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In the history of wars, you have vivid examples of great valor where a soldier will jump on a grenade and take the full brunt of a lethal explosion but in so doing save the lives of many others. We tend to honor and respect acts like these and there are medals awarded for this sort of brave behavior. My question is: under Objectivist ethics, is it desirable let alone honorable to ever "jump on a grenade" ? Why? You would clearly be losing your life (a huge value) in exchange for a lesser value (the lives of others). Strictly, isn't this "sacrifice" and/or "altruist" behavior? The same theme applies when thinking of a mother taking a bullet to save her child (or for that matter a boyfriend taking a bullet aimed at his girlfriend in the recent Colorado theater shooting). Is this code of honor legitimate under Objectivism ?

asked Jul 26 '12 at 10:35

Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image


I don't recall seeing the word "honor" in Objectivist material.

Using dictionary.com definition #1 of honor:

Honesty, fairness, or integrity in one's beliefs and actions

I think Objectivist ethics care more about whether the beliefs are rational or not. That is, did the soldier jump on the grenade because he was saving someone of great value to him (.e.g., soldier is escorting an important spy with valuable information to help win the war and protect his family from being enslaved by the conqueror), or is he doing it because he wants to go to Heaven for the good deed of self-sacrifice?

(Jul 26 '12 at 19:13) Humbug Humbug's gravatar image

Is it possible that someone might rationally enter into an agreement with his fellow soldiers that, should he have an opportunity to save the lives of many others despite almost-certain death for himself, that he will take that opportunity? It seems this is a rational agreement to enter into. You're more likely to have your life saved by such an agreement than to lose it, assuming most people follow through on it.

And if one has entered into such an agreement, following through is, I guess, an act of integrity.

(Jul 26 '12 at 19:16) anthony anthony's gravatar image

As for the examples of someone "taking a bullet" for another, I would guess that in most of these cases we're talking about much less than certain death.

I'm also not sure that morality even applies in most of these cases, because you don't have time to think about the exact level of risk involved, what your alternatives are, what the consequences are, etc.

(Jul 26 '12 at 19:31) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Anthony is right. I am not speaking about the case when someone has entered into some agreement that (s)he would take a bullet if that occasion presented itself. I am speaking about situations like the horrific massacre in Colorado where some men took bullets for their girlfriends. I disagree with Anthony that morality doesn't apply since it guides what we do, even what we do quickly. The question is what Objectivist morality would say is proper and rational?

(Jul 26 '12 at 20:52) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

If not taking a bullet would leave you with any values, and you are certain that taking a bullet means instant death, it is immoral to take the bullet.

Short of that (and I think any realistic scenario comes short of that), I think it depends on the details.

(Jul 26 '12 at 21:01) anthony anthony's gravatar image

Are you saying that any soldier who draws fire and knows that in doing so, he will almost surely die but also that his platoon might survive by him doing so, is immoral?

(Jul 29 '12 at 13:26) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Ayn Rand said: "Honor is self-esteem made visible in action."


As for "honorable", though, the term basically means "worthy of praise", which is essentially synonymous with "ethical".

There are many examples of individuals who choose probable or even certain injury or death for the sake of protecting others.

These acts are often publicly praised, and called sacrifices.

Ayn Rand was an egoist, and considered sacrifice to be vicious. So she disagreed with the practice of calling an act of defending your values a sacrifice.

This question boils down to: Is it ethical to die for the sake of others? Is it a sacrifice?

The answer requires knowing who the others are.

For instance, if you give both of your kidneys for the sake of two derelicts whom you have no personal interest in, or worse, for the sake of two enemy soldiers, it's certainly a sacrifice.

If we are specifically talking about jumping on a grenade in the heat of battle, then the question who are the others you are dying for becomes a bit harder to answer.

It's easy to say "a bunch of soldiers to whom you are not related", but that would be giving short shrift to the relationship between brothers in arms.

War requires, of every soldier who enters into it, a commitment to the mission. Every man at war knows that the mission could very well put his life in grave danger, yet he still chooses to take the risk, because he has committed himself. Presuming that any given mission is not a foolish one, when a soldier commits to a mission it is not a sacrifice. He's doing his job, and he's proud of it. He's no coward. He faces the danger because the success of the mission is of real value to him.

In this context, when on the mission, if something happens which could greatly jeopardize the mission, such as a grenade falling within blast range of many fellow soldiers, a true warrior, out of integrity, does what is best for the mission. He becomes a casualty, and prevents many.

No soldier wants to live with the knowledge that his own cowardice resulted in the deaths of several other soldiers. No solder wants to know that his failure to act jeopardized his unit, and the mission.

The values of a soldier are difficult for an ordinary man to understand. That's why we call such heroic acts sacrifices -- because they might seem stupid to regular people. But then our politicians praise them anyway, as if doing something stupid for the sake of others makes it a virtue.

It's time we set the record straight. True heroism is never a sacrifice. A man who makes a difficult decision to defend what he has committed himself to defend is not sacrificing anything. He is making the best out of a terrible situation, and demonstrating immense integrity.

answered Jul 27 '12 at 09:25

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Jul 27 '12 at 21:55

This is a very difficult question. I understand your answer, but I also can't help but see that giving one's life for the greater good is a utilitarian concept, and utilitarianism contrasts so greatly with objectivism that it's almost unreal that both would produce the same answer. But I suppose it is possible to come to the same answer via different lines of reasoning.

(Jul 28 '12 at 18:44) orb85750 orb85750's gravatar image

I never said (and I never say) "greater good", because such "good" means "greater than the individual".

It appears you are of the opinion that dying to save one's fellow soldiers is stupid.

I'm no soldier, but I believe that part of creating an effective army is to build trust between soldiers, and to teach them that they are each responsible for every other soldier's safety and survival.

War is not the same as normal life.

When a group of men goes to war, all of them commit to protect each other. This makes them a fighting unit.

A good soldier doesn't want to break his promise.

(Jul 29 '12 at 01:24) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John- as usual, a great answer but I am also left a bit puzzled. It seems like both altruist ethics and objectivist ethics would agree then, that (and it's hard to use the right verb here) "killing oneself" to save "others" is the proper and honorable thing to do. In a sense, objectivists seems to have similar issues with the word "selfish". They define it in a way that is almost the opposite of common parlance. Ditto on this "sacrifice" issue. Maybe the right way to think about it is that if you intentionally bring harm to yourself, do it for your own values?

(Jul 29 '12 at 13:31) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image

Altruism, fundamentally, tells you "other people are more valuable than you -- sacrifice yourself for their sake -- what you value is irrelevant." That's its essence.

Egoism tells you to decide what you value, and defend it with your life.

To suggest that a soldier who dies for his platoon, his family, his country that he loves is being altruistic is an insult to him.

An altruist dies stupidly for others. He pretends to love all mankind, and subordinates himself to this collective.

An egoist actually loves specific people and institutions, and does what is necessary to protect them.

(Jul 29 '12 at 17:09) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Makes sense to me. Thank you.

(Jul 31 '12 at 10:29) Danneskjold_repo Danneskjold_repo's gravatar image
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Asked: Jul 26 '12 at 10:35

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Last updated: Jul 31 '12 at 10:29