chapter  5
Morality and self-sacrifice, martyrdom and self-denial (2008)
Pages 31

My chief interest is to explore the question, is self-sacrifice a necessary part of morality? Think of a person who gives away millions of dollars to those in need while keeping millions for himself. He does not appear to sacrifice anything, but he acts morally by preventing or alleviating an appreciable amount of suffering. He could prevent even more by giving more millions away, but unlike some others who have discussed this theme, I have no wish to declare him immoral because he does not do so. Yet most people do not have the millionaire’s resources; for them to act morally they will on occasion have to engage in a measure of economic self-sacrifice beyond paying taxes. Then, too, giving away money is not the only kind of morally relevant self-sacrifice: a person may feel called on to risk or lose other good things besides wealth. (Although it is callous to say so, even a miserably poor person will have some moral responsibilities.) So let us say that even though self-sacrifice is not intrinsic to the concept of morality, it is in varying degrees often essential to acting morally. The fact that cannot be mastered is that there are always unaddressed wrongs in society or the world that should receive a moral response that requires some self-sacrifice. Countless are the occasions and situations in which moral persons might feel importuned by the possibility of self-sacrifice. At the center of my concern is the person who wants to be moral and who

therefore would not initiate public or personal wrongdoing. But he might believe that his moral responsibility is limited to not taking the lead in wrongdoing and otherwise minding his own business. Surely, however, moral responsibility extends to those who do not contrive and initiate actions or policies but take part only as followers. I wish to concentrate on two main issues in exploring what it means to act

morally: refusing to go along or cooperate with wrongdoing led by others, and performing some positive act of assistance to those who are oppressed or in need. Morality means saying no or saying yes more often than we think it con-

venient to do so; some self-sacrifice might be morally required when we would like to think that it is not. However, when one abstains from harming another by selfish or passionate violation or dispossession in personal life, inside or

outside the law, one is simply being moral without self-sacrifice, no matter what amount of painful frustration one feels. I also want to emphasize that abstention from selfish and aggressive wrongdoing in personal life, morally desirable as it is, is only a part of being moral. My secondary interest is in self-denial, which I find especially pertinent in

thinking about Christian teachings. Self-denial takes many forms, but in my account none of them is squarely in the realm of moral conduct; some forms are indirectly moral, while some forms are at or past the limits of morality. Martyrdom that is indirectly moral – perhaps that of Socrates or Jesus – may emerge from extreme self-denial. But in less extreme self-denial, magnanimity is perhaps the principal virtue. I will eventually attend to the distinction between self-sacrifice and self-denial. I concentrate on Socrates and Jesus because they ask the most of people

and back up their teachings with their lives. In the long view, they show a deep affinity, for all their cultural differences. Strictly speaking, neither dies in the course of refusing to act immorally. What really matters is that they both move moral thinking in a more moral direction, so to speak. They have an unsurpassed ability to sensitize people to the reality of moral questions, and they promote the supremacy of moral goodness above all other values. Socrates is an exemplary moral hero, and Jesus is the most radical moral teacher. They see in complacency reinforced by gullibility the most durable antagonist to moral understanding and action. They are also both martyrs for the sake of their principled divergence from the established structure of authoritative teaching about life, and their martyrdom, though not inflicted because of any direct defiance they put up in the name of morality, must naturally affect the way in which their moral teachings are received. However, in asking the most of us, and when taken at their word, both

Socrates and Jesus, whether in the same or in somewhat different ways, ask too much of us morally. In this essay I try to restate a few reasons for revising their moral precepts. The precept of Socrates is never harm the innocent, no matter the cost to yourself. The precept of Jesus is to treat others as you would be treated by them, not as they have treated you or would be likely to treat you in the future. I work with those revisions that have been produced in theory and practice, here and there, under the influence of the modern doctrine of individual rights, the politicized premise of which is the moral equality of all human beings. This doctrine guides but does not fully determine my treatment. To a considerable extent, the doctrine of human rights itself stems from the spirit and influence of Socrates and Jesus, but from Hobbes and Locke onwards, the need is felt to make morality unheroic in order to make it more pervasive. The doctrine of rights sets morally acceptable limits to moral self-sacrifice. Moral conduct, however, remains demanding. As for self-denial, no formula captures its fate.