Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was one of the leading moral voices on the planet and with “Morality” (2020, Hodder & Stoughton) he has highlighted the state of health, or indeed pathology in today’s modern democracies (specifically the USA & the UK). The diagnosis relies on building a timeline from the Reformation through the major developments that humanity has witnessed in the 500 years since including the enlightenment, the growing dominance of science, the French and American Revolutions followed by the rise of modern nationalism and the developments of the twentieth century.
Morality has now become the last book that Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published during his lifetime. In it, he sets out the urgent need to renew societal morality in the face of systemic dangers. He describes massive leaps in human progress, at the very same time that individual happiness is at a low. Wealth, personal liberties and living standards have never been better, and yet we have never been less successful living happy lives. As Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
He sets out how amazing advances in humanity, wealth creation, democracy, technology and human rights, have positively affected every aspect of human life, but at a great cost. The price paid is a gradual but tectonic shift away from a society that derives its morality from “we” to a society whose morality is based around “I”. Sacks borrows terminology from the environment by highlighting that in the same way as climate change is the net effect of compounding multiple factors, so the “cultural climate change” is a negative result of multiple changes in society, both from the recent and more distant past as he tracks the West’s development from the Reformation onwards.
The ultra-competitive arenas of politics and the economy have become all powerful, hollowing out the moral fabric of western society. Nations were once populated by largely homogenous peoples grounded in a narrow set of beliefs, cultural icons and heroes. This is no longer possible, the fall of religion at the expense of the rise of science moving humanity towards the race to discover the what, and much less think of the why. And worse still, the morality of the community has been replaced by a global morality (by way of example the UN Declaration on Human Rights) disconnected from the specific values previously deemed sacred by communities and nations around the world. Populist politics on the rise across Europe and the United States pits the universal as the enemy of the particular, the globalist versus the nationalist. Sacks seeks to chart the golden path as Maimonides might have described it.
We have withdrawn from each other into social media and technology-driven worlds, focusing our lives around self-realization and self-esteem. The resulting vacuum has allowed politics, the pursuit of power and the allocation of public resources on the one hand, and the economy, the creation and amassing of wealth on the other, to become the only pillars that Western civilization stands upon. And as we know from Pirkei Avot, the world stands on three legs. Without one leg, the tripod will fall.
This reality has left our societies under the threat of systemic risk – and in particular, exposed to the influence at the extremes of politics and economics. This is the combined effect of many things, many of which are positive but have generated a series of damaging side-effects. Sacks calls this cultural climate change, and it threatens our civilization no less than global warming.
Morality can flourish in the space between the individual and community on the hand and the state and the market on the other. Indeed it can bring balance and harmony, shifting the center of gravity towards the people. Politics and economics are driven by fundamentally competitive forces, one representing the race to accrue power and the other the race to accrue wealth. In contrast civic society, the individual, family and community are built and thrive through cooperation. The way therefore to reclaim morality, according to Sacks, is to go from the bottom up starting from stable and loving relationships (marriage), family, community and throughout society. These are the social foundations that nurture morality.
The good news is we have the power to build it. Fixing the problem starts with us and not with politics or the market. Reading Morality is not itself a solution to the problem, but acting upon its call might be.
Universal Principles or Judeo-Christian Values
Global, universal principles may indeed be moral, but they cannot inspire the masses. Only local, specific and particular instances of these principles can. The tension between the two, and the attempt to find harmony has been a common thread in much of Rabbis Sacks’ teaching.
Morality’s thesis is centered around the success and failure of British and American democracies, and in particular American exceptionalism. Sacks sees this British-American set of values based on humanist Judeo-Christian values (as opposed to the Hazony‘s, nationalistic view of them). However, if we want a morality that reflects and can be acted upon across a modern heterogeneous society we need a more explicit description of how this might work.
Religion and (then ethnic nationalism) classically provided this framework, but religion has been under attack since the rise of science and modernity. Sacks clearly would like us to return to this as our moral compass but is fully aware that this won’t work on its own. Hence, he establishes the case that dozens of different cultures across all continents share seven core moral principles. This could be a great leap forward as a basis for a more moral society. There is no inherent contradiction between holding specific religious or other beliefs and working across the diversity of those beliefs to build a more moral society.
This is the point at which on a local level particular and the more universal moral value systems can meet. This is key to the success that Sacks seeks. It is also the hardest part for those who believe they hold all the truth.
I think that the thesis of the book would have been all the stronger had it considered additional pockets of global happiness, of the sort we see in the Nordic story. Different histories, different narratives but repeatedly at the top of the global happiness rankings. Why is that and what can other Western Democracies learn from their apparent success? Is there Nordic exceptionalism that can complement or perhaps even contradict the usual Judeo-Christian narrative that Sacks uses as his foundation? Even if we can’t take the Nordic models and translate them across Western civilization (for a myriad of reasons), it would have been intriguing to see this or other models of success as a benchmark to the arc that Anglo-Saxon democracies are traversing.
A Future Rooted in the Past, but not in Nostalgia
The good news – the way to rebalance our politics – lies in our hands. We have the agency to replenish the vacuum alongside politics and the economy with the kind of pursuits that classically developed the practical moral fiber of societies. The complication in the twenty-first century is that the task of doing so cannot rely on a nostalgic or an overly romanticized view of the past. We should not hanker after a return to the divine kings, the aggressive nationalism or the church dominated states of the previous centuries. The more we delve into the past the more we see the reduction of personal freedoms and liberty. This is also impossible practically due to the heterogeneous nature of Western democracies following multiple waves of migration and immigration mixing cultures and religions from the world over. Sacks emphasizes that the populism we suffer from is ignited by the tempting myths of the past that never really existed in reality. Populism offers the false promise of a return to past glories which tend to be more narrative than history. We should all be concerned by this, as history shows that once the populist-bubble bursts we can slide into tyranny.
Whilst Rabbi Sacks criticises the combined effect that the progress of humanity has created, slipping from the “we” to the “I” society, he also makes clear that the progress should not itself be considered as negative. Sacks walks a fine line between a sense of tradition, drawing from the past, which could be considered as a purely conservative message, and an open view on the key issues of the day, including by way of example, human rights, discrimination, bias or oppression based on race, color, creed and sexual orientation.
There is also an important religious point in the book, hinting that Judaism itself allows for the possibility of progressive morality as humanity itself develops in history. Sacks shares the difficulties of the Jewish forefathers in the book of Genesis as they struggle, each in turn, with non-monogamous families, versus the ideal that Rabbi Sacks makes a central tenet of moral society which is the foundational monogamous relationship (we mostly call it marriage) at the base of a moral society. This would seem to suggest an archetypal approach to moral progress as we move from Biblical to modern times. Sacks the Rabbi would surely not embrace every ultra-progressive trend from a religious Jewish standpoint, but Sacks the moralist definitely recognizes that progress in morality can be achieved through the ages from a philosophical and practical standpoint.
A Single Truth, or Many Paths to the Truth
Lord Sacks delivers a universal message – “One of the great historical lessons is that societies become strong when they care for the weak. They become rich when they care for the poor. They become invulnerable when they are for the vulnerable.” This should be a rallying cry with the power to unite communities and countries with complex national identities, but the solution will not be found in politics and the market.
The creation of a covenantal relationship between the multitude of sub-sections in modern society is dependent on not leaving a vacuum between the individual and the state. Even the most powerful democracy on the planet, the United States of America, was never envisioned in such a way. It was sustained by a strong and vibrant civic society, once mostly reliant on churches, organizations, associations and even the bowling league. These collectives are designed to improve the lives of others via direct participation, beyond the realm of pure market forces and power politics.
There can be no single overriding unifying message and narrative in the modern democratic state, both because of the demise (or partial demise) of religion as the glue, but also because of the huge heterogeneity that modern society represents. Rabbi Sacks refers to Judeo-Christian values on multiple occasions. It is clear that these are not identical to the use of those used by the emerging Conservative Nationalists, and are more in line with the vision of the biblical prophets that called for social justice for the weak, the poor and the lonely based on the dignity of all human beings, created in the image of God. Even so, there is something limiting in this vision, considering just how multicultural British and American (along with the other main democracies) have become. It is hard to see how this alone will form the exclusive backbone of a new or renewed morality binding society to form a strong counterbalance to the market and the state as the only centers of societal power.
If we go back to the original edition of “Dignity of Difference”, Rabbi Sacks himself sets out a universal vision for morality, that does not do away with particularism, but embraces as a Jewish philosophy – “In Heaven there is one truth; on Earth there are truths. Therefore, each culture has something to contribute.” Indeed Sacks is explicit in Morality – “There is more than one way of being moral.”
At the same as this is the challenge, it is also part of the solution. And whilst there is an explicit claim in the book that a religious lifestyle, and in particular the communal aspects of religion, can provide a meaningful contribution to reinstating morality in modern society, he also accepts that there are a series (seven in fact) of moral rules, that are common to sixty different cultures around the globe.
All members of a specific religion seek and are proud of the unique truth that their religion offers, both personally and as a community. The common good, so much at risk in the early part of the twenty-first century, can only be served by understanding that we have allies across multiple religions and cultures in the quest to restore basic morality to our societies. Robert Putnam pithily speculates “that an atheist who went regularly to church (perhaps because of a spouse) would be more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than a believer who prays alone.” It is the doing of religion, the being a part of a larger whole that drives the common good, rather than piety itself, the philosophizing about religion, or the contemplation of universal truth per se.
Our Own Happiness Stems From Making Others Happy
Research shows us that man’s recognition that he or she is part of a greater story (marriage, family, community, country, world) correlates to a happier and often longer and healthier life. A moral life is a happy life, and the common good can also lead to personal happiness. This insight allows us to solve the social dilemma, classically phrased as the sacrifice an individual makes for the greater good. The more we help others, the more we will find happiness. Borrowing the foundational ideal from the American Declaration of Independence – “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – the route to happiness passes through the effort to make others happy, rather than the constant search for personal realization. The foundations of this lie in a loving and stable family, a connected community and a social mosaic including places of worship, communities, associations, clubs, NGO’s etc.
Morality would have been all the more powerful as a call to action if some of the examples quoted had their source in other religions and cultures. Moderates in the multiple religions that are represented today in the UK and the USA ought to be aligned around the moral principles that Sacks lays out repeatedly in the book. Indeed vast swathes of the atheist, humanist or the plain unaffiliated citizens of the world’s democracies would easily find a way to identify with the core moral message. Over the course of decades, Rabbi Sacks has been at the forefront of just such an outreach, way beyond the confines of the Jewish community itself. Indeed one can feel this from the outpouring from world political and religious leaders on Rabbi Sacks’ sudden passing. It can be no greater testament to his life’s mission.
Instead of allowing the multiple narratives the privilege of undermining truth, we should celebrate the fact that different groups seek truth in different ways and along different paths. It is the rise of the religion of cynicism at the cost of idealism that is destroying society, rather than the rise of any particular ideology. All those that can sign on to the fundamental moral principles (that Sacks enumerates) should combine, irrespective of their different theologies or lack of them.
Morality can re-emerge during critical moments in history, and Sacks hints that we are still on a path to a higher level of morality within the timeline of history. But this progress does not come without a price or risks. Sacks highlight moments in Western history that societies needed to reverse dangerous trends and succeeded. We are in such a moment, a perfect storm that has the combined forces of a breakdown in trust, a rise in populist politics, a post-truth environment and now the global pandemic leaving many of us with a sense of impending doom.
In order to restore society, Rabbi Sacks promotes religion as an alternative and the rebuilding of moral society in general more broadly. He equates morality with the social covenant as opposed to the social contract which he considers mistaken outsourcing of morality to the state and the market. We are each faced with the social dilemma requiring us to sacrifice something (physical, economic or perhaps even philosophical) in order to turn the tide. If there is room for optimism, it is that the thesis set out in Morality relies on each and every one of us to play his part. In the words of Obama “Yes, we can!” We can get involved, give our time, look out for others, especially those beyond our comfort zones and social networking bubbles. Each act of morality towards another puts another brick of trust back in the wall of society as a whole. It starts with us, but it can be infectious. This means we have to make the decision, own our own agency for change, and not wait for others.
There are many excellent reasons to read Morality, for me one of them was the intellectual slap down that Sacks delivers to Professor Yuval Harari by dismantling in fairly short order the false questions Harari poses in his quest to deny human agency, or the ability for us all to take control over the decisions we make, and hence our individual and group destiny. And beyond the small joy of the answer Sacks gives Harari, it reflects a much wider idea that we have agency and purpose in this world, as described by Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, “Man Searches For Meaning.” Frankl’s inspires us even when life is supremely difficult. Indeed much of what is described in Morality is that we never had it so good for so long and hence the adversity that creates resilience has not been at hand. It is now, and in multiple and meaningful ways.
A wonderful Hasidic story tells of a Jew who sought to change the world, but realized that this was too ambitious for one man, then he realized that he couldn’t even really change his country, or city, or even his own family. His recognized that the way to change the world is to start with oneself, and then with concentric circles of good. This lies at the heart of the Morality thesis.
History shows us that society takes backward steps, but that this it is neither deterministic or permanent, and more importantly we, the people, have the power to restore the common good and morality, which in itself will create a better society and by its action, mitigate the power of the state and the market as a result. Reading Morality is not itself a solution to the problem, but acting upon its call might be.
There can be no better way of memorializing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and his immense contribution to the humanity of our complex world by reading his last book, and more importantly, as he did, act upon it.
לזכרו של הרב יעקב צבי בן דוד אריה זצ”ל