Selfishness, Self-Interest, and Sacrifice

A fundamental principle of economic theory is “people respond to incentives.” So as I'm an economics and ethics student, this article naturally sparked my interest. An Indian journalist asked the author of SuperFreakonomics:
You state that your book is based on one fundamental assumption about human nature: people respond to incentives. Which is another way of saying that people are basically  selfish. Take someone like Jesus Christ. What was his “incentive” to go on the cross?

It is important to define our terms. There is a difference between being selfish and having self-interest. While some incentives can be defined as selfish, people also have a necessary interest in their well-being. Food, shelter, basic care, the desire to love and be loved, and even acts such as deciding to get out of bed in the morning are good and necessary acts that are not inherently selfish. Some self-interest, then, is good and necessary for life. God created us in His image and for that reason we should have at least some interest in properly loving ourselves. Selfishness, however, is a corruption of good and necessary self-interest.

In the context of capitalism, which functions through people acting according to self-interest (remember, not necessarily greedy selfishness), people may at times choose to sacrifice for others. Since self-interest is not necessarily selfishness, then we may choose to act in the interest of others by sacrificing something of ourselves for the good of another. This is possible in part because doing good for others does not imply that we are harming ourselves by participating in that goodwill.

Unlike us, Christ’s motives were never impure or selfish. So, what incentive did Jesus Christ have to go to the cross? If we accept that not all self-interest is selfishness, then we can understand that Christ did not die because of self-centered motives but rather as a sacrifice for others. The beauty of properly ordered self-interest is that we can love ourselves while being free to serve others sacrificially. Praise be to God for the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ.


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Thespian warriors: They give up a lesser good (their lives) for a greater good (the honor of their city). This is a trade. No problem with that because it was in their self-interest to do so by the principle of utility maximization (whether they personally would end up seeing it or not is immaterial). Where I have a problem: The original posting indicated that economics suggests that people are basically selfish. But they are (nearly all of them--most likely even you!) and they (and you!) OUGHT to be! Placing the desires of others (altruism) over that of your own self-interest is simply unnatural and wrong, even by Christian standards. Although I will grant that placing your own interests as primary is also wrong from the ideal Christian perspective for the following reason: Although Jesus did NOT say, "Love thy neighbor more than thyself" (thus invalidating altruism), he did say, in Mark 12:31, "Love thy neighbor as thyself." However, I submit that NO ONE REALLY practices that. I would certainly expend more effort to save my child's life than the child of another. Wouldn't you? If you would, then you, like me, are selfish and not altruistic (or even a good Christian according to Jesus's earlier statement). Yet I do give to charity (because it makes ME feel good and it advances the causes that I PERSONALLY deem important). That being said, I am arguing for RATIONAL SELFISHNESS, which means that one does not lie, cheat, steal or otherwise harm or cause disadvantage to another. For more information on Objectivist thought, see ( ( ( Now I will be quiet and allow for a response but please don't put up too many debating points all at once. I will respect Gina's dictate but object to being placed at a disadvantage in doing so.
Jason, I assume, therefore, you are using definition #3, which you listed "the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim." This is a TRADE. BY THIS DEFINITION, if I surrender $1 for a hamburger, I am making a sacrifice. If that is the case, I have no qualms with you using the term sacrifice and I will simply mentally substitute "trade". However, sacrifice can entail MORE. See definition 8, which you also give. If you are using definition #8, I have a REAL PROBLEM WITH IT because it simply states that you give up something for something else. By taking definition 8 and subtracting out definition 3 (the trade), one arrives at the Objectivist definition given here ( Hopefully now you understand that I am objecting to a subset of the entire definition as given by you but which is in fact part of it (and which I clearly spelled out). Yet you never want to tell me which definition you are using (#3, to which I do not object or #8, to which I clearly do object). Notice that my definition may be thought of as highlighting the portion of your definition that I dispute. So please tell me, which definition is it that you use? #3 (the narrow one, which is the equivalent of a trade) or #8 (the broad one, which to my mind is utterly meaningless since it involves giving up anything for anything else) as they clearly do not mean the same thing.
In any case, Zagros, you did not answer the point about the Thespian warriors. Which was that they gave up what they considered a lesser good, which was their lives, which they could experience for what they considered a greater good, which was the honor of their city. Which was an abstract good they would never see. Supposeing them to be right for the sake of argument, that is the difference between self-sacrifice and narrow self-interest.
""" self-in?ter?est ??/?s?lf??nt?r?st, -tr?st, ?s?lf-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [self-in-ter-ist, -trist, self-] Show IPA Use self-interest in a Sentence See web results for self-interest See images of self-interest –noun 1. regard for one's own interest or advantage, esp. with disregard for others. 2. personal interest or advantage. and se selfish in a Sentence See web results for selfish See images of selfish –adjective 1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others. 2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives. Now it is obvious Zagros, that when most people speak of selfish they speak of the meaning 1. And so on. Therefore we will concede that in Objectivist language it has a different meaning. However the popular and undisputed(except by you) referendum as reflected in the dictionary is the primary authority on language when arguing about definitions with outsiders. That is you cannot say a word "really" means something when it clearly means something else. Now as sacrifice when it says,things like greater good and the like, sounds vague, we must conclude from popular usage that there are different ways of giving up a lesser good for a greater. For instance an exchange is contractural, and usually precise. An extortion is under duress, and the greater good is one's life. In the case of a sacrifice there is a more trancendental sense to it, and you may not concede the validity of trancendental senses. Which is all very well. But that is in fact what most people mean.
Many times I wade through comments and do not reply because time does not allow a one-handed typist to reply to everything. In this case, however, I feel a word or two is necessary. What Jesus did on the cross was a sacrifice. Not only by the definition Jason has so appropriately given, but also I think by Zagros definition. God’s character demanded, after the Fall, that man be destroyed. This is evident with the Flood. For God, the greater good is not achieved by man’s salvation, He existed in eternity past without man and he could continue in the future without him or he could just create something different. For example, if I make something that is then damaged and takes more to be repaired, then remaking it, I will just remake it. Of course God’s nature also makes Him want to save what he creates, but in this, he has a choice. Once again I refer to the Flood; in that act God is demonstrating his wrath against sin, which is His ONLY valid response to sin. But in his mercy, and convent with Noah He says he is not going to destroy creation again. By saying this He leaves Himself with only one option, and that is to save creation. This is what Jesus did in going to the cross. Not only did he die, but God’s wrath for sin fell on him. During this time God’s nature was affected in a way which had never happened in eternity past and which we can never understand, echoed in the cry “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” This was something that God did not have to do for His creation, but something he chose to do. The greater good might have been for man, but it was never a greater good for God. Reading what Jesus says and Paul’s letters you come away with a sense that Jesus’ work is to be repeated by His people, “anyone who does not carry his cross…” and my favorite passage for Christmas, Phil 2:3-11, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition…” This is the fundamental truth of Christianity, to but aside one’s selfish desires for the other. And if no one can decide, the philosophers should split the soup between them.
I love the 'categorical imperative' game. Beside it being a good argument for heterosexual monogamy (true), most of the examples used to think about it break down (cf. the marionettes in Zagros's example). Who could imagine (such a faculty) someone actually feeding a person who was too weak to feed himself, in the middle of a plague, while the 'wisest' course of action is to flee to the hills? Some of us are so caught up in defining terms to fit an economic bias that we forget what agape love is. By all means, let's play our fiddle whilst Rome burns - at least we wouldn't be altruists (phew).
Zagros, imagine an alien appearing on our planet and beginning to lecture us on the foundation of the universe, without first establishing whether or not they were hostile. I know many atheists who don't argue that Christianity is true - they argue that it is evil, because they know Christians who are rude. And here at The Point it's considered rude to make our much beloved editor wade through enormous amounts of words, especially when the poster appears to have no intent to create a dialogue but rather only a monologue. Why not post your 15 pages on a website, and simply give us a link with a brief explanation that would spark our interest? You might have much better success that way - especially if you indicate a willing to listen as well as to speak, and to love as much as to educate.
Zagros, my friend, you're not listening. I'm sorry to single you out, actually; you're not the only one that does this, and I should have set a policy in place about it a long time ago. You need to remember the blog format you're posting in (and especially our current problems with the comment section, which smushes everything into one paragraph). It is too difficult for readers to follow long, complex arguments in this format, and it's not easy or quick for me to read them all either when I'm screening comments. So rules need to be set and followed, and I'm setting one now. Please restrict yourself to two comments at a time, period. This goes for everyone here, bloggers included, and it is not a suggestion. If it means you need to condense your argument, then you'll simply have to make the sacrifice! ;-) Thanks, all of you, for your understanding and patience.
Now this is what the word sacrifice means, Zagros. It means that because says so. And no one has, to my knowledge, denied the authority of in such matters: 1. the offering of animal, plant, or human life or of some material possession to a deity, as in propitiation or homage. 2. the person, animal, or thing so offered. 3. the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. 4. the thing so surrendered or devoted. 5. a loss incurred in selling something below its value. 6. Also called sacrifice bunt, sacrifice hit. Baseball. a bunt made when there are fewer than two players out, not resulting in a double play, that advances the base runner nearest home without an error being committed if there is an attempt to put the runner out, and that results in either the batter's being put out at first base, reaching first on an error made in the attempt for the put-out, or being safe because of an attempt to put out another runner. –verb (used with object) 7. to make a sacrifice or offering of. 8. to surrender or give up, or permit injury or disadvantage to, for the sake of something else. 9. to dispose of (goods, property, etc.) regardless of profit. 10. Baseball. to cause the advance of (a base runner) by a sacrifice. –verb (used without object) 11. Baseball. to make a sacrifice: He sacrificed with two on and none out. 12. to offer or make a sacrifice.
Zagros, attempting to change language against the consent of both previous and present consensus is a far more questionable enterprise then attempting to change philosophy. You are not just arguing against sacrificing, you seem to be arguing against the word sacrifice. While truth can have an objective reality, language is so much dependent on popular consent that trying to reinterpret it into an obscure an eccentric format is a quixotic activity. In other words, if the mass of mankind says the word sacrifice means something other then the definition you gave it and if you are the only one that defines it that way, then the mass of mankind is right. Because when all is said and done the definition of words goes by popular referendum.
Gina, I would if I could. I posted multiple comments without a break becuase of space constraints on the comment sphere, not because I forget things. The system will not simply not allow more than a certain number of characters in a comment, so I needed to post more than one comment just to continue the discourse (which originally runs about 15 pages due to citations to the literature, etc.). It is difficult to articulate a defense for a position which is unpopular and apparently unknown to those for whom you are trying to inform. Imagine, for example, trying to explain Christianity and provide a complete formal proof of it objectively to an individual from another planet who has never heard of Christianity and you will start to see the daunting task. In addition, I am trying to ensure that I do not make the same mistake of not properly defining terms and axioms so that we can all be on the same page with the argument. If I am successful in constructing a valid deductive argument, then the only way to discard it is to attacks the premises (which, by the way, is how I am attacking the argument that sacrifice is a virtue). If instead it turns out that my argument is inductive, then it is probabilistic and others can evaluate its relative weight. I am using both deductive (falsifiable) and inductive (probabilistic) arguments in attempting to establish that sacrifice is a vice.
Zagros, my point (made somewhat facetiously, it's true) is that I would prefer that you not post multiple comments in a row, but instead make your argument in one comment -- two if absolutely necessary, say if you forgot something in the first one -- and then wait for others to respond. It's just good Net etiquette. Thank you.
“What was Christ’s incentive to go to the cross?” "And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain" - 1 Corinthinans 15:14 Furthermore, since the blood sacrifice is required for the sins, if he does not die on the cross, then Christianity is a hoax. Isn't that a pretty big incentive? The objectivist "point" is to reexamine the definitions that you are using (as you astutely stated, Lisie). Gina, I would agree with you IF this were a spoken debate but it is not and anyone can freely interject into the conversation. Jason, the notion objectivism or any philosophy "depends on the fact that it can survive" is irrelevant. If someone is annoyed with a philosophy (witness the people of Athens with Socrates or the people of Jerusalem with Jesus) and demands that the flame be extinguished, it will not be if it is objectively the truth. Indeed, the funny thing is that only the truth will "overly annoy you" since if it is a falsehood it can easily be ignored. What is it about objectivist philosophy (which holds that morality, knowledge, and values are inherently objective and thus discoverable based on reason as opposed to invented subjectively and which holds the only proper moral purpose of mankind is the seeking of one's own rational self-interest so long as one respects the rights of others to do the same) that makes you feel so uncomfortable? From "On Rand and Altruism: A Defense of Christian Self-Interest" found at "Jesus Christ taught, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), not in place of yourself, as altruism would direct. In Christ’s words “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’ Christ appealed to “profit” and genuine self-interest, not altruistic ethics. Christ did say that in order to gain life one must lose it (Mark 8:36), but the life a man gives up is his old life; the life he is receives is a new, better life and thus no sacrifice at all." Finally, why do I have such a problem with sacrifice? The answer is that it leads to altruism, which is destructive and nonsensical. This is a difficult concept to understand, so let us utilize the categorical imperative (imagine if EVERYONE did it, would it be good?). For simplicity sake, we will limit the world to two philosophers, both engaged in altruism with a bowl of soup between them. The first passes the soup to the second, the second passes it back to the first and so forth ad infinitum. Result: they both starve. Conclusion: Altruism is destructive and evil unless at least one person refuses to be altruistic and instead chooses to be egoistic.
Which statement, Rolley, is an example of the limits of trying to apply calculation to the incalculable.
I can’t help feeling it misses the point to ask “what was Christ’s incentive to go to the cross?” Incentive is a value-add. Ask any truly loving father or mother what their “incentive” is to love their children. I’d hope they’d say, “I don’t need any incentive – I love them; they are infinitely precious to me.” Is it any different with God, a three-letter word for ‘Love’? Love needs no incentive. Sacrifice is what love does for the beloved.
Furthermore Zagros, your philosophy like any other depends on the fact that it can survive. It can only survive by people making the minor sacrifice of not being to annoyed and the major sacrifice of someone being willing to die if someone else is overly annoyed. Because if someoene declared you a vile heresy and launched an extermination campaign then you would either have to depend on members of your philosophy being illogical by your own account, or on people who do not adhere to it.
Getting rid of present-value calculations is impossible for a view of the circumstances. If someone gives up something in the present, doubting or not believing he will see it's eternal value come to pass then the psychological effect is that of a sacrifice. The Thespian warriors at Thermopylae sacrificed themselves to prove that their cities honor was as great as Sparta's . Even though there is no evidence that they were able to witness any result of any investment of their Earthly lifes. Now you may say that the knowledge(which was unfortunatly forgotten) that Thespiae's warriors did not in fact leave the three hundred Spartans to die is not objectively worth one's life and subjectively the Thespians believed in a pretty dismal afterlife, and as they were pagans, they may have been right. However the funny thing is that the approval of the mass of mankind would go to the Thespians for doing as they did, and that does not change from culture to culture or religion to religion. In other words they thought it more important to be better then to experience the betterness. Now the mass of mankind is often quite capable of being wrong. But it is less capable of being wrong about language as that is the sum total of man's thoughts. And you are objecting specifically to the word sacrifice by crowding looking at everything in a hyperanalytical manner which fails of it's object simply because the analytical manner of speech is insufficient for conveying truth. That is why we have poetic and colloquial language after all. You are also looking at things from severely calculating and narrowly economic perspective which in practice not even merchants use because if they did, it would not be the case that the greatest warriors and explorers in history are often merchants. Like(presumably) some of the Thespians at Thermopylae.
Hi, Zagros, I think you're right that the main problem is the definition of "sacrifice". I think that the term as used here can roughly be defined as "giving up something that is in one's significant interest". It does not necessarily mean giving up one's best interest, which as you point out would require giving up a greater good for a lesser good. The term, as I usually see it used, is a bit broader and can cover actions that result in a net loss, as in the student who drops out of school to do drugs and sacrifices his future for temporary pleasure, or in a net gain, as in the volunteer who sacrifices free time to help others. I specified "significant" interests because, although having $1 is in a person's interest, it is not significant enough to qualify as a sacrifice, in the usual sense of the term. Thus, Jesus giving his life for the salvation of the world counts as a sacrifice, because survival was (significantly) in His interests. However, it was not the type of sacrifice that would result in a net loss (the only type your definition includes).
Mercy??? Mercy!?!!?? Gina, you've just answered the question posed in Amanda's quote - bravo!!
For mercy's sake, Zagros, please take a breath. I'm getting dizzy here. And you're not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise.
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