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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thoughts on Sacrifice Update

In response to my post yesterday, A Thought on Self-Sacrifice, some commenters asked some good questions to which I'll now try to respond. But first I want to address the issue of clarity of meaning. Sacrifice can mean different things to different people so I want to say that my meaning is the traditional biblical one, that a sacrifice cannot result in any benefit to one's self whatsoever.

The reason I tackled this subject is that many times when I have tried to point out that sacrifice is contrary to man's nature and therefore works against his survival when practiced consistently, I have been given the argument that nature is replete with examples of sacrificial behavior; that nature hard wires creatures to sacrifice themselves for their young or the group to which they belong. Since this is the case, humans should accept sacrifice as a valid behavior also.

I disagree. I contend that caring for one's young and those in one's group is not a sacrifice but a form of a self-preserving action; that to defend the survival of one's offspring is a very self-interested and therefore survival enhancing behavior.

I further contend that nature, or if you will, evolution, makes no sacrifices--but does make trade offs. If for example, a species develops a survival strategy of massive reproduction whereby it produces so many offspring that it feeds several species of predators and has plenty left over to propagate itself, then massive reproduction is a survival-enhancing behavior. There is no desire by any member of that species to leap or fly into the mouth of its predators. That would be a sacrifice.

One commenter asked about the apparent altruistic behavior of mammalian parents towards their young and about bees and ants and their queens and nests. I think it is just that, appearance, not what's really happening. In the case of bees, ants and other lower life forms, some are born to be soldiers and others born to be workers and so on. They simply respond to different stimuli. I don't think there is any desire to sacrifice themselves. ( I am deliberately ignoring for now the issue of volition which humans have and all other organisms don't, but will discuss later.)

What may look like a sacrifice to us humans is in fact a behavior that has evolved so as to provide a likelihood of survival for that species. I don't think we should call it a sacrifice at all. I once saw a doc where it was shown how an individual bee gives directions to other bees as to the location of a pollen source. The narrator said that if a bee's sense of direction is off or crippled in some way, the other bees will sting it to death immediately. No second chance, no rehab, no mercy whatsoever. No social safety net, i.e. no trace of altruism.

As for mammals, I'm sure their behavior towards offspring is purely self-interested. Again, I saw a doc in which a group of lions were trying to separate a wildebeest calf from its mother. Each time the lions approached, the mother would charge at the lions and they would back off slightly. I wondered why the lions just didn't gang up on her, after all, there were enough of them and they take down full grown wildebeests regularly. Then I realized that a fear-filled wildebeest running for its life is predictable whereas an angry one is not and is therefore more dangerous. The lions probably sense this. So, acting in theirself interest so to speak, decided to focus on the easier meal, the calf. The lions eventually won and the mother rejoined the herd. Had the mother offered her calf to the lions, that would have been a sacrifice. Had the lions felt sorry for the calf and decided to stay hungry for another day, that would have been a sacrifice. But such behavior is not found in the animal world because self-sacrifice is not wired into the minds of these animals.

When we look at some animal behaviors they can appear to be sacrificial but I don't think they are. I think evolutionary trade-offs would be a more accurate identification.

The last reason I think sacrifice doesn't belong in the animal world is because of the issue of volition. Man has it. Animals don't. The concept sacrifice has become a moral concept for humans but it cannot be for animals because there is no morality in the animal world. There is only survive or fail to do so.

Humans must discover their nature then discover a proper behavior (moral code) then choose to behave that way. Animals have to make no such choices. That's why any equating of animal behavior with human behavior as moral is invalid.

My thoughts on this are admittedly, not complete and the commenters have helped me clarify, somewhat, some of them. So the bottom line in my thinking is that, in the animal world, what looks like sacrificial behavior is actually evolutionary trade-offs and what looks like concern for others is actually a survival-enhancing behavior performed with no sense of sacrificial duty. That should do it for now.


mkfreeberg said...

Here's an observation that may be worth throwing away, or chewing on at some length...or some midpoint compromise between those two. You choose.

If you define sacrifice the way Rand did, as the surrender of something of high value in exchange for something of lower value, or a non-value, then we see your observation is probably correct. Man can practice it, lower animals are incapable of doing so even though there are examples of "sacrifice" according to a penumbral, non-Rand definition: A mother lioness will risk death to defend her young.

But man stands alone in the ability to attack his own system of values, in addition to his fiscal & bodily health, for rewards of lesser value.

Man, also, stands alone in his ability to do illogical things solely for social ingratiation. Female peacocks are drawn to fashionable males, but that isn't part of that I'm talking about because they're drawing a reasoned inference that plumage and virility may be connected. So there is logic at work there. Contrasted with one of my favorite illogical items of fashion in homo sapiens: The pairing up of large cowboy hats, which recall nineteenth-century American culture, and goatees which recall seventeenth-century European fashion. Or -- let's not pick on the goatee people. Let's talk about pants that slip down around the ass crack.

Homo Sapiens will sacrifice logic to fashion more quickly, and to a greater substantial effect, than anything in the animal kingdom. And, as you point out, only humans can make a "Rand" sacrifice.


The disturbing confluence between fashion and true sacrifice sometimes occurs with such frequency and in such confusing circumstances, it's often easy to lose track of what this "lesser value" is we're supposed to get out of things. One unlikely morsel of philosophical ponderance that I thought captured this effectively, is Cartman's Mom is Still a Dirty Slut on South Park. You know, in that scene where they eat Eric Roberts...before anyone conducts a quality deliberation about whether anyone's hungry yet. I think this is descriptive of a lot of situations where the infliction of sacrificial pain becomes the point of the whole exercise. What's the best-case scenario if the sacrifice is made? What's the worst-case scenario if it isn't? Sometimes people forget to ask. It's the burden of our species, our unique flaw.

softwareNerd said...

Of the various examples of so-called "altruism" in nature, one should ask: how does one explain the continuation of such behavior in the context of the process of natural selection? In other words, how could this behavior propagate if it did not -- in some way -- help the specie's life?

If a mother animal has behavior that protects it's young, then we should ask: how does such behavior help the mother? To answer this question, we cannot use a human (volition based) standard; i.e., we are not asking about a mother wildebeest's logical processes, but it's automated behaviors. The question is not so much about what the mother wildebeest chooses to do. Rather, it is about how the mother wildebeest is.

When we frame it this way, we would ask the question something along the lines: how does the programmed behavior of a mother wildebeest in protecting it's young at some risk to itself contribute to the survival of wildebeest. Then, the answer becomes almost: "duh!"

Mike N said...

Your point about the infliction of pain seeming to be the whole point of the exercise is a good one. In previous posts I have called it "performing the altruistic ritual". The critical need to perform this ritual stems from the belief that the practice of helping others must take the form of a sacrifice or it can't be virtuous, which rests on the notion that the sacrifice of others to yourself is in your interest and since this is so, then to be concerned about others necessarily requires you to sacrifice your interests to theirs. But since self-sacrifice practiced 24/7 i.e. consistently, will quickly lead to one's death, there must be a way to cheat on this code in order to stay alive. That way is the "performance of the altruistic ritual". Declare one's sacrificial motives and one is absolved of any actual failure to help others or even any resultant harm to them.

You wrote: "The question is not so much about what the mother wildebeest chooses to do. Rather, it is about how the mother wildebeest is." So true. I think that humans, the only species that can choose to destroy itself, observed this behavior in itself and wrongly attributed it to the animal kingdom. Such concepts as self-sacrifice or self-interest don't apply to them because they don't have the ability to choose their destruction. They can only behave according to their nature whatever that nature, as you say, is.

This confusion has partly prevented man from discovering a non-sacrifical way of life. Until the writings of Rand, the idea that concern for self could include valuing all life, was alien to man's thinking. Since her writings, people are learning that concern for self and concern for others are not mutually exclusive domains but in fact go together. Man's search for morality will not be found in the animal world.