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 Do things that keep you mentally stimulated but do not obsess about them or become introverted and withdrawn.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?