One of the few crazy benefits to come out of lockdown is the ability to take part in a bookclub in Florida when you live in London. Thank you ladies for inviting me.
We have been studying Jonathan Sacks book ‘Morality’. Although the title sounds slightly worthy, the book is astonishing in its cultural and philosophical sweep, the depth of the author’s understanding of philosophical theories – and it has to be said – their increasing practical absence from the underpinning of our societies. Safe to say Sacks was a brilliant man. If I had had any one of these thoughts I would have been quite proud of myself, he has a whole bookful. Indeed many books full. But it is still very readable. Don’t ask me how Lord Sacks could write so clearly and plainly about such complicated themes, but it seems he could and did.
A free society is a moral achievement, Sacks writes in the introduction. Moral principles he continues, are not economic or political ones. They have to do with conscience, not wealth or power.
“The free market and liberal democratic state together will not save liberty. Because liberty can never be built by self-interest alone. I-based societies all eventually die.”
(That ‘I’ is not the Apple one we’ve all got used to. It’s the self. Me).
We know we have problems. Not many people would look around today and think everything is fine. But there is an overwhelming sense of what to do about it. Where to start? We as a society have come to rely on economics and political ‘solutionism’. If only we can just elect the right leaders or maybe distribute taxes more fairly. If only this leader or that wasn’t so objectionable.
But despite changes we make to policies and political structures, our deeply entrenched problems often remain the same or worsen. How can this be? We changed this or that but nothing got better. Of course some things do improve. Sanitation, health, hygiene. Incomes have increased in the west, doubled according to the author. Living standards in the West have increased beyond anything our ancestors dreamed of. Poverty is addressed in some respects, life expectancy has increased. Yet we are no happier.
Sacks posits an idea that part of this problem is the result of a dangerous transition that free liberal democratic societies have made over centuries from ‘we’ to ‘I’. From a sense of the common good, to a concern for individual rights and freedoms. In this technology has not helped, there is the noise of social media and the rise of fake news.
“Technology moves fast while the democratic process is slow.”
But inability to keep up with the furious pace of technology is the real threat. And the most dangerous part is that our Governments, that we have long relied on to ‘do the right thing’ often don’t understand the issues any better than the man in the street, with dire consequences. Technical illiteracy is widespread and it’s to be found at a computer near you. This is what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden came to tell us.
But I digress. Sacks also points up an inherent paradox. The state cannot be about satisfying our individual interests because there is no way of satisfying them all. Therefore the state must be about addressing our interests as a collective body, seeking the common good. Yet what happens if the perceived greater good rides roughshod over the freedom of individuals? The misuse of this ‘common good’ idea can lead to some terrifying outcomes. During the Reign of Terror (1793-4) that followed the French Revolution when 16,594 people were sentenced to death. That is what can happen when we pursue the common good at the cost of individual liberty.
In a Chapter entitled ‘Democracy in Danger’ the author quotes Mary Ann Glendon’s book Rights Talk how “mass mobilisation, urbanisation and mass culture” have contributed to the withering of communities and the atrophying of a civil space in which the individual recognises his own share of responsibilities to increase the sum total of civic dignity.
When civil society grows weak, all that is left is the market and the state.
The market and the state are about wealth and power and they benefit the wealthy and powerful. They are not about dignity, wisdom (in the humanistic sense) or compassion.
Thucydides tells us that the Athenians told the Melians: ‘the strong do what they want, while the weak suffer what they must.’
When there is no shared morality, there is no society. Instead there are subgroups, and hence identity politics,
which further divides the world into them and us. When the notion of ‘we’ is absent or fatally weakened, the ‘I’ takes precedence.
But while all this makes perfect sense and I found myself agreeing with much of what is said, and while it is completely logical that the state cannot cater for the needs of every individual, it is important to ask wherein lies the definition of the common good?
“The American Declaration of Independence (1776) states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …” The French Declaration (1789) begins: Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”
No doubt at the time the use of the word ‘men’ would have been taken to include ‘women’. Had anyone asked they would have been told oh of course ‘man’ means human. Women too. But we know that in practise this was not the case. The Philosopher John Locke added to the Declaration the right to liberty and the right to property as well as right to life. In the UK the Married Women’s Property Act was passed more than 100 years later, in 1870.
Hence to write off identity politics as the complaints of ‘sub-groups’ does not hold water. Women are not a ‘sub-group’, they constitute half the human race.
It is hard to summarise such an important book in a single blog post but I highly recommend Morality to anyone concerned about the course that the world’s democracies are taking.*****
Jonathan Sacks, Lord Sacks, Rabbi born 8th March 1948; died 7th November 2020
There’s a wonderful story recounted in the Obituary for Lord Sacks published in The Guardian, Monday 9th November 2020.
He (Jonathan Sacks) and the newly designated Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. became good friends at the same time, discovering a mutual passion for Arsenal Football Club. Carey invited Sacks to his box at Highbury Stadium to watch a midweek match. But, as he recalled, the presence of the two men with an assumed hotline to heaven did nothing for Arsenal’s chances.
Sacks remembered: “That night Arsenal went down to their worst home defeat in 63 years, losing 6-2 to Manchester United. The next day a national paper carried the story in its diary column, and concluded: If the archbishop of Canterbury and the chief rabbi between them cannot bring about a win for Arsenal, does this not finally prove that God does not exist!” The day after I sent them the following reply: ‘To the contrary, what it proves is that God exists. It’s just that He supports Manchester United.’”
It is hard to summarise such an important book in a single blog post but I highly recommend Morality to anyone concerned about the course that the world’s democracies are taking.
#Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times by #Jonathan Sacks