Last week, I posed a question that had been on my mind: Should we consider self-sacrifice a humanist virtue? I wanted to start off with my own personal reflections about why my own Christian upbringing exalted the notion of self-sacrifice, but here I want to engage the question itself and try to draw some judgments about whether or not this precept can be one humanists can — or should — live with.
What Constitutes a Humanist Virtue?
Before I jump into the meat of my response to this question — which I am still treating as a somewhat open question even though I will attempt to come down on a tentative position — there are a few explanatory notes I feel obliged to include.
First, I am using “virtue” to indicate some value that is esteemed as a moral good. (By “moral good,” I mean that such actions are considered either morally obligatory or supererogatory.) This might imply a specific ethical system, virtue ethics, but that isn’t a presumption for my remarks although it is quite possible that a humanist virtue ethicist might find that they comport with that ethical framework.¹
Second, I am not asking about if this idea is an atheist virtue. I don’t think such an idea is inconceivable, since — and hang on with me for this one — atheists do have ethical systems they adhere to. But atheism implies very few tenets that can be built upon in any broad, distinct way, so it’s not incredibly useful for my purposes.
Which brings me to the real point: What I’m really interested in is whether humanism as a robust life stance and ethical system demands or esteems this precept by virtue of its own ethical system and the relevant facts that underlie it. Here I rely primarily (but not wholly) on the framework laid out in Humanist Manifesto II, which I think is more detailed than its successor (with which it largely agrees).
Balancing Individual and Societal Flourishing
Here’s a very simple factual claim held by most atheists and secular humanists alike: We only have one life to live. And how we deal with that fact in terms of ethics matters a great deal.
One way to deal with ethical action in a “no do-overs” universe is to go to one extreme and say that this fact implies that we ought to make the most of every moment we have in our cosmically short existence, and that involves acting out of radical self-interest with little to no regard for the needs or desires of others (or only acting out otherwise when it is practically necessary to protect one’s self-interest). The other extreme is of course radical self-abnegation, in which personal desires or motivations are utterly set aside for the benefit of others.
The middle ground is some mixture of the two: centering our own decisions about how we find fulfillment and purpose in life, coupled with various considerations about the well-being of others.
I think humanism falls in this in-between space, but that isn’t a satisfying or interesting answer. So let’s tease out a little bit of this.
First, it’s useful to read what the manifestos have said. From Humanist Manifesto II:
We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest. To deny this distorts the whole basis of life. Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. The goal is to pursue life’s enrichment despite debasing forces of vulgarization, commercialization, and dehumanization.
And from Humanist Manifesto III:
Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.
These are broad passages, but you can find more specific instances where the manifestos talk about both individual liberty and acting for the greater good. In fact, HM2 has a very clear statement to this effect: “We believe in maximum individual autonomy consonant with social responsibility.”
So how does self-sacrifice fit into this? Well, I think I can safely say this: Humanism does not exalt self-sacrifice as a moral good in and of itself.
The words “maximum individual autonomy” are vitally important here. Humanism does not privilege the individual above all other considerations, but it does have a particular place in this ethical framework. If there is a reason to demand that individuals sacrifice some degree of autonomy, it had better be a good one, one that has some benefit to others. (The manifestos generally go even further than this, saying that maximizing human happiness is in fact a way that humanists can find individual meaning and fulfillment. I agree.)
A notable bit of self-sacrifice that I think is fairly obligatory under humanism is sacrificing one’s own privilege. You’re not going to find a humanist manifesto that doesn’t have something positive to say about striving for equality, and equality by necessity requires the diminishing of privilege that causes inequalities. Both HM2 and HM3 are notable in calling for economic equality, with HM2 saying that “We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good” and HM3 calling for “a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” And of course, economic inequality is by no means the only kind of inequality that these manifestos decry.
But what about instances where an individual, of their own volition, decides to make such sacrifices? Here I think the manifestos are fairly quiet, but my personal view is that it depends on what one sacrifices for. If you sell your possessions in order to provide for others in need, then that is laudable even if it is not demanded by humanist ethics. If you are acting in a way that attempts to diminish injustice or increase human flourishing, even at the expense of some of your own, I see in that –if you’ll excuse the expression — the spirit of humanist ethics.
What About the Ultimate Sacrifice?
A few years back, Ricky Gervais made a rather notable remark during an interview with Piers Morgan:
I think there’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for… We have everything to live for.
I don’t think that any humanist would be likely to disagree with the latter part of this quote. But is it actually true that humanists have nothing to die for?
As an empirical matter, it does seem to be false²: There are humanists in the military, for instance, who presumably have some reason concordant with their ethics to put their lives on the line. (And that’s just one obvious group.)
And are there laudable reasons for someone to willingly make that kind of sacrifice? My intuition says yes. There might be cases where this kind of sacrifice is compelled by another ethical duty, especially a responsibility to protect others (as is true of parents, teachers, police, firefighters, military, and so forth). But in the majority of these cases, the roles are accepted willingly.
In all of these cases, the actions are not demanded by humanism per se. Still, I see no reason to think that they couldn’t be considered laudable, particularly if the sacrifice of one individual secured the well-being of more than one person (or of an individual whose potential flourishing would be squandered, such as a young child).
Unlike the notion set forth by Christianity (and some other ethical systems), this kind of self-sacrifice is about what good can come as a result, not as a goal in itself. But it doesn’t require radical self-denial, and it prioritizes the weighing of personal autonomy with the greater good.
And that, in my opinion, is very much the way to live.
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