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George Kateb Morality and Self-Sacrifice, Martyrdom and Self-Denial MY CHIEF IN TEREST IS TO EXPLORE THE QUESTION, IS SELF-SACRIFICE A necessary part of morality? Think of a person who gives away millions of dollars to those in need while keeping millions for himself. He does not appear to sacrifice anything, but he acts morally by preventing or alleviating an appreciable amount of suffering. He could prevent even more by giving more millions away, but unlike some others who have discussed this theme, I have no wish to declare him immoral because he does not do so. Yet most people do not have the millionaire’s resources; for them to act morally they will on occasion have to engage in a measure of economic self-sacrifice beyond paying taxes. Then, too, giving away money is not the only kind of morally relevant selfsacrifice : a person may feel called on to risk or lose other good things besides wealth. (Although it is callous to say so, even a miserably poor person will have some moral responsibilities.) So let us say that even though self-sacrifice is not intrinsic to the concept of morality, it is in varying degrees often essential to acting morally. The fact that cannot be mastered is that there are always unaddressed wrongs in society or the world that should receive a moral response that requires some selfsacrifice . Countless are the occasions and situations in which moral persons might feel importuned by the possibility of self-sacrifice. At the center of my concern is the person who wants to be moral and who therefore would not initiate public or personal wrongdoing. But he might believe that his moral responsibility is limited to not taking the lead in wrongdoing and otherwise minding his own busisocial research Voi 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 353 ness. Surely, however, moral responsibility extends to those who do not contrive and initiate actions or policies but take part only as followers. For that reason, I wish to concentrate on two main concerns in explor­ ing what it means to act morally: refusing to go along or cooperate with wrongdoing led by others, and performing some positive act of assis­ tance to those who are oppressed or in need. Morality means saying no or saying yes more often than we think it convenient to do so; some self-sacrifice might be morally required when we would like to think that it is not. However, when one abstains from harming another by selfish or passionate violation or disposses­ sion in personal life, inside or outside the law, one is simply being moral without self-sacrifice, no matter what amount of painful frustra­ tion one feels. I also want to emphasize that abstention from selfish and aggressive wrongdoing in personal life, morally desirable as it is, is only a part of being moral. My secondary interest is in self-denial, which I find especially pertinent in thinking about Christian teachings. Self-denial takes many forms, but in my account none ofthem is squarely in the realm ofmoral conduct; some forms are indirectly moral, while some forms are at or past the limits ofmorality. Martyrdom that is indirectly moral—perhaps that of Socrates or Jesus—may emerge from extreme self-denial. But in less extreme self-denial, magnanimity is perhaps the principal virtue. I will eventually attend to the distinction between self-sacrifice and selfdenial . I concentrate on Socrates and Jesus because they ask the most of people and back up their teachings with their lives. In the long view, they show a deep affinity, for all their cultural differences. Strictly speaking, neither dies in the course of refusing to act immorally. What really matters is that they both move moral thinking in a more moral direction, so to speak. They have an unsurpassed ability to sensitize people to the reality of moral questions, and they promote the suprem­ acy of moral goodness above all other values. Socrates is an exemplary moral hero, and Jesus is the most radical moral teacher. They see in complacency reinforced by gullibility the most durable antagonist to 354 social research moral understanding and action. They are also both martyrs for...


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pp. 353-394
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