The Impossible Joy of Sacrifice

The recent disaster in Haiti has sparked a renewed wave of commentators to demand that men “sacrifice” for the sake of others’ needs. There is little mention of the injustice suffered by the Haitian people at the hands of their own government and, recently, at the hands of nature — which would be legitimate reasons for generosity. Rather, an appeal is made to people’s “altruistic nature” for as New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof puts it, “generosity feels so good.” Indeed, according to Kristof, it is “difficult for humans to be truly selfless.”

Kristof presents readers with an interesting choice. Whom would you rather be, he asks. A successful, healthy 36-year-old businessman who hasn’t married but spends his spare time traveling the Pacific while authoring poetry, or a 64-year-old, overweight retired school assistant who dedicates her time to babysitting and Church charity? The journalist derives his example from the work of Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2005).

The choice, both Haidt and Kristof seem to presume, is obvious. The businessman’s life is “stressful” and “lonely” while “happiness is tied to volunteering.” Moreover, “people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without.” Gaining wealth and advancing one’s career don’t do people any good. “Good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family” — those are the things worth living for. “Helping others,” notes Kristof, “may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.”

The latter is an odd statement and deconstructing it leads one directly to the irrationality of Haidt’s and Kristof’s argument. Unlike food and sex, “helping others” is no requisite for survival. To the contrary, charity typically comes at a personal loss, equating it to sacrifice which is never a pleasure, let alone a “primal” one. That is why the moralists of altruism have to invent all sorts of arguments to justify it. Man is not inclined to sacrifice; he is bound by reality to pursue his own interests for the sake of his own survival.

Happiness is not a state attained at the command of whim. It is a state of non-contradictory joy: a joy devoid of guilt or punishment; a joy that does not clash with one’s values nor work for one’s own destruction. As such, happiness is possible only to men of reason — men who pursue realistic goals and seek to fulfill them by rational means. That fulfillment makes happiness; not the satisfaction of any emotional urges nor the achievement of altruistic virtues imposed upon man by savants who dare claim that happiness is found in its very renunciation.

Yet that is exactly what our aforementioned duo professes. Kristof even draws religion into the equation which, at least, promises a carefree afterlife as reward for the sacrificing that man must endure on this Earth. Later philosophies of altruism, as promulgated by Haidt, do away with this fantasy altogether and declare that sacrifice is its own reward — because it “feels so good”.

Altruism only “feels good” to men infected with the nefarious sense of morality that holds that life is not one’s own; that it belongs to the anonymous mass of humanity that is in need. Sacrifice therefore does not mean merely entail benevolence. It demands the surrender of that which one values in favor of that which one doesn’t.

Helping a friend then is not sacrifice; helping an unknown stranger is. Helping another at no personal expense is not sacrifice; helping another at the cost of one’s own happiness, is.

If that doesn’t make you “feel good,” don’t despair though. Kristof paraphrases John Stuart Mill who “had a point,” according to the columnist, when he suggested that, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” In other words: the egoist is a “pig” and a “fool” whereas the altruist might not be happy but can at least consider himself a “noble” human being. And “nobility,” writes Kristof, “can lead to happiness” — expect when one holds reason and selfishness and self-esteem as the noblest of virtues, of course.

Helping others or donating to charity should not be done out of a misplaced sense of responsibility or guilt for one’s own accomplishments. Emotions are the products of man’s values and man’s pride and should on themselves never be called upon to justify any course of action. Justice is the only righteous motive for charity. Only if the person or people profiting from one’s help are deserving of it can such help be in accordance with a proper morality. Then, by living up to one’s own code and achieving one’s own virtues, will generosity truly “feel good”.