Lent and the Psychology of Sacrifice (Part 2 of 2)

Conclusion of yesterday’s column.

Q: You have defined sacrifice as essentially the giving up of a greater good for the sake of a lesser good. Now I am not a theologian, but I have been speaking with a few clergymen recently about the Lenten season, and I believe they might take exception to your definition. If I understand their definitions of sacrifice (at least in regards to Lent), they might turn your statement on its head—in their view, one is giving up some tangible aspect of daily life (a material, or lesser good) in order to be closer to God (a more important, greater good).

A: The greater good must be part of the objectively real; of earthly life—that is to say, of objective reality. Otherwise, we’re indulging in a fantasy game and can truly have no idea what we are talking about. Everything I’m asserting about the ethics of self-interest presupposes two things: (1) an objective reality exists; and (2) we must use reason to ascertain that objective reality and then judge what in fact serves our self-interests—in reality. (Ayn Rand’s philosophy, as presented in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere, provides the necessary details).

Once you start projecting a supernatural power, we are necessarily outside the realm of reality, and I don’t see how human ethics or human psychology can have anything to say at that point.

In short: You can’t say something is a greater good just because you feel like it. You need objective evidence. I see no reason to give up any tangible aspect of this life (the only one I claim to know or care about) to the undefined, the imaginary, or the mystical. I call that a sacrifice, whether the person making the sacrifice feels it’s one or not.

Sacrifice is an objective, not a subjective, concept. That’s why, for example, the crack cocaine addict, living a mindless life in a crack house in some slum—giving up any possibility of real career or personal fulfillment—is living a life of self-sacrifice whether he feels he’s doing so or not.

Q: But doesn’t being rational sometimes mean giving something up?

A: Absolutely. Often it does make sense to defer gratification, for purely rational and selfish reasons.

For example, you might put off taking vacations until you finish medical or graduate school. Or until you finish writing your book. Or some other big project, such as remodeling your house. But none of this delayed gratification represents self-sacrifice. You’re choosing to put off one objectively healthy value so that you can first achieve another, more important value for yourself. But if you put off taking vacations merely to please some external authority, or for the mere sake of engaging in self-denial, I would call this irrational and unhealthy.

What I dislike most about the Lenten idea is that it encourages giving up for the sake of giving up. Giving up is seen as an end in itself. I view this as an entirely unhealthy and unnecessary renouncement of happiness and life—whether done for fifteen minutes, six weeks, or years on end.

Q: As you pointed out, this all hinges on whether or not one believes in God. Still, I think our theologians would argue that sacrifice leads to mindfulness, and that while there is
a somber element to Lent, the flip side of the coin is an uplifting experience—or at least, that’s the ideal outcome.

A: You’d have to ask them about how the experience might be uplifting. If earthly life is the standard of value—and I argue that it is—then renouncing life on earth, to any degree, makes no sense at all.

Also, self-sacrifice certainly does not lead to ‘mindfulness.’ Rational and self-fulfilling use of the mind is profoundly and personally selfish. The concept of self-sacrifice as virtue is totally at war with the concept of mind.

Self-sacrifice leads to renouncing the mind and life, not affirming them. When you undercut your capacity to personally value (by advocating or emphasizing self-sacrifice), then, by definition, you undercut your mind’s capacity to think, feel and function.