Why Sacrifice Isn’t a Virtue
Ayn Rand and Sacrifice
We continue our anaysis of John Galt’s Speech in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This excerpt reveals Ayn Rand’s attitude towards the concept of sacrifice:
“Whoever is now within reach of my voice, whoever is man the victim, not man the killer, I am speaking at the deathbed of your mind, at the brink of that darkness in which you’re drowning, and if there still remains within you the power to struggle to hold on to those fading sparks which had been yourself—use it now. The word that has destroyed you is ‘sacrifice.’ Use the last of your strength to understand its meaning. You’re still alive. You have a chance.
“‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious.
‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil.
‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t.
“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is.
If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is.
If you own a bottle of milk and gave it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.
“If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is.
If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself that is the virtue of sacrifice in full.
“If you renounce all personal desire and dedicate your life to those you love, you do not achieve full virtue: you still retain a value of your own, which is your love.
If you devote your life to random strangers, it is an act of greater virtue. If you devote your life to serving men you hate—that is the greatest of the virtues you can practice.
“A sacrifice is the surrender of a value.
Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values.
If you wish to achieve full virtue, you must seek no gratitude in return for your sacrifice, no praise, no love, no admiration, no self-esteem, not even the pride of being virtuous; the faintest trace of any gain dilutes your virtue.
If you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward—if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection.
Let’s define sacrifice to stay clear on what we’re discussing here.
Verb, Merriam Webster
To suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief, or end.
Destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else.
The surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.
Notice that Ayn Rand’s definition includes a special clause: “for the sake of a lesser value”. This is not part of the immediate understanding or usage of the word.
Notice that the Merriam Webster definition is entirely relative (something for the sake of something else). By this definition, all value is relative. I can sacrifice time for money (a common thought), money for fulfillment (the corporate 9-5), fulfillment for attention (in a relationship), and attention for initimacy (a relationship with no depth) – all at the same time. Sacrifice doesn’t imply a hierarchy of values. All values are relative.
Is Sacrifice Necessarily Bad?
Let’s say I want to lose weight. Today, I weigh 200 pounds. In 2 months, I want to weigh 180 pounds. Certainly, I will need to change my behavior to achieve this. I will have to exercise more often and for longer duration than normal. I will have to eat foods with less sugar, in smaller quantities. I can no longer indulge my laziness and lethargy. I can no longer indulge my sweet tooth and large appetite.
Are these sacrifices?
No. They’re not. They’re requirements to achieve my goal.
In this mode of thinking, sacrifice is not required to achieve one’s values.
It would be a sacrifice to remain lazy and gluttonous rather than pursue health and fitness to earn my ideal weight.
I would be sacrificing my own health for the sake of lower values: lethargy and gluttony.
Practically speaking, Ayn Rand’s definition of sacrifice is a very useful concept to “try on for size”. Even though it’s not a common definition, let’s explore how this can productively rewire our thinking towards achieving our goals.
Sacrifice, by the common definition, is usually a word with negative connotations. We do not wish to sacrifice. Sacrifice sounds painful, uncertain, and worth procrastinating. Sacrifice invokes fear, self-judgement, and avoidance. We don’t want to sacrifice our free time to pursue a more fulfilling line of work. We don’t want to sacrifice our comfort for the sake of pushing outside our comfort zone and growing.
But what happens when you flip the script as Ayn Rand does?
Remember, sacrifice only takes place when you surrender your higher values for lower values. You can not sacrifice lower values for higher values, or else it’s not truly a ‘sacrifice’.
In this framework, your aversion to sacrifice works for your highest expression of your human potential, not against it.
If I value losing weight, and every morning I eat a jelly donut, I am sacrificing my health for an oral sensation.
If I value honesty, but only spend time with dishonest ‘friends’, I am sacrificing m value of honesty for social comfort and familiarity.
Choose What You Want, and Pay For It.
This is not sacrifice. This is living in accordance to your values.
You are only sacrificing something of value, if you choose to pursue something of lesser value instead.
Investing money to reap greater return isn’t sacrifice. Yes, it’s long-term gain at the cost of less short-term flexibility, but that’s not a practical use for the word “sacrifice”. You don’t want the negative thought of sacrifice sabotaging your forward progress.
Make aversion to sacrifice to work in favor of your values –
to remind you of what you’re committed to causing in your heart –
to support you through trial and tribulation –
to guide you in the darkest hours back towards your true self.