Is the world getting better or worse? Are we making moral and spiritual progress on this planet or are we sliding ever further into a moral and spiritual abyss?
This is not an easy question to answer. It is easy, too easy in fact, to look at our world today and condemn it. Certainly there are many things that, from a moral or spiritual point of view, seem to be regressing. Globalization is creating even a further gap between the rich and the poor; greed and self-interest have been elevated to the level of virtue; family and community are breaking down at every level; there is little in the way of sexual responsibility to be seen anywhere; and our everyday consciousness is becoming daily more agnostic. Things, it would seem, are beginning to slide.
And yet, this is too simple a judgment. No doubt, in comparison to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, we have lost some ground morally and spiritually, liberal protests notwithstanding. However we have also gained some moral and spiritual ground, conservative protests notwithstanding. What are the moral and spiritual gains of our generation?
Some years ago, Carol Gilligan wrote a particularly insightful book entitled, In a Different Voice. In this book, she offers a critique of the patriarchy and hierarchy, which she sees as having propped up the power structures of most of the world up to now. In that system of patriarchy and hierarchy, somebody invariably had power over somebody else and life was not as fair to the person on the bottom of this as it was to the person on top. Thus, for the most part, in terms of power and privilege, the men were over the women, the rich were over the poor, the healthy were over the sick, the historically privileged were over those with less historical privilege, those with white skin were over those with coloured skin, those without physical handicaps were over those with physical handicaps, and humanity itself was over nature. In effect, someone was always over somebody else.
Former generations, for all their superiority to us in terms of family life, fidelity, sacrifice, duty, sexual responsibility, and worship of God, were far from perfect. Theirs was no golden age. Life was a lot fairer, filled with freedom, and filled with opportunity for some more than for others. Crassly put, in former generations you did a lot better if you were male, healthy, rich, white, historically privileged, and physically without handicap. You did not do as well if you were female, poor, coloured, sick, handicapped, or born into the world without connections. As Carol Gilligan would put it, one set of voices dominated over the others and life was a lot fairer for some than for others.
None of this, of course, denies the real goodness, faith, and moral fiber that existed then. In some areas of morality and spirituality, clearly those generations were superior to our own. But, and this is the point, while they were superior to us in some areas, there are other areas, important moral and spiritual ones, within which they clearly stand second to today’s generation. They had a sense of God, of family, of community, of neighbourhood, of sacrifice, of fidelity, of chastity, and of service that our generation for the most part lacks.
But they were also more racist, more sexist, more intolerant, more rigid, more imperialistic, and more given over to historical privilege than this present generation. These are not small, incidental moral things. I suspect that how we answer the question of whether we are progressing or regressing morally and spiritually is coloured considerably by our gender, race, health, place in history, and access to education, power, and money.
Not everyone would agree with this, but, whatever the moral failings of our generation, and they are many, we have also moved the needle on the moral and spiritual compass perceptibly in the direction of progress. In what way? Today, in comparison to former generations, we are less racist, less sexist, less bigoted, less timid, and more open to ecumenism. As well, and this is a real irony since we often have trouble believing in God, we have made some real strides in purifying some of the unhealthy elements within our practical theology of God. Moreover, for all their negative aspects, globalization and the communications industry have helped make information available to the poor as never before and have helped bring the world together as never before. They are helping create a global village.
In philosophy there is a dictum that says that something is gained when something is lost (and vice versa). This is true too regarding morality and spirituality. Our generation has lost some ground, but it has also made some extraordinary progress.