Jonathan Sacks’s latest, and last, book, “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” is an ethical will of sorts, in the form of a comprehensive, erudite survey of moral philosophy and a plea for a renewed commitment to a communal moral code. Sacks dedicated the book to his nine grandchildren — “It was for the sake of their future that I wrote it” — but through a tragic accident of timing, it has become his final message to all anxious citizens who care about the future of liberal democracies.
“Morality” was published in April in Britain, where Sacks had served as chief rabbi from 1991 to 2013. It was released in September in the United States, where his dozen other books, along with his prodigious writings, lectures, radio programs and teachings, had earned him a loyal following. On Oct. 15, his office announced on Twitter that he was being treated for cancer. On Nov. 7, he died in London at 72.
And so this last book reads like a summation of his life’s work — a propitiously timed gift and a starting point for discussion. Sacks lays out his central theme as the book opens: “Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for ‘all of us together.’ It is about ‘Us,’ not ‘Me’; about ‘We,’ not ‘I.’ ”
The market is too merciless, and liberal democratic politics too concerned about the narrow exercise of power, to enable either to address the selfishness, loneliness and depression plaguing Western nations, he argues. In words that he repeated often, he warns that “we are undergoing the cultural equivalent of climate change” and run the risk that, at some point, the damage to our social order — like the destruction of our planet — will be too advanced to reverse.
Sacks’s command of the historical sweep of intellectual thought is breathtaking. In a chapter titled “Human Dignity,” for instance, he moves from Copernicus to Newton to Spinoza to Marx to Darwin to Freud to the neo-Darwinians in two brisk pages that are as readable as they are understandable. Sacks earned his doctorate in philosophy after he was ordained a rabbi, and his well-known ability to explain complex ideas in simple terms is on fine display in this book. So, too, are his knowledge of and appreciation for popular culture, sociological trends, teachings from a variety of religious traditions, and the use and abuse of smartphones and social media.
Although Sacks says this is not a work of “cultural pessimism,” the picture he draws of Western societies — primarily Britain and the United States — is unrelentingly bleak. In his view, the shift from “We” to “I” began in the 1960s, a time he describes as “an endless summer of experiment and fun with no bill to pay for our transgressions.”
The extreme individualism launched during that tumultuous decade led, in his eyes, to an epidemic of loneliness and family breakdown; depression, drug abuse and suicide; an obsession with self-help; the suppression of free speech on university campuses; and the elevation of identity politics that has bred polarization and paralysis.
Sacks decries the growing inequality in Western economies, and the consumer mind-set that devalues loyalty and abdicates responsibility, but he does not expect the market on its own to somehow find its moral ballast. Nor does he hold much faith in government, which he believes is interested only in expanding its own authority and power, but to which a complacent citizenry has outsourced its needs. “Rights have ceased to be restrictions on the scope of the state,” he writes, “and have become instead entitlements, demands for action by the state.”
And so, like a modern Alexis de Tocqueville, Sacks focuses on civil society. But while the French philosopher and diplomat extolled the strength of voluntary associations and community spirit in 19th-century America, Sacks laments the demise of those very things — particularly at a time when truth, and trust, seem to no longer be commonly shared values.
While acknowledging that different societies have very different moral codes, Sacks puts his faith in the biblical morality of love — love of God, neighbor and stranger — and implores his readers to turn outward, shed victimhood and resentment, and build bonds of trust through compassion and sacrifice. His argument for a renewed commitment to the common good is stirring and unimpeachable. But “Morality” also left me with questions that I wish Sacks were alive to engage.
Why, for instance, are the 1960s to blame for the scourge of radical individualism when they also brought, in the United States, a long-awaited expansion of civil rights? Wasn’t that a moral victory? Can moral codes be strengthened in one aspect of society while weakened in others?
In exercising its power, why can’t the state be a force for good? Why can’t it enact policies that foster community, rein in corporate excess and reflect moral values, to help nudge us from “I” to “We”? And what is the role of leadership — political and otherwise — in shaping a more moral society? While Sacks notably stays clear of partisanship in this book, his descriptions of excessive “I”-centered leadership are unmistakably Trumpian.
At times, Sacks nostaligizes the past, playing down the way “moral codes” were also used to enslave, disenfranchise and oppress — and still are today. Moving to a more communitarian culture requires us to ensure that the “We” does, in fact, include everyone.
But I’m sure he would have had a brilliant response to that point, and any others curious readers may raise. Sacks practiced the civility he preaches in this book, presenting views with which he disagreed but clearly respected, while showing how the dangers of extreme individualism can be countered by individual behaviors of a different sort.
“To begin to make a difference, all we need to do is to change ourselves,” he writes. “To act morally. To be concerned with the welfare of others. To be someone people trust. To give. To volunteer. To listen. To smile. To be sensitive, generous, caring.”
The American edition of “Morality” includes an epilogue written as the coronavirus pandemic raged, and Sacks’s stern message to those practicing “extreme liberal individualism” could not be more timely: We “have no right to freedom if exercising that right harms the freedom of others. Liberal democratic freedom is collective and depends on self-restraint. A society in which everyone feels free to do what they want is not a free society. It is not a society at all. It is anarchy.”
One can only wish that Sacks’s brilliant, urgent “ethical will” can transcend his grandchildren and inspire all who fervently hope to emerge from this difficult time with an enhanced sense of human solidarity, responsibility, morality and love.
Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times
By Jonathan Sacks
366 pp. $30