Is It Worse Now?

At mass this morning, one of our deacons preached.  In the middle of a somewhat disjointed sermon, following a thinly veiled attack on the Democrats (he named no names but castigated one party platform for violating the fifth and sixth commandments and for advancing the “transgender agenda”) he asked the question:  are things worse now than they were 2000 years ago?  He immediately answered his own question:  absolutely, yes.  He gave no explanation and moved on to some other point.

I was more than a bit dumbfounded by the question and answer.  Discussing it with my son Francisco (a classics major) on the drive home, we quickly listed a number of things that were both legal and commonplace in the Roman world 2000 years ago that rival or surpass the evils of today:  infanticide, slavery, torture.   By what moral calculus could our present day (even if you think we are “Slouching towards Gomorrah“) be considered worse than the early Roman empire?

This led to a broader question:  is there a calculus for comparing evils, in general?  How does one decide if one thing or period of time is “more evil” than another?  We can say some things:  the abolition of slavery made America better; the legalization of abortion or the untrammeled us of torture during the Iraq War made it worse.  Catholic moral theology has some specific categories that can help:  is it an intrinsic evil?  Is it a grave matter?  On the other hand, the recent abuse of the category “intrinsic evil” in American political discourse shows that there are limits.  Beyond a certain point, however, my feeling is that evils become either incommensurable or so grave that attempts to rank them become pointless.   The second category includes attempts to decide whether Hitler or Stalin (and perhaps Mao and Pol Pot) was the most evil.  Simply counting up the bodies quickly yields numbers that are so vast that they have no real meaning any more.  In the end, I resort to an old cliche I first read in the novel Seven Days in May:  if you put both of them in a barrel and roll it down hill, there will always be an evil bastard on top.

I place any attempt to compare Rome and America in the first category:  there were evils in ancient Rome, and there are evils in modern America, but at the end of the day I am not sure if they are comparable:  the contexts in which these evils occurred were so different, that I feel we need to be very cautious in weighing one against the other.  It seems more productive to simply note the presence (or absence) of various evils without comparison   If you disagree, I would be interested in hearing how you would frame the argument.

A more interesting question, and where I initially thought my deacon was going to go, is attempting to compare the US now with the US at some point in the past, say the “golden age” of the 1950s.  Even here, given times that are only one or two generations apart, is it possible to compare them, and determine which era is worse than the other?  On the one hand, there is a greater basis for comparison:  we can look at specific things and see if they have gotten better or worse.  The problem is that some have gotten better, and some have gotten worse and some have both gotten better and gotten worse at the same time.  Which measures do you privilege, and which do you ignore?  Race and racism?  Class and economic inequality?  Gay rights?   The environment?   Again, if you think you can construct an argument for saying which is better and which is worse, I would be interested in hearing it.

 

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  • Julia Smucker

    This resonates. Many have their preferred golden and dark ages, but I’ve never really understood how defining good and evil in terms of chronology is supposed to make any sense. So I would have the same reaction to your deacon’s romanticized notion of ancient Rome vs. modern America as I do to the “chronological snobbery” (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ term) of an ideological progressivism that assumes we automatically know better than previous generations because we were born later. Your statement “that some [things] have gotten better, and some have gotten worse and some have both gotten better and gotten worse at the same time” appears staggeringly obvious to me, but I guess the idolization of either past or future obscures this.

    I’m reminded of a fellow named Ron Lane, who was some sort of friend of my graduate theology school, who wrote in an essay, “The conservative loves the good old and hates the bad new, wants to save the good of the past and combat the evil of the present. The liberal hates the bad old and loves the good new. One or the other of these two positions is the least of what we should all hold. But a fuller and truer fundamental attitude includes the complements: for both groups to love the good, old and new, and hate the bad, old and new.”

    Again, it seems to me like that should go without saying.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Julia, I have been thinking more about this in light of your comment, and I realize that I do have a small bias towards progressivist thinking in this area. Though things have both gotten better and worse, I am inclined to agree with Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This would suggest that progress is slow but we are making progress. I am also attracted by de Chardin’s idea of the Omega Point, that Christ will make himself “all in all”, and that the very universe, physical and moral, strains towards this ultimate end. While perfection will only occur at the Parousia, it seems to imply that in the between times between the Incarnation and the Second Coming, it will not remain, in Brian Martin’s trenchant phrase, the same old sh@t. Rather, though we continue to stumble and fall, we do not wander in circles but slowly move forward. We bring some of the old sh@t with us, and we find new sh@t to fall into, but things do get better in some overall way.

      De Chardin’s evolutionary theology is useful in this situation because evolution reminds us that change is slow, and the time scales are vast. Fifty years are nothing; 2000 years is just the beginning.

      So I am going to back off, cautiously, from my contention that some evils are incommensurable: maybe, cautiously, and with a great deal of humility, we can admit that things have gotten better since the days of the Roman Empire. The humility is necessary because we have to admit that the change has been small, many evils remain, and we have added new ones to the mix.

      In practice, is it possible to thread my way between the relentless conservative pessimism my deacon expressed, and the ideological progressivism you point out? It is hard, but I think it can be done.

      • brian martin

        So we all have a “God shaped hole” that we try to fill, either by moving toward God, or by trying to fill it with earthly things…which leads to pain and addiction. The only way to fill that emptiness is with God. So I like your description of stumbling toward mercy….which brings progress.
        As you can tell, I struggle with cynicism

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          I think we all struggle with cynicism at times, though we respond in different ways.

      • Julia Smucker

        Well, I’m also inclined to agree with that statement of Rev. Dr. King, but not necessarily to read it in terms of chronology. I see too much of a parallel between ideological progressivism and your deacon’s conservative pessimism, in that both tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater: in rejecting the “bad old” or the “bad new” because it’s old or new, they easily reject (or at least overlook) a lot of good along with it.

        I appreciate your willingness to take a long view, in contrast to the general impatience of much of the left. But at the risk of sounding harsh, I wonder if there’s a kind of laziness in assuming things will necessarily get better (or worse) over time. Surely it’s better to focus on moral imperatives – that is, how things ought to be – whether a good worth preserving or a needed change, starting with the acknowledgement that both are always necessary.

  • brian martin

    Same sh@t different day. There is nothing new under the sun. Technology changes..but sin and humankind’s proclivity to engage in sinful behavior does not…new versions of old sins

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Hmmm, I have been thinking about my own questions after reading Julia’s long comment above. I will have a bit more to say at a later point.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Brian, see my reply above to Julia.

  • Fr Donald Heacock

    Your Deacon does not have a very good grasp of history. The story is St Paul got his head chopped of. But is likely he was stuffed in an oil bag and burned with others flaming faggots at an all night orgie.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      I have never heard this (rather gruesome) version of the death of St. Paul. Can you provide a reference for this? I had assumed the veracity of the story of his being beheaded because he was a Roman citizen, and so had to be executed in a “respectable” manner.

  • Mark VA

    I think that the problem of “a calculus for comparing evils” is very difficult, since in addition to some knowledge of theology and logic, some professional grade knowledge of parts of history, psychology, and psychiatry would also be required. Thus, at the very least, this seems to require a joint effort. My contribution is as follows:

    Objective scale:

    I would distinguish intrinsic (i.e. when context is irrelevant) and conditional evil from what I would call “operational evil”. For example, an incarcerated and unrepentant criminal would posses at least one of the first two (evil desires), but not much of the latter, since incarceration would limit his “operational field”. On a larger scale, a nation harboring evil intent toward its neighbor would also posses at least one of the first two, but the latter would depend on factors such as its level of technology, media (propaganda), demographics, etc. Possessing all may be called, for the argument’s sake, “aggregate evil”;

    Subjective scale:

    I think this is where things get very difficult and muddled (at least for me), since here we encounter the question of culpability as seen from the divine perspective. We human beings have a well honed instinct for self deception, and often do objective evil thinking we are on some righteous quest. For example, Czeslaw Milosz in his WW II correspondence reflected on how many German soldiers believed they were “cleansing” and “saving” Europe from “evil”. Similar examples abound for the Communists as well. I also think it is rare to encounter someone who does evil knowingly – but I may be wrong. I wonder sometimes what do those who “cross the line” on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist think of themselves?

    To sum up, I wouldn’t dare make such “across time” comparisons. While it is undoubtedly true that the twentieth century was the bloodiest ever, it is also true that technology facilitated this slaughter. Ditto for moral rot. Would the Romans or the Persians have been any different if they had machine guns and the modern media?