Should You Have a Vision Greater Than Self?
by Don Beezley
It’s common to try and motivate folks by urging them to “have a vision greater than self” i.e., to place something else above the value of the individual. It sounds appealing—we all want our lives to have meaning, be a part of great causes, make a difference and leave the world a better place. All of that is possible and desirable. However, there is a catch in this “something greater than self” thinking.
As soon as you believe that the individual is not the primary value, you accept the possibility that something else can be more important than the individual, and the individual can, therefore, reasonably be sacrificed to that cause or vision. This idea lies at the core of “altruism,” the belief that others are and should always be the primary value, while you never should be. Once accepted, a close corollary, the idea that “the ends justify the means” inevitably comes into play. If my vision is of greater value than your life as an individual, then, to paraphrase Josef Stalin, it’s okay to “crack a few eggs to make an omelet.“ Those “eggs” were tens of millions of human lives, but when the vision is more important than the self, this becomes one possible, logical alternative, and morality becomes impossible. You also see this principle at work in the acts of religious extremists who seek to kill others, or deny them equal rights, for believing differently than they do, and in democratic countries where people or groups seek to use the perceived validation of a vote to force their vision on to others.
One might then reasonably ask, if the self is the most important thing, can’t I then apply the same principle that the ends justify the means, and trample over others to benefit myself? The problem with this is that in trampling over those others, you are denying the principle that the individual is a sovereign value. In fact, you have defaulted to the opposite, altruistic position, above, that your vision can be more valuable than the self; more valuable than the individual. If you hold the individual is the highest value, then you must search for ways to engage that person in a manner that respects that value in them and doesn’t violate it, such as peaceful persuasion and voluntary exchange (capitalism).
So the two approaches have different implications and outcomes. The idea that you can or should have a “vision that is greater than self” leads to the justification and conclusion that individuals can and should be sacrificed to that cause or vision, whatever it may be. Holding the self as the supreme value requires tolerance and voluntary association. The result is the opportunity to flourish in mutual respect and fellowship with other people, rather than fearing or being subjugated to whatever vision they may believe is more valuable than you are.
Does that allow for a powerful vision, or is it “narrow and selfish”? Perhaps the greatest, most successful political vision in history was based on the idea that the individual is the greatest value, not subject to the preferences of others:
WE hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created Equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
In other words, your life belongs to you, a right that is superior to and precedes others, society or government. A system of political liberty works to protect that right so you can pursue those things you believe, in your own independent judgment, to be best for you and your family; those actions and beliefs that will allow you to truly flourish as a person.