Reason as the Leading Motive

A Question on Sacrifice

Posted by Jerry on February 19, 2007

Recently, I began on ponder upon the Objectivist premise that a sacrifice is the loss of a higher value in exchange for a lesser value. While I never doubted that this is the proper and valid meaning of sacrifice, I wanted to resolve for myself the matter of hierarchical values implied by this premise.

The premise implies that all values are hierarchically structured in relation to the ultimate value of one’s life; thus, there are some values that are more pertinent to the problem of survival (e.g., food, production, money, etc.), whereas there are other values not readily apparent and perhaps not directly pertinent to the problem of survival (e.g., location of residence, type of career, etc.).

Then, in addition, there are certain optional values–values that are not pertinent to the problem of survival but are related to the pursuit of one’s happiness and flourishment (e.g., the color of car, preference for certain physical characteristics of a romantic partner, etc.).

So, I began to wonder–just so I know how to respond to the matter–is it true in reality that all values are hierarchically structured? Are there (or can there be) objects/persons that are equally important and equally valued? And is a sacrifice inevitable in such a situation? Hence, I posed this question to Diana Hsieh and Noodlefood:

I understand that Objectivism believes that sacrifices imply giving up a higher value for a lesser value, and that they are neither necessary nor moral under a rational moral code.

But what is the moral course of action in a case where one is faced with having to choose between two (or more) equally valued and necessary options. For instance, having to choose between two equally close friends.

In essence, I am questioning the premise that all values are hierarchical and that one can choose one over another based on how important or necessary the value is to their own lives. Could there not be a case wherein I value two things equally and thus having to choose between them necessarily demands a sacrifice from me (assuming there is no force acting upon me and that the situation arises from my own actions)?

This is Diana’s reply, which I found did much to clarify my doubts:

Here are my own thoughts on the matter, which may or may not be consistent with the Objectivist ethics:

Strictly speaking, I’m doubtful that two substantially different goods (like people) can be genuinely equal in value to a person. It can be difficult to discern which is more valuable than another in the context of one’s whole life. Yet I cannot imagine them to be equal, in substantial part because you won’t value their different good qualities equally. (Plus, those qualities are ranked ordinally rather than cardinally, so it’s impossible to conclude that both friends are worth 4.6 utils, for example.)

When the choice is non-exclusive, minor differences between values are of little importance: it’s perfectly reasonable to alternate between ordering your two favorite dishes at your favorite restaurant. However, sometimes the choice is exclusive simply due to the constraints of time: you can only work one job, pursue so many hobbies, enjoy one perfect friendship, etc. In those cases, you need to try to discern the greater value to you in the long run using your full context of knowledge — and pursue that. (In keeping with Aristotle, I’d say that such weighing requires experience, skill, and judgment — meaning that it gets easier with practice.) In that case, the lesser value is obviously not sacrificed, even though it’s possible to regret your inability to pursue it.

Even if two exclusive values seem equivalent to you, I don’t think the choice of one over the other ought to be described as a sacrifice of any kind. Sacrifice is the deliberate renunciation of a greater value to a lesser value, but that’s not what’s happening in such hard choices.

In addition to Diana’s reply, I found Greg Perkin‘s comment particularly insightful, too:

I think an important element showed up in Diana’s final paragraph: sacrifice means *deliberately* relinquishing a greater value for a lesser one (or none), whereas the difficulty you are describing is the possibility of *accidentally* doing so.

We have to keep in mind that morality is all about the chosen, which is why the potential loss you bring up would be what Rand described as an “error of knowledge” rather than a breach of morality. Another aspect to keep in mind is that morality is all about *your life*: your goal should be to choose your actions consistently in support of the (necessarily sole) ultimate value of your life, and the only way to do that is via an integrated hierarchy of values. The fact that you may find yourself torn in assessing two things when required to take one over another does not change the fact that you have exactly one ultimate value and that these things almost certainly stand in distinct positions regarding it, whether or not you are able to objectively assess their positions at that moment.

Immorality (specifically here, sacrifice) cannot arise out of necessity or out of accident, but only out of choice — otherwise we are dropping the context of what the field is for in the first place

There are also some other helpful comments to the post that are worth a read (including my own response to Greg and Diana’s thoughts).

Moreover, I would like to add, if any of you reading this have particular doubts about Objectivism and/or Ayn Rand, I would strongly recommend the “Ask a Question” feature at Noodlefood. Diana’s website has enough influence to summon some of the most insightful minds (including herself) to answer your questions.


2 Responses to “A Question on Sacrifice”

  1. satyajit said

    “The fact that you may find yourself torn in assessing two things when required to take one over another does not change the fact that you have exactly one ultimate value and that these things almost certainly stand in distinct positions regarding it, whether or not you are able to objectively assess their positions at that moment.”

    It is daunting to be objective about an exclusive choice with respect to, say, 2 friends on the basis of the relevance of their values to your own ultimate goal. Thats why I think there’s an area that needs to be looked at in the application of such a philosophy in a man’s life. Because not everyone is experienced, aware, attentive, and discerning enough to be able to consciously make such a choice. A lot of knowledge about oneself is demanded to make a rational choice in such situations.

    Further, individuals are contiguously changing entities; so, your viewpoint of your friends needs to be constantly updated, and hence, maybe your choice. I find Diana’s comment about meausring good qualitites, or just qualities/traists/aspects, on the basis of their ordinality, rather than cardinality, extremely insightful. Right now, I’m trying to zero in on situations when it has been necessiatetd of me to make a choice taking such things into perspective.

    Ergo, I’ve to say that a few of your posts have got me thinking deeply. I’m trying to see the rationale behind a lot of things–social constructs, altruism, purpose. The last time, I thought this seriously was when I was into Pirsig’s works.
    And ya, nicely written!

  2. Ergo said


    Ofcourse, being consistently committed to rational thinking is very difficult and draining on the mind. It is therefore even more important to quickly cultivate the proper habits of thinking, integrate the rational foundational principles, and function at the level of fundamentals; this will allow you to automatize–so to speak–your ability to quickly assess a situation in the most rational manner that is consistent with all your previously integrated vast body of knowledge.

    According to Objectivism, man has only one ultimate value, which is also the standard by which other dependent values are assessed, and that is man’s life. Human life qua life is the standard of value that makes all other values possible, and an individual’s own life is the ultimate value for that person and all his other values need to be assessed in regard to this ultimate value.

    In my original post above, I alluded to the different hierarchical degrees of relevance that certain values have with respect to human life, i.e., fundamental values, social values, optional values, etc.

    The morality of altruism seeks to make the notion of sacrifice the hallmark of virtue–and Rand pointed out that properly, a sacrifice is only that *higher* value which you deliberately renunciate in exchange for a *lesser* value vis-a-vis your life. Thus, according to the altruist code, it is more virtuous to go to the aid of a beggar dying on the street than nurse your own sick wife at home–because your wife is a higher value (if you love her) than the beggar.

    Anyway, all of this can get very detailed, and I’ll avoid getting into all of that here. I wonder which posts you have read that have got you “thinking deeply”. I’m open to any discussions you might wanna have.

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