NOTE: This is part 1 of a three part series in honor of the Atlas Shrugged movie released on April 15. This is a paper I originally wrote for a philosophy class at Christ College, Irvine (now Concordia University) in 1986:
Part 1: Rand's definition of Sacrifice
Part 2: The common definition and a Christian one
Part 3: Reconciling Objectivism and Christianity using the correct definition.
The concept of sacrifice has come under heavy attack in Objectivist literature, and is one of the primary conflicts between Christianity and Objectivism. It is my purpose in this paper to show that the cause of the conflict is an improper definition of the term and an imperfect understanding of the way it is used in Christian ethics. Furthermore, I will show that the concept, properly defined, is an intrinsic part of the ethics of Ayn Rand's novels.
There are three facets of the Objectivist view of sacrifice. The first is that a sacrifice is by definition non-beneficial. Nathaniel Brandon makes this point very explicitly:
"A sacrifice, it is necessary to remember, means the surrender of a higher value in favor of a lower value or a non-value. If one gives up what one does not value in order to obtain what one does value -- or if one gives up a lesser value to obtain a greater one -- this is not a sacrifice, but a gain."1
Ayn Rand expounds this view at length in John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged:
"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 for that which you don't.
"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."2
Obviously, by these two definitions, a sacrifice is entirely negative in character. That is, the individual performing the sacrifice gains precisely nothing by his action and is, in fact, considerably poorer because of it. Rand gives quite a long list of actions that do and do not count as sacrifices in the pages following her definition. A small sampling will do for our purposes:
"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 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 an amount 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 a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child more than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer the child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.... If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions."3
This last example serves to illustrate the second facet of the Objectivist concept of sacrifice: the sacrifice of virtue. Since a person's highest values are his own virtues, the ultimate form of sacrifice, as it is defined above, must be to relinquish these virtues for the sake of a neighbor. The character of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead most concretely exemplifies this aspect of sacrifice. Wynand is a man who has almost literally sold his soul for wealth and power. In his own words:
"I erased my ego out of existence in a way never achieved by any saint in a cloister. Yet people call me corrupt. Why? The saint in a cloister sacrifices only material things. It's a small price to pay for the glory of his soul.... Who's sacrificed more if sacrifice is a test of virtue? Who's the real saint?"4
Note that the saint is not criticized here for his sacrifice as he is elsewhere, but the implication is that he has not lived up to the fullest meaning of the concept of sacrifice. I will have more to say on this subject later.
Another example of this concept of the sacrifice of virtue also appears in The Fountainhead. Here, Wynand is defending Howard Roark, charged with destruction of public property, through an editorial in his newspaper:
"We have come to hold, in a kind of mawkish stupor, that greatness is to be gauged by self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, we drool, is the ultimate virtue. Let's stop and think for a moment. Is sacrifice a virtue? Can a man sacrifice his integrity? His honor? His ideals? His convictions? The honesty of his feelings? The independence of his thought? But these are a man's supreme possessions. Anything he gives up for them is an easy bargain. They, however, are above sacrificing to any concern whatsoever. Should we not then stop preaching this dangerous and vicious nonsense? Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed. It is the unsacrificed self that we must respect in man above all."5
In Atlas Shrugged, this theme is also prominent. For instance, Lillian Rearden's accusation that Hank Rearden does not love her:
"What's love, darling if it isn't self-sacrifice? ...What's self-sacrifice unless one sacrifices that which is most precious and most important? ...That's the immense selfishness of the Puritan. You'd let the whole world perish rather than soil that immaculate self of yours with a single spot of which you'd have to be ashamed"6
The third facet of the Objectivist concept of sacrifice is the idea that the virtue of sacrifice leads to the tyranny of the weak. Here the argument is that, since a sacrifice requires the loss of a value, only those in possession of values can practice self-sacrifice. On the other hand, those with nothing of value, the worthless, stand to gain by the sacrifices of their superiors. This concept of sacrifice is best summed up by John Galt's comment that "the despoiling of ability has been the purpose of every creed that preached self-sacrifice."7
This aspect of Rand's view of sacrifice, then, does not deal merely with definitions, but with motivations as well. I include it here because it is a fundamental principle of Objectivism that there is no clear distinction between the meaning of a concept and its ethical significance. An apt illustration of this view of sacrifice comes from Atlas Shrugged:
"Unsummoned, the picture of a face seen twenty-seven years ago rose suddenly in his [Rearden's] mind. It was the face of a preacher on a street corner he had passed, in a town he could not remember any longer. Only the dark walls of the slums remained in his memory, the rain of an autumn evening, and the righteous malice of the man's mouth, a small mouth stretched to yell into the darkness: "... the noblest ideal--that a man live for the sake of his brothers, that the strong work for the weak, that he who has ability serve him who hasn't…"8
Note the portrayal of the Christian as an extreme, even outright bizarre, stereotype. That this is indeed Ayn Rand's view of Christianity is made even more explicit in Philosophy: Who Needs It?:
"The moral imperative of the duty to sacrifice to duty, a sacrifice without beneficiaries, is a gross rationalization for the image (and soul) of an austere, ascetic monk who winks at you with an obscenely sadistic pleasure -- the pleasure of breaking man’s spirit, ambition, success, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life on earth."9
Again, we see the theme of sacrifice as a spiritual weapon against the productive, only this time the motivation is pure hatred rather than mere despoiling.