A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

Sacrifice vs. Self-interest: My Moral Philosophy


How much should a person give up to help others in need?

This is a question I’ve been thinking about for quite some time. I’ve arrived at a position that seems right to me, but it’s very possible that more thought, time, and discussion may lead me to modify my opinion somehow. I hope you will share your thoughts with me toward that end.

As a starting point, common sense suggests that the answer to the question “How much should a person give up to help others in need?” lies somewhere between “everything” (because then the helper would become in need of help herself) and “nothing” (because making a point of refusing to help people in need would be cruel). Given those parameters, then, where on the spectrum is the best place to be? 

For the sake of clarity I ought to define my terms a little better, particularly the term “should”: what is the basis for morality that I am working from? I subscribe to the worldview called humanism, which basically says that this life is the only one we’ve got, so we should try to live it as well (responsibly, healthily, peacefully, compassionately, effectively, and so forth) as we can. So that’s my grounds for morality—in general, things that make life truly better for people (and animals) are good, and things that make life worse for people are bad. (It’s a consequentialist ethic, for those of you who like fancy words. Also, I recommend Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, in which he explains how science can increasingly tell us what is right and wrong, based on its finding out what is good and bad for the wellbeing of conscious creatures.) I will also go ahead and define a term I’ll be using shortly: “self-interest.” By that, I simply mean concern for one’s own wellbeing.

Back to the question. Let me bring it into sharper focus by bringing back some of those quotes I recently posted from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:

“And all their love was thinned with money.”

“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.’”

 “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”

The mindset there, if we take a leap and apply it to modern life, essentially divides the world into two categories of people: those who have what they need, and those who don’t. And it’s saying that those who have what they need are fundamentally corrupted as a result—they feel they must protect what they have to lose, so they are unwilling to go to any trouble or loss to help others in need. Meanwhile, the needy have nothing to lose and understand the pain of desperation, so they are willing to help others in need, like themselves, even though they may not be able to do much to help.

I can see truth in this mindset, though I think it’s an excessively black-and-white way to view things—there are people who have what they need who are nevertheless willing to make sacrifices for those in need who come across their path, and there are people who devote significant portions of their energy and resources to helping charitable organizations.

But let’s assume that this black-and-white construct is true—that those of us who have perfectly adequate food, water, shelter, medical care, safety, security, and more are by default numbed to the suffering of those in desperate need—because I do think this is true to some extent. What then can/should we do about it?

In a wholly rational world, with some sort of fascist world government or other force dictating the rules, it might make sense for there to be a system in place, based on an established hierarchy of needs, that forbids non-needy people the freedom to pursue their own interests until all the needy have been helped and there is no more desperate suffering from lack of basic needs being met. For example, no more new cars and clothes allowed until there are no more chronically hungry people; no more new births allowed until there are no more foster children; no more new books or movies allowed until there are no more shortages of access to medical care, clean water, and secure living conditions.

This sounds good in one sense—that there would be no more unmet needs. In another sense it sounds pretty wretched, because if you take away freedom to pursue self-interest, you take away basic life force (more on this in a moment). It also would not actually work, anyway, because of this very reason: people are going to pursue their self-interests first, no matter what. It’s the famous “tragedy of the commons” problem: even if we all voluntarily got together and agreed to live by those rules, there would still be some who would break them. (And then this would likely lead to violence, which would lead to a lack of safety, which would land us right back in basic-needs territory.)

Self-interest is the basic mechanism of survival for all creatures. When people do not feel free to pursue their own self-interest—whether because they are literally not allowed to by some tyrannical regime like I described above, or because they’ve been trained by their culture to think they don’t matter or that they must deny their own desires for some religious or psychological reason, or because they have become so broken down by suffering and need that they feel there is no hope of fulfilling their own self-interests anyway—then life-force just withers. There is no forward-driving energy, except perhaps a substitute mission such as living for a dependent or to try to help others in need, but even then living is not much more than marking time until death, if not hastening it through the breakdown of mental and thus physical health.

Life works best when self-interest is allowed to be the primary motivator for life. This principle doesn’t guarantee that all needy people, who do not have the means to fulfill their self-interests, will be helped. But it also does not exclude that as a possibility, because while everyone pursues self-interest first, there are people who pursue not just physical self-interest but also true emotional wellbeing and maturity, and these are the people who value compassion, who hold their possessions and lifestyle loosely, and who are willing to inconvenience themselves to help people in need who come across their path.

Maybe it’s true that once they’ve crossed over into the non-needy category, these kind people will not have the same fervor for altruism that they may have had in the needy category. But they also will not go to extremes of materialism and hard-heartedness, because they have higher values. They genuinely want to help people—and that means that helping people is actually in their own self-interest, because it makes them happy. (Most of us include helping our family and friends with pursuing our own self-interest, since their wellbeing is tied up with our own. But the most enlightened among us develop an extended sense of clan.)

Further, I have come to believe that the freedom to pursue one’s own self-interests can lead people from a point of basic selfishness to a place of greater maturity, compassion, and awareness.

For example, in Thomas Moore’s brilliant book Care of the Soul, he describes his psychology with his counseling clients who live in the chains of narcissism and egotism: he doesn’t try to cure them by breaking down their inflated sense of self and insisting on the reality that they aren’t the center of the universe. Instead, he encourages them to explore their egotistic passions as fully as possible, because only by going through the narcissism can people reach a point of more mature enlightenment. And really, this is how most of us grow up (narcissism is basically being a childish adult, after all): we live solely for our own pleasures as children, we launch headfirst into ego-centric follies in our youth, and emerge tempered, wiser, and more aware of others as we age.

Freeing ourselves to be self-centered, then, is the necessary path toward becoming not self-centered (which is also known as maturity). Dogmatic insistence on self-denial and self-suppression serves only to heighten self-centeredness, though it may take on a disguise such as excessive humility or quirky insecurity.

Also, if we are freed from a sense of moral obligation that we ought to be doing more to help people in need, and we believe that we don’t have to help anyone and are free to pursue our own self-interest, then we may feel less defensive and thus more willing to open our eyes and look at the plights of suffering people—and then, we may feel moved to help them out of genuine desire, which means that helping them would then be in our own self-interest, because it would make us feel happy and fulfilled.

I haven’t yet mentioned one obvious point in favor of pursuing self-interest: as I’ve said on this blog many times, when we take care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of others; and it’s because people are free to pursue their own interests that we have modern medicine, funding for thousands of charitable organizations, and so on. I haven’t focused on this point because the issue of capability is secondary to the issue of motivation.

In conclusion, I think that self-interest, a concern for our own wellbeing, must always be the principal motivator in our lives; and that if we truly pursue our inner wellbeing in the sense of full emotional and moral development, we will be more likely to want to help others with whatever resources we can possibly spare. 

My short answer to my opening question, then, is that we should give up however much we want to for helping those in need. But my personal emphasis is on becoming the most mature person I can be and hoping I might inspire others toward the same goal.

This is my moral philosophy, at least until I can find a better one. Please, tell me: what do you think of it?


11 comments on “Sacrifice vs. Self-interest: My Moral Philosophy

  1. emilievardaman
    September 5, 2015

    So much to think about here.
    My boyfriend is Mexican. He has much less income than I do yet he is the one who consistently gives away food (even if it was something I’d planned to use for dinner), sheets, blankets, whatever. He buys toys at the thrift store and gives them to kids. I saw him once take off his t-shirt to give to someone.
    This is true throughout Mexico. The poorest people I meet are the first to offer me coffee or a pastry or a simple dinner with them.
    I have done my share (well, maybe most of my share) of volunteer work. I donate what I do not need. I have assisted, in the past, at free schools, battered women’s shelters, with the homeless, at community radio stations, and more.
    And my work is not yet done.
    By the way – I start on a ROAD TRIP on Monday so I may not be reading and responding much for a few weeks. Check my blog for the trip and lotsa photos.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      September 8, 2015

      Thank you for your thoughts, Emilie. You captured the distinction I was talking about in the difference between you and your boyfriend. But I am glad there are people like the two of you in the world!
      Have a wonderful trip!


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      September 15, 2015

      Emilie, I forgot to say—you live in Santa Fe, don’t you? Do you happen to know the name of that church in my photo above? It’s in the Plaza, and I believe it has a medicine wheel in the stone ground in front of it. I also remember there are steps leading up to it; it’s elevated above the marketplace.
      Hope you’re having fun on your trip!


      • emilievardaman
        September 15, 2015

        Oh, no. I don’t live in Santa Fe. I live in a tiny town in southeastern Arizona, Naco. Population around 700. I live two blocks from Mexico in a quiet, safe part of the world. My closest town is Bisbee, a lively fun town in the mountains. I am in a broad valley with mountains all around!


        • Sarrah J. Woods
          September 15, 2015

          Oh, I don’t know why I thought that. Oops! Your home sounds beautiful.


  2. onehungryghost
    September 9, 2015

    This is a very good analysis, and I thank you for it. You make many thoughtful and stimulating points. I’m not able just now to comment as coherently as I’d like, but I want to offer what I have.

    What we should do, according to whatever system of ethics, seems to me to be a separate issue from what we should be legally required to do (or prohibited from doing). For me to think clearly about ethics, I need to distinguish between the ethics of government and law and the ethics of personal choice. If we are prevented from exercising self-interest, then there is no sacrifice, but only a deprivation imposed from outside the self, which introduces many new factors (as you observed).

    So my comments here focus only on the situation of people having the “freedom to pursue self-interest.” Still it’s murky, because (again, as you observed) sometimes people feel compelled by something other than legal enforcement, such as indoctrination or trauma-induced constructs. I don’t think either of these is a healthy or effective guide for behavior, and the sooner they can be shaken off the better.

    Your position with regard to self-interest is consistent with libertarian philosophy, in which I have often seen much sense. What has led me away from libertarianism is the growing sense that libertarians (by definition, if not entirely or always in practice) focus too narrowly on self-interest. While many individual libertarians value charity, and recognize it as necessary to a sustainable society, concern for others is peripheral, at best, to the central organizing libertarian ideal of the freedom to pursue one’s own interests without interference.

    My own path has led me to view self-interest as healthy and adaptive only when it’s one of a set of core values. The one most memorable lesson I took from Care of the Soul is that it is dangerous to “worship one god” (i.e., to hold one value) to the exclusion of other gods. The relative simplicity of the libertarian philosophy appeals to me greatly, but I’ve begun to see it as a weakness as well as a strength. (Dogmatic self-denial is another instance of giving too much allegiance to one value while ignoring others.) Like you, I value self-interest, and I agree that it’s essential to life. But I see it as only one of several (or many) factors essential to sustainable society and meaningful living.

    Biologists are continually coming up with standards to distinguish us from other animals, and these keep getting knocked down. Tool use, language, empathy, laughter, altruism, a sense of fairness, all sorts of capacities that were supposedly uniquely human keep being discovered in other animals, so that it becomes ever more difficult to find a boundary to set humans apart. To me, the ability to think carefully about values and about the consequences of choices seems to separate us somewhat from other animals, and so I’ve come to think of exercising that ability as pretty essential to what it means to be human. Humanism, to me, means celebrating and nurturing what makes us distinctly human (or at least the portion of what makes us human that is good).

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the work on the stages of moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg and by Carol Gilligan are richly relevant to this topic. I dare not say more on that, for fear of not knowing where to stop!

    I think that self-interest, like other priorities, must be balanced and moderated with sometimes conflicting concerns, to protect against extremism and chaos. I’m not prepared to endorse your suggestion that self-interest be *the* primary motivator of life – at least not human life — even considering the nuanced version of self-interest that you offer, but I don’t have a concise counter-proposal.

    And while I see that often one way to leave behind problematic personality traits is to turn toward them, I think this is generally a very subtle process, difficult to pull off. Exploring isn’t the same as indulging.

    There’s a Buddhist story about a teacher who advises one student to behave one way, and another to behave the opposite way. One of the students complained about the apparent inconsistency, and the teacher said, “You were about to stray from the path toward the left; the other student was about to stray from the path toward the right. I must advise you differently, because you are different people with different tendencies.” We don’t all respond to the same methods in the same ways. And it seems to me that indulging self-interest, unless it’s done mindfully (and perhaps with the help of a competent guide), is as likely to strengthen the tendency as to dissolve it.

    Balancing values is a messy business in my experience; it’s hard and confusing work, it’s not immediately gratifying, and clear answers are rare. But for me life works best when I’m willing to tolerate that unfinished feeling.

    Like you, I think that how a person should behave boils down to each person’s idiosyncratic set of values. As with my choices for my own behavior, my reception of others’ behaviors stems from my own set of values, and has little to do with anything outside myself. I agree with you that “we should give up however much we want to for helping those in need” — which, in some sense, is unavoidable anyway – but even if it were a matter of choice it’s no good trying to live according to someone else’s system of values. We have our own choices, and most of us have our opinions about other people’s choices. We don’t get to make other people’s choices, and I don’t think the onus is on anyone to figure out rules of behavior, or even guidelines for growth, for everyone (except, of course, when it comes to choices that are so destructive that they must be outlawed).

    But that doesn’t keep me from having thoughts and feelings about other people’s choices! And, just as obviously, I value this sort of discussion, as we try to sort things out for ourselves.

    I repeat: Excellent post.

    : ^)



    • Sarrah J. Woods
      September 15, 2015

      You have made some wonderful points here, One Hungry Ghost. Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. I’m going to take more time and think about what you said before responding.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      December 8, 2015


      Thank you again for your thoughtful response to my post. I am pleased to tell you that after much thought, I agree with just about everything you said. Most of all, I think you make a wonderful point about the seductive appeal of simplicity in viewpoints, as demonstrated in libertarianism and in my post, which I think was definitely influenced by lust for a simple answer to a complex problem. I am happy to concede your point that it’s better to remain in the uncomfortable but open-minded state of continuously balancing values. Maybe there’s no point in even trying to articulate a “moral philosophy” except for the value of thinking these things through—but that, of course, is extremely important.

      So for the purpose of continuing to think this through, I have to say that, despite my concession above, I still can’t conceive of anything else that could be considered our main life-force motivator but self-interest, with the clarification that our self-interest includes not only our own wellbeing but also that of the people we care about (family, friends, etc.), and that the most morally mature among us develop the compassion to extend that self-interested care to others as well. Really, I think this is a logical necessity—I don’t think there’s anything that sustainably, healthfully drives us that does not ultimately go back to an interest in our own wellbeing. Altruistic motives can only go so far for healthy people with a normal will to live. (Of course, religiously motivated altruism is about self-interest as well: “If I spend my life in service to others, God will reward me/be pleased with me/etc.”)

      But perhaps that question is more about semantics than anything else. The real issue is the moral dilemma of how much an ethically conscientious person should sacrifice to help others. There are suffering people in dire need all over the world and close to home too, so why aren’t we sacrificing our every ounce of time, energy, and resources to help them? Can we justifiably enjoy pleasures, relax, and indulge our higher-level interests while people around us suffer for lack of food?

      It seems to me now that the answer cannot be neither a strong “yes” nor a strong “no”: a strong “yes” would imply total lack of concern of others’ welfare, which is bad (from both a consequentialist and anthropologic perspective—such an attitude is not conducive to our wellbeing, and therefore most healthy [non-psychopathic] people naturally consider it morally abhorrent); a strong “no” would imply a dogmatic self-denial of the kind that usually comes from religious indoctrination or, as you put it, “trauma-induced constructs” and is not conducive to anyone’s wellbeing.

      Like I said at the beginning of my post, the answer must lie somewhere in the middle. And probably the answer is not a simplistic free pass for self-indulgence, which I see is what my previous argument amounted to. I care so much about my own personal and moral growth and maturity that I failed to fully consider what my position would mean for people who do not share this value with me. (I appreciate your point that Moore’s method of narcissism therapy should only be undertaken with such a wise and experienced guide as himself, and that most people do not inhabit such a context, so my generalizing there is irrelevant and potentially harmful). Probably if I’m going to propose a moral philosophy, I should heed Kant’s “categorical imperative” and make my philosophy one that can apply to everyone and still produce the good results I envision.

      So let me go over my latest thought process about this. (Thanks for your patience, by the way!!)

      Even as I feel my own awareness of and compassion for needy and suffering people growing, I cannot imagine any world in which I would want people to chronically sacrifice their own pleasure and wellbeing in order to help the less fortunate. Making small, reasonable sacrifices is good, even great; sacrificing one’s own fundamental happiness is not.

      The problems besetting our world—including the causal chain of hunger, poverty, and overpopulation that I just wrote a post about—are complex, and we need our best, most mature and thriving selves in order to solve them. (It’s the self-care principle again: we help people most effectively when we ourselves are well). And the way I see it, we can’t be our most mature, thriving selves if we are continually choosing to deprive ourselves of what we need and want. That leads to burnout and breakdown. I know this firsthand from my religious days, and it’s also just common sense.

      Pleasure is an important part of anyone’s wellbeing. It doesn’t make sense to handicap ourselves in order to help others in need by taking an attitude that we are wrong to pursue pleasure while others are suffering. We should take care of ourselves and, toward that end, indulge in things that make us happy, so that we will be well, and then we will be best positioned to help others.

      But, says the earlier argument in my post, if we are well-fed and happy, then we may not be motivated to help others who are in need. But you know what? I’m thinking now that while it may be natural for us to settle into our comfy lifestyles and turn away from those in need, it’s not good. It’s a problem.

      Security, I now suggest, doesn’t have to lead to apathy and hard-heartedness. When it does, the root of the problem is probably not the security itself, but the underlying moral makeup of the person—specifically, the lack of compassion for and attention to others’ suffering.

      Compassion and awareness are virtues that we can cultivate in ourselves. Even as we seek to grow our own wellbeing and happiness, we should simultaneously and correspondingly try to grow in compassion. Even as we enjoy leisure and pleasures, we should keep the suffering of others before our eyes and continually ask ourselves what we might be able to do to help.

      For me, I think these seemingly contradictory paths actually coincide and fuel each other: the more I thoroughly, mindfully enjoy pleasures with all my senses and attention and make pleasure a priority in my life (á la the French), the more I feel open to, in tune with, and empathetically connected with the world of people around me. It’s like I’m charging up my sense of feeling and my spirit of love, and that benefits both my own wellbeing and the people I help out of the compassion I feel for them.

      If the best moral position is to strive for a balance of being well ourselves (which necessitates pursuing the things we need and want, to some extent) and being compassionate and generous to those in need—and I think this is a premise you and I both can agree on—that leads to the question, what does that look like?

      Once again, it’s helpful to start with the extremes. At one end is the haphazard, easy approach of just doing our thing, pursuing our desires, and enjoying our pleasures while waiting for someone to come along and ask us for help or occasionally doing something charitable that appeases our conscience. This approach, despite my advocacy of it in the service of my post’s precious theory, is weak in terms of compassion and effectively helping people. At the other end is the neurotic, exhausting approach of questioning every tiny decision we make: “I’d really like to buy a cappuccino, but there are people suffering, so maybe I should go without this little luxury and give the money to charity instead…” If we questioned every single decision like this all the time, we would run ourselves down and thus wouldn’t be taking care of ourselves.

      However, the example of the cappuccino is helpful for finding the middle ground: maybe one day we’re sitting and thinking about the chronically hungry people around the world and in our own country, and then we think about how much money we spend on cappuccinos over time, and we decide that we could give up a certain, rough number of cappuccinos every month and donate that money instead. This is good. But obviously it doesn’t mean we should, for altruistic reasons, forbid ourselves from ever buying a cappuccino, because that dogmatic insistence on self-denial is not health-promoting.

      So I guess the key is an overall mindset of thoughtfulness or mindfulness about what effect our choices have on others and on ourselves (like you said, it’s the ability to do this that distinguishes us from other animals), meanwhile holding the values of compassion, empathy, and generosity along with the values of pleasure, health, and wellbeing. As you also said, we must keep multiple values in balance.

      Of course we will all land in slightly different places. But I think (obeying Kant now) that if we all aimed to hold these values mindfully and thoughtfully, the world would be a much better place.

      A Sam Harris quote I recently came across expresses this beautifully:

      “We cannot perfectly measure or reconcile the competing needs of billions of creatures. We often cannot effectively prioritize our own competing needs. What we can do is try, within practical limits, to follow a path that seems likely to maximize both our own well-being and the well-being of others. This is what it means to live wisely and ethically.”

      – Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape


      • onehungryghost
        December 9, 2015

        Huzzah! You’re really digging deep, and finding gold! It’s difficult to sort such a subtle and complex problem, but/and you’re all over it.

        I have a few response thoughts, partly to clean up where I wasn’t thinking or writing clearly before. I do agree with you that self-interest is, in practice, the primary motivating life force, and it’s helpful to acknowledge that truth, whatever stance one takes in response to it. Acknowledging it, one has a chance at managing it mindfully, as you recommend. I think that its primacy doesn’t make it “good,” or necessarily a value — though, obviously, it can be held as a value, and, for some of us, it’s gotten so squashed that we would do well to foster it.

        I also acknowledge (having taken the opposite viewpoint for a time and found it unsustainable) that pleasure is a need, and that it is quite possible to sacrifice too much pleasure for the sake of good intentions. I see from my own experience how crippling an insufficiency of pleasure can be.

        I think your conclusions are very wise. The Sam Harris quote does express it beautifully! To reference another wise one, I think this dilemma is one of those where Rilke would advise loving the question.

        Speaking personally, while I treasure the chance to explore it with you, I don’t love this question. I find it terribly perplexing, and I don’t have enough perspective to think that it’s all right to be without “the” answer. Maybe someday I’ll either find a solution that satisfies me, or find a way to live more peacefully with the question. For now, I fret over it. Thanks for tackling it.

        It’s an honor doing business with you!



        • Sarrah J. Woods
          December 11, 2015

          Thank you, OHG. I appreciate your follow-up thoughts. It is indeed a terribly perplexing question! I’m sure I will continue to modify my views on it throughout my life—I could hardly do otherwise with such a huge issue. But it has been really helpful for me to think through this right now, and I am very grateful for your intelligent assistance!


  3. Pingback: September Mind Cleanup | A Bringer of New Things

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2015 by in Discoveries from Living and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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