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tygorton

The Myth of Sacrificial Morality

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Note: This is a recent post on my blog. The purpose of the blog is more or less personal immersion in Objectivist thought. By engaging the philosophy on a regular basis in order to write these essays, I am working to replace a lifetime of errant philosophy with Objectivism. My total acceptance of Objectivist ideas as truth is only the beginning of a long process by which the end goal is to completely rid myself of emotionism when it comes to making decisions in my life. I do not claim to be an expert on Objectivism and these essays are personal explorations/expressions of my growing understanding of the philosophy.

The Myth of Sacrificial Morality

It is a commonly held notion within the philosophical context of our age that an intensely moral person is, in essence, a martyr. The prevailing image of an impeccably moral individual is one of suffering, i.e., a religious man living in self-imposed isolation whipping himself for merely thinking about an immoral act. This is a false image and a highly destructive cliché that is accepted by the majority.

The truth is in extreme opposition to this deranged fantasy.

Indeed, if one measures their morality in terms of an altruistic philosophy, there can be only one resulting image: that of a martyr sacrificing the enjoyment of his life in order to achieve “morality”. To take altruism (defined as: the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others) to its ultimate end is to, quite literally, DIE. If one considers it moral to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of others, then morality absolutely creates a state of perpetual suffering on two separate fronts. The first front is direct; by sacrificing yourself for others, you suffer the depravation of what is being sacrificed without the possibility of a return. The second front is more abstract. Because no one (except the psychotic) WANTS death, an individual devoted to an altruistic philosophy must decide how far to take their misguided brand of “morality”. This creates a sliding scale in which no moral absolutes are possible. It becomes a matter of individual choice in terms of how altruistic one must be in order to achieve sufficient morality. This contradiction creates immeasurable guilt and mental suffering. The altruistic individual cannot possibly achieve moral perfection without bringing about their own demise, and so they exist in a constant state of guilt regarding their perceived level of morality. The religious man whipping himself becomes a logical extension of such a barbaric view of morality.

The reality is: morality is a SELFISH act. A successful, joyous, and healthy individual must have a shining self-image in order to sustain their powerful sense of life. Only a moral person can possess a self-image strong enough to enable their continued success in all aspects of life. Morality breeds confidence. Morality grows strength within an individual in abundance, a strength that is immediately recognizable to all those who come in contact with it.

Consider the hypothetical cliché of a parent discovering their child with “their hand in the cookie jar”. A child caught trying to take a cookie when they know it is not allowed becomes visibly guilty. Their entire body language shifts. They understand that they have breached a trust and this generates guilt and self-doubt. In contrast, the child who never breaches that trust, who only reaches into the cookie jar when permissible, fosters trust between themselves and their guardian(s) and as a result, is free of conflict and guilt. Self-confidence is the direct result of successfully navigating moral challenges, even one as (seemingly) petty as deciding whether to take a cookie without permission. When, by contrast, a much larger moral decision is at stake in one’s adult life, the decision one makes will have a lifelong impact (positive or negative) on a considerable scale.

It becomes easy to conclude that achieving moral perfection is in fact a selfishly motivated endeavor. Once an individual comprehends that their success in life is reliant upon a glowing self-image and that morality plays a fundamental role in forming that self-image, it becomes selfishly imperative to the individual to achieve moral perfection in their lives.

The benefits of being consciously moral are countless. In business, while an individual may gain profit by being immoral in the short term, the long-term result is failure. This failure may not translate into a loss of profits, but it will certainly present itself in every other aspect of that individual’s life. An immoral businessman is incapable of trust because they themselves are not trustworthy, and thusly, they extend that inability to be trustworthy to every individual they encounter. No amount of wealth can appease the mental suffering of gaining wealth by immoral means. History is ripe with evidence in terms of the disastrous personal lives of those who have gained wealth in such a way. What possible benefit can there be to wealth if one’s self-image is so damaged as to make happiness an impossibility? In business, trust is also a considerable factor when it comes to partnerships. A businessman who has betrayed that trust will find it more and more difficult to form business relationships in the future, unless it is with other businessmen who lack morality, in which case both parties are at risk of being swindled and both expect nothing less than betrayal.

In the realm of personal relationships, there can be no greater factor than morality. Trust is the foundation of every relationship. Without it, even the most meager of friendships would be impossible, let alone a lifelong commitment that yields positive results. A moral individual is valued by all except those who view it as a threat due to their own unwillingness to lead moral lives. Nothing is more infuriating to the immoral than the impeccable morality they encounter in others. This creates a two-fold benefit for the moral individual. First, because the individual has proven their moral fortitude, their personal relationships will flourish and enjoy the full range of benefits generated by trust. Second, a moral individual will instantly be aware of the immorality inherent in others by their attack of that moral fortitude. This presents itself in any number of ways, sometimes subtle. It may be as “innocent” as someone insisting you take that shot of tequila with them despite the fact that you’ve made it clear you are not interested. Typically, some form of social pressure is applied under the guise of “playfulness”, but this type of behavior is nothing more than the immoral/weak individual’s attempt to bring you down to their level so they can better enjoy themselves free of guilt.

Morality is noble and it requires no faith. Moral absolutes are discernible by way of reason, by way of a scientific method of perception and introspection. Once an individual understands that moral absolutes exist, it is in their self-interest to apply those moral absolutes for the reasons specified above and countless more that are unnecessary to describe.

Morality is selfish. Only a selfish individual can achieve moral perfection because only a selfishly motivated individual can grasp the immeasurable personal benefits of achieving moral perfection. Across every aspect of one’s life, morality is of vital importance. To achieve universal success in life, from business to personal relationships, an individual’s moral choices are paramount.

It is important here to restate the importance of an individual’s means of defining morality. If a person adopts an altruistic philosophy, moral perfection is impossible. The more devoted an individual is to an altruistic approach to morality, the greater their suffering and ultimate failure. It is imperative that one define morality by way of reason. Whether it is a question of taking a cookie without permission or stabbing someone in the stomach, the correct moral decision can ALWAYS be determined by way of reason. The distinction between an individual living according to an altruistic philosophy and a philosophy of reason is fundamental. Only self-destruction can be the result of the former while immeasurable personal reward will be the result of the latter.

If humanity is to survive the challenges of our time, the barbaric notion of sacrificial morality must be abandoned and replaced with a morality defined by reason. The morality of reason increases human potential exponentially. An individual’s self-worth grows each time a moral action is taken. Self-worth is the most valuable commodity any individual can obtain. The greater a human being’s self-worth, the greater their contributions will be, both to the larger world and within their own personal realm of existence. Each of us is capable of moral perfection so long as the moral philosophy we adopt is defined purely by reason.

The next time you look at yourself in the mirror, take stock of your moral integrity and the impact it has on all aspects of your life. Let go of the image of morality as attainable only by way of sacrifice and depravation. Instead, embrace an achievable moral philosophy that will guide you toward your full potential.

Personal Note: I have only just begun this journey in my own life, yet the impact has already been dramatic. The simple decision of accepting that any immoral act, whether you “get away with it” or not, is self-destructive, has made the daily moral choices I face much more easy to navigate. Each time I make the wrong choice there can be no “guilty pleasure” in the act, only disappointment and the instant desire to correct it. There is nothing to get away with. The sacrifice I make each time I act immorally is the sacrifice of my own self-worth. As I apply this philosophy, it becomes more and more difficult to make anything but moral choices inspired by my own selfish desire to gain confidence, even in areas most would consider unimportant “gray zones” that I would not have given a thought to in the past. When it comes to morality, there are no gray choices. You either act in accordance with your moral reason or you do not. To compromise is to fail yourself and to weaken your own self-image.

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"It is a commonly held notion within the philosophical context of our age that an intensely moral person is, in essence, a martyr. The prevailing image of an impeccably moral individual is one of suffering, i.e., a religious man living in self-imposed isolation whipping himself for merely thinking about an immoral act. This is a false image and a highly destructive cliché that is accepted by the majority."

Although I like the rest of your post and agree with it (rational selfishness), I don't think that you are at all correct in the statement above. I see very little evidence that the "martyr" figure that you describe -- someone in self-imposed isolation whipping himself for immoral thoughts -- is "accepted by the majority". If you accept that popular culture tells us what a culture values, then that sort of figure is not regarded very highly and is not emulated -- quite the opposite. Hollywood reflects the ideals of the pop culture in its heroes and heroines, and they are generally strong men of action and strong, beautiful women. Not exactly what you describe. If a culture values a certain kind of man or woman, there will be more of that kind of man or woman as many people will want to be valued that way. I don't see many of the martyr-type being valued. More people watch sports events and American Idol, and dream of being famous in that way. What is your evidence of the martyr being valued by the majority?

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HI Ty, I think you have the morality of rational egism down very well, if I may say. Have you ever been close to anyone who has tried to make altruistic self-sacrifice 'work'? It's not pleasant, and quite sad.

Though I agree that fundamentally the outcome of self-sacrifice is metaphysical 'death' - there is another level in which people use it as 'selfish', in their own 'self-interest'. What transpires is an existence of constant 'give-and-expect-to-take'. In other words, what I do for you now, should be returned in good measure by you, later. Then, it's my turn - and so on. It's in utter disregard for context, or any value, such as respect or love - and has its natural end in destroying such values.

Sacrifice for gain. I've seen it up-close, and how often between married couples !

Such is the pragmatic altruist, who needs others of his ilk to live by.

In your preamble, you write "to completely rid myself of emotionism when it comes to making decisions in my life." Well, yes - I agree, but with reservation. Emotions are not "tools for cognition", and guides to action : that's primary. Only, it turns on your notion of 'emotionism'.

You apparently have read and understood well, Rand's VoS, so you know her insight into emotions - as "barometer", "lightning calculators" - "estimates of...that which is for him, or against him." On that basis, it's crucially important to be close to your emotions, to introspect them constantly, and with practice, even start becoming aware of how they originate. This is never to be ridded of. After all, the more one thinks and acts, the more one feels.

But I'm likely preaching to the choir, and you've figured this out.

Edited by whYNOT

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I think it's important to not only define altruism, but sacrifice. AR claims that sacrifice is when one gives up a greater value for the sake of someone or something that is of lesser value. By this definition, it doesn't mean that human decency is canceled out. Although you aren't obligated to help anyone, it isn't immoral if you do (and I find that most people who do so find it moral, but not for any of the reasons you mentioned). If you see a man asking for food and you have some money to spare, you have to decide whether you value that person's life over the $10 bill in your pocket, or the bagged lunch you brought with you to work. Maybe you don't value his life that much because you don't know him, but you might want to feel that little bit of self-satifaction that most of us feel when we help another person. Or maybe there's some other reason. But I wouldn't call this deed a sacrifice, as a real sacrifice would be giving that man your home, or $500, or a sports car.. something that would actually hurt you.

Another point you touched on was the idea of the martyr figure. While they are praised and looked up to in religious communities, I also have respect for some of them, or in general, any other sort of person who will not compromise when it comes to something he finds extremely meaningful. A good example is a firefighter who refuses to leave a burning building until he gets everyone out. In this case, I wouldn't say the firefighter made a sacrifice. He made a conscious decision that something inside that building was worth dying for. Maybe he wouldn't have been able to respect himself as much if he had stood back, knowing that he could have saved them. Maybe he wanted the fame that comes with saving a bunch of people from a burning building. Either way, it's his choice, and he's the only one who can decide what is of greater value to him. If this firefighter dies in the process, I would consider it a noble death. Another example off the top of my head is more closely defined as a martyr: Mel Gibson from Braveheart, leading the fight for freedom in Scottland. Did he do it for selfish reasons? Yes, he did. He valued freedom above all else, and eventually died in pursuit of it. But he also cared about everyone else who was living under persecution, including friends, family members, and even strangers. He chose to not take a bribe and live a normal life, but instead to die fighting til the very end. This, I think, is the true definition of a martyr, and it's something to look up to.

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It's only a word, but always important is its definition, and I can't see

how 'martyr' can mean anything but being the victim of sacrifice(by force),

or of self-sacrifice (voluntarily). Sacrifice is the act of surrendering

a higher value, to a lesser(or nil) value.

Michelle, I think with the firefighter example, and Braveheart, your meaning

is true, but not the appelation. The man who chose his career, trained intensively,

and dedicated himself to saving lives - had an objective value from the very start, and that

is 'life'.

By risking his own life (note, not necessarily giving it) to go into a burning building, is

what he has prepared himself for, it is what he IS. So, he wouldn't hesitate one second.

This man is a rational egoist, not a martyr.

To call it martyrdom would be to make nonsense of both opposite concepts, I think.

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"It's only a word, but always important is its definition, and I can't see

how 'martyr' can mean anything but being the victim of sacrifice(by force),

or of self-sacrifice (voluntarily). Sacrifice is the act of surrendering

a higher value, to a lesser(or nil) value."

Whynot is correct here -- "martyr" is a person who is killed because they refuse to give up their principles.

There are those who voluntarily sacrifice themselves in various ways and let that be known to everyone around them, but those people -- I think we all know one or two in our families -- are merely annoying, and they certainly derive some value out of posturing that way. The term "martyr" is best reserved for those killed for refusing to compromise their principles.

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Tony, I believe the definition of a martyr is a person who is killed because of their strong, uncompromising beliefs. In this case, a martyr would be the victim of force (because he is ultimately killed), like MG in Braveheat. I wouldn't call this kind of death a sacrifice because he consciously decided that he could not live a normal life without the ideal he was fighting for. Because of cases like this, certain martyrs can definitely be 'objective.'

I agree with your points and would say that a firefighter who dies trying to rescue people is not a martyr. But on that note, I'm sure there's times when they know the building is going to collapse at any second, and they don't risk their lives going inside.. or in another situation, they might be able to save all the people from the lower floor of a building, but not on the upper floor because they don't have enough time. In these situations, I know the firefighters don't have enough time to sit down and weigh the pros and cons of each choice :P, but I would assume that they would each reach a decision (maybe in a split second or so) and decide what his course of action will be. On the one hand, one might risk his life and refuse to leave until everyone is safe, and there could be a number of reasons for this. On the other hand, I'm sure there's a lot of people who would see it as being too risky and run out of there.

The idea that should be respected here, and in the case of a martyr, is that some values are so important to people that they are willing to risk their lives for them (even if they already do it daily).

So my two points are 1. martyrs are not inherently evil, and 2. you cannot say that any act (in itself) is altruistic because it depends on the individual person and their values. For example, if you see someone giving money to a homeless man, you can't say that's unselfish or altruistic because you don't know why he's doing what he's doing. When it comes to situations, it's tricky to say that a person is acting selfishly or not without understanding what their motivation is. I would even argue that a man whipping himself to 'atone for his sins' is, in part, acting selfishly because he wants to be viewed as a clean man in front of God. So while people can easily look at this man and say, 'That guy is the most selfless man I've ever seen,' the act itself doesn't prove anything. The reason for the action is what's important.

Edited by Michele Degges

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Hmm, you make a good case.

'Objectivist martyr'? Ha. I'll have to think about it some more.

My ancient dictionary gives: 'One who undergoes penalty of death for

persistence in Christian faith or obedience to law of Church, or undergoes

death or suffering for any great cause.'

Certainly, Objectivism has taken back word/concepts like "selfish", "altruism"

and "sacrifice" - and re-applied the original or classic definitions - so maybe

"martyrdom" as dying for a great (and rationally selfish) cause, does not constitute

self-sacrifice, after all.

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"It's only a word, but always important is its definition, and I can't see

how 'martyr' can mean anything but being the victim of sacrifice(by force),

or of self-sacrifice (voluntarily). Sacrifice is the act of surrendering

a higher value, to a lesser(or nil) value."

Whynot is correct here -- "martyr" is a person who is killed because they refuse to give up their principles.

There are those who voluntarily sacrifice themselves in various ways and let that be known to everyone around them, but those people -- I think we all know one or two in our families -- are merely annoying, and they certainly derive some value out of posturing that way. The term "martyr" is best reserved for those killed for refusing to compromise their principles.

Avila,

It all comes back to the denotation vs connotation argument.(Familiar to Objectivists).

The denotation of martyr is actally not morally loaded either way, (ie, altruistic sacrifice - OR, defending one's principles to the point of death) while the connotation of 'martyr' carries a strong altruistic flavor of self-sacrifice: Those who operate by other people's guilt, by making victims (martyrs)of themselves.

If morally neutral, this makes for the argument that - in the most extreme scenario - a rational egoist could and might give up his own life for a cause (e.g., freedom?) he considers of even higher value. Essentially, it would be something he could not bear to live without. But this seems to contain an irrational side to it which still bothers me, due to its abstractive quality.

I mean, one could argue validly that a selfish man could risk or give up his life for the sake of his wife - for the same rationale - but he would hardly be called a martyr!

While the Cause of Freedom (as in Michelle's Braveheart analogy) appears a little indeterminate,

a floating abstraction. Nowadays, the people who defend freedom we call professional soldiers.

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But this seems to contain an irrational side to it which still bothers me, due to its abstractive quality.

I mean, one could argue validly that a selfish man could risk or give up his life for the sake of his wife - for the same rationale - but he would hardly be called a martyr!

While the Cause of Freedom (as in Michelle's Braveheart analogy) appears a little indeterminate,

a floating abstraction. Nowadays, the people who defend freedom we call professional soldiers.

That's a good point.. I'm not sure what sort of value you would need to die for to be considered a 'rational martyr.' Freedom (and other heroic values) are the only examples I can think of, but these are all subjective concepts rather than objective. And even if you do consider someone a martyr for a subjectively worthy cause, there is no official way of giving them the title. (for example, there's an actual list of Christian martyrs and of course Catholic martyrs.)

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On 1/24/2012 at 3:18 PM, whYNOT said:

If morally neutral, this makes for the argument that - in the most extreme scenario - a rational egoist could and might give up his own life for a cause (e.g., freedom?) he considers of even higher value. Essentially, it would be something he could not bear to live without. But this seems to contain an irrational side to it which still bothers me, due to its abstractive quality.

I mean, one could argue validly that a selfish man could risk or give up his life for the sake of his wife - for the same rationale - but he would hardly be called a martyr!

While the Cause of Freedom (as in Michelle's Braveheart analogy) appears a little indeterminate,

The act of "giving up one's life" for a cause, usually is not tantamount to suicide, it is a commitment that is very risky. A path that has a high probability of losing one's life. Does that mean that a self-interested man does not risk his life? It happens all the time. Or does it mean that a self-interested man "should" not risk his life? Life by definition is a risky state of being. The self-sustained action is to minimize or eliminate the risk. So martyrdom is always possible. One can die at any time, in midst of achieving anything. So any value can be the source of martyrdom. That can't be equivalent to sacrificing.

To attain freedom has an experiential attractiveness. Like going from a "drab" life to an interesting life. At the moment of choice, when having a painfully boring life or hopeless life, freedom is very attractive.

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