A Critique of Self-Sacrifice: Embracing Choice, Agency, and Engagement Instead
For centuries in the Western world self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-love, has been viewed as an ethical virtue. In serving and loving others, the traditional argument goes, one acts selflessly against the interests of oneself. Feminist scholars of religion and ethics have questioned this self-sacrifice/selfishness dichotomy, however. They argue that loving and caring for others can go hand in hand with understanding and loving oneself.
I’ve been learning about this in my women’s studies in religion class. It’s fascinating because it takes this traditional Christian virtue and turns it on its head. Sara Hoagland, author of Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Values, especially questions the virtue of self-sacrifice, since she argues that it’s generally the less powerful individual, group, or party that is encouraged to self-sacrifice for the good of the stronger party. Thus, she sees women traditionally being the ones to sacrifice their own interests, dreams and projects for the men (and children) of their lives. The result of this, she finds, is that women don’t have a distinct sense of themselves and try to live their lives through others. Also, they have to employ unsavory methods to carve out spaces of power. They use manipulation, control, etc. to try to encourage the men and children of their lives to act in ways they want them to. Thus they impede the agency of others.
Self-sacrificers also, Hoagland argues, are impeded in becoming full agents themselves. This was an interesting quote from her about the way that self-sacrifice is actually in some sense selfish. She states, “For if I disregard my own interests, I can live through someone else’s choices, enjoying the fruits of their power if they are successful, for example, while if they fail, not being responsible for failure but only for bad choice. So I’m selfish in not taking my own risks.” Hoagland argues that cowardliness can lie behind a life of self-sacrifice, as a person lives through others rather than living for herself, and ultimately, foists the task of caring for herself onto someone else, becoming a burden, and once again, selfish. A person who lives a life without taking personal risks, Hoagland argues, is not maturing into a full agent and achieving full personhood. [Personally, I’m sympathetic to this argument about taking risks, but I am uncomfortable with saying that a woman who has decided to split up duties along a traditional gender lines is necessarily selfish or a burden to her family (if that’s what Hoagland was implying). I think that can be a legit choice that can foster personal agency and creation in its own way.]
She also cautions against self-sacrifice because she sees it too often leading to burn-out, where individuals give themselves so fully to a project or person that they are devastated when things don’t work out in the way they envisioned.
Rather than self-sacrifice, Hoagland proposes that we embrace a new ethic – that of self-understanding. Self- understanding will help people understand how to engage and love and help others, without sacrificing a person’s core goals and dreams. Self-understanding will lead a person to know that by pursuing her own dreams and goals, she inspires those around her to do the same. Self-understanding helps a person maintain healthy boundaries between self and other, while at the same time understanding the interconnectedness of society and the importance of engagement with others. Self-understanding leads a person to understand that her actions are deliberate choices to engage which benefits both self and other. She says that when a person chooses to devote some time to helping a friend, she is not-self-sacrificing. Rather, “Such choices are matters of focus, not sacrifice. That I attend certain things and not others, that I focus here and not there, is part of how I create value. Far from sacrificing myself, or part of myself, I am creating.”
I find Hoagland’s discussion of the dangers of self-sacrifice compelling, and I think her argument is pretty balanced. (Other than my discomfort with the implication that not working is necessarily selfish.) On the one hand, her points about living one’s life through others, refusing to take personal risks, and possibly controlling others because of an inadequate sense of boundaries sound like reasonable risks of extreme types of self-sacrifice. On the other hand, her points about the importance of engaging and helping others, not as sacrifice, but as acts of choice, engagement, and creation as a way to create value is a persuasive reframing of the issue for me.
What are your thoughts on self-sacrifice? Do you embrace the concept completely as a Christian? Or just to the extent that others around you are also self-sacrificing? What are the pros and cons of self-sacrifice that you have personally experienced? How do you like Hoagland’s reframing of the idea of helping others as creation?