A reader asks—evidently hoping to provoke discussion—whether America is the most evil society ever.
The obvious answer is “no.” Abortion isn’t as bad as abortion plus infant exposure. The Colosseum was worse than MTV. And the consumer society has its problems but so did slavery. Still, the question is provocative. America and other present-day Western societies participate in evil in a way other societies have not, because they turn their worst features into grand principles and declare them morally fundamental.
The ancients exposed babies and let them die of exposure or be eaten by animals. However, their political, moral, and intellectual authorities didn’t get together and declare such practices fundamental to human dignity, so that restricting them in any way would be an attack on the very basis of a tolerable social order.
To put the point another way, men at all times have been willful and self-seeking. Modern Western society, however, is the first society that has deified the human will just as it is, simply as such, and declared that will to be the basis of all politics and morality. To the extent it takes that declaration seriously, and works it into the fabric of its life and institutions, it becomes radically evil in a way not previously possible.
And that, I think, is the point of the question. There are many good things about American habits and practices, but we are increasingly accepting principles that aren’t good. In the long run principles win out over habits and practices. So the question is less what we are now than which way we are pointed. If man is deified there’s really no limit on what he may choose to do. And the deification of man is the principle of the modern West.