The Paradox of Self-Sacrifice and Individual Freedom

By Steve K.

In society today the traditional values of duty and self-sacrifice are in danger of being lost to the post-modern humanistic value of being true to oneself and own wellbeing, in an increasingly individualistic and materialistic culture. There is an interesting debate to be had between these opposing traditional and modern values within current society. Thinking of others, a social conscience, and in the right circumstances, self-sacrifice are good moral principles that serve society well. However, the humanistic principles of being authentic, true to oneself and self-actualisation are healthy and good too.

For me, there needs to be balance between these two truths and wisdom lies in knowing which actions to take at the right time. The ancient tradition would suggest that serving the greater good and sacrificing self is ultimately self-fulfilling and develops character growth. Modern humanistic theory suggests that not being true to oneself creates illness and unhappiness and stifles the self. Experience suggests both are true paradoxically. Life isn’t black or white and often a middle road is the best path to follow.

When asked to sacrifice self, is it really in the interest of a greater good or just to serve others’ selfish or biased interests? An important question we must decide for ourselves I feel.

In relation to recovery from addiction, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) places a great importance upon unity and self-sacrifice within Tradition One, for the good of the group and the fellowship as a whole. However, the tradition also stresses the individual freedom of its members “to think, talk, and act as he [she] wishes.” (1)

The tradition explains that for the individual to survive and flourish so must the group – that without the support of the group there is no individual recovery. I think that for many, if not all, this suggestion is without doubt true. The motivation to conform to group principles to get and stay sober is powerful – the willingness to suppress individuality and fit in a natural facet of our social instinct.

Part of the ancient wisdom of self-sacrifice and service to others is that it often becomes self-fulfilling (despite the hardships involved) – a way of life in which we find a meaning and purpose and become willing to choose for ourselves. While the AA tradition places emphasis upon self-sacrifice and humility; a balance must be found between the overall needs and wellbeing of the group, and a respect for the rights and aspirations of the individual.

A healthy group must manage the tension between these seemingly opposing principles. This is where traditional values and liberal democracy must meet and make what is often an imperfect compromise. Knowing when and where to give and take lies in the intuition and wise judgement of conscience – of the group and the individuals within it. We all have a voice with which we can choose to express our individual choice – a moral reflection and judgement that is ours alone to make.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle, suggested in his virtue theory, that if we practice wholesome principles we’ll develop a good character, and we’ll intuitively choose the right moral actions to take. If we practice humility and self-sacrifice, we’ll become humble and unselfish and then make decisions based upon these good character traits. This is the road to personal character that traditional wisdom indicates and requires a great commitment to self-discipline.

In AA, we say… ‘practice the opposite of your character defects.’ Through the denial of our ego, we are transformed into something new. Paradoxically, a fulfilled human being by surrendering ourselves to you, the other, the greatest good for all. Our genuine happiness is found in love, community and goodness towards others. By letting go of self we find new meaning and authentic connection. A life worthy of living, joy, fulfilment, becoming our true self at last.

The tension between self-sacrifice for the greater good and individual freedoms is currently being played out across the globe due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A time for personal reflection, self-discipline, and being socially conscious has come to us all on earth at once. As I reflect upon my own difficulties with self-sacrifice, I would struggle less by listening to the traditional wisdom of our collective past. The ancient message that suggests.. true salvation can be found in giving to others my utmost best.


Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.133.

Related Reading:

The Road to Character, 2015, by David Brooks.

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