Friday, November 12, 2010
What’s the biggest sacrifice you’ve ever made for another person? Was it worth it?

I actually spent a bit of time thinking about this today, but I realized that (a) I can’t remember a huge sacrifice I made, and (b) I prefer to make lots of little sacrifices for my friends.  So instead, I figured I would talk about the difference between sacrifice and reward-seeking behavior.  I think I would define sacrifice as taking a meaningful, irreversible, painful cost upon oneself, either because it’s the right thing to do (based on one’s own principles), or because it greatly helps another person AND there is no expectation of reward.

Is it a sacrifice to take a big financial hit to help out a friend, if there’s an expectation of a favor in the future?  I would argue no – for it to be a real sacrifice, you need to be giving away without expectation of mitigation of loss.  This leads me to wonder about the utilitarian framework where everything everyone does is to increase utility in some way – that is, would sacrifice (as I have defined it) have meaning in that model?  I think we can define it to do so, by looking at the idea that a person can become happier solely through the happiness of their friends and neighbors.  In such a case, the “reward” is seeing the other person happier, which does not in any way decrease their happiness (well, except in rare cases with crazy people).

So, in such a case, where I am sacrificing in the hopes that my friend is happier off (and that will make me happier), I think I would further stipulate that I have to sacrifice without shoving it in their faces.  By pointing out how great I am for giving away so much for their happiness, I am bound to generate feelings of guilt, and in some sense be a utility vampire.  Not cool.

As an aside, in talking about how my friend’s utility increases my own, it’s interesting to think about other ways in which an economy of utility is very non-zero-sum.