Should Self-Sacrifice Be Considered a Humanist Virtue?

Should Self-Sacrifice Be Considered a Humanist Virtue? February 24, 2017

Self-sacrifice might seem like a self-evident good, but it is worth a second thought. (image via Pixabay)

Since my deconversion five years ago, I have had to adjust to a number of things about living inside my mind with this new view of the world. As I have sometimes remarked, I was fortunate in that many of the intellectual threads of my religious upbringing had already started to unravel and others — ones more congruent with a secular viewpoint — had taken their place. I didn’t experience as much of the grief that many deconverts often report because I had already started to come to terms with this impending change even before I was emotionally ready to accept it.

Much of this had to do with the values I held, which in many ways were no longer in line with the conservative, evangelical Christian worldview of my youth. But no one undergoes this kind of change and flushes all of those ingrained ideas out overnight. So I tried to unlearn these ideas over time.

In five years, I’ve made substantial progress on this front. But recently the notion of self-sacrifice has jumped into my mind.

Part of the process that I’ve found myself going through has been of determining where the values I had held (if they were indeed retained from my formative years and not altered through newer life experiences) fit into my view of the world. In this case, it is abundantly clear to me that my upbringing inculcated in me the idea that self-sacrifice is not merely a virtue but one of the highest virtues, attained only by the most dedicated.

There are a few different ways that this idea manifests in orthodox Christianity, of course. The more obvious way, of course, is literal self-sacrifice — dying for the sake of another. After all, “Greater love has no one than this,” right? Like so many of Christianity’s values, this one is cross-centered.

On the other hand, Christianity also promotes the notion of dying to self — indeed, the author of Galatians says that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.” Dead is “the flesh with its passions and desires”; what remains in this radical self-denial is only the ethical mandate of Christianity. (My colleague Neil Carter has a longer explication of this point over at Godless in Dixie.)

The result of this is an emphasis on others before self. When I was young, I was taught a simple mnemonic for how I should consider my actions: JOY, or Jesus, Others, You. In other words, I was instructed that my actions should first satisfy Jesus (where Jesus metonymically stood for “Christian ethics” as a whole or maybe even “God’s desires”) and consider others before I was ever supposed to think of myself.

There is a kernel of this that is sound, of course: Resisting a simple, reflexive egoism is indeed a part of sound ethical reasoning. But in practice, this focus away from the individual can sometimes turn into a push for a sort of severe abnegation, in which one’s whole life is dedicated to subjugating and sublimating one’s desires into actions whose primary function is to accomplish some sort of pious purpose or to benefit others, even at the expense of one’s own desires or even needs.

And in retrospect, I can’t help but think that I internalized a lot of that message when I became a teacher. Teaching is in many ways bound to a similar ethos, in which teachers are expected by their own professional ethics to make significant sacrifices of time and money for the sake of a lofty principle: helping students. I spent so much time being miserable as a teacher because I was living this life of self-denial where teaching took over my life for a majority of the year. Not only was the majority of my time consumed in the actual professional tasks of teaching (grading, planning, and so forth), but even my thoughts and dreams were invaded by this role.

And I just accepted this. Why? Because it’s what teachers are supposed to do.

It was only after I decided to leave the profession and grappled with the terror of life after teaching that I realized how much I had been denying myself — and how much more life had to offer me once I stopped denying myself so much.

All this is to say that I’m not taking this value for granted anymore. I am not merely satisfied to try and make it fit into my conception of the universe.

What I really want to know is this: Is it right to think of self-sacrifice as a humanist virtue at all, and if so, how?

It would be easy to just answer in the negative and leave it at that, but I don’t think it’s that simple. Secular humanism — or at least the robust version of it that I think is actually meaningful — does make ethical demands on the individual, and my intuition (for whatever that is worth with all of this baggage from a discarded belief system) leads me to believe that there might be a diamond of truth to be found here. It is unlikely to be the kind of pervasive decentering that I was taught, but where that balance lies is absolutely important to consider.

I have much further to dive into my thoughts on this, but for now this will have to suffice. In the coming days, after further introspection, I hope to return and explore more.

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Image via Pixabay


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