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.