We are often told of the sacrifices made by those who the state presents as heroes. These include the military, first responders, emergency medical professionals, and anyone who tends for the infirm, be they old or young. The actions of these people, we are told, amount to sacrifice. However, the only way for the term to accurately be applied is by a third party judging the benefit gained by those engaged in “sacrifice.” No voluntary act can be termed a sacrifice.
As Ludwig von Mises made clear in Human Action, all voluntary actions of individuals are purposeful. This is because the lack of any perceived benefit precludes action; if a person has all that they desire, they have no incentive to act. Humans act to address their desires, achieve their goals, or alleviate their discomfort. Their choice of actions is based on their understanding of how the means available will attain the desired outcome. While subjective perception is not infallible, the choice of actions may not ultimately achieve the intended goal. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the action was perceived as the best means available at the time it was chosen by the individual choosing to act.
In the case of those in the military, for example, the choice to volunteer is made with some end in mind. This end might be the defense of freedom, fulfillment of a perceived obligation, opportunity for adventure, escape from poverty, or any other potential goal deemed worthy of entering into a profession where death or serious injury might ensue. Those who volunteer might be mistaken regarding their chosen path. For example, I would argue that the U.S. military does not defend freedom either here in the U.S. or abroad. However, my personal preferences and beliefs are not universally shared; many today do join the U.S. military because they believe it to be the best way to defend freedom.
When the unthinkable happens and a soldier is killed, those on the sidelines refer to this death as a sacrifice. However, that soldier chose the course she deemed best for reaching her ends. Her death, to others, might seem too great for the benefits they perceive, but her choice to enlist came with the understanding that this might be the result and, therefore, that the risk of death was not a sufficient reason to choose another action. She could not claim to have sacrificed regardless how others might describe her actions.
This is not to say that actions cannot seem selfless, only that they cannot be selfless. Our actions are always driven by our personal perceptions and goals. There can be nothing sacrificial in that.