philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice


To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice
Date: 18 December 2007 13:39

Dear Frank,

Than you for your email of 9 December, with your fourth essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Describe the structure of the 'dialectic of self-assertion and self-sacrifice'. Can the dialectic be resolved?

This is a heartfelt and articulate essay which covers many of the issues that we have been looking at in this program. In several places it touches on the question of 'self-assertion vs self-sacrifice' without reaching any satisfactory resolution.

To put this question in context, here is a passage from Henry Sidgwick 'Methods of Ethics'. Having argued for a consequentialist theory, Sidgwick admits right of the end of the book that he has failed to account for the justified sense that each of us as a right to take our own selves into consideration, and not merely as one unit in the utilitarian calculation. Ethics, in Sidgwick's theory requires self-sacrifice. The claims of the self seem to be outside ethics, and no theory (in Sidgwick's view) is capable of comprehending both:

I do not mean that if we gave up the hope of attaining a practical solution of this fundamental contradiction, through any legitimately obtained conclusion or postulate as to the moral order of the world, it would become reasonable for us to abandon morality altogether: but it would seem necessary to abandon the idea of rationalising it completely. We should doubtless still, not only from self-interest, but also through sympathy and sentiments protective of social well being, imparted by education and sustained by communication with other men, feel a desire for the general observance of rules conducive to general happiness; and practical reason would still impel us decisively to the performance of duty in the more ordinary cases in which what is recognised as duty is in harmony with self-interest properly understood. But in the rarer cases of a recognised conflict between self-interest and duty, practical reason, being divided against itself, would cease to be a motive on either side; the conflict would have to be decided by the comparative preponderance of one or other of two groups of non-rational impulses.
Henry Sidgwick 'Methods of Ethics' Book IV, Ch VI, 5

One of the main aims of the Moral Philosophy program has been to show that ethics can comprehend the claims of the self and the claims of others: the consequence, however, is that we are left with a sliding scale of self-assertion vs. self-sacrifice with no principled method of deciding how selfless one is required to be.

F.H. Bradley, writing not a long time after Sidgwick, argued in his book 'Appearance and Reality' that the 'dialectic' in question has no simple resolution. That is my view too.

In considering this question, many of the issues that you raise can be put on one side because the problem arises whichever view of ethics you take.

Thus, the same question arises whether you are a subjectivist like Hume or an objectivist like Kant; or whether you hold that the right course of action should be derived from a utilitarian calculation or through consideration of duties; or indeed, whether you hold the view that motivation can be genuinely (ultimately) altruistic or whether all seemingly altruistic motivation is ultimately self-interested. Even in this last case, there is room for discussion how seemingly altruistic one is required to be.

We also need to distinguish between the 'self-sacrifice' required in order to submit to a rule of living required by a particular religious or social world-view -- whether it be modesty, or vegetarianism, or pacifism -- and the 'self-sacrifice' which is specifically targeted at helping others, at the cost of giving up benefits to ourselves. Your example of the obaja would be self-sacrifice in the former rather than the latter sense. Or one could distinguish between self-abnegation and altruism. The question of the dialectic between self-assertion and self-sacrifice is intended to raise the question of how altruistic one is required to be, rather than the different question of the role of self-abnegation as required by a particular religion or ideology.

It is common sense that we have a right to look after ourselves and those we care for (arguably, on a strict consequentialist theory even looking after your own family and friends is potentially selfish, when one takes into account the far greater needs of others). In a recent piece, I wrote:

The virtuosos of self-sacrifice -- the Mother Theresas of this world -- have their reasons which are undoubtedly ethical reasons but they don't have to be our reasons. Sainthood is optional... there is no limit to ethical obligation, once you start looking for it... The answer is not a reason for not looking but a plain matter of fact: we do not look. This is what the ethics of the human world is like.

This raises the question of 'supererogation' which is discussed in unit 15 of the program. Sainthood and heroism are 'supererogatory' in the sense of being beyond the call of duty. But this begs the question whether we can, in fact, describe our moral duties in a way which allows room for a justified element of self-interest.

The strict demands of ethics cannot be met, and yet it is possible to be ethical. This is a paradox. One possible solution to the paradox -- the solution which I am suggesting here -- is that we accept, as a matter of brute fact, that some persons have more of a vocation for self-sacrifice than others.

W.H. Auden once dryly remarked, on the question of altruism: 'We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know.' The point W.H. Auden is making is that as a solution to the problem of the meaning of life, total self-sacrifice by everyone would be extremely unsatisfactory. Life is worth living because there are other things worth striving for -- friendship, love and romance, knowledge, philosophical understanding, exploration and adventure, artistic expression, sporting achievement -- besides the noble motive of ameliorating the lot of those less well off than ourselves.

All the best,