What does the idea of sacrifice really mean, especially in that context of paying the “highest price”?
We all have examples we can point to of people who have laid down their life for a cause they thought worthy. The Pakistani boy — Aitzaz Hasan — who confronted a suicide bomber and died protecting the lives of a school full of children comes immediately to mind.
Maybe your list would include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, or the innumerable men and women who’ve worn their uniform to serve in desolate places. It might include parents getting hurt while protecting their kids from harm, or First Responders rushing into situations from which others run away, the Chernobyl engineers, or Flight 93’s “let’s roll” response. Mine would certainly include my late friend, Pastor Samuel.
Deaths like these are treated differently than most, aren’t they? They’re not viewed as merely tragic, like someone falling from a roof, or dying of leukemia; a choice is involved. But they also aren’t the same as the death of a mafioso, or the bomber that killed Aitzaz, where choice is also involved.
The REASON for the sacrifice is important, and the quality of the cause is important in our thinking, isn’t it?
The last stand of those men at Benghazi, for example, defending their Ambassador is a very different act than someone breaking under the pressure of a situation and blindly charging the enemy lines. Desperation is not the same as heroism.
Our reaction to such acts of compassion, courage and kindness seems almost universal. We admire them, we honor them, we hold them up as heroes. They have served, so to speak, a “greater good”.
But if you stop to think about the idea of “greater good”, as common-sense as we might think such terms are, it sometimes comes into conflict with other “common-sense” views.
Are there ideas that would be incompatible with that kind of self-sacrifice? Or at least ideas difficult to reconcile with others we might take for granted?
The most obvious would be found right in the list I gave, above. At the same time that Aitzaz Hasan stood up for the defense of children’s lives, there was another person willing to lay down his life for a different goal. That goal was not to save lives, but to end as many as he could.
What motivates such a goal? The standard answer would be “religious devotion”. But is that an accurate description? Would that alleged “religious devotion” still be a factor in play if he did not believe that he would, personally, gain something from his action?
The belief is that people who die that way are “trading up” the life they have now (however dreary) for eternal gratification, to have every physical urge gratified endlessly by six dozen anonymous people acting as slaves to those whims.
Religious devotion? Really? How many Jihadis stop in at a nudie bar on the way to their “grand exit”? Isn’t their real goal a “get-out-of-hell free card”, complete with a blank cheque to enjoy all those Charlie Sheen ”winning” fantasies he couldn’t attain in life?
When we call that “religious devotion” we have every right to ask whether his allegiance is truly to a god of any description, but rather a bribe offered to his libido. There’s nothing honorable about such a death as that. He’s a mercenary working for a paycheck of the basest sort.
Do any ideas closer to home conflict with real heroism?
How about common Pragmatism?
What about pragmatism, the “go along to get along” impulse that says “keep your head down and don’t get involved”? You see it when people conveniently ignore a call for help, don’t report a crime, or excuse the wrongdoing of “one of their own”.
You also see it when ethical dilemmas are answered with a cost/benefit analysis. The kind of heroism we’re describing cannot survive such thinking, because what makes them heroes is the fact that someone ELSE gets the benefit of their risk-taking.
What about rigid atheists? If they were epistemically consistent, how would they view such acts?
What if you were a devout Darwinist, like Dawkins, who said “life has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of DNA…life has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
Such a person must either call a death like Aitzaz’s (since he had no offspring) one example of a failed and wasted life, or else smuggle in ideas of value, virtue and meaning from some system of thought that allows for ideas of self-sacrifice and heroism. How he might handle such a question, I could only guess.
But for many of us, believing that all human life has intrinsic value, and that the consequences of our decisions live long after we are gone (both among those we leave behind, and in a life that transcends death), there is a greater meaning to such acts. We reflect upon both the words and example of One who put that principle into practice.
“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”.
For us, seeing value in sacrifice carries no conflict at all.
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