Home » Culture » Spitting Image 2:2 — When sacrifice is for the birds

Spitting Image 2:2 — When sacrifice is for the birds

evergladesWould you sacrifice one of your children to save the other?

That was the unthinkable dilemma revealed at the climax of the Meryl Streep classic Sophie’s Choice, which left the heroine emotionally scarred for the rest of her life.  

The poignancy of that final scene tears at the insides of anyone who’s ever seen it.  Some things are too hideous even to contemplate, and we simultaneously rage against the evil of the Nazi tormentor and ache for the mother who had to choose and could never forgive herself for choosing.

But reality can be just as disturbing as fiction.  A recent study by University of Florida scientists describes how herons, egrets, and storks living in the Everglades willingly sacrifice some of their young to alligators living below their nests so that the alligators will protect the remaining chicks from raccoon and possums.

The deal makes perfect sense for the alligators:  they get a steady diet of baby birds falling from the sky almost straight into their mouths.  And it makes perfect sense for the mothers as well:  since birds typically have more young than they can care for, so giving up a few who wouldn’t survive anyway to protect the rest is practical, logical and, arguably, moral.

Except that it isn’t.  What separates human beings from animals is conscience.  When our moral compass is functioning as it should, simple pragmatism isn’t enough to govern our decision-making.  And if the cost of cold, hard logic, no matter how sound, requires us to sacrifice our humanity, then it is our willingness to embrace the full measure of devotion to a higher moral standard that serves the greater good, even when no one else is watching and no one else will ever know.

Sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of others is the most noble quality of humankind.  Sacrificing others for our own benefit shows us to be lower than the lowest animal.  Because, unlike animals, we know better.  

Or, at least, we should.


7 Comments

  1. E.G. says:

    Conscience is what separates us indeed. As humans we are able to think much further than our present decisions we face. We also have cognitive memory, a spectrum of emotions, and many more layers that complicate our being in the world.

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    • “Complicate” is an excellent choice of words. Conscience is often far from simple, requiring us to understand our own motivations, biases, and blindspots, as well as the short- and long-term consequences of our actions. No one should think virtue is easy.

      Thanks for your comment, E.G.

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  2. And yet we (as a society) constantly practice a third alternative, that is when someone sacrifices another for the benefit of someone else. Where does that fall in the spectrum? Personally, I would suggest that “lower than the lowest animal” would be the correct category. But the society proclaims it to be a virtue! We are told (and forced!) to do that everyday. That is the essence of socialism – to forcefully take from the one that has built it and give it to the one that did not (and in the process keep a good chuck for oneself). By all logic, this is, as you say, ” lower than the lowest animal,” but the world refuses to see logic.

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    • Indeed, sacrificing oneself for the collective describes the nobility of man at its highest, but the self-righteousness of our society has come to dictate that sacrifice can be imposed upon others. For a civilization to function, there has to be the acceptance of some institutionalized contribution, i.e., taxes to support public services. But when contribution beyond a reasonable minimum becomes punitive or coercive, then you end up with the kind of class warfare that we see getting worse every day.

      There is another side, however, in that the more privileged members of a healthy society must accept a responsibility to willingly contribute more to help the underprivileged have greater opportunity to raise their station. This cannot be imposed by the government, but it is essential for a cohesive society to prosper.

      By demanding our rights to take from others we divide ourselves and erode the foundations of society. When we acknowledge our responsibilities to others, we bind ourselves together and flourish.

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      • Are we assuming, or have been taught to assume, that sacrificing oneself for the collective is indeed noble? What is the basis of this assertion? Of course, I acknowledge that when this happens, the surviving members of the society attest a hero’s status to the deceased, but is that act in fact noble, smart and in the best interests of the society and the individual involved? I certainly do not see this as obvious – sacrificing the best in order to save the worst? This could (and should) be an interesting discussion.

        You mention “more privileged members” – if they are “privileged,” I would argue that the society is not healthy. For privileges are acquired through graft, coercion, government created monopolies (monopolies can only be created through government) and similar methods. When one’s better station is earned, based on better decisions, harder work, smarter choices, etc., then that person owes nothing more to anyone else – he has earned what he has, not stolen it. Of course, if one chooses to give his earnings to others, voluntarily, it is his earnings to do with as he pleases. I would suggest that instead of giving away money to those that have not earned it (charity), it is much smarter to give someone who is working an opportunity to earn – if you give a million dollars to charity, you will feed a thousand people perhaps for a few months and then they will either starve again or look for a new handout. Or you can buy a million dollar yacht and provide jobs for several hundred people who will spend their earnings to provide jobs for another several hundred people… The point being that there is a difference between “feel good” and “being good.”

        On the last part of your reply, I also think that a discussion would be beneficial – do we have responsibilities to others? Are we our brothers’ keepers? If you argue that we are, who determines that responsibility? Who determines the finer points? We, through our morality? And what happens when we don’t acknowledge it? Does the third party – the government – takes over directing our morality? You can see the dangerous ground and the slippery slope that statement gets us on?

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  3. Secular philosophy has been trying for generations to define morality without resorting to that dreaded word — God — entirely without success. The famous 12-step rehab program begins with an acknowledgement of something greater than oneself, which (like intelligent design) attempts to hint at the Almighty without actually invoking His name. The “who gets to say” argument is no argument at all: either you believe in an absolute authority that is the source of all moral definitions or you don’t, in which case everyone and no one “gets to say.”

    Aside from that, you are correct that some acts of kindness are more about “feeling good” than “doing good.” If I give away all my money and make myself poor, I become part of the problem. If I give away fish rather than teaching how to fish, I perpetuate dependency. If I enable dependency, I breed resentment and discourage productivity. If I give up my life to save another, I may cost the lives I am no longer able to protect. Sacrifice cannot be reflexive. It has to be well-reasoned.

    A few more thoughts on giving here: http://hubpages.com/politics/The-True-Rewards-of-Giving

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