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I asked a similar question here, and received a nice answer from John. However, yesterday when listening to The Objectivism Seminar podcast, Greg, the proprietor of this site, discussed this topic (in passing) and gave an answer that is the opposite of John's. Given this disagreement between two very smart objectivists, I wanted to get some clarification from other objectivists or from John and Greg themselves if they feel so inclined.

I have rephrased the question and removed some of the extraneous discussion and examples I included in the original question, in an attempt to focus in more on the key question I am struggling with.

The table below hopefully clarifies what is at issue in this question. There is no question about whether situation I is a sacrifice--it clearly is. There is also no question about whether situation IV is a sacrifice--it clearly is not. However, what about situations II and III?

Note--"lose" and "gain" are being used here as shorthand for an action that ultimately results in a net loss or net gain of value in the long term.

Intend to Lose / Intend to Gain
Do In Fact Lose I II
Do in Fact Gain III IV

asked Nov 21 '14 at 15:09

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Nov 21 '14 at 16:23

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

The question recognizes that it is not a sacrifice to intend to gain and then succeed at it. The question also recognizes that it is a sacrifice to intend to lose and then succeed in doing so.

The case of intending to lose but actually gaining amounts to a "windfall" benefit. One didn't seek or want the windfall, but one received it anyway. What, then, does a morality of sacrifice say that one should do in such a case? To be sacrificial, a morality of sacrifice says that one should not keep the "windfall." One should give it away, get rid of it, as if it were infectious. If one does that, then one is in compliance with a morality of sacrifice. If not, then one isn't in compliance. (Remember, also, that Objectivism didn't invent sacrifice; the idea that self-sacrifice is the essence of virtue predated Objectivism by more than two millennia and reached its most consistent expression in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant.)

The case of intending to gain, but actually losing, represents the fact that man is neither omniscient nor infallible; he can err. Since he wanted to gain, however, a morality of sacrifice would not classify his action as sacrificial, even though he ultimately lost. He wasn't trying to lose. A morality of sacrifice would say that one shouldn't even try to gain, even if he actually loses. A morality of sacrifice would say that actually losing is better than actually gaining, but trying and/or wanting to gain is sinful in and of itself, according to a morality of sacrifice.

In short, a conventional, traditional morality of sacrifice says that an action doesn't qualify as sacrificial unless it matches case I, i.e., one both intends to lose and actually does lose. Cases II and especially III are only partially sacrificial, at best, according to a morality of sacrifice.

(I trust that no one will ask what an Objectivist formulation of sacrifice is, apart from conventional and/or traditional formulations. Sacrifice existed in philosophy long before Ayn Rand came on the scene; she didn't invent it, she found it. She then proceeded to evaluate it and condemn it vociferously. Also, I cannot comment on what Greg may have said in a tape-recorded verbal discussion of OPAR, because I don't think I've heard that discussion; the actual formulations in OPAR would take precedence anyway, and my own understanding of OPAR is that it matches very closely what Ayn Rand wrote in Galt's speech and other excerpts on the topic of "Sacrifice" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

answered Nov 22 '14 at 00:32

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

I am pretty sure John and I are in full agreement about the fundamental principles involved, even if we may have differences in some terminology. Here is Rand discussing sacrifice:

“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values ... The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.

I think it is useful to have clear identifications along both of the dimensions brought up in the question:

  1. The dimension of gain/loss is indispensable in classifying outcomes, both hoped and actual. The concepts of gain and loss "omit the measurements" of the cause of the outcome (including intents/purposes), and many other aspects such as precisely which values are involved, the hierarchy of values and context which supports the assessment, and so on. The focus here is on the sheer, crucial contrast of a net values-improvement vs. a net values-degradation in the pursuit of a life.

  2. The dimension of intent is indispensable in moral classification. What is the policy someone is acting on regarding his gain/loss of value? Do they seek to give up a lesser value to gain a greater one? That's an investment. But what about the opposite of an investment -- of seeking to give up a greater value to gain a lesser one, or none at all? The moral contrast is critical, and I need a concept for that kind of action, too: that's a sacrifice.

If someone's investment brings him a loss merely because of dumb luck, I would still praise him for seeking to gain -- that's a morally correct policy and the unlucky outcome doesn't lower his moral stature. Likewise, if someone's sacrifice brings him a gain because of dumb luck, I would still chide him for seeking a loss -- that's a morally horrid policy and the lucky gain doesn't redeem him.

What I don't want to do is obscure the moral nature of the fundamental purpose of the actor. This is why I don't call failed investments sacrifices, and why I don't call failed sacrifices investments. If a mismatch of intent and outcome happens because of irrationality, negligence, or something else that is morally significant, then that aspect gets it's own judgment and I'll describe it as, say, a negligent investment that failed.

answered Nov 22 '14 at 02:05

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

edited Nov 22 '14 at 09:58

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Asked: Nov 21 '14 at 15:09

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Last updated: Nov 22 '14 at 09:58