Sacrifice: A Razor
Consider the man who walks into a burning building to save the elderly occupant. The resident lives; the rescuer dies days later from the burns.
The common reaction, a certain reverence for the Good Samaritan, makes no sense to the rationalist. “Well,” that rationalist might object, “he plainly preferred risk to inaction. It’s hardly accurate to call it a sacrifice. Why should we honor him for doing what made him happy?”
And on its face, it’s a tough question. How noble, or even notable, could it be to do what most pleases you? We build much of our lives and the whole of our markets on the idea that individuals should act according to their own preferences. Surely there’s nothing out of the ordinary about any particular instance of that evaluation.
Ultimately, though, the economist’s framing mistakes the moment for the man. We honor the Good Samaritan not because he took the risk, but because he thought it was worth taking. Ten different people walking by that fire might have felt ten different ways about heading into the building to save anyone trapped inside. For some — perhaps for most — the risk would have far outweighed the possible benefits. Those who think the desperate dash worthwhile are the kinds of people we like having around: the kinds who’ve cultivated, over the course of many years, a worldview that places value on the wellbeing of others, as well as the physical and emotional capability — the reflex, even — to act for others. They are the men we most wish, and fear, to be.
However long it took me to arrive at that answer to the rationalist critique, it’s an old one. It’s John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” And Lincoln at Gettysburg: “[F]rom these honored dead we [must] take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion . . .”And Martin Luther King, Jr.: “[I]f a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”
It isn’t the full answer — I’ll write more later about the ways that sacrifice and continuity bring meaning to our lives — but it’ll do in a pinch.