Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice April 10, 2010

Last summer I wrote a number of posts through which I sought to disambiguate the various senses of the word faith and in the process distinguish the various virtuous ethical and epistemic practices for which faith is typically confused by means of ambiguous equivocations.  I attempted to distinguish the virtues of hope, loyalty, trust, intuitional thinking, etc. from the ethically and epistemically vicious practices of faith-based living and believing.  I hope to write more such posts in the future and I hope you’ll read all the ones I already have written by clicking the links found at the end of this post.

But there was one post I wrote describing what I took to be an admirable form of faith.  Essentially what I had argued in the post was that the 9/11 firefighters were an example of people whose actions must be thought moral and rational with at least 99% certitude and yet the existential, infinite commitment of their entire lives to what their fallible reason and fallible morality (however relatively certain) told them to do required something that went beyond reason and into a realm of “faith”.  Unlike the numerous vicious forms of faith which encountered people to go against rational or ethical justification, this kind of faith was one by which someone commits him or herself to what reason and morality demand and what their ideals and their fellow humans require from them in such a way as to go against the very preconditions of their own personal existence.  In this way, the dichotomy is not the religious one in which by faith one rejects reason, but rather this dichotomy is one by which through faith one sides with reason and morality against one’s own very being itself.  This latter form of faithful acting I defended as profoundly admirable.  In response to the post spelling all of this out, an excellent commentator calling himself KM queried me about what i meant when I claimed that our actions lack existential justification when they only have 99% rational and moral justification.  Below I reproduce and reply to the first of his objections:

What exactly to you mean by ‘existential justification’? You stated that even if one has 99% rational and moral certainty of the worth of an action, if their existence is on the line then to committ to that action (short of 100%) is not existentially justified.

Does that mean ultimately irrational? Morally reprehensible? Probably not, they would have more to do with moral and rational justification.

Right, when we determine with 99% certitude that an action is rational and moral, we are rationally and morally justified to perform them.  I am simply saying here that existential justification could require even more than a 99% certitude that one had the right rational and moral conclusion.

Or perhaps whether it is existentially ‘worthwhile’ – if you are short of 100% then it is not existentially worth it to risk your life for something less then certain.

But that seems like a misuse of terms. What makes something existential is the determination of its pertinence to a person; an action is an existential action in the moment of deciding to identify one’s existence with that which the action represents. The question of justifiction isn’t even pertinent; the existential act might be rationally inexcusable or morally despicable but that only makes it, perhaps, stupid and immoral – not existentially illegimate.

I agree with you insofar as I think you are saying that an existential decision is one which involves “identifying one’s existence with that which the action represents” but it goes further than that, it commits one’s very existence to that action itself.  In other words, in every action I commit myself to exist both in that action and through that action.  That action becomes me when I perform it and there’s no erasing it afterwards, there’s only performing new actions through which I can be differently in the future.  To ask about existential justification is to ask, “what should I be and why should I be it?” or, to risk equating us with notions of being anything fixed because of what we do, “what actions should I commit myself to exist through and why should I choose those actions and not others?”

This is a form of “pertinence to a person” as you say but I don’t think that the pertinence is measurable only in terms of the subjective fact that the individual takes it to be pertinent to her.  I think we can determine relative pertinences to someone based on some determinations which come from her nature and the nature of lived identity which she has constructed for herself.  Unlike other existentialists, I defend moderately strong notions of nature that can give teleological guidance for determining what actions are better or worse for constituting our being and, therefore, for guiding many of our choices.  I reject unmitigated subjectivism and relativism as sophisms out of touch with biological, psychological, anthropological, sociological, logical, and ethical realities.

Furthermore, hypothetically if that 100% certainty of the moral worth of the act was required then, even if it was somehow attained, the act would not thereby gain existential justification but rather the contrary: it would be existentially nullified.

No, I don’t think so.  I think that everything we do is existentially relevant since it is that through which we actualize ourselves.  By itself the 100% certainty of the moral worth of my action does not make me act.  For any of a number of reasons, I might not commit myself to be the person who does the moral action.  And, in my own somewhat unusual distinction between the narrowly moral and the more broadly ethical, I think there are ethically and existentially justifiable occasions to think and act beyond the most strictly conceived moral categories for the sake of either minimal well being or maximal thriving.

Requiring 100% certainty means one is looking at the worth of the action soley from a consequentialist angle: “the act of ’surrendering’ ones existence is significant only in the actuality of the acts goodness; if it turns out that our 99% probability was wrong, our sacrifice of that which we hold most dear (ourselves) is, consequently, utterly inconsequential.” But if we’re talking about existential actions in any sense of term then that angle is skewed. The value of an action, when speaking of existential worth, is completely independent of the consequence of that action or, for that matter, the ontology of the action itself. The significance of it lies in fact that the doer of the act has identified himself with the qualities that he believes the act calls for. Even lacking certainty, even if mistaken, the doer has become the quality of person he existentially committed himself to be.

I am an both an indirect consequentialist and a teleological perfectionist.  I am a teleologist in that we have evolved as essentially integrated sets of functionalities.  My hands are hands insofar as they are functional for all manner of “hand” activities.  My heart is a heart insofar as it is functional for characteristically “heart” activities.  Each evolved component of an organism has evolved to be something specific insofar as it performs one or more characteristic functions.  The functions that helped members of the species reproduce themselves were naturally selected because of this conduciveness to gene propagation.  But these functional possibilities exceed their function for reproduction.  My hands are capable of thriving in hand functions that go well beyond those necessary for activities that eventuate in children.

My hands can further and further perfect “handing” well beyond what is minimally necessary for natural selection.  I can use my hands in ways that make them perpetually increase their functional possibilities as hands, making them both more fully realize their “handness” and increase the complexity and fullness of their hand functionality.  In short, I can make my hands into excellent hands.  I can increasingly perfect them as hands by making them increasingly skilled at doing hand things and by employing them in hand tasks more often in tasks that let them flourish as the hands they are.

I use hands as a basic example of standards of natural teleological functionality and possibility for increased perfection through instances and qualities of performance in terms of that functionality.  We have many more attributes besides our hands and many more ethically and existentially salient activities than merely using our hands.  Many of our other powers integrate our hands into their own complex functions.  Over the course of our lives, we have great possibilities for integrating our innumerably distinguishable powers’ functional possibilities into overall powerful unified lives.  How we realize our powers’ possibilities and what our powers’ possibilities are is also influenced to a large extent by the particularities of our own life circumstances, from the cultural/political/social levels of influence right down to the very most idiosyncratically personal ones.  I think our most general good is, therefore, conditioned by many influences which determine what exactly our various functional possibilities are and how exactly we can maximize them in our own unique circumstances.

In those ways I am a teleologist.  I am a perfectionist in that I think our highest good is to maximize our perfections and our overall perfection rather than to maximize something like happiness.  I am a consequentialist in that ultimately I think ethics should aim to maximize a certain state of affairs in the world.  I am not a hedonist in that I do not think what should be maximized is happiness at the expense of perfection.  I am not a utilitarian in that I do not think that the best ethical mindset is always or necessarily one which involves calculating in each action what will maximize the highest good.  I am a consequentialist in that I think that the best action is the one that on the long run maximizes the highest good, but I don’t think this good—human perfection—is always best served by the calculative attitude.  Though, of course, a vast number of ordinary correct decisions do involve simple calculations of what will increase happiness or other goods and that is unproblematic to me.  Often all that is at stake is a little more or a little less happiness.  Wherever that does not conflict with development of perfections of ourselves and/or others, we have no reason to choose less rather than more happiness for ourselves or others.  My consequentialism is indirect in that I do not think that epistemic perfection in determining the truth about abstract ethical matters is more important than total overall perfection.

So in the context of this rough sketch of my basic ethical distinctions, I can address your remarks above.  I do not mean to say that if you commit to a brave action with only 99% probability that it is the right action—say, for example, you run into a burning building because you’re 99% sure someone is in the building—that the action is completely wasted if it turns out that you were wrong and, to use our example, there winds up being no one in the building after all.  As you said, your existential commitment to the brave action is the same and admirable, regardless of whether you turn out to be wrong.  Like you say, all the commitments to be what the action requires are there, even if the action was made on an improbably false calculation.  And, in terms of my teleological perfectionism, I would say that the mistaken firefighter actualizes his functional possibilities for bravery and realizes himself as a more perfect overall human being through doing so.

So in what way then might it still be existentially uncertain whether someone should perform an action that is 99% rationally justified and 99% morally justified?  Even if turns out you have made a miscalculation you will still be admirable for the ways you express excellences which you are 99% convinced are called for in the circumstance at hand.  That is clearly admirable even in cases where it turns out that, improbably, by a 1% fluke, you turned out to be mistaken in your choice’s actual consequences or their actual worth.  So what else is needed for this “existential justification” that I am asking for?  And why can’t even 99% rational certitude and 99% moral certitude together provide this justification?

I think the paradox comes in at the basis of ethical justification itself.  I think that we are a set of functional possibilities.  To be is to realize these possibilities.  The more we realize them the more we are what we are.  The more complexly and powerfully we integrate these possibilities into an overall life, the more we increase our being of what we are and, therein, thrive.  Essentially, I think for norms to be binding upon us they must ultimately be traced back to their contribution to this project of maximizing our functioning in terms of our essential kind of being.  To the extent that any action realizes our maximal thriving in power, it has sanction and to the extent to which it undermines this on net, it is suspect.

The problem with self-sacrifice is that it creates a paradoxical condition in which I have an opportunity to maximally realize my powers but in such a way as to simultaneously obliterate them in their embodied reality.  I can hardly max out my powers of courage any more successfully than by putting myself into a certain death situation for the possibility of saving others.  By staking my entire existence on the action, I do the fullest sort of courageous action.  I realize a number of other virtues at the same time and integrate them all into the commitment to an overall powerful life, one characterized by the fullest extent of commitment to an ideal of perfection possible, the commitment of being perfect even on pain of death.  And yet—to fulfill this function is to annihilate my entire future as a functional being.

My powerful act will still live on and “function” through those whose lives I save.  Every expression of power they make the rest of their lives will be indebted to my act of saving them.  In this way, the act is ethically sanctionable.  I multiply my power when it works through others who I have empowered.  I function remotely through others insofar as any of their particular functionalities are  indebted to my own past functioning.  To the extent that my contribution was necessary and indispensable to their being or their being in a particular way, their power is a function of my own.  This is my self-referential perfectionist justification for taking an interest in increasing others’ powers and avoiding damaging others’ powers.  My powers’ remote abilities are dependent on theirs thriving.

But even though the self-sacrificing hero is powerful through those she saves, she still loses all of her embodied functional powers through that action.  Through her act by which she perfectly realizes her possibility for functioning as a brave person, she also stops functioning in all respects.  This goes beyond morality and reason to an existential paradox.  As a being that is identical with a certain complex of functions, it is always possible to reason that however abstractly rational and moral it would be to fulfill your functionality in the most maximal way in this immediate powerful act of self-sacrifice, years more of less optimal functioning that are possible if only you say safely alive involve might just be better.  In other words, well-being looks more tempting than thriving when thriving means dying.  And existentially speaking, when confronting the question “in which what sorts of actions do you have a fundamental interest in expressing yourself?” it is hard to say why one should put one’s ethical perfection and realization of their functioning in this highest way over their continued functionality for many more years in other acts of self-perfection which are less fatal.

When someone judges that the immediate cause to which they are committed is worth dying for, they choose to perfect themselves through a maximal act of courage and to forgo a number of other acts of perfection and functional instances of well-being that would have been possible over the course of many years now abandoned.  That choice is existentially uncertain, even as it might be morally or rationally certain.  And that decision to commit oneself requires one “keep faith” with one’s cause or with one’s ideals or one’s morality or reason or fellow citizens or fellow humans, or whatever.  But the choice seems to me rationally undecidable since one is wagering one’s entire existence on it.  Unlike those reprehensible cases of acting by faith which involve acting against rational probability or against morality, this kind of faith is admirable because it is a commitment to what is rationally and morally justified in a way not entirely existentially justified but committed to nonetheless as a supreme gesture of courageous loyalty.

KM had more thought provoking challenges for me, but I will stop this post here since it is already so long and hopefully return to the rest of his criticisms another time.  In the meantime; Your Thoughts?

The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.

The Contexts, Objective Hierarchies, and Spectra of Goods and Bads (Or “Why Murder Is Bad”)

Goodness Is A Factual Matter (Goodness=Effectiveness)

Grounding Objective Value Independent Of Human Interests And Moralities

Non-Reductionistic Analysis Of Values Into Facts

Effectiveness Is The Primary Goal In Itself, Not Merely A Means

What Is Happiness And Why Is It Good?

On The Intrinsic Connection Between Being And Goodness

Deriving An Atheistic, Naturalistic, Realist Account Of Morality

How Our Morality Realizes Our Humanity

From Is To Ought: How Normativity Fits Into Naturalism

Can Good Teaching Be Measured?

Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers

The Objective Value of Ordered Complexity

Defining Intrinsic Goodness, Using Marriage As An Example

The Facts About Intrinsic and Instrumental Goods and The Cultural Construction of Intrinsic Goods

Subjective Valuing And Objective Values

My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain

Pleasure And Pain As Intrinsic Instrumental Goods

What Does It Mean For Pleasure And Pain To Be “Intrinsically Instrumental” Goods?

Against Moral Intuitionism

Moral vs. Non-Moral Values

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

On Good And Evil For Non-Existent People

My Perfectionistic, Egoistic AND Universalistic, Indirect Consequentialism (And Contrasts With Other Kinds)

Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

Further Towards A “Non-Moral” Standard Of Ethical Evaluation

On The Incoherence Of Divine Command Theory And Why Even If God DID Make Things Good And Bad, Faith-Based Religions Would Still Be Irrelevant

God and Goodness

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony Of Humility And Pride

Moral Mutability, Not Subjective Morality.  Moral Pluralism, Not Moral Relativism.

How Morality Can Change Through Objective Processes And In Objectively Defensible Ways

Nietzsche: Moral Absolutism and Moral Relativism Are “Equally Childish”


Is Emotivistic Moral Nihilism Rationally Consistent?

The Universe Does Not Care About Our Morality. But So What?

Why Be Morally Dutiful, Fair, or Self-Sacrificing If The Ethical Life Is About Power?

A Philosophical Polemic Against Moral Nihilism

Why Moral Nihilism Is Self-Contradictory

Answering Objections From A Moral Nihilist

If You Don’t Believe in Objective Values Then Don’t Talk To Me About Objective Scientific Truth Either

On Not-Pologies, Forgiveness, and Gelato

Yes, We Can Blame People For Their Feelings, Not Just Their Actions

Why Bother Blaming People At All? Isn’t That Just Judgmental?

Is Anything Intrinsically Good or Bad? An Interview with James Gray

My Metaethical Views Are Challenged. A Debate With “Ivan”

On Unintentionally Intimidating People

Meditations on How to Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Is It Ever Good To Be Annoying?

No, You Can’t Call People Sluts.

Why Misogynistic Language Matters

Sex and “Spirituality”

Can Utilitarians Properly Esteem The Intrinsic Value of Truth?

No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism

Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral

Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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