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Human sacrifice November 12, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in life.

Aswin challenges you to think, about yourself, your priorities and their place in the world, about how important a personal cause is to you relative to a larger cause and what you would give up to see that accomplished. You may want to visit the post before you continue.

I will play the game unconditionally and later add caveats that will render meaningless everything I write .

On first thoughts, this actually sounds like a reasonable deal.

Forget about our own lives, are we noble enough to give up our possessions for a greater good like curing the world of AIDS? Most of you might blindly say ‘yes’ to that question but you’re not thinking enough – With a sway of my magic wand, you will LOSE your money, your laptop, your home, your car – everything!

Or maybe I am assuming that I am indeed told and so is the world that my sacrifice has lead to the cure, which is actually quite ridiculous. So lets say I dont assume that. Even then, that is not a bad deal at all. Lets assume that only I know this little secret and I am never to disclose this or that I am psychologically mutated to disable that ‘feature’ in me. Even then, can you imagine the morale booster I would have to know that my sacrifice brought this about even if none else knew it ! With that kind of an ‘achievement’ I may end up with a well-being/morale than I currently enjoy !! But maybe I am still making the wrong assumption. But if I weren’t to ever know that there is a causal relationship between the disappearance of my possessions and the cure for AIDS, then lets see what happens. Imagine, I accept the deal and the moment I do it, AIDS has disappeared and so have my possessions and so has my memory of my contribution to it. Would I do it then? Yes, I would because it makes no difference – if I didn’t know about my prior middle class status, I would be just another poor guy who is going to work his way up and if I did know about my prior status, then the above in bold would apply.

So now that I have played the game fairly, let me write my thoughts on the idea behind the game. This game is so open-ended and to be fair to Aswin, he would have had to write a 2000 word post to make the rules of the game unambiguous. So while there are so many reservations I have about the way the game is structured, I get the essence of it, I have played it in the spirit and there is no nitpicking here. [ Except that I would rather go to prison for 5 years than lose my memory !].

So at this point I am diverting from Aswin’s content/packaging while using the spirit of his post as a chance to make a few points.


One of those things that differentiates mankind from the animal kingdom is how extraordinarily
co-operative our species is on how large a scale. The other difference between animals and man is what we are ready to kill for. Animals kill each other for food and/or self-defense. We kill each other, among other things, for the sake of ideology and the determination and enthusiasm to do so is most intense if it were a religious ideology.


I admit that when we compare soldiers who fight for their country and those fighting for their religion, we may at times be on a slippery slope. Before you flame, I am talking about the fundamental philosophical difference and NOT about the means such as the attack on civilians in crowded market places etc. As Sidin asks in this post :

Is there, at a very basic level, any difference between a religious zealot who is prepared to kill and die for his religion and a member of the armed forces? Both have picked up causes they were born into with little choice. (You normally don’t choose your country and also accept the religion you were born into. Both with little question.) Both possibly consider their respective causes essential to their safe existence. (And in several places in this country people of a religion stay together because the law simply cannot protect them.) They follow orders blindly even if they know they are protecting or fighting for a country/religion which may be committing moral/humanitarian evils. (Nazi soldiers for instance. But one must still obey if one is a soldier.) So then why is one portrayed so heroically while the other is a heinous criminal?


Thirdly, in my opinion, sacrifice as a virtue is misunderstood at best or overrated at worst. In several and most cases, people make sacrifices only if there is a potential for future payoff. ( Read on before you quit and leave me a misunderstood man. ) Ofcourse, the worst thing to do is to assume that this payoff is monetary – which in most cases is anything but. When things are not reciprocal, they are perhaps philanthrophic in nature. Even in such a case, nobody indulges in giving things away if they dont see a benefit in it, even if it comes in terms of ‘mere’ satisfaction. Nobody ever does something so that they can feel miserable about it. And this is true even of religion. People are ready to blow themselves up because that is what they believe is a sureshot way to go to heaven or prepare for a better after-life. In very crude terms, its a deal they strike with the God they believe will reward them in future. And few things apart from religion have this power over man. [ And am I glad nothing has such a power over me ! ]. So while we may think they are being idiots, they are doing something that is entirely in tune with basic human tenets – they are not sacrificing their life, infact its an extremely selfish act according to their world-view.

So if everyone is selfish then what is commendable, what is virtuous and what differentiates people. The virtue comes into play when people decide the range of things or actions that indeed give them non-reciprocal benefits. Monetary contributions to a charity is an example. It also comes from aligning some of your goals some of the time with that of others and working to achieve both. Like for example seeing a non-equivalence between working 18 hours a day with no time for family versus seeing time spent with family as an investment in your kids’ future, your spouse’s present/future and duties that come with being a committed family man and your own well-being that is interlinked to that of your family and vice-versa [ known as kin selection in evolution terms].

Baring exceptional cases therefore, selfishness and sacrifice/selflessness should themselves not be prejudiced and must be seen in context. As the quote that goes :

If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?

When my friend Sadiq asked me the other day what I thought was the purpose of life, I said that there is a purpose that we build for ourselves and to me, its to be happy, on average. (In a psychopathic case, my happiness may entirely come from say yours ! ). I know its not interesting, but lets say its definitely not submission to a certain being/being one with a certain entity/going to a certain place where x number of virigins await me.



1. Aswin - November 13, 2006

[ For the sake of the continuing discussion at my blog, I’d like you to copy your reply to this post on my blog too, thanks ]

Firstly – You played the game more or less exactly how I intended it. By equating your loss of belongings to the cure of AIDS all across the world, I expected that *only you* would know that this happened, i.e. you couldn’t become an instant celebrity and get rich quick again! ( now that would just be cheating! 🙂 ) .

I am happy that your satisfaction in knowing you were the reason for this cure, would be good enough for you to give up all your belongings ( job/degree too? or only your stuff? ).

You make an interesting point about Animals vs Human beings, which I was sure this topic would reach eventually. The drive to attain ‘Group goals’ in human beings is much much lesser than say ant colonies and other insects. We are too individualistic and this is easily apparent by each person’s lack of willingness to give up even his material possessions to cure the entire world of AIDs.

I agree that suicide bombers are selfish too – they believe they will have a great after-life! And yes, I am glad too that I wasn’t born and raised in a family that harbored such fanatical beliefs.

At the end of this discussion, there are two major points that should leave a lasting impression:

* One is that even if we had the power to cure the entire world of something humongous, the priority for the small things we own would get the better of us and we wouldn’t do it ! That is just sad. An introspection at our compassion would be a good idea at this point.

* Suicide bombers are a product of circumstances – Religion, helplessness , hatred, and a Hope for a better life. Christianity and Islam are both equally guilty of harboring beliefs in their followers that your current life may not be as important as your After-life.

An interesting thought – If these religions didn’t have the concept of After-life , would we have seen a lot lesser number of bombers ?

2. aquarianalien - November 13, 2006

Great post!!!

3. Sharath Rao - November 13, 2006

Thanks Natasha 🙂

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