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Google the phrases “greater than yourself,” “larger than yourself,” and “bigger than yourself,” and you will find millions of related links. We all know the refrain (and its variants): “Live for a cause greater than yourself.” But what does that mean? And is this advice consonant with rational morality?
Consider what a few prominent public figures mean by the phrase.
Barack Obama, speaking at Wesleyan University about “service to one's country,” says:
It's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential and discover the role that you'll play in writing the next great chapter in the American story.
How do you “hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself”? By self-sacrificially serving that “something larger”—by giving up your personal, life-serving values for the sake of that alleged greater good. Such “change will not come easily,” explains Obama, “sacrifice will be required.”
Obama’s view is typical not only among those on the “progressive” left but also among conservatives. John McCain, for example, speaking on the topic of national service, says:
Those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, indulging their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest men and women possess nothing of real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves.
Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest—these are small things. They make us comfortable, ease the way for our children, and purchase a fleeting regard for our lives, but not the self-respect that, in the end, matters most. Sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest, however, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause.
Similarly, Mitt Romney tells students of Coe College, “Get out of the shallow waters of selfishness and give yourself to causes greater than yourself. Launch yourself into the deep waters of great causes.” . . .