Misnomer Du Jour: Sacrifice

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.

More of that which is Seen and that which is Unseen
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Building Arguments

The Austrian school of economics is unique in the field largely due to its reliance on deductive reasoning over empiricism. This doesn’t mean that empirical evidence has no value, only that it is used to confirm rather than develop hypotheses. The use of deductive reasoning led the early leaders of the Austrian school to develop theories in marginal utility, time preference, and the business cycle.

The advantage to such an approach is consistent, logic based argumentation; it is difficult to counter a contention when it is built on soundly applied logic. With sound reasoning, policy decisions can be prescribed with confidence not in their predictive nature but in the certainty that they are pointed in the correct direction.

Since Ludwig von Mises, Austrian economic theory has been grounded in what he termed “praxeology,” the science of human action. With the individual as the starting point, the tendencies of individual action lead the Austrian economist to develop broader economic theory. The fact that an item possessed today is of greater value than the same item possessed tomorrow, for example, enabled Austrian economists to develop theories of interest as it relates to time. These theories could then further be extrapolated, logically, to show how interference with interest rates creates false signals regarding individual time preferences and ultimately leads to mistakes in investment. These mistakes cause the business cycle. The most complex theories put forth by economists of the Austrian school can all be traced back, logically, to the actions of individuals.

On Sacrifice

I was recently challenged on my assertion that it is impossible for a person to sacrifice for someone else. The root of my position rests in Praxeology, a term coined by Ludwig von Mises to describe the science of human action.

Briefly stated, all human action is purposeful. Based on the information available, a person decides on their preferred path. This may or may not occur with accurate information, but this is beside the point. The action chosen is preferred over alternate actions as well as inaction. This is why sacrifice cannot be claimed: the actor has chosen what they consider to be the best course available.

An outside observer may subjectively assert that the action of another person came at a cost far in excess of one they would have willingly exchanged for the end. For example, a person working two jobs to support his family might be described as sacrificing his leisure for his family by those unwilling to commit to such effort. However, the person working two jobs has determined that such a cost falls below the value of his family’s livelihood.

This doesn’t mean that sacrifice can’t exist. However, sacrifice can only exist in an involuntary environment. While voluntary action always involves the most desirable outcome, involuntary action may or may not involve the most desirable outcome. When it doesn’t, the person can be said to have been sacrificed.