Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, by Jonathan Sacks
Reviewed by Russ Resnik
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, was one of the preeminent Jewish voices of the past few decades—and one of the preeminent moral voices as well. His final book, Morality, is a fitting culmination to a career cut short by Rabbi Sacks’ death in November, 2020, just weeks after its publication. This review is intended as a tribute to the career and influence of Rabbi Sacks, as well as an appreciative engagement with the book itself.
The subtitle of Morality captures its overall theme: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Sacks opens with the metaphor of “cultural climate change” to describe the profound shift in morality—or away from morality—that has been building for decades, and reaching a critical stage today. Sacks is unflinching in his analysis of this ominous shift, but as a deeply Jewish analyst he refuses to give way to pessimism. He writes in the introduction:
I believe we are undergoing the cultural equivalent of climate change, and only when we realize this will we understand the strange things that have been happening in the twenty-first century in the realms of politics and economics, the deterioration of public standards of truth and civil debate, and threat to freedom of speech at British and American universities. It also underlies more personal phenomena like loneliness, depression, and drug abuse. All these things are related. If we see this, we will already have taken the first step to a solution.1
For Sacks this cultural climate change results from the deterioration of public morality, and the shift of focus, both public and private, away from the common good and onto the self. Morality, argues Sacks, is essential to liberal democracy and its benefits of freedom, dignity, and human rights. The book comprises five parts, which describe this climate change, trace its origins and consequences, and conclude with a proposed remedy. The chapters within each part include thorough documentation from social sciences as well as philosophical and religious sources, along with real-life anecdotes, to create a stimulating and engaging discussion. Here is an overview of Morality’s five parts:
1. The Solitary Self
Part One traces the shift in emphasis from “We” to “I” in contemporary culture, the resulting loss of the sense of belonging, and the traumatic experience of loneliness and isolation that results.2 Sacks explores the limitations of the self-help approach so popular in today’s individualistic culture and claims, “What makes morality so fundamental to our humanity is that it turns us outward. . . . the pursuit of the right and the good is not about self but about unselfing, of seeing the world for what it is, not for what we feel or fear it to be, and responding to it appropriately. Morality is precisely un-self-help.”3 The following chapters in part one analyze the isolating tendencies of contemporary culture such as overuse of social media and the breakdown of the family, which is “the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love.” The last chapter in Part One concludes, “For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children’s future, we must be its defenders.”4
2. Consequences: The Market and the State
In Part Two Rabbi Sacks traces the philosophical roots of the shift from “We” to “I,” from the beginning of the modern era until today. This shift has deeply impaired a shared morality, one of three pillars or elements of social stability in the West, along with free market economics and liberal democracy. Sacks argues in this section that the market and the state cannot sustain our culture without the third element of morality. The free market is being corrupted by unjust economic policies and rampant consumerism, which only a moral vision can restrain. Likewise, liberal democracy is being eroded by populism, identity politics, and unwillingness to sacrifice immediate benefits for the sake of future generations. Sacks concludes Part Two calling for a courageous reversal of these trends:
It needs moral courage to say No to the things that are tempting in the present but ruinous in the long run: drugs, cheap plastic goods, cars for all, and the other ways in which we enjoy our present at the cost of our children’s future. We need space in our lives to gather collective wisdom about the common good, and to consider sacrifice now for the sake of benefit in generations to come.5
3. Can We Still Reason Together?
In our current culture, moral standards are seen as subjective and arbitrary—and, increasingly, so is truth itself. Accordingly Part Three opens with a chapter entitled “Post-Truth.” In discussing the negative effects of social media, Sacks notes, “What has happened in recent years is that the shrinking of the moral arena and the move from ‘We’ to ‘I’ has converged with the new technologies of communication to damaging effect.”6 The titles of the following chapters in Part Three trace this damage:
- “Safe Space,” dealing with the retreat from the pursuit of truth in the current academic environment;
- “Two Ways of Arguing,” contrasting suppression of opposing viewpoints with respect for dissent;
- “Victimhood,” the belief that we are ultimately subject to circumstance and forces beyond our control;
- “The Return of Public Shaming,” which Sacks sees as a throwback to old, shame-based ways of controlling others; and
- “The Death of Civility,” which results from all this.
Vision for the common good, traditionally an inspiration for moral thought and behavior, has largely given way to fierce ideological competition with little space for compromise or respect for one’s opponents.
4. Being Human
Part Four opens with a discussion of how secular materialism has gradually undermined the sense of inherent human dignity, which is a legacy of classic ethical thinkers and especially of the Hebrew Bible. Sacks notes the “glaring contradiction at the heart of contemporary thought,” which passionately defends human rights even as it reflects a radically diminished “human self-image.”7 Without a sense of human dignity, he argues, morality is impossible—and the lack of morality further erodes a sense of dignity. The following chapter, “Meaning,” makes a similar point—without a sense of meaning in life, most often rooted in religious conviction, morality is impossible. Morality in turn, with its emphasis on the common good, is essential for any human society to endure.
The following chapter, “Why Morality?” notes that Darwin himself recognized the survival value of altruism (behavior supporting the common good), because natural selection works not only on the basis of competition, but also on cooperation, which is vital to survival of the group and the individual. Apparently humans have an instinct for “We” behavior as well as “I” behavior.8
The chapter continues with a fascinating look at Alexis de Tocqueville, author of the classic, Democracy in America. Sacks notes, “He thought that the greatest single threat to democracy in America was what he named individualism, a situation in which people living apart become ‘strangers to the fate of all the rest.’” When individualism dominates, “there is nothing standing between the individual and the state, and the result is that everything becomes politics, therefore a struggle for power, therefore divisive and abrasive.”9 In contrast with current trends, most members of the clergy, as de Tocqueville wrote, “made it the pride of their profession to abstain from politics.” Instead, adds Rabbi Sacks, they “were involved in strengthening families, building communities, and starting charities. They inspired people to a sense of the common good.”10
Drawing upon de Tocqueville’s 1835 publication, Sacks describes the contrasting climate of America in 2020 to a tee, and warns, “A society of individualists is
unsustainable.”11 De Tocqueville had noted the profound influence of religion in America, as a key to its successful experiment in democracy; Rabbi Sacks warns that the loss of religious practice and influence in America threatens its democracy at its heart.
5. The Way Forward
One of the strengths of Morality, evident throughout the first four parts, is its solid foundation in philosophical thought and social disciplines. It draws upon broad, well-documented and time-tested perspectives to engage with the specifics of contemporary culture. Another one of its strengths, however, also entails a weakness, which becomes evident in the concluding section. Rabbi Sacks desires to speak to contemporary society as a whole, not just to its religious or more traditional members. In this final section he seeks a common way forward, not dependent on a particular religious perspective, or on any religious perspective at all. Sacks has already argued that altruism, concern for others, like concern for oneself, is rooted in our biological make-up. He sees this primal concern as ready to be mobilized as concern for the common good. Through most of the book, however, Sacks noted that religion was often a bulwark of morality, and that the decline in religion in the West correlates to a decline in public morality. As he imagines a way forward, he seeks to include those without religious commitments, which is a commendable goal. But the conclusion at times seems less compelling than Sacks’ portrayal of the crisis of cultural climate change and the loss of our moral foundation, both of which have deep roots in Western culture. The appeal to an altruistic instinct seems inadequate.
Rabbi Sacks writes in his final chapter, “From ‘I’ to ‘We’”:
I have called the move from “We to “I” cultural climate change. But there is a difference between this and environmental climate change. For us to make a significant difference to environmental climate change, billions of people must change the ways they act. That is because the environment is global. But cultural is more local, especially when it concerns the tone and tenor of our relationships. To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves.12
But, of course, changing ourselves is no easy matter, as anyone who has suffered from addiction, mental illness, trauma, or shattered relationships can tell you. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible that Rabbi Sacks often mobilizes to great effect throughout Morality testifies repeatedly to the intractability of sin. Notably, when Sacks argues that we can make the shift from “I” to “We” in our contemporary liberal democracies because we’ve done it before, he cites the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century as a prime example. After decades of moral decline in America, Sacks writes:
A powerful set of moral concerns came to the fore—the abolition of slavery, the spread of temperance, the establishment of public schools, and the drive to eliminate corporal and capital punishment. There was widespread public involvement in all these movements. Social dislocation was answered by social reintegration. An “I” society became a “We” society.13
This reintegration arose in the context of a profound, biblically rooted, spiritual awakening that was sweeping across America in the years leading up to the Civil War. Sacks describes a “parallel process” taking place in Britain at about the same time, with “an extraordinary proliferation of charitable groups, religiously based associations, public schools, and Sunday schools.”14 This description hints at a religious motivation behind this movement, although it’s not stated explicitly.
Sacks briefly notes that American society made another shift from being an “I” society to being a “We” society. “Following the Progressive Era at the beginning of the twentieth century, America became more equal, more cohesive, and more focused on responsibilities than rights.”15 Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine a lasting shift from “I” to “We” apart from wide-scale religious renewal, and hard to imagine “restoring the common good in divided times” without a compelling, unifying, and transcendent vision of good. It’s significant, then, that in his concluding argument Rabbi Sacks returns to the religiously-rooted idea of covenant, which “is about what we have in common despite our differences.”16 Covenant, not instinctive altruism or pragmatic recognition of the importance of morality, “has the power to transform the world.”17
Admirably, Morality makes its appeal to the broadest possible audience, and respects the convictions of the full range of potential readers. Yet it seems inevitably drawn back to the wellsprings of Scripture to portray and defend the values it puts forth. At times its appeal to individual awareness and goodwill as part of the way forward without reference to biblical values can seem simplistic. Nevertheless, the tone of hope and inspiration that pervades Rabbi Sacks’ concluding chapters promises to make his final book influential and even transformative.
One of Rabbi Sacks’ many gifts was his ability to reach out from his deep roots in traditional Judaism to a wide and diverse audience, to speak out from the wisdom of Torah on issues relevant to this entire audience in language they could understand. A brief Epilogue, added in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, exemplifies this gift. The Epilogue shows in compelling detail how the pandemic illustrates the central theme of the book, “that in the liberal democracies of the West we have had for some time now too much ‘I,’ too little ‘We’; too much pursuit of self, too little commitment to the common good.”18 Rabbi Sacks is never afraid to lead his readers into the realms of philosophy, social science, and religious tradition, and he never fails to remain relevant and in touch with the real-life issues his readers are likely to face. Nor is he afraid to challenge his readers to respond in real-life ways—all in words that are clear, accessible, and often inspiring.
Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times is essential reading because of its clarion call for a restoration of morality, not only out of religious or philosophical conviction, and not only to roughen the sharp edges of 21st century global consumerism, but as essential to the very survival of a free and hopeful culture. The book’s final words speak to us in the world in which we live today:
As the world recovers from the pandemic, we can work to rebuild our societies the way they were, or we can use this rare moment to enhance the structures of our togetherness, a togetherness that has been weakened by too much pursuit of self. The choice is ours, and the time is now.19
This challenge forms part of Rabbi Sacks’ legacy, part of why his memory is indeed for a blessing.
1 Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 2.
2 Rabbi Sacks refers to “Western civilization” throughout his discussion, but often alludes to the global impact of the loss of morality, so the book has relevance to contemporary culture as a whole, not just Europe and America.
3 Sacks, 45.
4 Sacks, 72.
5 Sacks, 156.
6 Sacks, 163.
7 Sacks, 232.
8 Sacks, 254.
9 Sacks, 261.
10 Sacks, 255.
11 Sacks, 262.
12 Sacks, 309.
13 Sacks, 308.
14 Sacks, 309.
15 Sacks, 309. In the Epilogue, Rabbi Sacks seems to place this shift, at least in Great Britain, in the aftermath of World War II, 325–26.
16 Sacks, 319.
17 Sacks, 322.
18 Sacks, 323.
19 Sacks, 328.