Sometimes the good life demands sacrifice. It is written, Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Laying down one's own life for another's sake is archetypally sacrificial, and focusing on it helps us see something distinctive about the nature of sacrifice. Getting a better grip on the nature of sacrifice might help us avoid trivializing it by thinking of too many aspects of the good life as sacrificial. I think sacrifice and discipline are often conflated. Where we are often inclined to think of some of the hard things we have to do as sacrificial, I think it's better to think of them as self-discipline. Keeping these two concepts, discipline and sacrifice, distinct, will help us live better, and so more joyful, lives.
Sometimes we talk about sacrificing this or that as basically interchangeable with giving something up or going without something we'd like to have. And true sacrifice really is like this. But it seems to me that not every instance of giving something up or foregoing something desirable truly counts as sacrifice. For example, when I refrain from eating yet another taco, even though I want to eat another, I am foregoing something desirable. But it doesn't seem right to me call it a sacrifice. And the reason it's not right is not just that it's such a small issue; instead, the most important reason is that it's obvious why it's good for me to forego the extra taco: stomach-aches are bad, gaining more weight (in my case) is bad for me, overeating causes one or both of these bad things; therefore, for the sake of what is obviously good for me, I go without another minute or two of gustatory pleasure. This going without is better understood as self-discipline than sacrifice. I discipline myself to act well in regards to eating, in hopes that eventually I won't need to will against desires which direct me to do what is bad for me. Maybe someday my desires will always or at least almost always direct me to do what is good for me. Saying no to the taco here and now, unpleasant as it is, shows me that I am not in fact a slave to my appetite, that the Toomany Taco Temptation really can be resisted.
But sacrifice has a different role in the good life. Consider the extreme of laying down one's life for one's friend. Here, we confront the heartbreaking sadness of the noble death: somehow this great friend is acting well, deserving our honor, even while he is destroying himself. Disciplines like foregoing excess food and drink, exercising daily, waking up early to pray, and so on, are obviously ordered to what is good for us. To the extent we're motivated to undertake these disciplines, we see how we'll be better off by doing so. But the person who gives up his life for another may well be motivated to do so even if he has no belief that it is good for him to do so. Someone who believes in life after death might comfort himself by thinking that death is not really the end. But thing about afterlife is that we don't have a fine-grained vision of what it will be like: good, bad, neutral, depending on your beliefs, but nothing really concrete (I doubt many people who envision robes and harps, or fire and pitchforks, imagine afterlives literally involving these things). This hazy vision makes it impossible to see what good sacrifice-unto-death will do for the one who sacrifices, even if the one who sacrifices does believe that good will come to him.
I think that the difference between sacrifice and discipline is precisely this: in discipline we have a pretty clear idea of what good for oneself is likely to come about through the discipline, whereas in sacrifice we don't have a clear idea of what good for oneself the sacrifice is likely to bring about.
I mentioned that laying down one's life is archetypally sacrificial. Are there any less extreme actions we can do which count as sacrifice, granting what I've said so far about sacrifice?
Yes, I think so, but it's surprisingly difficult. Now I do think that whether some action counts as discipline or sacrifice is somewhat relative to one's overall beliefs, dispositions, and stage of moral and spiritual development. That said, here are some actions which are probably sacrificial for many people who do them: giving money or goods to someone who has less than you have, especially when you're not totally sure he really needs it; recognizing when people to whom you are not particularly close really need to express their thoughts and feelings, and giving them the time and space to do so, even though you have a lot to do; giving up personal goals and projects in order to devote more time and money to one's family members or intimate friends, not in order to keep up a peaceful domestic life but just because it's good for them; and maybe some pretty trivial things like refraining from insisting that the restaurant re-make your meal which isn't quite what you ordered, or letting some in the grocery store get in line ahead of you when you're approaching the register at about the same time.
One of the theoretical advantages to understanding sacrifice in the way I've described here is that it gives us a good way of resolving a conceptual tension between self-regarding and other-regarding action. The tension is that if I'm really acting freely, then I'm doing what I want to do, and doing what I want to do only makes sense as doing something that I judge in some way or other to be good for me. How, then, can there be action which is truly for others' sakes? On the account of sacrifice I think is true, what we can say is this: you might well judge that any good thing you do is in some sense good for you, and not just for others' goods. But genuinely sacrificial action arises when you do not have a clear, or fine-grained, vision of what that good-for-you is.
One potential objection to this understanding of sacrifice is that it doesn't account very well for religious sacrifices, as when people give some grain or slaughter some birds or livestock for the gods. The somewhat too cynical (in my view) way of describing what's going on in these sacrifices is that the worshippers want something they think the gods can give them. (Either only the gods can give or the gods can give it more easily than by other means.) So, whatever your view of the effectiveness of such sacrifices, would these be examples of sacrifices in which the expected good is clearly seen? I'm not sure. I'm not sure because it might be that this cynical understanding of sacrifice best applies only to stupid sacrifices, like Jephthah and Agammemnon and their poor daughters. It is hard for me to think of a pious offering of grain or blood as involving the sort of calculation involved in a market exchange: if I do this then the god will do that. If this sacrifice is pious, there must always be one or both of these attitudes: I seek what is good for me from the gods, but I am open to learning what that good is; and, not even by this sacrifice can I make any real legal or moral demands on the gods. In either case, what good might come, and whether good will come, from the sacrifice, remain hazy.