Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

On the right side of history? A myth of moral progress

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 26, 2021

The modern West seems to be guided by the conviction that each shift in the values of the dominant culture constitutes moral progress. Anyone who studies history should know that this is not true, but the elites of nearly every era tend to be both proud and vain, rendering them certain that, in their special case, every new desire is automatically accompanied by a superior moral sensibility. Sadly, in a culture which roots morality primarily in self-fulfillment in accordance with our desires, it is even harder than usual to avoid confusion about what constitutes the Good.

Vision Book Cover Prints

It should be obvious that our ever-changing modern morality is far too convenient and self-congratulatory. If we believe, in effect, that the latest cause célèbre of the dominant culture represents the evolutionary high point of moral awareness, then it will never be possible to find our dominant contemporary culture to be wrong in any of its moral judgments. Morality is reduced to the will of the privileged classes, which is simply to say that the very categories of “good”, “evil”, and “the moral” are effectively eliminated. All that is ever left to accomplish morally is the schooling of moral dissidents into conformity with the broadly-shared attitudes of their “betters”.

Of course, this has always been the way many, perhaps even most, people arrive at an unreflective sense of right and wrong, that is, by gradually realizing, through constant cultural reinforcement, what is acceptable to those in power. Therefore, if the dominant class has no independent source of insight into the nature of right and wrong—if there is no pattern of reflection on what is revealed to us through nature by the Creator, or no persuasive claims of particular Divine revelations, or again no recognition that we are anything other than purely material beings—then morality is reduced to convenience. And given the unavoidable social nature of human life, this convenience will always be shaped in accordance with whatever serves the interests of the dominant classes.

Where does one begin the task of “giving the lie” to such smug circularity? It is certainly true that our own human nature offers many signs and warnings and lessons about morality, beginning with every child’s instinctive grasp of what is “fair” or “not fair”, along with our common experience of the disordered character of our own desires. But if the dominant classes are blinded by materialism, self-interest, and the gratification of unreflective desire, then it is easy enough for the dominant classes to control things like education, advertising, media, law and the norms of human acceptance in order to mute or twist the testimony of our own nature.

Moral from the beginning

Still, one of the things that it seems to me quite easy to refute (for we have to make a start somewhere) is the notion that the elites in our era see more deeply into moral reality than did anyone in any previous era. This cannot be allowed to be simply assumed. With some 4000 years of written history to explore, we ought to be able to find evidence in our own time of a deeper penetration into both the nature of the human person and the principles of morality. Yet in comparison with past ages, is not our own age uniquely focused on a materialism which, carried to its logical conclusion, makes it impossible to speak intelligibly about morality at all?

In other words, instead of granting the first principle of contemporary discourse—that the latest ideas are always the best—we could begin by looking back through time to see just how much more insight people were able to gain into the roots of ethics in the long sweep of history prior to our own. In such a study, two questions inevitably arise: (1) Have there been prior cultures in which study and reflection on nature itself led to a deeper grasp of what constitutes “the Good” and of how the difference between good and evil is to be assessed? And, (2) Have there been any past moments in which God Himself has taken extraordinary measures to reveal to us more about His nature and ours, and therefore more about what constitutes Goodness in both cases?

The first thing we find when we go back as far as we can go in our historical source material is that the same basic moral questions (and therefore spiritual questions, for morality is not relevant to what is purely material) have been recognized, reflected upon, and even codified in various ways for as long as any historical record has existed. The second thing we find is that serious moral reflection has not changed a great deal except under the pressure of particular historical circumstances in which large numbers of highly credible witnesses have become convinced, through signs and wonders which vastly exceed the human mode, that God Himself has taken some sort of a hand in clarifying the issues at hand.

Whether we go back two hundred years to the so-called Enlightenment, five hundred to the Protestant Revolt, seven hundred to the height of Christian moral systematization, fourteen hundred to the so-called dark ages, more than 2000 to the height of Roman civilization, 2500 to the beginnings of Greek Philosophy and drama, 3600 to the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt or the origins of dynastic China, or 4000 to the middle kingdom in Egypt or the Code of Hammurabi in Babylon—no matter how far we can trace things back through writings that have survived, we find these two assertions fulfilled: First, that the people of each era end up wrestling with a highly similar set of moral questions; and second that human reflection on “the nature of things” has taken people only so far and no farther, whereas flashes of deeper understanding have come through what we may justly call revelatory events.

Throughout history, then, we see that human beings have been dealing with the same moral issues and even attempting to codify an intelligent response to the personal and social challenges of behaving morally. Moreover, even in the modern secular West (which will be considered hopelessly outdated and archaic twenty years hence), and despite a concerted effort to redefine the person solely in material terms, we find, at least in the abstract, just as great an emphasis on right and wrong. Even our own elites insist on putting every difference of opinion in moral terms, and condemning dissidents as morally beyond the pale. Yet at the same time, decisive breakthroughs—by which I mean an obvious elevation of the moral tone in human life and human discourse—are extremely rare.

In any case, there is no evidence beyond the self-assertion of those in power that one of those extremely rare historical transfusions is occurring now.

The Old Testament as a test case

It is valuable to take a close look at the moral reflection and the moral heritage transcribed into laws in the various periods and world cultures of history. If we do so, we will find that the insights of sages and philosophers in different times and places appear to be drawn from an experience of human life remarkably similar to our own, but that the first substantial explosion of more extensive moral and spiritual awareness, reflection, teaching and writing occurred as a direct result of the experience of the Jewish people beginning some 3500 years ago.

As far as we know, the Mosaic Pentateuch—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—are the oldest books in the Bible. Tradition suggests that the basic texts were assembled under Moses around 1500 BC (there is internal evidence in Numbers to support this claim), doubtless with records and traditional awareness of past experiences in mind. Even in the form in which we now possess these books, some portions can be reliably traced to around 800 BC, and it is impossible to make a case for dating them as a whole much later than 500 BC. So, depending on who is counting and the state of the text at any given moment in time, the Pentateuch is between 2500 and 3500 years old, representing a collective memory which in some texts may extend back centuries more.

Yet the Pentateuch is chock full of the very same moral issues which preoccupy people all over the world today—murder, theft, sexual conduct, the distribution of wealth, marriage and family issues, the treatment of neighbors, social ethics, dealings with the poor and with foreigners, conduct in commercial transactions, the moral horizons of politics, the problems of encoding moral behavior into specific laws, just punishment, and on and on—not to mention the vexed question of who has the authority to sort all this into prescriptions for personal, social, economic political and even religious conduct—all beginning with problems of pride and lust, along with sins of murder and theft, in the Book of Genesis itself. Moreover, all the books of what we now call the Old Testament reflect an intense preoccupation with good and evil in a clearly recognized and acknowledged spiritual context—without which questions of good and evil cannot possibly arise.

Simple examples

In rereading Leviticus recently, I came once again to the prescriptions for cleanness and uncleanness (beginning in chapter 11), and it occurred to me to wonder whether these strict rules were imposed by the Lord through Moses and Aaron simply to habituate the people to taking account of the majesty of God in everything they did. This could certainly be true regardless of the particular benefits which may be seen in each prescription. For it was the burden of Moses to deal with people who had as yet very little experience of the concept of a personal God who created and ruled over all things—of a lawgiver and a judge who actually cared deeply about what was good or bad for those He loved, all in accordance with the nature he had given them.

There is already a fundamental basis for human morality established by the Creation as recounted in Genesis—and already the emergence of a profound understanding of the nature of both crime and sin. Moreover, as early as Leviticus 26, God is already warning of punishment for disobedience to His laws, including exile from the land He has prepared for His people. But from the first, punishment is also revealed as a Providential mechanism for bringing a wayward people back to Himself. There is always something very deep at work in the Mosaic Law, which becomes far more explicit with the coming of the Messiah. The point here is that there is a tremendous inner dynamism already found in these very early written reflections on human morality—a dynamism which plumbs the depths of our human nature, our relationship with God, the nature of temptation, and the healing wrought through a sacrificial repentance.

There is nothing primitive about any of this. At a pagan minimum, it must already be seen as sound psychology. Moreover, the same depth of thought is apparent in the consideration of human relationships with others, including a man’s wife and children. Already in Numbers 35, God insists that a criminal’s guilt must be attested by more than one witness. In Deuteronomy 18, He prohibits such abominable practices as the burning of one’s children as an offering (which, I suppose, was often considered a convenience under the diabolical pagan “gods”, much like abortion). In chapter 19, the establishment of cities of refuge are discussed, to provide safety to those who inadvertently kill another person, with no prior malice, as opposed to those who attack with evil intent. We also find that it is profoundly wrong to secretly move a neighbor’s landmark to “enlarge” one’s holdings.

From the first in Deuteronomy a wholistic approach to morality is stressed. In chapter 4, the Jews are warned that the moral law is permanent, immutable, part of the very nature and fabric of reality. They must keep it, without addition or change, they must teach it to their children, they must avoid any form of idolatry, whether of false gods or mere possessions. It is predicted, however, that they will fall into sin, and also that they will return to the Lord. Finally, in vv. 32-40, the rather obvious argument is made to the people that no nation has had a God who has done signs and wonders for them as the Lord has done for the Jewish people. No wonder we have such an explosion of spiritual-moral thought!

Conclusion

For the Jews, of course, as for Christians, morality is firmly rooted not only in who we are but in who God is—the God who has, in fact, created the entire fabric of reality within which the human person operates, exercising a genuine human freedom in response to a genuine Divine love. There is a very deep exploration of moral and spiritual reality in these ancient texts, an exploration which wholly eclipses our shallowness today, as we try to make moral sense out of every shifting human desire as these make playthings of our unjustifiably proud (and remarkably ignorant) elites. Such evidence cannot easily be dismissed, in our preening vanity, as “primitive”. If we think that, perhaps we should begin by reading the great poetic Psalms, some of which also date back about 2500 years.

Of course, for the Jews, morality is rooted in the very life of God. It is once again in Deuteronomy (chapter 30) that we are gifted with the famous passage, a passage at a minimum well over 2000 years old, the passage which ties morality so clearly and so profoundly to the fullness of life itself:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and clinging to him. [cf. Dt 30:15-20]

I have made merely a beginning, by proposing just a single introductory question: Are our times really so advanced morally compared with the rest of human history? Only the ignorant, the spiritually blind, and those with ulterior motives can even imagine something as remarkably foolish as that.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 08, 2021 6:21 PM ET USA

    On 29 May 1537 Pope Paul III spoke on human rights and declared that slavery is "an inhuman spirit against the human race. ...Since We, therefore, are vigilant that these Indians, even if outside the bosom of the Church, are not deprived, nor are they to be deprived, of their freedom or the ownership of their goods, for they are men and, therefore, capable of faith and salvation, and, thus, they are not to be destroyed by enslavement but rather invited to life through preaching and example."

  • Posted by: biosci8938 - Jan. 29, 2021 10:23 PM ET USA

    Do you consider Christianity to be a moral advancement ? Has it been applied culturally in an all-or-nothing or more bit-by-bit fashion ? Slavery was not done away with at the time of Constantine. The concept of human rights was not from the middle ages. Cultural development, like human development, does not necessarily have to follow a straight upward line, but can regress at times as well. Today's dominant culture is very much affected by Christianity much more than they are aware of.