(This article is summarized by Theodore Warnakulasuriya from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. His latest book is Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times; Hodder & Stoughton. The main article was found in Tablet magazine from London.)
A former Chief Rabbi argues in his latest book that if we are to repair an aggressive society we have to restore the mutuality, compassion and grace that the Hebrew Bible sees as a lasting ideal. ‘The coronavirus is going to test all our capacity to work for the benefit of others,’ .‘Selfishness is not going to protect us’
‘ We will have to rebuild families and communities and voluntary organisations’. IT WOULD BE easy to be pessimistic about the future of Western liberal democracies. The loss of the idea of society as a moral community began as the rarefied vision of intellectuals in the second half of the nineteenth century, followed from the 1930s onward by existentialists and emotivists who denied that there was a morality beyond the self, leading the liberal revolution of the 1960s and the economic revolution of the 1980s. They were followed by the fragmentation of culture and communication brought about by computers, the internet, smartphones and social media.
That is where we are today: often lonely, confused, disillusioned and mistrustful, living in societies divided into non-communicating groups, each of which believes that it is exploited, abused or threatened by others. From this comes a politics of anger that can easily lead to populism and the search for the strong leader who will somehow make the problems go away, but often makes them worse.
That is the dark mood that has settled in the minds of many of the liberal democracies of the West. But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks believes pessimism about the loss of morality is premature. According to him, it is not that we require a special effort to be moral. It is, in many respects, our default mode. We are made to compete, but we are also and equally made to cooperate. We need one another. We care about one another.
The beautiful thing about morality is that it begins with us. We do not need to wait for a great political leader, or an upturn in the economy, or a new mood in society, or an unexpected technological breakthrough, to begin to change the moral climate within which we live and move and have our being. When we behave towards others with care and concern, sensitivity and tact, honesty and integrity, generosity and grace, forbearance and forgiveness, we start to become a different person. And such is the nature of reciprocity – itself one of the deeply engraved instincts that is the basis of morality – that we begin to change the way others relate to us; not always, to be sure, but often But this cannot be the whole picture. We do still care, and care passionately, about concerns that are essentially moral. We are disturbed by legal injustice and extreme economic inequality. We are distressed by the destruction of the environment in pursuit of economic growth. We are not indifferent to the suffering of others or to the harm we may be laying in store for future generations.
WE ARE AS moral as any other generation. Perhaps more so, for television and the internet has exposed us in the most vivid and immediate ways to sufferings that in a previous age we would hardly have known about, let alone seen. And our greater affluence and technological prowess have given us the resources to address ills – physical and economic – that an earlier generation might have seen as something about which nothing could be done, part of the sad but natural order of things. We are certainly not amoral. We remain sharply aware of the difference between what is and what ought to be. We have inherited, however indirectly, a set of ideas from Marx and Nietzsche, that what passes for morality may be the mask over a hierarchy of power, a way of keeping people in their place. From psychoanalysis, we have developed a suspicion that morality is a way of suppressing natural instinct, and as such is an enemy of self-expression. Perhaps, after the horror of two world wars, we simply reached the conclusion that previous generations had led us into the wilderness instead of the Promised Land, and the time had come to try another way.
Each of these analyses has some truth to it, and there may be many more. There is a political dimension too. The twentieth century witnessed a vast expansion of the power and presence of the state. Things that were once the province of families, communities, religious congregations, voluntary organisations and cooperative groups, were appropriated by governments.
The growth of the state meant the atrophy of many local institutions, from the family outwards, where people learned the give-and-take of human relationships and the subtle codes of civility without which it is difficult for people to live closely together for very long. The displacement of the community by the state meant the replacement of morality by politics. That is why our moral agenda changed.
Our concerns – with inequality and injustice, war and famine and ecology – go deep. But these are issues to be addressed by governments. We are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of such causes. We join protests, sign petitions, send donations. But these are large-scale and for the most part impersonal problems. They have relatively little to do with what morality has traditionally been about: the day-to-day conduct between neighbours and strangers, what Martin Buber called the “I-Thou” dimension of our lives. Instead in our personal relationships, we believe in autonomy, the right to live our lives as we choose.
TODAY WE LIVE with the retreat of the state that began in the 1980s in Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganomics in the United States, and has continued since the crash of 2007-8 in the form of “austerity measures” made necessary by the huge cost of the rescue operation to avoid a total collapse of the banking system, and thus of the economics of the interlinked modern world. We need to recover the capacity for collective self-help that was and should be again, the distinguishing feature of a strong civil society. We are not there yet. The tree of state has been removed, leaving the ivy of individual lives unsupported. As the state reduces its protective shelter, many people find themselves suddenly exposed. Single-parent families, specially the West, the unemployed, inhabitants of inner-city slums and in rural areas have become the casualties. It is and will continue to be, a traumatic experience, the pain of which only the most heartless can ignore.
The time has come for us to relearn many of the moral habits that came so naturally to our ancestors but have come to seem strange to us. We will have to rebuild families and communities and voluntary organisations. We will come to depend more on networks of kinship and friendship. And we will rapidly discover that their very existence depends on what we give as well as what we take, on our willingness to shoulder duties, responsibilities and commitments as well as claiming freedoms and rights.
ideally THE “I-IT” RELATIONSHIP of taxation and benefit will increasingly be replaced by the “I-Thou” of fellowship and community. And we may well come to see that the eclipse of personal morality that dominated our consciousness of a generation was a strange and passing phase in human affairs and not the permanent revolution many thought it to be.
If so, we need to welcome the future. For it promises to restore to human relationships the compassion and grace, the mutuality and faithfulness, that the Hebrew Bible sees as a lasting ideal – more than that, as the way we bring the divine presence into our lives.
The individualism of the past half-century has been one of unparalleled personal freedoms. But it has also been one of growing incivility and aggression, exploitation and manipulation, of temporary alliances rather than enduring loyalties, of quick pleasures over lasting happiness. It has been, quite simply, immature. So long as someone was there – the omnipresent state – to pick us up when we fell, it was overwhelmingly seductive. But it has become dysfunctional and cannot be sustained.
<strong>Morality matters. Not because we seek to be judgmental or self-righteous or pious. It matters because we cherish relationships and believe that love, friendship, work and even the casual encounters of strangers are less fragile and abrasive when conducted against a shared code of civility and mutuality. It matters because we care for liberty and have come to understand that human dignity is better served by the restraints we impose on ourselves than by those forced upon us by external laws and punishment and police. It matters because we fear the impoverishment of significant groups within society when the only sources of value are material: success and wealth and physical attractiveness. In most societies – certainly ours – these are too unevenly distributed to be an adequate basis of self-worth. Morality matters because we believe that there are other and more human ways of living than instinctual gratification tempered by regret. It matters because we believe we believe that some essentials – love, marriage, parenthood – are so central to our being that we seek to endow them with as much permanence as is given to us in this unpredictable and transitory life. It matters because we must not abdicate our responsibility for those we brought into being by failing to provide them with a stable, caring environment within which to grow to maturity. It matters because we believe there are other routes out of the Hobbesian state of nature – the war of all against all – than by creating a Leviathan of a state. It matters because we believe there are other routes out of the Hobbesian state of nature – the war of all against all – than by creating a Leviathan of a state. It matters because as long as humanity has thought about such things, we have recognised that there are achievements we cannot reach without the collaborative bonds of civil society and the virtues that alone make such a society possible.
MORALITY MATTERS, finally, because despite all fashionable opinion to the contrary, we remain moved by altruism. We are touched by other people’s pain. We feel enlarged by doing good, more so perhaps than by doing well, by material success. Decency, charity, compassion, integrity, faithfulness, courage, just being there for other people, matter to us. They matter to us despite the fact that we may now find it hard to say why they matter to us. They matter to us because we are human and because, in the words of Victorian philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, we are worth what we are willing to share with others. These truths, undervalued for a generation, are the cultural climate change we now need. They are about to become vital again, and not a moment too soon.