SIDNEY AXINN | Sacrifice and Value. A Kantian Interpretation | Rowman & Littlefield 2010


By Katerina Deligiorgi

The title of Sidney Axinn’s new book, Sacrifice and Value, is likely to raise the expectation that the book is a study of supererogatory acts, that is, acts that are valued because they are aimed at ends that exceed the merely obligatory. Although Kant, mentioned here in the subtitle, does discuss such acts, calling them “supermeritorious” (KpV, AA 5:155), the contemporary discussion of supererogation is shaped by J. O. Urmson (1958), who argued that Kant’s ethics cannot account for the moral worth of supererogatory acts. This is because Kant does not distinguish between acts that are good to do and bad not to do, and acts that are supererogatory, that is good to do, but not bad not to do. Sacrifice would seem to be a paradigm case of such acts. However, Axinn’s book is not concerned with these exceptional acts. Rather, it aims to give us an account of moral value as such and the bold proposal it defends is that the source of all value is sacrifice. The proposal is bold on two counts: first, it puts sacrifice in the centre of value theory, and second, it claims Kantian sources for this move.

The thesis is defended in twelve short chapters followed by a conclusion. The chapters are very wide-ranging, tackling issues as diverse as patriotism, pluralism, gift-giving, business ethics. In what follows I shall examine the first two chapters, which constitute the theoretical foundations of the book, then the chapter on Kant.

Human beings pursue all kinds of ends. There are also various ways of grouping the ends human beings pursue, using larger categories such as pleasure, happiness, virtue and so forth. There are also theories that aim to reduce these groupings further, or at least to analyse them by giving us a general account of what ends we ought to value. Kant for example argues that we naturally set happiness as our end, but that we are also under obligation to pursue ends set by reason in its practical employment. Axinn enters this debate with an acknowledgement of the diversity characteristic of human doings and theories about what is good to do; there are many putative ends defended in theories of value, each of which has “advantages and utilities” yet none of which is “quite convincing for many of us” (p. 1). He then asks: “What sorts of things may reasonably be taken to be valued as ends?” (p. 1). The question implies that reasonableness can explain what ends have a rightful claim on us as well as what ends we find compelling.

The form of the question, which Axinn takes from Nicholas Rescher, is interesting. It invites further questions: what are the standards of reasonableness? By whom are the ends taken to be valued as ends, by those who are reasonable and who presumably already value them, or by those who are not so reasonable and hence are not disposed to valuing them?

Given the opening acknowledgement of plurality of ends and of right-making features, it would seem that the search is on not just for good reasons, of the sort “there is something to be said for such and such”, but for compelling reasons, which presumably will have a decent chance of motivating people to follow them.

Axinn proposes that such compelling reasons are produced by sacrifice: the sorts of things that are reasonably taken to be valued as ends are things “created by our sacrifices” (p. 1). Sacrifice “produces value” (p. 1). Sacrifice is often thought to mean giving up something valuable for the sake of the realisation of a greater value, for example, a person can give up their life for the sake of saving the lives of others. This is why sacrifice is a paradigm case of acts that go over and above what is morally demanded. Axinn has a much narrower and more modest sense of “sacrifice” in mind, to mean “a gift without expectation of equal or greater return” (p. 3). However, Axinn also wants to connect sacrifice with acts of heroism born out of loyalty, arguing that loyalty and sacrifice overlap (p. 4). This suggests a number of ways of reading the main claim of the book:

(i) psychologically: we tend to value ends for which we make sacrifices or are prepared to make sacrifices;

(ii) normatively: we ought to value ends if they require sacrifices from us;

(iii) meta-ethically: sacrifice produces value that is the only value worth having.

Although Axinn draws on (i) and (ii), his main aim is to argue for (iii): “sacrifice is the only action that produces things desired for themselves alone, absolute values” (p. 3).

The position is a species of proceduralism; it states that human beings create value through sacrifice, that is, by doing things without expectation of something in return. The value created is “intrinsic or inherent” value, which is defined as something “desirable for itself alone” (p. 12). Axinn does not spend time presenting his basic thesis. To get the key claims as clearly as possible, I propose the following reconstruction:

There is a suppressed negative thesis, it seems to me, to the effect that intrinsic or inherent value should not be understood as the value a thing possesses in virtue of its intrinsic properties. This allows intrinsic value to be produced by sacrifice. Further, intrinsic value is analysable into attitudes one should have towards certain ends and this analysis gives us the definition ‘desirable for themselves’. This definition, which emphasises desirability, shows a subtle move away from the more traditional way of speaking of intrinsic value as non-derivatively good. Although Axinn does not say so, desirability for itself can be seen as an analysis of the idea of intrinsic value to the kind of attitude one would or should have were one to be presented with intrinsic values; what is in itself good is properly something desirable for itself alone.

One obvious counter to this view is that there are things that are desirable for themselves, which are not the product of sacrifice, for example, health or pleasure. Axinn countenances this possibility (p. 18) but does not discuss it. I assume this is because he is concerned with specifically moral values and sacrifice gives us a way of thinking about such values. And it is a feature of his proceduralism that it does not commit him to the idea of a good in itself, allowing instead for a plurality of values all of which are intrinsic in the defined sense, that is, desirable for themselves. If we ask, as one is often tempted to do in such contexts, why these things are desirable, then Axinn’s answer is because they are goods without which we cannot envisage human life. Axinn is also quite unperturbed about disputes concerning scope or reach of values, saying that “there is a limit to the values one needs or wants” (p. 31).

So the answer to the question “What sorts of things may be reasonably taken to be valued as ends?” is “things that are desirable for themselves”, meaning things that are intrinsic values. This last, however, is further explained as values that are relational (because the product of sacrifice) and also relative (because indexed to forms of life and making no absolutist claims on us). The answer to the question Axinn presents as the big question of value theory turns out to be surprisingly easy: valued ends are any sorts of end sufficient numbers of us value without expectations of immediate return. The claim about value-creation on the other hand is not doing a huge amount of work: values are created just through acts that exhibit them. What looks at the start like a bold thesis is, once these further definitions are provided, considerably less bold.

If my reconstruction is along the right lines, I wonder why Axinn frames his project in terms of intrinsic values. Engagement with the relevant literature would have helped bring out what is distinctive about the position; for example, apt here would be some discussion of Korsgaard’s interesting claim that the ethically relevant difference is not between intrinsic and instrumental, but between instrumental and final ends. Equally of course, one would wish to see some detailed discussion of Kant’s own notion of the good in itself or good without qualification, which is the good will, which is merely mentioned here in the context of a brisk dismissal of realist readings of Kant.

Further, one might take issue with the notion of sacrifice used here: it is far too narrow and modest. Put differently, it is not surprising that Axinn does not see a problem with supererogatory acts, which he does briefly consider (pp. 52–3, 61). This is because doing something for which you don’t expect a reward, is on many accounts, including Kant’s, the same as doing the right thing. The way Axinn treats intrinsic values such as care, love, friendship, loyalty as continuous with heroic acts of exemplary individuals suggests that he does not think there is a difference in kind between doing the right thing and doing the right thing even when failing to do it is not culpable. That would be an interesting position and I would have liked to see it articulated and defended.

Early on Axinn explains that his reading is Kantian in terms of a Copernican turn in value (p. 11). While there is a rich tradition of interpretation aiming to articulate and defend a Kantian anti-realist position in ethics, Axinn does not engage with this at all. Granted that Kant does not think that what value life has for us is not down to things that make us happy. And granted that he does not think that morality is some supernatural object. Axinn’s gloss, that moral values are created by things we do without expectations of reward leaves it unclear why we do these things in the first place unless, that is, we have some sense of moral value or of things that are required of us—what Kant calls duties.

The absence of discussion of Kant’s own views on sacrifice is frustrating since such a discussion would have helped clarify further Axinn’s position. Here are a couple of quotes from Kant:

That is to say, if a rational creature could ever reach the stage of thoroughly liking to fulfill all moral laws, this would mean that there would not be in him even the possibility of a desire that would provoke him to deviate from them; for, to overcome such a desire always costs the subject some sacrifice and therefore requires self-constraint. (KpV, AA 5:84)

This passage suggests that performing a morally worthy action is always psychologically demanding, and this demandingness is ‘sacrifice’. While Axinn’s definition of sacrifice is non-psychological, the basicness of sacrifice to moral value for which Axinn argues is supported by this passage. Further down Kant comments on actions “that are done with great sacrifice and for the sake of duty alone” arguing that they are worthy of praise “but only insofar as there are traces suggesting that they were done wholly from respect for duty and not from ebullitions of feeling” (KpV, 5:85). It would appear then that Kant here, like Axinn, considers supererogatory acts as continuous with moral acts. Both the basicness and continuity theses can be found in this passage from the Metaphysics of Morals where Kant discusses our duties to others:

I ought to sacrifice a part of my welfare to others without hope of return, because this is a duty, and it is impossible to assign determinate limits to the extent of this sacrifice. How far it should extend depends, in large part, on what each person’s true needs are […] and it must be left to each to decide this for himself. For, a maxim, of promoting others’ happiness at the sacrifice of one’s own happiness […] would conflict with itself if it were made a universal law. (MS, AA 6:393)

So there are important hints in Kant for the thesis Axinn defends but importantly, for Kant, the moral law that commands so sternly is not something anyone creates, it is the law of pure reason in its practical employment, it is a law under which we all stand.

To sum up: the book is perhaps best seen as following on the tradition, to which Kant himself contributed, of philosophical writing for a broad non-specialist audience. So it draws its inspiration from Kant in more than in matters of substance. The aim is to show that values are not exotic entities but close to hand, and part of ordinary life even as they also shape the lives of extraordinary individuals. This is an optimistic and humane message, it tells us that we create values and persist in this, despite risk of loss and error, because if we did not, “we’d have no purpose, no goal no reason to live” (p. 18).

Invited: 16 October 2015; received: 7 July 2016.


Korsgaard, C. (1983), ‘Two Distinctions in Goodness’, Philosophical Review 92: 169–95.

Urmson, J. O. (1958), ‘Saints and Heroes’, in A. Melden (ed.), Essays in Moral Philosophy (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

© Katerina Deligiorgi, 2017.

Katerina Deligiorgi is Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, England. She is the author of The Scope of Autonomy: Kant and the Morality of Freedom (OUP, 2012), which was discussed on this site previously, and Kant and the Culture of Enlightenment (SUNY, 2005) and editor of Hegel: New Directions (Acumen, 2006). She is a former editor-in-chief of the journal Hegel Bulletin (2005–2015).