Here’s the thing: suffering is bad.
In a perfect world, I would not have to diminish my happiness to increase yours. In a perfect world, everyone would flourish. It’s easy to get cynical, to think all happiness comes at a price of someone’s else’s, but that’s not true. When I tell my friend a joke, when Alicorn writes a short story, when roommates work together to clean the house, when I feel happy because someone I love is in a better life situation… things are better.
I think there’s a reason a lot of the people who have this intuition are libertarians. Trade often goes bad. It has limits in how much it can elevate people: while “work a degrading retail job and I will give you enough money so you don’t starve” is better than “starve”, it’s still a terrible fucking situation. People make decisions that are bad for them or don’t totally understand what they’re buying. And it’s all too easy for a trade to help both people making the trade and hurt a bystander. (“Hey, wait, why are you giving him ten thousand dollars to kill me?”)
But at its best trade is an interaction that leaves everyone happier than they were. When I give the owner of this coffee shop two dollars for a cup of tea and a quiet work space, it’s better for me (tea! good working environment!) and for him (seriously, this man has so many teabags it’s easily a year’s supply for me. No one needs that many teabags). When I give you fifty dollars for the air conditioner you weren’t really using anyway, we can both walk home thinking “I got the better end of this deal.”
In a good world, everything would be like that. I would make myself happy, and through that I would make you happy, and through that you would make a dozen others happy, and…
In a good world, it would be.
But we don’t live in a good world.
We live in a world where sometimes my life has to be worse than it would otherwise be in order to make things better for other people. We live in a world where I am going to give up that vacation or that restaurant meal, so that people in developing countries do not die of malaria. And… in the grand scheme of things, of course I have to make that sacrifice. How could I not? How could I live with myself if I said “well, you know, I know your children are dying of treatable diseases… but those jeans were really super cute“?
But the only reason I have to is because the world is bad.
And the problem is… no one has to tell you “make jokes to your friends!” You do that of your own accord. But no one naturally wants to cause themselves harm, even to leave other people better off. So moral encouragement tends to concentrate on “it is important, when hurting yourself would make someone else happier, to do that.”
But it is easy to lose sight of the goal. It is so easy to slip from “self-sacrifice is often a part of doing good” to “self-sacrifice is virtuous in its own right.”
And it’s important when you find yourself doing that to repeat to yourself: suffering is bad. Happiness is good. We don’t have to get all Deeply Wise about this. The actual truth is the same truth that is obvious to a child: it is bad when people are hurting. Even you.
Self-sacrifice is a virtue that immolates itself. The only reason to sacrifice yourself is to help create a world where no one will have to sacrifice themselves ever again.
Self-sacrifice is virtuous. It is necessary. But it is never good.