There are two terms used almost universally today as synonyms though they’re anything but, with profound consequences for people’s lives: trade-off and sacrifice.
Trade-off is the more general of the two. It means giving up one or more values for other values, regardless of how great each value is. For example, this weekend I could stay home and work out, and afterwards sit in the hot tub in my complex with my friends. Or I could fly to Texas to look at pieces of property for my future home. If I do one, obviously I can’t do the other. So, by doing one – either one – I make a trade-off: I get the value from what I do, and give up the value from what I don’t.
In contrast with trade-off, sacrifice is more specific. It’s a particular kind of trade-off, where someone gives up a greater value in exchange for a lesser one. For example, if I pay for and take a trip to Texas when in the back of my mind I’m really not all that enthusiastic about moving there, and give up working out and getting together with my friends when I really wanted to do those things badly, that would probably be a sacrifice.
When most people use the term sacrifice, they really mean trade-off. For example, when someone says he’s “sacrificing” fast food by eating healthier, he’s really not sacrificing at all. He’s trading a lesser value – the great taste of relatively unhealthy food – for a greater one: better long term health. Likewise, when people extol sacrifice as a moral virtue, most of them consider trading off as what’s really virtuous. For example, if you give up the hedonistic, emotionalistic urge to do emotionally titillating but destructive things like sleeping with prostitutes, getting high on drugs, stealing things from stores, and eating laundry detergent packets, you’re being virtuous but not making a sacrifice. The real virtue is putting aside the strong urge to do “whatever you want” and forego its bad consequences in exchange for consciously thinking of the consequences of what you plan to do before you do it, and acting only when you’re fairly sure the results will be good.
If the issue were this simple it would pose little problem, as virtually anyone who wants to achieve values and happiness would make net beneficial trade-offs and avoid sacrifices. However, there are some people who really do regard sacrifice – in the true sense of the word – as a virtue. And there are an awful lot of people who fall for this vicious idea.
Those who regard sacrifice as virtuous are people who don’t think. Thinking is a mental process of taking in information from our five senses and turning it into knowledge that’s useful for getting us the things of value for our lives. As such it’s our means of survival and what allows us to be productive. As important as thinking is, however, it’s still a skill that needs to be learned and it’s possible some people don’t learn it. Almost everyone picks up how to think to some extent in the course of their lives and does it at least to some extent. However, there’s a small percentage of people in practically every society who both don’t learn it very well and are averse to doing it. Examples include criminals, gangsters, and dictators.
Because thinking is what makes us productive, and because nonthinkers don’t do it, it’s no surprise they’re not very productive relative to other people. If they’re unproductive enough they need to loot what they want or need from other people who have it, giving nothing in return. Additionally, since the productivity resulting from thinking is the source of values and happiness, nonthinkers’ unproductiveness cuts them off from these things. Cut off from values and happiness, many nonthinkers turn against them and develop contempt for anyone who has them. Their attitude is if they can’t get what they want, neither should anyone else. This is probably why there are no nice dictators; if someone craves so much power over others he can loot them at will, he will most likely also want to make them miserable.
For both of these reasons – the need to loot, and the desire to make others miserable – many nonthinkers adopt the attitude that other people should trade off greater values in exchange for lesser ones.
The nonthinkers rush to protect the alleged "virtue" of sacrifice zealously whenever it’s challenged, by calling non-sacrificial trade-offs “sacrifices”. For example they claim (as does, unfortunately, everyone else also) members of the military make an enormous “sacrifice” by putting their lives at risk. Technically, though, while this is extremely virtuous behavior, it isn’t a sacrifice. People join the military because they think the freedom they’re protecting by being in the armed services is so great a value they’re willing to give their lives for it (and far better than the alternative). Nonthinkers also claim that people “sacrifice” the desire to do destructive and lawless things like criminal acts to get the benefits of living peacefully with other people. Let’s see now, how is putting yourself at risk of entitling your victim to knock your teeth down your throat, sue you, and publicly declare you potentially eternally unfit to deal with other people some kind of greater value than the social harmony from banning crime?
Don’t fall for it. Before you act, think through the consequences of what you propose to do. Then, only act when you can determine as best you can what will give you the greater value. if the best choice won’t give you everything you want – and in life it often doesn’t – accept the giving up of the lesser value as a necessary trade-off. And stay away from sacrifices.

Author's Bio: 

Gray Seele is an attorney and the author of the book YOU CAN THINK and be (Really!) Happy.