitive or even unreasonable to some, so this statement of acceptance can be seen as biting the bullet.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Bite the bullet. Retrieved on 2019-03-20.
  2. ^ a b Warburton, Nigel (2000). Thinking from A to Z. Routledge. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-415-22281-8.
  3. ^ Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2006-08-21). Retrieved on 2011-10-12.