Friday, April 15, 2011

Objectivism Vs. Christianity: Sacrifice Part 3

NOTE: This is part 3 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 now seen that Ayn Rand's definition of sacrifice simply does not fit the behavior encouraged by the Christian scriptures. Far from being a surrender of the higher value, Christian sacrifice entails the recognition of values so great that even life itself becomes secondary. This is not to say that the lesser values are completely worthless, indeed the whole confusion over this issue probably stems from the fact that they are so precious that the sacrifice is very difficult -- even excruciating. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Christianity claims that its ultimate values -- love of God and one's fellow human beings -- are more than worth the sacrifices they might require.

Let us then define sacrifice in the following way: A sacrifice is an act that involves a difficult choice between two values in which the lesser value is surrendered in favor of the greater. Its primary effect is the preservation of long-range happiness at the expense of short-range comfort.

With this definition in mind, let us examine some passages from Ayn Rand's own writings. As I have already mentioned, we shall see that this very concept is an integral part of many of her most powerful scenes.

First note the following scene from The Fountainhead, in which Howard Roark has just given up hope that Gail Wynand will recover from his betrayal of Roark:

"He [Roark] did not know that Wynand had once said that all love is exception-making; and Wynand would not know that Roark had loved him enough to make his greatest exception, one moment when he had tried to compromise. Then he knew that it was useless, like all sacrifices."19

This is perfectly in line with Rand's own view of sacrifice, since the hero ultimately refuses to make it. I mention this example mainly because it shows the strong temptation even in one of Rand's greatest heroes to surrender a value for the sake of love.

More to our purpose, however, are the following passages from Atlas Shrugged:

"It's right but it's so hard to do. Oh God, it's so hard!"20

"Then I knew that abandoning my motor was not the hardest price I would have to pay for this strike."21

"I knew how much he had given up for this strike and how desperately he hadn't given it up forever."22

In each of these cases one of the heroes of the story (in the first and last cases, Francisco D'Anconia; in the second case, John Galt himself) is required to make a painful decision between his immediate values and his ultimate ideals. This fits our definition of sacrifice perfectly. Of course Ayn Rand takes special care to point out that these men do not consider their decisions sacrifices, but she (and they) are operating under her private definition.

The character of Francisco D'Anconia provides especially interesting examples of the concept of sacrifice as we have defined it. He is the closest Rand ever came to portraying an ideal Christian. For instance, take the following two examples from the relationship between Francisco and Hank Rearden:

"The vision of Francisco in Rearden's mind, which he had resented and found irresistably attractive, had been the figure of a man radiantly incapable of suffering. What he now saw in Francisco's eyes was the look of a quiet, tightly controlled, patiently borne torture."23

"When Francisco raised his head, Rearden saw a face drawn by so great a suffering that its lines were almost an audible cry of pain, the more terrible because the face had a look of firmness, as if the decision had been made and this was the price of it."24

In both examples Francisco's strength of resolve are tested almost to the breaking point. The most significant aspect of these passages, however, is that Francisco is not suffering merely for his own sake but for the sake of Rearden as well. If viewed from the outside either would be enough to condemn Francisco as the most wretched altruist that ever despoiled a man of ability. But, as we discover later, he had a very good motivation for this wicked deed of self-destruction -- his commitment to John Galt's strike. It is this long-term goal which justifies his surrender of what is obviously a very great value indeed -- Rearden's friendship.

But these are not the only examples of his altruistic escapades. Consider the very powerful scene in Dagny Taggart's apartment in which Rearden confronts Francisco after the latter's apparent betrayal of their friendship:

"He looked as if he were facing another presence In the room and as if his glance were saying: If this is what you demand of me, then even this is yours, yours to accept and mine to endure, there is no more than this in me to offer you, but let me be proud to know that I can offer so much."25

Here we have a scene that could almost have come directly from the Bible! Notice that not only is Francisco sacrificing his present happiness for the sake of his greater values, Rand uses words that almost indicate that his sacrifice is an offering to another person -- possibly even a deity. I do not wish to over-interpret this passage, since it is obviously not meant to be interpreted literally, but if even an avowed egoist like Francisco D'Anconia could feel such a deep love for another human being, is it unreasonable that others, namely Christians, could feel similar emotions for their leader? I think not.

But Francisco is not the only character that is willing to make excruciating sacrifices. Consider John Galt's warning to Dagny when his capture is immanent:

"But if they get the slightest suspicion of what we are to each other, they will have you on a torture rack -- I mean, physical torture -- before my eyes, in less than a week. I am not going to wait for that. At the first mention of a threat to you, I will kill myself and stop them right there."26

Of course the usual disclaimer that this is not really a sacrifice follows this powerful statement. Nathaniel Brandon also refers to it indirectly in The Virtue of Selfishness:

"If a man loves a woman so much that he does not wish to survive her death, if life can have nothing to offer him at that price, then his dying to save her is not a sacrifice."27

But a sacrifice, as I have defined it above, is precisely what it is. In a very real sense this is the ultimate form of sacrifice and it is mirrored in Christian scripture in the following two verses:

"Greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for his friends."28

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..."29

I have shown here that not only is Ayn Rand's original definition of sacrifice inaccurate, but, given an adequate concept, her own philosophy sanctions such actions. If there are any groups that preach the doctrine of sacrifice that Rand outlines, then both Christians and Objectivists have the philosophical right to criticize such doctrine. If this doctrine is being preached within the sphere of Christianity, it is done in the teeth of the original documents upon which the Christian religion is founded.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Objectivism Vs. Christianity: Sacrifice Part 2

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.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Objectivism Vs. Christianity: Sacrifice Part 1

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.