I hear Objectivists claim that the Military is not really about self-sacrifice and that American soldiers serve "selfishly" to preserve freedom. The argument seems to be that living under slavery or foreign domination would be abhorrent to soldiers and thus they "serve" the country for selfish ends. I have always found this line of reasoning to be really strange. Every soldier I have met talks about sacrifice not only on their part but on the part of the their families who have to endure separation and the constant fear of death of their loved serviceperson.
As someone who really respects the US Military and is immensely thankful to our servicepeople, I find the statement that military personnel are not sacrificing to be odd. Is it the case that since the service is voluntary and the source of great pride that this means it cannot be "sacrificial" by definition? If so, would Objectivists put all "social good" jobs in this category? Would they also say that firemen & police in general are also selfishly serving their own needs over any societal needs since their service is also largely voluntary and paid? Isn't there some real, philosophical difference between a soldier putting his life on the line and a bank teller?
The Nature of Military Service
The Objectivist position, as I understand it, is that military service need not necessarily be sacrificial in nature, although it is possible for it to be. Whether a specific military serviceperson is serving for self-sacrificial reasons or not is something that would depend on the specific facts of the case—it is possible that some people join the military for self-sacrificial reasons while others do so for self-interested reasons.
I have never heard any Objectivist argue that military service cannot be self-sacrificial. Instead, every discussion of the topic I have encountered is usually just pointing out that the reverse argument is false—namely, the argument that military service is necessarily self-sacrificial is false. By pointing out the many self-interested reasons why someone may join the military, Objectivists are simply showing that you can be a self-interested serviceperson—they are not claiming that every single service person has to be self-interested.
The Meaning and Moral Status of Sacrifice
The question seems to take offense at the assertion that some military service people are not self-sacrificing, as if we are robbing service people of an honor they deserve by saying they have not sacrificed. However, this reaction either assumes that sacrifice is a noble and good thing, or misunderstands the meaning of sacrifice.
To the extent that the questioner assumes that sacrifice is a noble or good thing, I can only note that Objectivism does not agree—indeed quite the contrary. Thus, when Objectivists say that some service people are not self-sacrificial, they are not intending to slight or demean those service people.
Moreover, by saying that military service does not have to be sacrificial, Objectivists are not saying that it is easy or that there are not hardships and risks associated therewith. We are not denying the large price that all service people and their families pay in order to be in the military. We are especially not denying the terrible cost to those servicepersons who are wounded or killed (and their families). Instead, we are merely pointing out that just because someone pays a price for something—even a very hefty price—does not necessarily mean that the person has made a sacrifice. Whether or not it is a sacrifice depends upon the reason why the person paid the price; specifically, it depends upon whether the person anticipated receiving a greater value in return for the price paid, or receiving no value or a value that is less than the price paid. To Objectivists, the former (receiving a greater value) is not a sacrifice, it is an investment; the later (receiving no value or a lesser value) is a sacrifice.
In much of our culture today, the meaning of “sacrifice” is confused—to many, the word vaguely denotes any action in which a value is given up. However, this usage is invalid. The actual meaning of sacrifice is to give up something of value for something of no value or lesser value. It is the last portion of the forgoing that most people drop from their mind; they do not consider what the person might have received (or anticipated receiving) as a result of the value they gave up.
Anthony and Ideas discuss in the comments the differences between the common usage and the correct usage of sacrifice. Anthony seems to urge acceptance of the common usage, asking for a convincing reason to reject it. The reason this invalid usage should be rejected is that it is a terrible package deal. It links together two relevantly different phenomenon, thereby obscuring their relevant differences. In particular, when a person gives up a value they may do so (1) in order to gain value (i.e., obtain another value that is greater than the one given up), or (2) in order to lose value (i.e., to obtain no value or a value lesser than the one given up). These two motivations are fundamentally opposite, and each is linked to fundamentally opposite moral systems. The first is value promoting (and therefore life promoting); the second is value destructive (and therefore life destructive). The first is egoistic; the second is altruistic. These are not just different senses of a word—they are fundamentally different phenomenon. Trying to unite these two fundamentally different phenomenon together under a single concept is the package deal fallacy, and it is very destructive to clear and rational thinking. By uniting them together under the same concept, one is obscuring their relevant differences and confusing people about their moral status. The “bad” instances of “sacrifice” leach moral legitimacy from the “good” instance of “sacrifice” in people’s mind. For example, it is common for religious preachers to praise “sacrifice” as a noble virtue. However, in doing so the preachers rarely start with advocating value destruction, and instead give examples of what is actually investment, calling such investments “sacrifice”—the single mother who works three jobs to support her children, the father who scrimps and saves to send his son to college, the student who forgoes parties and other amusements to study, the person who helps their neighbor who is enduring a hardship, etc. In order to convince the listeners that these so-called “sacrifices” (which are actually investments) are good, the preacher elaborates on how beneficial such actions are to the giver, how they ultimately enrich the giver’s life (ironically relying implicitly upon the nascent egoism of the listeners). Then, once the preacher has the listeners convinced of the goodness of so-called “sacrifice”, they urge the listeners to value-destructive actions, calling these actions “sacrifices” just like the preacher called the investments “sacrifices”—giving yourself to God, helping needy people regardless of whether they are of value to you, giving away wealth for no reasons other than that you feel guilty for having it, etc. These sacrifices are evil, but the listeners are not in a position to realize this because the preacher has already got them to accept the idea that “sacrifice” is a good thing. The evil examples leach moral legitimacy from the good examples. I was raised religiously and witnessed such preaching first hand. While the specifics need not follow the exact details of my example, the point is that by grouping instances of actual sacrifice and instances of investment together as the same concept, the sacrifices leach moral legitimacy from investments.
But Soldiers Say They are Sacrificing
The question states “Every soldier I have met talks about sacrifice not only on their part but on the part of the their families who have to endure separation and the constant fear of death of their loved serviceperson.”
However, just because someone says that they are sacrificing that does not make it so. As noted above, most people are confused about what the word sacrifice means. To many, it merely means giving up a value. Thus, when a soldier says it was a sacrifice for them to join the military, presumably many of them mean nothing more than that they had to pay a hefty price in order to do so. To determine whether it was truly a sacrifice, one would have to ask them whether they thought they would be getting anything back as a result of the choice to join, and whether the anticipated return was more or less than the anticipated cost.
Not only are many people confused about the meaning of sacrifice, “sacrifice” has a very powerful positive moral connotation in our culture. This can cause actions that are not actually sacrificial to be labeled as sacrificial. Most people think that sacrifice is the epitome of goodness, and indeed cannot think of another concept to use to denote a good action. Thus, if someone has done something that they think is good and for which they are very proud, they may call it a sacrifice—especially if they had to pay a price for doing the good thing. This does not mean that the action was in fact a sacrifice. I am not saying that everyone who says they sacrificed is wrong—presumably some people really did anticipate receiving nothing or less value in return for their action. Rather, I am merely pointing out that people don’t always understanding words precisely, much less use them precisely, and thus the fact that some service people say they sacrifice bears little weight.
Fallacy of Psychological Egoism and Emotionalism
The question states “Is it the case that since the service is voluntary and the source of great pride that this means it cannot be ‘sacrificial’ by definition?” No, this is not the case. There appear to be two aspects of your question: the first focused on the voluntariness of the action, the second focused on the feeling of pride derived from the action. I will address each aspect separately below.
Just because something is voluntary does not mean that it is in one’s interest. Psychological Egoism is the theory that every freely chosen action is actually selfish—even if it seems altruistic. In essence, the argument is that you wouldn’t have taken the action unless you wanted to take the action, and since you wanted to take the action, it was selfish. This view is false. It is true that every chosen action is motivated, but that does not mean that the action is motivated by the person’s self-interest. What the theory does not account for is the fact that people can want to do self destructive things (like sacrifice). True, such a desire to do self destructive things is perverse, but simple observation indicates that it is alive and well in many people. Thus, just because someone wants to take an action does not mean that the action is selfish.
Moreover, just because something causes a positive emotional reaction in you (such as pride), that does not mean that the action is actually in your interest. Whether or not an action is in our interest does not depend upon our emotional reaction to the action—it depends upon the facts of whether the price associated with the action (values that must be given up) is exceeded by the return associated with the action (values that will be received). While the experience of a positive emotion can be a value in and of itself (it is nice to feel good), it is only one value out of many potential values that would be associated with a choice such as military service, and the experience of the emotion is unlikely on its own to outweigh the price of military service. Thus, while the pride of being a soldier can certainly enter into the equation as one of the positive values that can be anticipated for service, it cannot be said that the feeling of pride on its own makes the action not a sacrifice.
“Social Good” Jobs
The question asks “would Objectivists put all ‘social good’ jobs in this category [(i.e., the category of non-sacrificial)]?”
First, I will answer the question directly—jobs such as those identified by the question are similar to military service in that they do not necessarily have to be self-sacrificial, but may be for some people.
Second, I wanted to point out that the choice to call these jobs “social good” jobs is very interesting. It is not clear what is meant by labeling these jobs as “social good” jobs. One possibility is that the jobs are considered as promoting the good of society. However, almost any legitimate (i.e., non-criminal) job that I can think of promotes the good of society—society benefits by having a grocers, bankers, mechanics, and so on just as much as it does by having police officers—so it doesn’t seem like this possible sense of “social good” jobs is very useful, as it does not distinguish one job from another. Another possibility is that the “social good” appellation refers to the supposed motivation of those who enter into the profession—i.e., “social good” jobs are those jobs for which the people who do the job are motivated by promoting the social good, as opposed to being motivated by dirty selfish reasons such as gaining money. However, this sense is clearly factually mistaken, since the jobs identified by the questioner clearly do not require their practitioners to be motivated purely by seeking the “social good.” Clearly the practitioners of such jobs can, and often do, have other “selfish” motivations as well. Indeed, the practitioners do not even have to be mostly or even slightly motivated by the “social good”—I know many police officers and servicemen who do their job primarily because they like it and it offers them a reasonable means of making a living. Of course, some may be motivated by the “social good”, but one cannot say that they all are, much less that the jobs by their nature require this motivation. Indeed, it is this very assumption that most Objectivists are countering when they argue that military servicepersons do not have to be sacrificial.
Selfishness versus Serving Society’s Needs
The question asks “Would they also say that firemen & police in general are also selfishly serving their own needs over any societal needs since their service is also largely voluntary and paid?” Again, whether or not any given individual is being selfish or trying to serve societal needs (whatever that means), would depend on the specific person and the facts of their case.
It is worth noting, however, that the questioner seems to be approaching this issue firmly from the altruist perspective, as indicated by the derisive use of the word “selfishly” and “serving their own needs” in contrast to serving society. If so, I encourage the questioner to study the Objectivist ethics. Doing so would clear up much for the questioner—for example, the questioner would understand that to objectivists “selfish” is not a bad thing, and “sacrifice” is not noble. If I am wrong in assuming that the questioner is approaching this from the altruistic perspective, I apologize. . . I am just picking up on the general tone and tenor of the question.
Difference Between Soldiering and Other Jobs
The question asks “Isn't there some real, philosophical difference between a soldier putting his life on the line and a bank teller?”
There are differences between soldiering and other jobs, but not ones that relate to whether or not soldiering is sacrificial. The questioner appears to be implying that what makes soldiering uniquely different is that the soldiers “put [their] life on the line”, whereas other professions assumedly do not. However, this implication is mistaken, as many jobs carry the risk of death to the practitioner. In fact, you cannot name a job in which there is not some risk of death to the practitioner—even if the risk is merely that the practitioner will die in a car accident on the way to work (or during work).
The questioner may scoff at the risks of car accidents or other job-related deaths that may seem small in comparison to the apparently large risk of death faced by a soldier, but to borrow a phrase from Lee Corso—not so fast my friend. The risk of death for soldiers is actually not that much larger than the risk of death from simple car accidents, despite the initial appearance to the contrary. The risk of death for US Military personnel over the last 13 years is 2.4 deaths per 10,000 persons if you include reservists, and 3.8 deaths per 10,000 persons if you include only active duty personnel. By way of comparison, the average number of car accident deaths per year over the same time period is 1.3 deaths per 10,000 persons. Thus, while the risk of death for military personnel is higher than for car accident, it is not much higher. At the least it is clear that military service is not vastly different as far as risk of death is concerned than everyday activities such as car accidents.
Moreover, there are numerous other professions that are actually more dangerous than soldiering, such as fishing (12.1 deaths per 10,000), logging (10.2 deaths per 10,000), aircraft crews (5.7 deaths per 10,000), and trash collectors (4.1 deaths per 10,000), as well as numerous other jobs that are comparable in danger to soldiering, such as roofing (3.2 deaths per 10,000), iron working (2.6 deaths per 10,000), farming (2.5 deaths per 10,000), and trucking (2.4 deaths per 10,000). (By way of another interesting comparison, police officers/sheriff’s patrol officers had a death rate of 2.2 deaths per 10,000 persons in 2007).
The point here is not to demean the very real price that many have paid for their military service. Rather the point is to show that every job carries some risk of death, and thus there is no philosophical difference between soldiering and other jobs merely by the fact that soldiers “put their lives on the line.” We all put our lives on the line in one way or another each day. It is true that soldiering may be more risky than some professions, but it is also less risky than others. These differences in overall risk are ones of degree, however, not of kind.
That is not to say that there are not other relevant differences between soldiering and other jobs—for example, soldiering is one of the only jobs I can think of where it is okay to kill someone else. Indeed, the very nature of soldiering is to kill people and break stuff, to borrow another phrase. This is a relevant philosophical difference between soldiering and other jobs, but not one that relates to whether or not soldiering is by its nature sacrificial.