This is an unofficial snapshot of the ISO/IEC JTC1 SC22 WG21 Core Issues List revision 112e. See for the official list.


219. Cannot defend against destructors that throw exceptions

Section: 14.6.2  [except.terminate]     Status: NAD     Submitter: Herb Sutter     Date: 31 Mar 2000

Destructors that throw can easily cause programs to terminate, with no possible defense. Example: Given

    struct XY { X x; Y y; };

Assume that X::~X() is the only destructor in the entire program that can throw. Assume further that Y construction is the only other operation in the whole program that can throw. Then XY cannot be used safely, in any context whatsoever, period — even simply declaring an XY object can crash the program:

    XY xy; // construction attempt might terminate program:
	   //   1. construct x -- succeeds
	   //   2. construct y -- fails, throws exception
	   //   3. clean up by destroying x -- fails, throws exception,
	   //      but an exception is already active, so call
	   //      std::terminate() (oops)
	   // there is no defense
So it is highly dangerous to have even one destructor that could throw.

Suggested Resolution:

Fix the above problem in one of the following two ways. I prefer the first.

  1. We already have text that specifies that any destructor operation in the standard library (presumably including the destructors of UDTs used in containers or as predicates, etc.) may not throw. There is good reason to widen this injunction to specify that destructors may never throw at all. (I realize this would render existing programs nonconforming if they did do this, but it's unsafe anyway.)
  2. Specify what happens in the above case so that std::terminate() won't be called.

Fergus Henderson: I disagree. Code using XY may well be safe, if X::~X() only throws if std::uncaught_exception() is false.

I think the current exception handling scheme in C++ is certainly flawed, but the flaws are IMHO design flaws, not minor technical defects, and I don't think they can be solved by minor tweaks to the existing design. I think that at this point it is probably better to keep the standard stable, and learn to live with the existing flaws, rather than trying to solve them via TC.

Bjarne Stroustrup: I strongly prefer to have the call to std::terminate() be conforming. I see std::terminate() as a proper way to blow away "the current mess" and get to the next level of error handling. I do not want that escape to be non-conforming — that would imply that programs relying on a error handling based on serious errors being handled by terminating a process (which happens to be a C++ program) in std::terminate() becomes non-conforming. In many systems, there are — and/or should be — error-handling and recovery mechanisms beyond what is offered by a single C++ program.

Andy Koenig: If we were to prohibit writing a destructor that can throw, how would I solve the following problem?

I want to write a class that does buffered output. Among the other properties of that class is that destroying an object of that class writes the last buffer on the output device before freeing memory.

What should my class do if writing that last buffer indicates a hardware output error? My user had the option to flush the last buffer explicitly before destroying the object, but didn't do so, and therefore did not anticipate such a problem. Unfortunately, the problem happened anyway. Should I be required to suppress this error indication anyway? In all cases?

Herb Sutter (June, 2007): IMO, it's fine to suppress it. The user had the option of flushing the buffer and thus being notified of the problem and chose not to use it. If the caller didn't flush, then likely the caller isn't ready for an exception from the destructor, either. You could also put an assert into the destructor that would trigger if flush() had not been called, to force callers to use the interface that would report the error.

In practice, I would rather thrown an exception, even at the risk of crashing the program if we happen to be in the middle of stack unwinding. The reason is that the program would crash only if a hardware error occurred in the middle of cleaning up from some other error that was in the process of being handled. I would rather have such a bizarre coincidence cause a crash, which stands a chance of being diagnosed later, than to be ignored entirely and leave the system in a state where the ignore error could cause other trouble later that is even harder to diagnose.

If I'm not allowed to throw an exception when I detect this problem, what are my options?

Herb Sutter: I understand that some people might feel that "a failed dtor during stack unwinding is preferable in certain cases" (e.g., when recovery can be done beyond the scope of the program), but the problem is "says who?" It is the application program that should be able to decide whether or not such semantics are correct for it, and the problem here is that with the status quo a program cannot defend itself against a std::terminate() — period. The lower-level code makes the decision for everyone. In the original example, the mere existence of an XY object puts at risk every program that uses it, whether std::terminate() makes sense for that program or not, and there is no way for a program to protect itself.

That the "it's okay if the process goes south should a rare combination of things happen" decision should be made by lower-level code (e.g., X dtor) for all apps that use it, and which doesn't even understand the context of any of the hundreds of apps that use it, just cannot be correct.

Additional note (April, 2011):

The addition of the noexcept specifier, along with changes to make many destructors noexcept by default, may have sufficiently addressed these concerns. CWG should consider changing this to NAD or extension status.

Rationale (August, 2011):

As given in the preceding note.