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Truly free societies require shared morality. Here’s how to get there

In “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom becomes a brilliant light unto our nation

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at a press conference announcing his winning of the 2016 Templeton Prize, in London, Wednesday, March 2, 2016.
Associated Press

In 2013, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks stepped down from 22 years of service as the Chief Rabbi for the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, the Prince of Wales praised him for his custodianship of timeless truths and proclaimed Rabbi Sacks “a light unto this nation.”

With this month’s North American publication of his powerful new book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” Rabbi Sacks’ wisdom becomes a brilliant light unto our nation.

“Morality” has the potential to become a decade-defining book. In the way a book like Christopher Lasch’s “The Culture of Narcissism” defined the 1980s, or Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” defined the 2000s, Sacks’ “Morality” holds up a bracing revelatory mirror to this moment in human history. In his poignant, poetic and prophetic way, Sacks reminds us that a free society is not only a political achievement, nor is it just an economic achievement — a free society is ultimately a moral achievement. Consequently, argues Sacks, we cannot expect to maintain liberty if we focus only on politics or economics and ignore the eroding moral contours of our culture.

In “Morality,” Sacks asks whether we are destined to live with the division, extremism, isolation, economic inequality and political polarization that have characterized Great Britain and the United States in recent years.

He probes these and other social crises of our time (e.g., threats to free speech, social unrest, post-truth, cancel culture) and characterizes them as symptoms of what he calls “cultural climate change.” Just as meteorological climate change that begins from a common cause can manifest itself in varied, turbulent ways, today’s cultural turbulence has its root cause in a societal imbalance between the ‘I’ of self-interest and the ‘We’ of shared responsibility.

Sacks argues that since at least the 1960s, many have had the false belief that our societies can function on the basis of self-interest alone. Accordingly, he says we have “outsourced” our moral choices. We glorify personal autonomy over a shared morality, and thereby swap out moral choice (“what should I do?”) for market choice (“what can I afford?”). And then, when those choices produce poor results, we seek to outsource the consequences of those choices to the state, expecting democratic governments to soften the blow of poor personal decisions.

Sacks is not arguing against markets or democracy in favor of collectivism. Far from it. His approach values profoundly the freedoms afforded by capitalism and democracy. But he reminds us how markets and politics are systems of competition, trading in wealth and power, and that we also need to honor the cooperative aspects of our natures that build community through abundant investments in ethics and civility.

“Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets,” writes Sacks. “Economics needs ethics. Markets do not survive by market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we will lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”

Consequently, truly free societies require a cultural concern for a common good that honors the dignity of all — or, in other words, a common morality. So how do we actually recover this precious collective good of shared morality?

Here, Sacks is more evocative than prescriptive. He reminds us of broad social movements in the past that have successfully turned decadent and atomistic “I” cultures into more prosperous and cohesive “We” cultures. He notes, for example, the role of the Second Great Awakening as an antidote to the social fragmentation and alcoholism of frontier America, the role of the abolition movement in restoring the dignity and worth of all human beings in the face of the selfish horrors of slavery, and the role of the social insurance systems of the mid-20th century as responses to the excesses of early 20th-century capitalism.

Sacks urges all of us to think more about our collective identity than our individual interest. A contract is a transaction focused on interests and who benefits; a covenant is a relationship focused on identity and what can be transformed. Sacks offers how the concept of a relational social covenant — as contrasted with the concept of a transactional social contract — could help restore a common moral bond in a fracturing world.

There is plenty of analysis available about what ails us. But if you are seeking for hope in the midst of our 21st-century predicament, hope that is culled from the wisdom of the ages, I urge you to delve into Rabbi Sacks’s “Morality.” Under his gentle rabbinical guidance, ponder on how social covenant and a common moral purpose can help us to, in his words, “enhance the structures of our togetherness, a togetherness ... weakened by too much pursuit of self. The choice is ours, and the time is now.”

Dr. Paul S. Edwards is the director of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, which will host an online conversation with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks about his new book on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 11 a.m. Information at http://bit.ly/sacks2020.