login about faq

I am interested in getting a more precise understanding of the concept "sacrifice." The standard definition is giving up a greater value in exchange for a lesser value or a non-value. This definition describes the action aspect of sacrifice, but it does not describe the mental state of the person sacrificing. I would like clarification on what (if any) mental state is required for an exchange to be a sacrifice.

For example, a person might give up a value in anticipation of receiving a greater value in exchange, but in actuality he receives a lesser value. This action fits the standard definition of a sacrifice—he gave up a greater value in exchange for a lesser value. However, intuitively we would most likely call the person's actions an investment (albeit an investment that went bad) because he intended to get a greater value, i.e., his mental state precludes his action from being a sacrifice (or does it? . . . that is the question).

To expand a bit on what I am asking, I will make an analogy to legal concepts. Suppose we were to define the crime of "sacrifice." Traditionally, every crime requires an actus reus (an action) and a mens rea (a culpable mental state).

The actus reus of "sacrifice" would be: (1) giving up a value; and (2) receiving a lesser value or non-value in return.

The mens rea could be any of the following:

(1) intent (i.e., you intend to receive a lesser value or non-value in return for giving up the value)

(2) recklessness (i.e., you are aware that there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk that you will receive a lesser value or non-value in return for giving up the value, but you disregard that risk)

(3) negligence (i.e., you are aware, or should be aware, that there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk that you will receive a lesser value or non-value in return for giving up the value, but you disregard that risk)

(4) strict liability (i.e., no mental state required—if you do the actus reus, you are guilty)

[Note that the mental states are listed in descending order of culpability, and if one mental state is chosen as the standard then the more culpable mental states are automatically included. Thus, for example, if recklessness is the standard then someone acting with intent or recklessness will be guilty, but someone acting with negligence would not.]

I believe that the concept sacrifice should include a mental element, and that the mental element should be negligence. But I am interested in hearing what other people think.


Continuing the legal analogy—what do you think about "attempted sacrifice?" If someone intends to give up a value in exchange for a lesser value or a non-value, but ends up getting a greater value in return, have they sacrificed? Should the concept sacrifice include these situations, or do we need a separate concept to cover them (as the law defines separate crimes for attempts)?

For anyone interested, the definition of the crime of "attempted sacrifice" would be:

mens rea: intending to give up a value in exchange for a lesser value or a non-value

actus reus: doing some act in furtherance of the goal of giving up a value in exchange for a lesser value or a non-value.

asked Dec 01 '11 at 11:02

ericmaughan43's gravatar image

ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Dec 01 '11 at 11:08

"The standard definition is giving up a greater value in exchange for a lesser value or a non-value."

Yes. And it is the right definition. As to whether one intends to sacrifice in any given situation, that is a separate aspect, not to be included in the meaning of sacrifice as such. Sacrifice is not about one's mental state, other than the facts concerning what one actually values.

Do not get confused by cases where it seems that a person values a sacrifice (and therefore it would seemingly not be a sacrifice). It is presumed, in the definition of "sacrifice" that the values in question are actual, objective values, not merely personal preferences.

Yes, there is a personal aspect to values. Personal preferences, if they are rational, are objective values. For instance, I might prefer dancing on Friday night over playing Bridge. For me, to play Bridge on Friday night would be a sacrifice, all else being equal. Of course, if, by playing Bridge on Friday night, I can gain something else I really want, then it wouldn't be a sacrifice.

Other than the facts concerning what one objectively values, mental state is irrelevant in the idea of what constitutes a sacrifice. So, one can be hoodwinked into a sacrifice, or one can choose it explicitly, or one can choose it though an error of knowledge.

The whole issue about sacrifice is whether it is morally a good thing. Objectivism holds that it is not. Every sacrifice is a step towards death. Whether that step is made intentionally is irrelevant regarding the value of sacrifice. Intent only matters regarding whether one should morally condemn the sacrificer as evil or vicious, or merely stupid, or naive.

If we must make a criminal analogy: sacrifice is sacrifice, like homicide is homicide. But just as there are more and less culpable forms of homicide based on awareness and intent, there are more and less culpable forms of sacrifice.

answered Dec 02 '11 at 11:29

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

Thanks John. You addressed my question very well. Just so that I am clear on your position--if a person intents to make an investment (i.e. exchange a lesser value in return for a greater), but through error or pure misfortune receives a lesser value, your position is that that person has sacrificed. But the person's choice was simply less morally culpable than an intentional sacrifice. Is that correct?

(Dec 02 '11 at 13:43) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Also, out of curiosity, what do you think about "attempted sacrifice." From your answer I would presume you would say it is not a sacrifice, but that it is a morally culpable act.

(Dec 02 '11 at 13:47) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

I'd say that an intended investment can end up being a sacrifice, and such might not be morally culpable at all. Innocent investment errors can be made. So, in a sense, a sacrifice is just a bad deal.

Regarding an attempted sacrifice (which fails), it's like attempted suicide: if you don't die, it's not suicide. Attempted sacrifice is immoral, though, because it's generally hard to fail at sacrificing.

(Dec 02 '11 at 16:13) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
showing 2 of 3 show all

The question seems to recognize that there is a personal, psychological element involved in valuing, but asks whether or not there is also such an element in sacrificing. There certainly is. Sacrifice means surrendering something that one values in return for something that one does not value (or values less than what one surrendered). This point is made clear in an excellent collection of excerpts in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Sacrifice." Remember that a code of morality is a code of values accepted by choice. Something does not acquire value for a person simply because it might be beneficial for his life. It is a value if it can benefit his life and he recognizes that fact and therefore chooses to pursue it. "'Value' is that which one acts to gain and/or keep." In discussing sacrifice, the question fails to ask: valued by whom?


The questioner asks for elaboration of key points. First, I strive to avoid the "legal analogy" entirely, since concepts and principles in ethics need to be understood first on the level of ethics, before attempting to refer to a "legal analogy" to help clarify them. It is ethical and political philosophy that shapes and clarifies priniciples of law, not vice versa.

Secondly, the term "sacrifice" is discussed in Objectivism only by way of opposing "sacrifice" as defined by other philosophers, especially Kant. Kant's view of sacrifice is very clear and straightforward -- and thoroughly anti-life. "Sacrifice" is not a term that Objectivism defines and then classifies as evil or immoral; it is a concept defined by others that Objectivism identifies as anti-life.

By personal psychological factors in sacrifice, I am referring to factors such as conscious choice and motivation, especially a person's own hierarchy of chosen values and the resulting actions that he chooses to carry out. I am referring to what a person has chosen to value; what, if anything, he intends and/or expects to receive in return for giving it up; and what he intends to do with what he receives. In purest Kantian form, sacrifice means expecting and intending to receive nothing in return, and (ideally) suffering immensely at every step of the way as one gives up everything one might have wanted to keep and enjoy. Anything less than such privation and misery is not pure sacrifice and hence, not highest virtue, according to Kant.

The most definitive discussion of sacrifice that I know of in Objectivism appears in Galt's Speech (GS) in Atlas Shrugged, and is reprinted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon under the topic of "Sacrifice." That excerpt explains the nature of sacrifice in its purest (Kantian) form and why other, more conventional usages of the term "sacrifice" fall short of the purest essence. That GS excerpt also explains why some common usages of the term "sacrifice" actually are not sacrifices at all, but actions in pursuit of long-term self-interest, like investing in anticipation of future gain. If one seeks such gain, one's action (i.e., investment) is not a sacrifice, even if one ultimately fails to reap as great a reward from one's investment as one had hoped and may have had an actual chance to receive.

If one believes one is giving away something that one values in return for nothing (or for something else that one values less highly), but actually (unexpectedly) receives something in return that one values more highly than what one gave up, one's action would not qualify as a sacrifice in Kant's view if one wants it and chooses to keep it. To be virtuous (sacrificial) in Kant's view, one must immediately give away the value that one receives, or refuse to accept it. Again, sacrifice is not an Objectivist-originated concept; it is a pernicious anti-life concept defined by others, which Objectivism opposes. For more insight on Kant's views, refer to the topic of "Kant, Immanuel" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon.

answered Dec 02 '11 at 02:26

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

edited Dec 03 '11 at 00:54

You say there is a psychological element involved in sacrificing--what is it? You are right that a person must recognize and choose to purse something for it to be a value; however, this is not the mental element I asked about.

The question presupposes that what the person gave up was in fact a value. What I am asking is whether one must intend that one get a lesser value in return for giving up the value (or be reckless/negligent) for it to be a sacrifice.

(Dec 02 '11 at 09:08) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

For example some medieval Christians gave up values actually intending to get nothing in return. However, many modern Christians actually believe they will be getting a greater value in return for giving up values in this life; they do not intend to get lesser values in return. (they will actually get nothing in return--thus they are acting recklessly/negligently). However, a person can act intending to gain a greater value by giving up a value, but be mistaken and actually get a lesser value in return. Has that person sacrificed? It is these variations in mental state that I am interested in.

(Dec 02 '11 at 09:15) ericmaughan43 ♦ ericmaughan43's gravatar image

Follow this question

By Email:

Once you sign in you will be able to subscribe for any updates here



Answers and Comments

Share This Page:



Asked: Dec 01 '11 at 11:02

Seen: 2,658 times

Last updated: Dec 03 '11 at 00:54