Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a figure who has had an influence well beyond the shores of the UK. Sacks, who died just this November, was a prolific author and speaker, noted not just for his accessibility, but also for his mastery of diverse sources, both sacred and secular. With his avuncular yet authoritative manner, he took on missions ranging from education of the laity, to colloquies with the like-minded and debates with the those who differed from him. This past September, he released Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, to be his last book, concerning the politics and society of our times, which he labels, in his words, “not normal.”

The main thrust of the book is that morality and the social sphere have been deteriorating since the coming of the 1960s and what Sacks calls the shift from a “We” to an “I” culture. He identifies the social sphere as a complement to the market and the state, and follows Robert Putnam in his acclaimed Bowling Alone in saying that the present day finds atomized a society that Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, had once characterized as a society of joiners. Sacks contends that self-help associations and religious institutions involve a face-to-face interaction that is absent when the state deals directly with those problems which those other institutions otherwise might, and which the state has come to be expected to do with the rise of a culture focused on “I” rather than “We.” This face-to-face element is the moral component of society, and its deterioration coincides with the rise of extreme politics.

Sacks credits a co-worker in his Acknowledgements section with research on the book, and it bristles with citations from books on pop psychology and sociology that Sacks himself could not possibly have had time to read; and the works are unworthy of his attention, anyhow. One feels he descends into pedantry in order to make his argument to a readership that he is not quite confident could keep up with him if he were simply to make a sustained philosophical argument. In any case, his thesis is brought home time and again through the various citations of statistics he marshals.

As for that philosophical argument, let one thing be made clear at the outset: Sacks is not a simple-minded theologian. There is a world of difference between saying that God said or did something and saying that the Torah says that God said or did something, because in the latter case, you state an indubitable fact; Sacks enjoys writing about evolutionary theory, and clearly his interpretation of the Torah is along the lines of Maimonides in the 12th century, that if something is found written there that defies reason, it must be interpreted metaphorically. At least, Sacks’ view is something of the kind. He explicitly credits the view that the earth and the universe are billions of years old, and writes, with the aim of shocking the reader, that “even” Newton had preoccupied himself with calculating the age of the world based on Scriptural sources.

Sacks thinks of religion as a persuasion, saying that the breakdown of a shared moral code, which he contends is owing to the rise of relativism, prevents our building bridges through listening and persuasion. Clearly, he has in mind here something like the violation of shared norms by authoritarian politicians who have put liberal democracy in jeopardy. But this, he thinks, is a manifestation of something with deeper roots, going back to the culture shift he describes. He views identity groups on the left as having their counterpart in angry white nationalists on the right, who, suffering through economic depression as both Democratic and Republican politicians have enabled the free movement of capital with free-trade agreements, leaving domestic labor in the lurch, are at the same time charged with being privileged. Sacks views the grievances of historically disadvantaged groups as legitimate, but here portrays the nature of the conflict between opposed poles of the political spectrum.

The receding of the social sphere that he says we witness as a legacy of the 1960s, and that he says leaves the state and market as the sole pillars of the liberal-democratic order, inadequate to sustain it alone, means that our politics is focused simply on our own interests, with no ground for shared sacrifice as a motivation. Sacks observes that, before Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, describing how the pursuit of private interest advances the overall growth of the economy as if by an invisible hand, he wrote a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, from which Sacks quotes: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.” We may say, to augment Sacks’ argument, that The Wealth of Nations is descriptive of the division of labor Smith sees emerging, rather than prescriptive of the virtue of self-interest at the expense of the moral sense.

This moral sense, to reiterate a note from above, Sacks sees as operating on the personal level, and he gives an example of a near-death incident in which he found himself in the ocean over his head, and authentically believed that his moment of death had come. A stranger intervened, swimming out to help him, and Sacks observes of his utter dependence on this help from above, a hand miraculously appearing to pull him out, that “I was the problem, not the solution.” I, and not he, characterize his experience using the language of religion, for his point is rather that this experience demonstrates the quintessentially human.

In discussing the sociological element that he makes a feature of his diagnosis of contemporary anomie, he focuses on those who suffer due to drug addiction, contending that here, too, in the 1960s, we saw a shift away from an enforcement of shared norms that banned such practice as a matter of the moral code in favor of a nonjudgmental stance from out of which emerged this particular blight on social well-being. Here, Sacks gives the example of an interview with young men in a rehabilitation center who have strayed from the normal path towards well-being that some of us are privileged to enjoy, in which the youngsters say that they are gratified to have found an authority that will give them limits within which to operate.

To extrapolate from Sacks’ foray into sociology here, we can conclude that right behavior depends on an example of how to behave, but this begs the question of infinite regress: if one is unable to find the path to one’s personal well-being, and finds someone who illuminates it by way of example, then how did that person come to learn how to set an example? Here is where Sacks notably speaks of what the Torah says, rather than asserting what it relates as fact. It “speaks of a free God, not constrained by nature, who, creating man in his own image, grants him the same freedom, commanding him but not compelling him to do good.” He writes that this freedom is at the core of the moral order.

If we follow Rabbi Sacks, then rather than having recourse to God as the creator of the moral order, we can refer ourselves simply to the writing that speaks of him, and adopt it as our own, following its prescriptions in such a way as ourselves to create the order it says he does. For what creates the moral order except our bringing of our behavior into accordance with it? It’s our embrace of it that brings it to life. Just as the myth says that God breathed life into Adam, so too do we metaphorically breathe life into the letter of the law by our actions in accordance with it, making the word flesh in our enactment of what it enjoins.

This we can only do of our own volition. Sacks rejects Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s formulation of the state as an agency that can force us to be free, and yet he also rejects relativism, which entails the contrary – that we are free to choose – as having caused the deterioration of the moral order. Sacks recognizes, we may conjecture, that his job as a rabbi constrains him to purvey the myth of an absolute authority lurking behind the law, according to which punishment is justified for conduct out-of-keeping with it. But our profession and our confession being independent of one another, we are qualified to say that it is something unaccountable within us that responds to the call of the past to behave in accordance with its dictates; and if there is a coercive element to it, it is in our unwillingness to condemn it, so that we condone it, instead. As for those who yield to such socially destructive desires as are forbidden by the Ten Commandments, the very need to prohibit which is testimony to their natural and so ineradicable origin, let their punishment be a matter for God, lest we unwittingly place a ban on ourselves.

As Sacks observes, there are various writings, with their attendant codes of conduct, handed down to us by practicing religious communities, though he adds that it is our lot to choose one. (Here it seems as though he, like Rousseau, would force us to be free, in that he rejects the choice of no choice as incoherent. In the realm of what Hegel calls the Protestant-secular, it is fair to assume, with Sacks, that the failure of a Westerner to pronounce himself on this question allies him to this de facto state of affairs.) If this is so, then the writing that “speaks of a free God” is adopted mimetically, in our espousal of it as our own, for here we do freely what is sanctioned by a God that is free, imitating his own behavior, whose laws, incidentally, the tradition says he gives out of love. Both Judaism and Plato, in the Symposium, probably legitimately echoing Socrates, observe that the laws handed down by our ancestors are good for us because they promote our flourishing. It is a modern innovation to think that the challenge to Aristotelian physics mounted by the Renaissance is of necessity good in the moral sphere, as well. It is perhaps an inevitable drama of youth and age that one should challenge what has gone before, but it is not for no reason that one tried-and-true standard of the good work of art is whether it has stood the test of time. Indeed, the very fact that something has stood the test of time should in and of itself be cause for our wonderment as to why it has done so, and an occasion for us to reflect that there might be things of value the value of which is not immediately apparent.

If we found ourselves enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt, and freed “by a mighty hand, and an outstretched arm,” so too do we find ourselves enslaved to ways of thinking and being that we have never examined in good Socratic fashion, sifting through them to separate out what is of value. Here the god of the philosophers and the God of Israel are at one in proposing that we allow ourselves to be taken in hand by those who would teach us how to free ourselves from slavery, how to become ourselves, in order that we should, in turn, become an example for others, and promote the well-being of all that Sacks is concerned to promote in his book on morality.

One thought on “Divided Times: Jonathan Sacks on Morality

  1. Pingback: Divided Times: Jonathan Sacks on Morality – The Philosophy

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