Why Do We Honor Self-Sacrifice?

Memorial Day marks one of several days Americans celebrate the many great blessings that we have as a nation.  We traditionally do this by taking trips to the lake, playing baseball, and racing.  At these events, there is also always a moment in which we pause in silence to reflect.  On what are we collectively reflecting?  We recall the purpose of the day: the remembrance and honoring of those who have given their lives in defense of their country.  We view this day of honor as something very important.  It is so important, in fact, that we repeat this process several times a year, on Veterans’ Day and Independence Day for example.  We hold up men and women who have given entirely in defense of something greater than themselves.  What is this greater good for which these soldiers have died?  We call this the common good of the nation, the political good.  What kind of good is the common good?  Is it a good in itself or one that we only seek because it allows us to attain other goods?  Does the political good give us good reasons for the willingness (and in the case of soldiers the duty) to give our lives in its defense?

The gravity of such a sacrifice forces us to take a moment and truly consider whether or not this common good is truly something for which we ought to give our lives.  In the April issue of First Things, Robert George argued that the common good of the political community is merely an instrumental good.  George states that the common good is, “best conceived as a set of conditions for enabling members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives or to realize reasonably for themselves the value(s) for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other in a community” (41). George tells us that he is following in the work of the eminent New Natural Lawyer John Finnis, specifically his significant work in Natural Law and Natural Rights.  George and Finnis follow what has come to be called the “New Natural Law.”  Begun by Germain Grisez, the New Natural Law theory attempts to bring the traditional Thomistic account of natural law into conversation with modern thinkers.  Some (cf. Russell Hittinger and Lawrence Dewan) have criticized these thinkers for granting too much ground to modernity, e.g. accepting the so-called is/ought distinction.

The reason, as George sees, why individuals enter into political community is because the political community serves as an instrumental good, i.e. it is sought for the sake of other goods.  Individuals seek after instrumental goods for the sake of intrinsic goods.  George considers, as an example of an intrinsic good, the community of the family.  “The fundamental point of being of the family,” George states, “is, simply, being a member of the family—enjoying the intrinsic benefit of being part that distinctive network of mutual obligation, care, love, and support” (40).

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George tells us that the family offers an intrinsic good, while the political community only serves as an instrumental good.  Thus, the family is something we seek for itself and the good of being in a family.  We do not seek the family in order to gain wealth, fame, or pleasure.  We seek the family simply because we recognize that it is good to be in a family.  The political community, however, does not serve as something good in itself.  The only reason I call the political community “good” is because it is useful and thus “instrumental” in my attainment of goods such as the family.  How does the political community accomplish this task?  It provides protection, offers services such as power and running water, and generally secures a peaceable living among all citizens.  George states, “It is, in this sense, facilitative. It enables people to do things the doing of which advances their all-around or integral flourishing” (41). Thus, the political community, according to George and Finnis, serves as the arena in which my fellow citizens and I are able to pursue our individual goals in the pursuit of a happy and flourishing life.  We can conclude, then, that we honor soldiers and those who have given their lives in defense of the common good because they have provided us with the ability to seek for ourselves lives of excellence, and that this service justifies their self-sacrifice.  Or does it?

The solider serving his country is called upon to risk his life, and in certain cases might find that his duty as a soldier requires that he give his life.  Why should the soldier do so?  Recall, George believes that the individual only seeks the good of society insofar as it allows him to seek his own good.  Thus, according to George, an individual will agree to give his loyalty and obedience to the political ruler in order that he might receive the services that allow him to seek his own individual flourishing.  The political community is only sought because it is somehow useful to achieving individual goods.  What happens, however, when my duty to the political community becomes the precise reason why I will fail to achieve those individual goods that justified my loyalty to the community?  Do the services that the political community provides justify my death?

Thomas Osborne correctly shows us that there is nothing the political community can provide me that make it rational for me to sacrifice my own life.  “The problem,” Osborne argues, “is that [the political community] may justify the payment of taxes, but they cannot justify the sacrifice of one’s own life.  There are no services which could pay for such self-sacrifice” (Analyse & Kritik 30 [2008]: 84).  Why do we pay taxes? The services that the state offers (fire and police protection, trash removal, water and power) all require financial resources.  As a citizen paying taxes, I am giving a certain amount of my income so that governmental bodies are able to provide just those services that are needed for me to be able to pursue my own individual goods.  Thus, by a kind of cost-benefit analysis, I am able to justify paying taxes by appealing to the goods and services that I receive in return.  Can such services, however, justify my death?  What benefit will I receive from such services as trash removal or water and power when I am dead?  Can I benefit from anything temporal when I am no more?

The answer must be a conclusive “no.”  George’s view of the common good as purely instrumental lacks the justification needed to require an individual to sacrifice his life.  In fact, a purely instrumental view of the common good would seem to require that a solider refuse to sacrifice his life.  Normally the common good is the means by which I receive the goods and services needed to achieve my own good.  In the case of self-sacrifice, however, the common good becomes the precise reason why I will fail to achieve my own good.  I give my allegiance to the political community so as to achieve my own good, but in this case my allegiance requires me to perform an act that will frustrate the very reason I entered into the political community in the first place.

The only way to maintain the rationality of self-sacrifice is to view the common good of the political community as a good in itself, one that is in fact superior to the individual good.  Thus, when we honor soldiers (as well as police and firefighters) who are killed in the performance of their duty, we rightly honor and praise their sacrifice.  We honor them because they have sought a greater good at the expense of a lesser good.  They have sacrificed their own lives (a lesser good) for the good of the community (an intrinsic and higher good).  What is this greater common good?  Aristotle notes that men “have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves” (Politics, I.2). The individual man looks to achieve a kind of immortality through the family he leaves behind.  Due to the relative stability and permanence of political communities, this community (rather than the family) offers man a way of achieving a type of eternity.  Thus, Aristotle also states that, “he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors” (ibid).  The common good of the community is one that is shareable among many, and does not diminish but rather increases the more it is shared.  Thus, all are able to attain a kind of eternity and participation in the achievements and permanence of the political community.  It is sacrifice for this intrinsic good of the community, rather than the individual good, that makes sense of the honors and awards given to those who give themselves in defense of their country.

So, on Memorial Day, Veterans, Independence Day, and any day of honor and remembrance in America, we should reflect on precisely why we honor those who have died.  Not because they have secured our ability to seek our individual good, but because they have given their lives in pursuit of a common, intrinsic, and greater good.


  • John Macias

    John Macias is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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