August 17, 2010

Ayn Rand describes sacrifice in a very specific way.

“Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. “Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. “Sacrifice” is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t.

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.

If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself—that is the virtue of sacrifice in full.

A friend and I discussed making sacrifices in order to move your life in the direction of your choosing. To be clear, I’m not against changing your life based on some new direction you want to take. But I am against viewing it as a sacrifice. I believe that if you feel like you’re making a sacrifice, you need to rethink your priorities.

The example we discussed was me moving across the country for my boyfriend and the fact that I do not consider this a sacrifice. My more accessible example is if you’re offered a dream job. Would you consider giving up your current job a sacrifice; the answer is no. But you will be giving up your current city , being close to your current friends, and if you have a family, uprooting them as well. And this is where your priorities come into play. If your city, friends, or family are more important than your career, then taking that dream job is a sacrifice. It is also a choice you shouldn’t make – because essentially you making a choice that’s not in line with what you want in life; you’re choosing to be less happy.

It’s not the act of giving something up or even having a sense of loss at giving something up that’s my issue. It’s purely the word sacrifice and all it implies. It implies you gave up something for less than its value. It implies a strange sort of regret. It implies that your choice was not the best for you, but the best for someone or something else. And I personally think, it somewhat implies that it’s possible to not have to make difficult decisions (or rather, that you’re somehow special for having to make those decisions). Oh, I sacrificed my career for my family. Who doesn’t have that fork in the road eventually? You just rarely hear the other side: I sacrificed my family for my career. Because that sounds terrible. And probably because most people in that situation don’t feel like they sacrificed anything. Every single decision you make, you could think you’re sacrificing something. Every time I choose a salad, I am sacrificing a hamburger! But life is choosing what’s important to you.

So in my case of moving. Sure I’m giving up certain parts of my current life. But I don’t think any of my friends would think they should come before my boyfriend. And I don’t think anyone would tell me that I should stay at my job (despite me loving my job) if it also means staying in an indefinite, long distance relationship. When it comes down to it, choosing friends or my current job or Wisconsin, is essentially not choosing my boyfriend – and then, why am I even trying to make it work? Moving, while somewhat awful, is just a stepping stone to getting where I want to be. The same as choosing to work my butt off at Cornell was a stepping stone to getting an Ivy League degree. I don’t feel like those four years were a sacrifice, even though one could argue that I gave up a very different college experience than I would have gotten at a tiny school or a party school.

But if it’s not a sacrifice now, why wouldn’t I have just picked up for California right after college? Aren’t I basically saying my last two years were filler, that there’s nothing that would keep me doing what I’m currently doing? And here again is where my priorities ultimately make the decision. At 22, it was more important for me to have a job, to be self sufficient, to do the whole “adult” thing than getting married and being “the girlfriend”. Now at 24, I’m a little bit over the work world, and I’m ready to get married, and eventually have kids (which is still significantly in the future but requires planning out a few stepping stones to get there). If my priorities were the same as they were two years ago, moving would be out of the question.

It’s really all a way of thinking. And if the word sacrifice comes to mind, it would prudent to rethink.



  1. looks like I was right over at Min’s blog that it was about semantics.

    • Exactly. I don’t think anyone could argue that when making a decision that requires at least some thought, you’re giving up something that has some value to you. If it didn’t have value, your decision wouldn’t require any thought at all.

  2. Good post. But I think it’s just something we’re probably not going to be able to agree on.

    I’m curious though.. do you actually follow Ayn Rand? or was that just a quote you found randomly? Because I am very much not a fan of her definition of sacrifice in the context Objectivism.

    • I don’t really follow Ayn Rand; I just have a very basic foundation from reading Fountainhead and parts of Atlas Shrugged. In general, I tend to agree with her basic idea but not her complete philosophy. It seems a little to extreme, but I guess that’s how it goes when you develop your own philosophy.

      • Yeah… extreme is probably the right word. I thought her novels were fine. But I find her philosophy a bit too black and white. I mean her stance on sacrifice is simply: Never do it.

        You mentioned how you don’t like the idea of not having any hard choices. I think Objectivism is effectively removing all the hard choices from life.

      • Her novels were her philosophy personified. It killed me a little bit.

        But technically, using my logic (which is similar to hers), you shouldn’t really ever sacrifice. So technically, yes, you could see that as not making hard decisions or you could see it as just dealing with the normal decisions everyone makes, like choosing what to have for dinner (which can also be a hard choice). It doesn’t make it less hard, it makes you more accepting of having to do it and gives a nice guideline that will mostly get you in the right place.

      • Well.. in your case, like Eric said, I think it’s just a difference in definition. I’ve been using the standard dictionary definition which is simply: “destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else”(Merriam-Webster). It doesn’t have any implication on priority or importance. You give something up to do something else, then it is a sacrifice. So yes, choosing a salad over a burger is a sacrifice, but a very small and insignificant one.

        It seems for you though, it is only a sacrifice if something is done outside of the correct priority. I.e. it is a sacrifice if you do something 2nd important while giving up what’s most important. And I can see how you might view that as something you want to rarely do. But what about when you have to choose between things of equal values? Is it a sacrifice then?

        In Ayn Rand’s case though, while her definition is very similar to yours, the difference lies in her sense of priority. To the Objectivist, the top priority is always one’s self. So when she says you should not make sacrifices, she is saying that you should not do anything against your own interests.

        So from an Objectivist point of view, a mother giving her life for her children is wrong. A soldier doing her duty in a war she doesn’t believe in is wrong. Risking your life to stop a stranger from being raped is wrong.

        Things that I very much don’t agree with.

      • I’ve interpreted Rand in a slightly less extreme fashion. Objectivism assumes that your top priority is yourself, in the sense that you should always make the decision most in line with your morals, values, and priorities. It’s the idea that without a strong moral code, you’re pretty much just a shell. Therefore, a soldier doing her duty in a war she doesn’t believe in is wrong. But a soldier, mother, or anyone dying for what they believe in – as opposed to doing something they feel is morally disgusting – that is still a selfish decision. There is a good chance that mother who chooses not to save her own child would on some level hate herself for making that choice. Which means that was the wrong choice.

      • Well it’s been a couple of years since I’ve read her books and doctrines so it’s a little hazy, but I don’t feel that’s quite right. If her philosophy is simply to follow your own morals then it wouldn’t be much of criticism on existing altruistic societies.

        If I remember correctly, one of the main distinction about Objectivism is the importance of self-preservation. It argues that at the core of it, your own life should always have the top priority, because without it everything else is valueless. I.e. You can’t be working towards your own interests if you are dead.

        She appends this with the idea that it is on occasions acceptable to give up your life for something if it means that it is impossible for you to live without it.

        Idealistically, I suppose this sounds great and heroic, and the characters in her books are shown to follow this. But I feel like this totally breaks down in reality.

        Can people who lose their children eventually lead a happy life? In most cases, yes. Will you be forever guilt ridden and unhappy if you don’t risk your life to help a stranger? Probably not. In those cases Objectivism would tell you that if there’s a chance you can be happy without risking your life, then don’t do it.

        I think for me, it really just comes down to whether or not I’d be okay with living in a society where everyone lives entirely according to their own self interests.

        At the end of the Fountainhead, Roark blows up a building because to him it would be wrong to leave it standing. Would you really be fine with living in a society where things like that is considered okay and can happen regularly? Sounds like it would be utter chaos to me.

      • Oh, exactly. Which is why I say that Rand is extreme. If you follow her philosophy to the exact literal letter, it’s never going to hold up (what philosophy would?). And I’ve never read any of her stuff beyond Fountainhead. But I think self-preservation is very important. There are very very few things (if any right now) that I would die for. So yes, you have to be alive to have anything else be valuable. But I think Rand would argue, if you go against your own moral code, you’re pretty much saying you have no values anyway – so in some sense, it’s being figuratively dead.

        You can’t really judge off of what happened in Fountainhead. All of Rand’s characters are so one-sided – they’re ideas, not people. Most normal, well-balanced people, I think would have morals that prevent them from being violently destructive. And then you have armies and terrorists, who are doing just that, in line with – what one could argue – is the country’s moral code.

  3. […] friends have been talking about sacrifice and I’m feeling out of the loop. Today I’m gonna talk about sacrifice […]

  4. Can’t help but jump in here…kai-you are exactly right. repeatedly her characters make decisions that do not satisfy their desires in the immediate future in order to follow their moral compass, because living immorally isn’t worth anything according to rand. the antagonists constantly act to serve their own needs as well, but they do it in immoral ways, making their conquests meaningless. in both books the protagonists seem like they give up everything and everyone they love in order to follow what they believe is right, but they do not see it as a sacrifice because it’s they were following their moral code. Also, in her books, the protagonists are all willing to die to protect their beliefs and each other, and some of them do.

  5. Not going to jump in here to argue about the definition of sacrifice, but I just wanted to say: I’m really happy for you you’ve come to this decision! I guess the bouquet worked wonders for you ^_^ Good luck with the move and everything. I certainly look forward to seeing another batch of my friends get married. 🙂

    • Thanks! Though the moving and everything isn’t quite final yet, it’s at least getting somewhat planned.

  6. My semantic take:
    In a certain old-fashioned sense, sacrifice is about killing something to pay a price. How valuable/precious/important that ‘something’ killed given up) is determines how great the sacrifice is.
    If it’s not important (like a hamburger or salad), then it’s not a sacrifice, or not much of one. But if it’s important, then it is.
    Regardless of what you got in exchange. It’s not about what you bought with the blood.
    However, what you bought can determine how worthwhile, or how meaningful, the sacrifice was.
    So even if you believe you’re paying a fair price or actually getting a good deal, it’s still possible to have made a great sacrifice: you just made a sacrifice that was both great and also worthwhile.

    I relatively recently made a similar calculation to the one you discuss. When I hear it from you, it sounds a bit like rationalization to me though, and I wonder whether I sounded that way myself when I did it.
    Rationalization or not, fwiw, I never would have made such a ‘sacrifice’ if I couldn’t fully believe that I was getting a good deal.
    Which I think is what you’re saying here as well.

    • re: semantic take – True! I actually just wrote a whole paragraph about how this isn’t right, and then realized I was arguing the exact same thing I wrote in the post, which is not really in line with this. But yes, I think semantically, you’re right – the importance of the sacrifice is not really relative to what you get in return. The technical definition of sacrifice is basically giving something up, which when you choose one thing, you’re always giving the other option up. But the connotations behind sacrifice make it used only very particular situations – specifically when I think people feel like they need some sort of validation or pat on the back that they chose the right thing.

      re: rationalization – Also true! But technically, don’t you rationalize every decision? Buying a pair of expensive shoes (because they’ll look great), eating a hamburger over a salad (because you’ll go to the gym), calling Mom or not calling Mom (because you can always call her later), moving across the country to the boyfriend or not. So rather rationalization, it really could just be thinking of the pros/cons. Because if you can come up with more pros than cons, that’s not really rationalization so much as just being the better decision.

      • I’d say it’s rationalization (with the negative connotation) when you use the logic to hide or mask or avoid.

        E.g. I buy the pricey shoes and then convince myself afterwards, “oh it was a good decision because they look nice and I can wear them to X,Y,Z events and actually they were a good value etc.” Could be all true, but if at core, I just like to spend money when I feel insecure and I don’t want to admit that, then that’s rationalization.

        For myself, I red-flag for rationalization if:
        -I find myself doing a lot of the explaining after-the-fact (once I’ve already made a decision or committed to a course of action)
        -I don’t follow through on the logic (e.g. I never go to the gym but keep eating burgers b/c I keep telling myself I can go to the gym, you know, tomorrow.)
        -I misrepresent the pros and cons and their importance to me (“well, my JOB isn’t my career after all, and it’s not really that great a job, there’s always other jobs, right?”)
        -I hear that “convincing” whine in my tone of voice when I talk about it.

        Mostly I think it’s about that last one: am I just trying to convince myself and others that I’m making the right decision?

        You’re right that it looks a lot like the normal healthy decision-making process. But it feels different.

        And after all that, I still think there’s a place for rationalization. It’s not all bad or always bad, despite the connotation.

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