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Reflection on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

Reflection on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

Alasdair MacIntyre says in his book After Virtue that we have lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. We only possess fragments of what was once a coherent view of the world and our place within it.

The dominant view today is that morality is subjective and relative. This book (Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times) seeks to uncover the flaws in this view, the historical antecedents that led to this view and looks at ways to recover morality in our time. In Sacks’ view, if we do not recover morality and move away from rampant individualism, humankind is doomed. As we have seen throughout this pandemic and what we will see in the decades to come as we grapple with climate change, societies based on self-interest are unsustainable.

Much of the discussion pivots around the three basic institutions of society: market, state, and morality (underpinned by religion). State, which is about power, and market, which is about money, are both forms of competition. Morality is about truth, cooperation and a shared vision. With the rise of individualism, relativism and determinism, morality has fallen by the wayside in our culture, and this is a dangerous thing. The lapse in morality has led to the freewheeling of the power of the state and the choices of the market.

The market causes us to make choices based on economic power, while the state must deal with repercussions of these choices. In the process, responsibility shifts from the individual to the state and things like inequality, social fragmentation, even suicides can be traced to issues that stem from this. I really do not want to get into the weeds with any specific topic because there is a lot to unpack, and I do not think I can do the book justice. The author is extremely erudite, and his wisdom and clarity of writing comes through. Sacks looks at the Enlightenment philosophers, modernists, post-modernists and especially thinkers such as Freud, Marx, Nietzsche and to some extent Darwin, with the eyes of an Abrahamic theologian.

This book is a good follow-up to Prince Ghazi's A Thinking Person's Guide to the Truly Happy Life because Sacks echoes Ghazi's idea that true happiness (eudaimonia) is a state of being that is brought about by working for others. This contrasts with pleasure (hedonia) that is a fleeting state that is all about the pursuit of individual pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure is destructive while the pursuit of happiness is civilizational. This is what the framers of the Declaration of Independence of the United States meant by the phrase "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". The framers never imagined that future generations would interpret 'happiness' to be the pursuit of pleasure.

Morality is born when we focus on the other. But in our times, when social media is the oxygen of public life, the 'other' is the 'audience' or the 'follower', while we are the performer. The mode of engagement is fundamentally different. On social media, character is trivialised as personality, likes take the place of respect.

Jonathan Sacks passed away late last year just after this book was published.

I conclude this short reflection with his words:

That a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares for the vulnerable. There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility, no viable I without a We that sustains it.

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