Why Do We Honor Self-Sacrifice?

Memorial Day marks one of several days Americans celebrate the many great blessings that we have as a nation.  We traditionally do this by taking trips to the lake, playing baseball, and racing.  At these events, there is also always a moment in which we pause in silence to reflect.  On what are we collectively reflecting?  We recall the purpose of the day: the remembrance and honoring of those who have given their lives in defense of their country.  We view this day of honor as something very important.  It is so important, in fact, that we repeat this process several times a year, on Veterans’ Day and Independence Day for example.  We hold up men and women who have given entirely in defense of something greater than themselves.  What is this greater good for which these soldiers have died?  We call this the common good of the nation, the political good.  What kind of good is the common good?  Is it a good in itself or one that we only seek because it allows us to attain other goods?  Does the political good give us good reasons for the willingness (and in the case of soldiers the duty) to give our lives in its defense?

The gravity of such a sacrifice forces us to take a moment and truly consider whether or not this common good is truly something for which we ought to give our lives.  In the April issue of First Things, Robert George argued that the common good of the political community is merely an instrumental good.  George states that the common good is, “best conceived as a set of conditions for enabling members of a community to attain for themselves reasonable objectives or to realize reasonably for themselves the value(s) for the sake of which they have reason to collaborate with each other in a community” (41). George tells us that he is following in the work of the eminent New Natural Lawyer John Finnis, specifically his significant work in Natural Law and Natural Rights.  George and Finnis follow what has come to be called the “New Natural Law.”  Begun by Germain Grisez, the New Natural Law theory attempts to bring the traditional Thomistic account of natural law into conversation with modern thinkers.  Some (cf. Russell Hittinger and Lawrence Dewan) have criticized these thinkers for granting too much ground to modernity, e.g. accepting the so-called is/ought distinction.

The reason, as George sees, why individuals enter into political community is because the political community serves as an instrumental good, i.e. it is sought for the sake of other goods.  Individuals seek after instrumental goods for the sake of intrinsic goods.  George considers, as an example of an intrinsic good, the community of the family.  “The fundamental point of being of the family,” George states, “is, simply, being a member of the family—enjoying the intrinsic benefit of being part that distinctive network of mutual obligation, care, love, and support” (40).

George tells us that the family offers an intrinsic good, while the political community only serves as an instrumental good.  Thus, the family is something we seek for itself and the good of being in a family.  We do not seek the family in order to gain wealth, fame, or pleasure.  We seek the family simply because we recognize that it is good to be in a family.  The political community, however, does not serve as something good in itself.  The only reason I call the political community “good” is because it is useful and thus “instrumental” in my attainment of goods such as the family.  How does the political community accomplish this task?  It provides protection, offers services such as power and running water, and generally secures a peaceable living among all citizens.  George states, “It is, in this sense, facilitative. It enables people to do things the doing of which advances their all-around or integral flourishing” (41). Thus, the political community, according to George and Finnis, serves as the arena in which my fellow citizens and I are able to pursue our individual goals in the pursuit of a happy and flourishing life.  We can conclude, then, that we honor soldiers and those who have given their lives in defense of the common good because they have provided us with the ability to seek for ourselves lives of excellence, and that this service justifies their self-sacrifice.  Or does it?

The solider serving his country is called upon to risk his life, and in certain cases might find that his duty as a soldier requires that he give his life.  Why should the soldier do so?  Recall, George believes that the individual only seeks the good of society insofar as it allows him to seek his own good.  Thus, according to George, an individual will agree to give his loyalty and obedience to the political ruler in order that he might receive the services that allow him to seek his own individual flourishing.  The political community is only sought because it is somehow useful to achieving individual goods.  What happens, however, when my duty to the political community becomes the precise reason why I will fail to achieve those individual goods that justified my loyalty to the community?  Do the services that the political community provides justify my death?

Thomas Osborne correctly shows us that there is nothing the political community can provide me that make it rational for me to sacrifice my own life.  “The problem,” Osborne argues, “is that [the political community] may justify the payment of taxes, but they cannot justify the sacrifice of one’s own life.  There are no services which could pay for such self-sacrifice” (Analyse & Kritik 30 [2008]: 84).  Why do we pay taxes? The services that the state offers (fire and police protection, trash removal, water and power) all require financial resources.  As a citizen paying taxes, I am giving a certain amount of my income so that governmental bodies are able to provide just those services that are needed for me to be able to pursue my own individual goods.  Thus, by a kind of cost-benefit analysis, I am able to justify paying taxes by appealing to the goods and services that I receive in return.  Can such services, however, justify my death?  What benefit will I receive from such services as trash removal or water and power when I am dead?  Can I benefit from anything temporal when I am no more?

The answer must be a conclusive “no.”  George’s view of the common good as purely instrumental lacks the justification needed to require an individual to sacrifice his life.  In fact, a purely instrumental view of the common good would seem to require that a solider refuse to sacrifice his life.  Normally the common good is the means by which I receive the goods and services needed to achieve my own good.  In the case of self-sacrifice, however, the common good becomes the precise reason why I will fail to achieve my own good.  I give my allegiance to the political community so as to achieve my own good, but in this case my allegiance requires me to perform an act that will frustrate the very reason I entered into the political community in the first place.

The only way to maintain the rationality of self-sacrifice is to view the common good of the political community as a good in itself, one that is in fact superior to the individual good.  Thus, when we honor soldiers (as well as police and firefighters) who are killed in the performance of their duty, we rightly honor and praise their sacrifice.  We honor them because they have sought a greater good at the expense of a lesser good.  They have sacrificed their own lives (a lesser good) for the good of the community (an intrinsic and higher good).  What is this greater common good?  Aristotle notes that men “have a natural desire to leave behind them an image of themselves” (Politics, I.2). The individual man looks to achieve a kind of immortality through the family he leaves behind.  Due to the relative stability and permanence of political communities, this community (rather than the family) offers man a way of achieving a type of eternity.  Thus, Aristotle also states that, “he who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors” (ibid).  The common good of the community is one that is shareable among many, and does not diminish but rather increases the more it is shared.  Thus, all are able to attain a kind of eternity and participation in the achievements and permanence of the political community.  It is sacrifice for this intrinsic good of the community, rather than the individual good, that makes sense of the honors and awards given to those who give themselves in defense of their country.

So, on Memorial Day, Veterans, Independence Day, and any day of honor and remembrance in America, we should reflect on precisely why we honor those who have died.  Not because they have secured our ability to seek our individual good, but because they have given their lives in pursuit of a common, intrinsic, and greater good.

John Macias


John Macias is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    According to French Catholic Political Philosopher, Yves Simon, “The polity, at its best, was designed that men bring forth the perfection of their knowing and artistic capacities within an order that allowed them to pass individual lives benefiting from the temporal and spiritual goods made possible by different persons bringing forth differing accomplishments and perfections, yet making them available to each other…”

    “Beyond the satisfaction of individual needs, the association of men serves a good unique in plenitude and duration, the common good of the human community…

    The highest activity/being in the natural order is free arrangement of men about what is good brought together in an actual polity where it is no longer a mere abstraction. This is, as it were, the inner-worldly purpose of our being on this earth. The polity itself, however, is, or should be, organized in such a fashion that the transcendent finality of each individual person is recognized as operative in him.”

    Aristotle, too, suggests that the family itself finds its fulfilment in the polity – διὸ ἐν οἰκίᾳ πρῶτον ἀρχαὶ καὶ πηγαὶ φιλίας καὶ πολιτείας καὶ δικαίου. [Hence in the household are first found the origins and springs of friendship, of political organization and of justice] Aristotle Eudemian Ethics Book 7

    • Adam__Baum

      Aristotle, too, suggests that the family itself finds its fulfilment in the polity.

      That is an interesting sentiment, but frankly intrinsically subordinates the family to the political order. I doubt that Aristotle ever imagined those states where the purposes of the family, like everything else was regarded as something to be manipulated by the state for its own ends. The state should serve the family, not the other way around.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        For Aristotle, as for all the Ancients, citizenship was a matter of descent and birth, neither revocable nor attainable at will; the Polis was a unit of common descent and blood and not of voluntary adherence and association. Naturalisation, always exceptional, often took the form of adoption. It was natural, therefore, to see it as a development of the family.

        Aristotle would have endorsed Mazzini’s notion of civic unity, “They speak the same language, they bear about them the impress of consanguinity, they kneel beside the same tombs, they glory in the same traditions…”

  • MK

    The “common good” is not merely the “political good”. Nor is “societal good” merely “political good”. The military (instrumental good) exists to protect the nation and is also not equal to the “political good”. Some of these misrepresentations of George’s position have already been corrected here:



    “A serious error I must point to in Hannon’s critique of my view is his suggestion that it reflects, or presupposes, or somehow entails “egoism” and “atomistic individualism.” There is simply no basis for this suggestion. This error is related to another: namely the identification of my view with “Lockeanism.” It is tempting but often misleading to slot ideas and arguments into pre-existing categories or schools of thought, such as “Lockeanism” or, for that matter, “Aristotelianism.” Because someone rejects an important feature of, say, Aristotle’s thought about politics (for example, the idea that the political common good is fundamentally or primarily an intrinsic good, like the common good of the family), it doesn’t follow that he or she necessarily accepts Lockean individualism (much less a view that could justly be labeled “egoism”). It is a mistake to imagine that these are the only options. In the case at hand, they are false alternatives.

    Nor is it sound to suggest that in my own thought “the common good of the political community is merely the proper setting of the stage for its constituent members to attain individual goods.” The role of the political community, as I view it, is to enable individuals and communities of various sorts(the common good of some of which is an intrinsic and not merely an instrumental good) to achieve or more fully realize their goods—many of which are inherently social (i.e., not reducible to individual benefits).

    Collectivism and strict libertarianism, though opposing views, are alike in their tendency to see only the individual and the state in thinking about the terms and conditions of social and political life. They tend to leave out of the picture the many—and profoundly important—institutions of civil society whose cultivation and flourishing is crucial to the preservation of both liberty and social solidarity—the “intermediate” institutions that are, in a sense, a buffer between the central power of the state and the life of the person, and that play the primary role in transmitting to persons in their formative years the virtues that are essential to meaningful lives and successful polities.

    So, although I do indeed, understand the common good of political society primarily in terms of conditions for the realization of a range of other goods, Hannon inadvertently misrepresents my view when he describes it as a set of conditions “for the undisturbed attainment of individual goods.”-RPG

  • John Macias


    Thank you very much for your comments and pointing out George’s response. Prof. George certainly provides a service in removing certain misinterpretations of his position. His view certainly need not, as he rightly states, entail that he views man as essential an individual who seeks his own good in life. He rightly notes the good of the family and other religious institutions that provide common goods that are intrinsically and not merely instrumentally good. George uses the example of a commercial business to illustrate an instrumental good. An individual enters this form of association, not for the sake of the commercial association, but ultimately because of what he is able to achieve by means of that association. A family, however, is not an association that individuals enter for some good achieved by means of the family, but simply to be in a family. At this point, I am fully in agreement with George.

    The point of disagreement comes when, as George states, we ask for the reasons why an individual would seek the political community. For the commercial enterprise, the reasons for any particular association are the goods that are achieved by means of the association. For associations that form an intrinsic good, the reasons for the association are the associations themselves. As George states in the piece on Public Discourse, “Those ends are the reasons the parties have for cooperating to establish and maintain this particular form of association.” My objection is that, if the reasons for serving state and national communities are only instrumental reasons, then there is no point at which the sacrifice of my life for the good of the greater political community can be justified. I might be justified in giving my life for the sake of my family or religious institution (because these serve as intrinsic goods that are greater than myself), but no instrumental good can justify my self-sacrifice. If the reason I enter into a particular association is to achieve goods other than the association, then those goods cannot justify my death. The goods I achieve by means of a trade union might justify me in paying dues and giving my time to union events, but it does not demand my death. George seems to believe that the political good is the same as a commercial enterprise. If that is the case, then my sacrifice to the political community will be the very reason I fail to achieve the good for which I entered the association in the first place.

    Further note, it is necessary that some members of the community are willing to sacrifice their lives for the community. If no police, fire fighter, or soldier was willing at some time to give his life for the greater community, the community itself will cease to be a community and serve its instrumental purpose.

    • MK

      ” it is necessary that some members of the community are willing to sacrifice their lives for the community.”

      Exactly. We may sacrifice our lives for the common good, which comprises far more than the political good. The instrumental associations we form such as police, fire and military are the *means* we use to provide the security and order in which the intrinsic goods of family and church may flourish.

      I think the problem here is seeing the military as protecting the “political good” alone, rather than the common good of all the citizenry, including even those who cannot vote or in anyway participate in politics, such as children.

      ” If that is the case, then my sacrifice to the political community will be the very reason I fail to achieve the good for which I entered the association in the first place.”

      Are you saying here that sacrificing your life to defend the political community would deprive you of participating in the end (say, family) for which it exits to preserve? You would actually be sacrificing your life not for the political good, but for the common good.

      “If the reason I enter into a particular association is to achieve goods other than the association, then those goods cannot justify my death.”

      I don’t see how that follows. You want to protect your family, another country is threatening your country, you join the military because it will provide you the best means of protecting your family and others. Even though you may die and lose the ability to participate in the intrinsic good of your family, you accept that risk to promote their good and the common good of society.

      I think the only way your thought process works is if you equate “political good” with “common good”, which I do not think you can do because the “common good” comprises more than the “political good”. It is confusing, though, as George points out, because the political good is practically necessary to achieve the common good, but it does seem (to me, anyway) to be an instrumental good, as George explains it.

      I don’t have an education in any of this, but I find it compelling. I am a huge fan of RPG, I only recently realized that his view of natural law was not traditional. He may be incorrect, but I have yet to read a criticism that I find persuasive. It is very possible that I am missing something in your argument and if so, I am sorry.

      • John Macias


        I also have a great deal of respect for Prof. George. He is a very intelligent and insightful thinker, and we all have much to learn from him (as we do a man like John Finnis to whom George pays tribute). You are also correct that the view that George and Finnis take on this particular issue is not the traditional view. Although I do have great respect for Dr. George and agree with him in many areas, I believe at this point I must disagree with him.

        It seems that we need to get a clearer understanding of what is meant by “political community” and “common good.” I realize that I did not define the terms very clearly, and I was operating on a somewhat loose and implicit definition. Jacques Maritain (another famous Thomist) goes to great lengths in the beginning of great work “Man and the State” to try and define the separate notions. He states, “Political Society, required by nature and achieved by reason, is the most perfect of temporal societies. It is a concretely and wholly human reality, tending to a conerelty and wholly human good–the common good” (Man and the State, p.10). Thus, what I have been calling the “common good” is interchangeable with what I have been calling “political good” or “political society.” What we do NOT mean by “Political society” is the specific individuals given the task of governing. Thus, when we honor a soldier for giving his life, and say that he or she gave his or her life for the sake of the political community, we certainly do not mean that he or she gave his or her life for the US Senate and Congressman.

        George is arguing that the common good is merely instrumental, meaning that it is not something that is a good in itself, but merely an instrument for other goods. However, if that is the case, then the sacrifice of my life for the common good does in fact become the precise reason I will fail to achieve those goods. I cannot benefit from any external goods if I am dead, and thus I am clearly not justified in giving my life for the common good, if the common good is only an instrumental good. If my goal is to protect my family, that might justify me sacrificing certain things, or perhaps defending my family from a direct attack. It does not, however, justify my death for the common good if my only reason for seeking the common good is so that I may achieve the goods of the family. In that case, I would be rationally justified in abandoning the common good and seeking after other ways to protect my family.

        • MK

          Ok, I’ve been doing a bit more reading about this to try to get a handle on what the heck we are even attempting to discuss. Now, bear with me, if you care to, while I lay out what I am taking away from this.

          Each community or society has its own “common good” but the term “the common good” comprises the good of all humanity.

          The common good of humanity consists of the good of the individual and the various goods of the associations that individuals form.

          The common good of political society is just government. By establishing just political order the good of the family, the good of individuals, the good of businesses, the good of the Church etc. ( aka “the common good”) is thereby promoted because these associations and individuals may better flourish in the context of that order.

          The common good of humanity could be defined as those conditions which best support human flourishing, whether they be political, cultural, religious etc. in nature.

          Ok, If I have understood that stuff correctly, then I think I can make the following observations, but if I am incorrect on the above, then don’t even bother to read what follows. =)

          “Political Society, required by nature and achieved by reason, is the most perfect of temporal societies. It is a concretely and wholly human reality, tending to a conerelty and wholly human good–the common good” (Man and the State, p.10). Thus, what I have been calling the “common good” is interchangeable with what I have been calling “political good” or “political society.”

          If political society is a concrete reality *tending to* the common good, then it cannot *be* the common good.

          “As concerns furthermore the very notion of the people, I would say that the modern concept of the people has a long history and stems from a singular diversity of meanings which have fused together. But considering only the political significance of the word , suffice it to say that the people are the multitude of human persons who, united under just laws, by mutual friendship, and for the common good of their human existence, constitute a political society or a body politic.”
          -Man & the State (page 26), Jacques Martin

          In summary, the people constitute a political society *for* the “common good”. Therefore, as I see it, political society is instrumental or a means to promote “the common good”, it is not “the common good” itself.

          As far as risking your life for the common good of humanity, that good includes the good of family, including the particular family that is yours. If you die defending the just political order (the common good of political society) that promotes your family’s flourishing, your sacrifice is admirable and, while you may no longer participate in the good of your family in a physical sense, your sacrifice has been made for their good and may have promoted their good materially and certainly ought to have greatly promoted their spiritual good by your example of complete gift of self for the good of others.

          You can make a similar comparison with the man who chooses to work in a dangerous environment because that is the only or best means he can find to support his family. Or, in earlier times, the man who chooses to hunt dangerous game because that is the only or best means available to him to provide food for his family. The work and the hunting are the means to the end of providing for his family. Just as constituting a political society is the best or only means of creating a just form of government which provides and maintains the legal framework which best promotes human flourishing, “the common good”.

          If a man dies attempting to secure food for his family, would it be correct to say that he died for the sake of the food? Or did he give his life in service of his family? Is his sacrifice less noble or worthwhile because he can no longer physically participate in the good of his family? Here, your answer depends on what you believe the purpose of man to be. For the Catholic, you would say that to give one’s life in loving service of others is to follow the example of Christ.

          Finally, here is another excerpt (which seems to clarify the point of intrinsic vs instrumental) from the RPG article I linked to and excerpted from in a previous comment, just in case you only read the previous excerpt as opposed to the entire article:

          “Hannon says that “an essential perfection of the social nature of man is political virtue.” Now, I do not doubt that virtues of various types are required for the proper fulfillment of persons’ civic duties, just as various virtues are required for properly carrying out one’s tasks as a worker in a commercial enterprise. Nor, as I have already suggested, do I deny that there are frequently opportunities for the realization of more-than-merely-instrumental goods in connection with one’s activities as a citizen or worker. I certainly agree that among the human goods whose intelligibility we grasp as providing more than merely instrumental reasons for action are intrinsic goods (such as the basic human goods of friendship and marriage) that are realized precisely by participating in relationships of certain types. This is the evidence that man’s nature is indeed, as Hannon says, “social.” The fundamental and essential point of entering into a friendship is the friendship—not ends extrinsic to the bond of friendship itself to which the relationship is a means. The fundamental and essential point of entering into a marriage is conjugal union itself, and not extrinsic ends to which the marital bond is a means. (That is why it is incorrect to view marriage as merely instrumental to the admittedly profound good of procreation and the nurturing and educating of children.)

          The rub, however, comes when we ask if the same can be said for a decision to enter (or establish or maintain) the political community. Is the fundamental and essential point of forming the polity the polity itself, or is the polity primarily a means of protecting and achieving many other valuable ends (some of which, to be sure, will themselves be inherently social and not “individualistic”)? Here, to me, is where the political community much more closely resembles the commercial business firm in a way that distinguishes them both from the family and the church.

          What determines the intrinsic or instrumental nature of the common good of any community is the set of reasons people have for forming and maintaining the community. The reason we need political communities is not that the political community is valuable quite apart from the many profoundly important ends to which it is a valuable and often even indispensable means; it is, rather, because families and other institutions of civil society are not self-sufficient. They cannot by themselves accomplish all that needs to be accomplished for their own flourishing and the flourishing of their members. At a certain level, they require assistance. What they cannot do, yet needs doing, must in some cases be done by political authority—and that is why political authority exists and is justified.

          It is here, of course, that the doctrine of subsidiarity (on which I placed great emphasis in my First Things article) enters the picture: When government seeks to do for individuals, families, churches, and other institutions of civil society what they could do for themselves, it unjustly trespasses on their authority.

          If I have understood Hannon correctly, his view eliminates that possibility of a distinction between (a) a form of association’s being necessary for realizing our all-round flourishing as human persons, and (b) a form of association’s being a constitutive aspect of such flourishing (i.e. an intrinsic good). But the distinction is real and important. It is a mistake to assume that (b) is entailed by (a). This can easily be shown by considering the legal-economic category of contracts for trade. Contractual relationships (or something very much like them) are indispensable to the all-round flourishing of political communities. They are practically necessary even in primitive tribal societies. Abolishing the category of contract would deeply damage the common good of just about any community. Yet, obviously contracts are of instrumental, not intrinsic, value, and the common good of contractual partners is primarily instrumental rather than intrinsic.”

          • John Macias

            Thank you very much for your interest in this question. I believe that one of the real points of disagreement is over what precisely the common good is. If in fact it is only an instrumental good (whether served by political society or something else), and if it is merely the conditions for pursuing goods of the family, then I am not bound to sacrifice my life for the community. If I am a soldier at my post defending the city walls, we might imagine that at some point I see a large enemy force coming towards the city. If I quickly determine that I will die if I attempt to stay and fight, I am faced with the choice of remaining there or leaving. I might consider that, by giving my life, I am ensuring that my family is able to benefit from the conditions of the common good. I might also consider, however, that I could just also abandon my post, find my family, and flee the city. If the common good is merely instrumental, and only is the conditions for securing the goods of individual families, what is it that I am justified in doing? I am no longer obligated to give my life for the community, because the common good has become the precise reason why I will fail to achieve that which the common good is meant to preserve. So again, the only way to preserve the truly honorable and valiant sacrifice of a solider, policeman, or fireman is if we view the common good as something intrinsic and superior to the good of the individual. This view requires that the common good be more than a set of conditions, but actually something in itself.

            • MK

              Thank you for your patience and willingness to discuss this with me. God bless!


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  • WRBaker

    So much depends on how one was raised (the “real” family values). During Vietnam, not everyone was a hippie or protested – most still were inculcated with the values of their parents, all of whom were alive during WWII. Of course, the draft was still in effect, but everyone took that as a matter of course, it was expected one would go if called. Your obligation to the country came first.

    I went and many of the people I knew went into one of the armed services – a smaller number of us even went on to Vietnam.