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.
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.