NOTE: This is part 2 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.
We have seen the three essential qualities of the Objectivist view of sacrifice. These qualities may be summarized by the following definition: A sacrifice is an act which necessarily involves the surrender of a greater value for a lesser one, and which ultimately involves the sacrifice of virtue itself. Its primary effect is the destruction of the worthy in favor of the worthless, since the latter have nothing of value to offer. I submit that this is an inaccurate and insupportable view of the concept of sacrifice. As evidence let us first examine the common usage of the term.
There are two senses in which the word sacrifice is commonly used. The first is an offering to a deity of something precious in worship or atonement.10 The second deals more generally with the giving up of one value for the sake of another. It is with this more general usage that I will deal first.
Webster's Dictionary gives the following definition for sacrifice:
"Destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else; to suffer loss of, give up, renounce, injure or destroy for an ideal, belief or end."11
Note that there is no mention here of giving up greater values in favor of lesser ones, only of "something for the sake of something else". Furthermore, note that the sacrifice of virtue is also conspicuously absent from this definition. In fact, its second half even states that "ideals" are the things for which one is to sacrifice, not things that are to be sacrificed themselves.
Interestingly, another dictionary defines sacrifice as:
"A giving up, destroying, permitting injury to, or forgoing of some valued thing for the sake of something of greater value or having a more pressing claim."12
Here we have a direct contradiction of Objectivism's primary definition of sacrifice! Before I comment on this amazing fact, however, let us examine two idiomatic uses of the word.
The first example is a term from baseball: the sacrifice hit. This term designates a fly or a bunt that allows a runner to advance one base while the batter is put out. Obviously, the purpose of this play is to allow the runner a better chance of scoring, while not posing a significant disadvantage. Equally obviously, this strategy would never be used if the star player were at bat or if there were already two outs.
There is a similar play, also called a sacrifice, in chess. In this case, one player allows his opponent to capture a valuable piece, usually the queen or a rook, in order to achieve checkmate. Observe that here again we have an example of a "sacrifice" which allows a minor setback in order to achieve a long range goal -- in essence, the surrender of a lesser value in favor of a greater one. Also note that it would be utter stupidity to make such a sacrifice unless it could, indeed, win the game. Using the queen sacrifice play for any other reason would be roughly equivalent to exchanging a dollar for a penny -- completely useless and unnecessary.
It may be argued that in these two examples, I have used terms that were never meant to have precise technical meanings and read into them a significance they do not, in fact, contain. In a sense this is true, but there are two reasons why I feel justified in using these two examples. First of all, I wish to point out that idiomatic language, though characteristically imprecise, is no freer from the law of causation than the most technical philosophical terms. In other words, there is a reason why one phrase is preferred over another; why "a sacrifice" is seen to be more appropriate than, say, "an easy bargain" or "a gain". I hold therefore, that these idiomatic uses of "sacrifice" do indeed reflect the common usage of the word, and furthermore, provide significant insights into the meaning of the concept.
Furthermore, I am not primarily concerned with the English language. My only purpose for this examination of common usage was to establish objective evidence that there is an alternative to the Objectivist definition of sacrifice. I believe the above sources adequately show that the standard concept of sacrifice is utterly different from (in fact is diametrically opposite to) that which Ayn Rand attacks in her novels and philosophical writings.
But which of these two rival concepts does Christianity use? When and if Christians preach the virtue of sacrifice, do they mean an absolutely profitless surrender of every value and virtue? Or do they mean a painful decision to relinquish something precious for the sake of a long-range goal or a greater value? All of Christian scripture, the only primary source of Christian thought, supports the latter view. Let us now examine some of this source material to see what precisely the Christian concept of sacrifice entails.
First of all, as noted earlier, the word "sacrifice" originally meant the offering of valued objects, usually animals or foodstuffs, at the alter of some deity. The purpose of this offering was often to ensure a good harvest, or rain, or to prevent some natural catastrophe. On another level, however, the sacrifice was meant to atone the sins of an individual or the entire population. This latter view is characteristic of the Judaic concept of sacrifice.13 To the Jewish people a sacrifice was a propitiation of God's just wrath against a world that had rebelled against him by continually reaffirming the action of Adam in the Garden of Eden.
This, of course, assumes the validity of the concept of Original Sin and the existence of God. While I hold that these are, in fact, valid assumptions, I am not at this point concerned with these questions but with the concept of sacrifice as such. Surely it is obvious that, given a belief in God and Original Sin, it would be in anyone's best interest to sacrifice a few sheep if, by doing so, one could ensure God's grace. And if there is no God, at worst the Jewish concept is a misguided and unnecessary financial loss and not a willful attempt at self-destruction, as Rand would have us believe.
Furthermore, let me point out that the word "self-sacrifice" does not appear anywhere in the bible. This is not terribly significant since the concept may exist without the actual word being used. I point this out merely for future reference.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for Rand’s view of Christian sacrifice comes from a passage in the gospel of Luke:
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.... In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple."14
First of all, it should be obvious that the word "hate" is not to be taken literally! Yet even with this reservation the passage does not look promising. What Christ seems to be saying here is that in order to be a Christian, one must not value anything. What he actually is saying, however, is that one must not value anything more than one's ideal (in this case, being a disciple of Christ). The Christian is permitted to value his family and his life -- in fact he is commanded to do so. The significance of this passage, however, is that when push comes to shove and one must make a choice between these values and discipleship, the Christian is required to choose the latter.
Another seemingly devastating passage is the confrontation between Jesus and a rich man, chronicled in Matthew:
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me."15
Here is a passage that should not surprise many Objectivists; one of the most common views of Christianity is that it is synonymous with almsgiving. The issue here, however, is whether or not the sacrifice is to be made out of "duty", i.e. with no regard to values. On this issue, the passage is unequivocal. Note first the reference to "treasure in heaven". Surely the promise of eternal happiness qualifies as a greater value than mere wealth, assuming, of course, the promiser can make good. Furthermore, note that the sacrifice is not the whole story here. Christ says first go sell all you have, then come follow me. This is an important point and one that is easily missed. Here we see that the sacrifice is not treated primarily as a virtue --certainly not "the noblest ideal" -- but merely as a necessary prerequisite to following Christ. The real import of this passage is not that it is virtuous to give, but that nothing should stand between a man and his ideals. To quote Francisco D'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged: "We can afford to give [material possessions] up in order to redeem something much more precious."16
Another important passage on this subject is the conversation between John the Baptist and the crowd that had gathered around him to be baptized:
"'What should we do then?' the crowd asked.
"John answered, 'The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.'
"Tax collectors also came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?'
"'Don't collect any more than you are required to,' he told them.
"Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?"
"He replied, 'Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely -- be content with your pay."17
This is a somewhat milder passage than the two previous ones and it might even be argued that it does not deal with "sacrifice" at all but merely common decency. But that is precisely the point! Anyone could make a case against Christianity (or any other philosophy for that matter) by taking a few extreme examples and quoting them out of context. But here we see a view of sacrifice that falls far short of the "virtue" described in John Galt's speech, and this view is no less a part of Christianity than the previous examples.
The most objectionable part of this passage is probably the requirement that one with an abundance share with him who has nothing. This is Rand's favorite point of attack in any argument with Christianity. But notice that even here the man is not required to completely destroy himself for his neighbor's sake. He is required, rather, to share what he has. This is a direct contradiction of John Galt's statement that "if you give a sum you can afford it is not a sacrifice." All that seems to be required here is that one have compassion on one's fellow human being.
Furthermore, the passage gives two injunctions against extortion and cheating. What is this if it is not an affirmation that wealth must be earned and not "looted"? John the Baptist makes this point even clearer in his comment to the soldiers, "Be content with your pay". And yet in John Galt's speech Ayn Rand continually stresses that a sacrifice intrinsically involves the giving of the unearned.
There is another very important passage on the subject of sacrifice. This is found in Paul's letter to the church at Philippi. It concerns Paul's own attitude toward the things he must give up for his beliefs:
"I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ."18
Note first of all the contrast between the descriptions of the things sacrificed and the thing for which they are sacrificed. This is not a mild distinction. Certainly not the type of words one would expect from someone who is surrendering everything he values. Here, again, we see that Christian sacrifice does not entail the loss of a greater value for a lesser one, but exactly the opposite.
Another important point is that Paul is speaking about his own feelings. He does not command the obedience of others nor does he indicate that his attitude is particularly virtuous -- it is merely a natural response to his own sense of value. These facts would seem to undercut any argument that Christianity propounds the "virtue" of sacrifice in order to gain power over its adherents or to "despoil" men of ability.