Montreal, August 15, 2008 • No 258


Bradley Doucet is QL's English Editor. A writer living in Montreal, he has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.






by Bradley Doucet


          Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.


BELIEF # 16: Self-sacrifice is good

August 15, 2008

          In advocating rational self-interest (see Illiberal Belief #15), I certainly do not mean to imply that helping others is a bad thing. There are many good, rationally selfish reasons to help others, from fostering good will to making the world a better place. In addition, it actually feels good to help others. We quite naturally feel connected to others, especially to our close friends and family, but also to a lesser degree to all human beings and even to all living things. Other people can be of great value to us on many levels, and at least until they prove otherwise—for instance by cheating, robbing, or aggressing us or other innocents—it makes perfect sense to treat them with respect, benevolence, and generosity.

          Most religions and many moralists go one step further, however, and promote self-sacrifice as the ultimate good. They argue, in effect, that while helping others is commendable, it is only really good when the helper does not benefit, or when the overall cost to the helper outweighs his overall benefit. Only then is the moralist assured that the good deed is done for the sake of the other person. This other-directedness is seen as the very criterion of moral goodness.

          In sharp contrast with traditional morality, an ethics of rational self-interest implies that helping others, while commendable in many cases, actually becomes a bad thing when it becomes self-sacrificial. Strictly speaking, to sacrifice is to give up a higher value for a lower value. Giving up something I value less for something I value more hardly qualifies as a sacrifice; it is more properly called an investment if the benefit is projected into the future, and otherwise it is simply a common sense trade-off. However, when my overall cost in helping someone, all things considered, is greater than my overall benefit, then doing so will decrease my overall happiness. It is in such cases that the right thing to do, from a rationally selfish point of view, is to exercise one's right to say no.

          At first glance, this may seem like a strange conclusion to those of us steeped in a religious tradition. In fact, though, many of us act this way a lot of the time; we just feel vaguely guilty about it when we do, and we try not to think about it too much. From a rationally self-interested point of view, it is clear that we should be more consistent in pursuing our own happiness, and jettison those feelings of guilt.

          A simple thought experiment should help ease the apparent strangeness of fully embracing the moral rightness of rational self-interest. Imagine a close, beloved friend faced with an important decision: Should she pursue a career that would provide obvious service to others, or pursue the career she really wants? Should he marry the girl who will please his parents, or marry the one he truly loves? Should she donate her limited funds to a charity for the homeless, or travel the world as she has always longed to do?

          How would you advise your friend or loved one? Would you tell someone you care about to sacrifice his or her own happiness in order to serve others? I think many people would advise a loved one to act in a way that furthers his or her long term happiness. Simply put, we want our loved ones to be happy. That is a big part of what it means to love them.

          In light of this, why, then, do we feel that we ourselves must serve others, and that we are somehow morally deficient if we do not? Why do we feel we must put others' needs before our own? Why do we not accord ourselves the same consideration we accord our loved ones? In short: why do we not love ourselves better?

          The answer is that we have been taught that such self-love is evil—the root of all evil, even. But do we really believe this? It is easy to extend the thought experiment and ask: do we not want our friends to love themselves? Does their happiness not depend on a healthy self-regard? Then why, again, are we not better friends to ourselves? Only religious indoctrination can explain this unhealthy state of affairs, which remains pervasive despite growing secularism. Old habits die hard, but this is one habit that really deserves to be broken, for all our sakes.



Current Illiberal Belief >>>


15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad
14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad
12. You're either with us or against us
11. The environment is steadily deteriorating

10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world
08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough

05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good