psychology of moral sacrifice

Ken writes:

Reflecting the other day on the fact that we have now basically given up on the environmentally correct choices of nappy (washable, and non-toxic, biodegradable disposal varieties), and therefore were in the wrong, morally speaking, it occurred to me that the moral calculation for deciding what to do basically does not seem to take into account such things as the impact of the choice one’s own daily quality of life and allows as a matter of course that the right thing to do will require sacrifices on your part.

It hasn’t always been this way. The ancient tradition in Western ethics, based around the notion of an ideal of human flourishing and an excellent life, put moderation (balance, temperance) at the heart of living virtuously. Take plenty of exercise, but don’t overdo it. Be competitive, but keep things in perspective. Enjoy company, but have some time on your own. Enjoy food drink and material possessions, but not to excess. Do things that keep you mentally stimulated but do not obsess about them or become introverted and withdrawn. And so on.

The ancient tradition didn’t have the problem of answering the moral sceptic who asks selfishly, villainously, why they should be good, if it is of no benefit to them. The ancient tradition had an answer: roughly, virtue is its own reward. The sceptic basically just doesn’t understand that the best sort of life for a human to lead is a virtuous one (one which steers a way through various extremes). Once they see the matter from a more long term and mature perspective, they’ll see that self-interest and virtue do not really conflict.

But the Christian tradition, i.e. pretty much moral thinking since then–secular and religious–seems to have the basic fact of the demandingness of morality built in to it. A right on one person’s part carries with it an obligation on someone else’s and obligations are demands on your resources and constraints on your freedom.

Actually, the question I wanted to ask was: is it a feature of the ethical systems themselves or is it rather a feature of modern (Christian and secular) moral psychology? Do we, as it were, apply modern moral systems in such a way that they demand sacrifices? Would an ancient Greek transported to the modern era apply modern ethical systems in a demanding way or would their judgements about what what respecting rights and obligations required show respecting rights required no sacrifice?


4 thoughts on “psychology of moral sacrifice

  1. Dot

    As I commented when we discussed this between us, a virtue conception of morality can require sacrifices, but they would be short-term sacrifices from which the individual would make long-term gains. One could argue that we should use cloth nappies from the perspective of a virtue theory: it might involve short-term sacrifices in the form of all the washing and drying of nappies involved, as well as more frequent nappy changes (and not having the blessed convenience of pull-ups – a big factor for parents of a very wriggly toddler!), but in the long term we would have minimised our waste and made a contribution to the preservation of our own world; we would have been living the good way in using our resources prudently and freeing ourselves from constant buying. But I think that the modern ethical mindset you’re talking about does have a different element – a sense that to be virtuous is to suffer.

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    What ever happened to the washable pull-ups?
    They were certainly around when our Alice was a toddler.
    They were plasticy waterproof fabric with a terry lining.
    Fine during the day, but they were not suitable for night.

  3. I have to say that we have rather given up on the washables for the time being. We do hope to switch back when it comes to toilet training.

    However there is still an environmental impact of using them the water/electricity to run the washing machine.

    Added to which they are far more bulky than the pull ups which are far easier for her to move about in.

  4. katimum

    In theory surely it is possible to have ‘moral but also non-self sacrificing’ situations as well as ‘immoral but self-sacrificing’? For instance, being loving to your family may not in every instance be self-sacrificing, as in giving Grandson a cuddle and kiss – perfectly moral and no sacrifice involved unless from Grandson. On the other hand, murdering one’s mother is usually regarded (in most societies) as not acceptable and might deprive one of hot dinners.

    The issue is, that we notice and have to struggle with the moral but sacrificial whereas we scarcely notice the moral but pleasant. It is the struggle which makes it an issue. I have noticed something of a modern tendency to say, ‘You should do whatever makes you happy’ to which I would be tempted to reply, ‘And if beating up old ladies makes you happy…..?’

    Where nappies are concerned, as with most moral issues, it is surely not just a straight moral/immoral choice. Getting yourself tired out and irritible with the family by using ‘environmentals’ might make the disposables the more moral choice. As with most moral questions in this life, I wouldn’t say it was straight forward, but it does merit serious consideration.


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