Published on January 4, 2021
Review of Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, by Jonathan Sacks (Basic Books, 384 pp., $30)
In Anne of Avonlea (1909), the second volume of L.M. Montgomery’s classic children’s series about a high-spirited orphan, Anne is invited to tea at the home of her Sunday school teacher and role model, Mrs. Allan. Anne panics at the prospect, afraid that she will somehow fail to impress the elegant Mrs. Allan, and frets to her caretaker, Marilla, “What if I shouldn’t behave properly? You know I never had tea at a manse before, and I’m not sure that I know all the rules of etiquette. . . . I’m so afraid I’ll do something silly or forget to do something I should do.”
Marilla stops Anne with a “very sound and pithy piece of advice”: “The trouble with you, Anne, is that you’re thinking too much about yourself. You should just think of Mrs. Allan and what would be nicest and most agreeable to her.” Anne instantly recognizes the wisdom of this approach: “You are right, Marilla. I’ll try not to think about myself at all.”
This small moral lesson—that worrying about the way others perceive us is not the same thing as actually being concerned for others—may have seemed obvious to readers in 1909, when Anne of Avonlea was published. But as the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks argues in his recent book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, the West has come, over the past sixty-odd years, to place “not society but the self at the heart of the moral life.” We are encouraged to think about ourselves often, and from all kinds of angles—how we appear on social media, how our personal experiences fit into the landscape of identity politics, how we can best gratify our wants through an endless array of consumer options.
Yet as Anne and Marilla realized, an excessive focus on the self can lead to acute and unnecessary anxiety. Moreover, a self-absorbed society, as Rabbi Sacks notes, is likely to be a mistrustful and lonely one. In Sacks’ view, this combination of stress, loneliness, and doubt leaves people vulnerable to exploitation by unprincipled demagogues and radical cultural trends. Sacks attributes a legion of problems to this one overarching cause, what he calls the societal shift from “we” to “I.”
It’s an expansive thesis whose reasoning is difficult to track precisely. To support his arguments, Sacks draws on a sometimes bewildering variety of sources from different eras and disciplines: anthropology, psychology, sociology, economics, political philosophy, theology. His erudition is extraordinary, but understanding how Sacks’ findings and authors relate to one another presents a challenge; and at times it is unclear which perspectives he views as authoritative.
This lack of clarity may be partly due to the fact the book was inspired by, among other things, a set of radio broadcasts that Sacks hosted for the BBC. For over three decades, Sacks led a short “Thought for the Day” morning segment, and in 2018 he presented a five-part series titled, “Morality in the Twenty-First Century.” Both programs addressed a large general audience to whom Sacks was not expected to proselytize or preach but rather to offer general scholarly observations about modern muddles. Thus, the job presented a conundrum for a religious figure, especially one of Sacks’ standing; he had been chief rabbi of England from 1991 to 2013.
In his longer programs on morality, Sacks posed a series of questions to prominent writers, academics, and a focus group of young students but offered few conclusions of his own. In Morality, he does much the same thing: He asks penetrating questions and collects answers from diverse sources but leaves his own views somewhat hazy. The reason seems to be that Sacks is trying to do something complicated if not impossible: to write from a distinctly religious and Jewish point of view while suggesting that a coherent moral system can be derived from something other than theism.
In his chapter on religion, for example, Sacks begins by asking about religion’s role in moral life: “What about God? What about religion? Is some kind of faith essential to ethics?” Yet those who seek a forceful defense of religion in general or Judaism in particular will not find it here. Sacks claims that these questions and others like them are “hauntingly difficult . . . to answer.”
Sacks goes on to cite Voltaire, Dostoevsky, George Washington, Alexis de Tocqueville, John F. Kennedy, and Will Durant, all of whom saw “religion as a major shaping force in the moral texture of society.” He also argues, though, that the “two most fundamental sources of morality do not involve religion.” Sacks says that the “instinct of compassion” and the “logic of reciprocal altruism” predate not just religion but humanity itself. He describes religion in instrumental or anthropological terms, as something that creates “the conditions for trust between strangers” and “allow[s] large numbers of human beings to inhabit a single shared culture, encoded in sacred stories, rehearsed in choreographed rituals.” In other words, he focuses less on the content of particular stories or rituals than on the fact that all religions tend to perform a certain societal role. In Sacks’ view, early religions provided a “moral structure on a cosmic scale. . . . The world out there in the cosmos, and the world in here in the soul, came together to unite human beings in a single moral enterprise: the society-wide maintenance of order.”
Yet if societal order and attractive rituals are all that religion has to offer, it is thin gruel indeed. Sacks defends what he sees as the Judeo-Christian system in similarly utilitarian terms: It is valuable because it creates community, encourages people to practice good behavior, and instills a sense of responsibility for future generations. He concludes the chapter by saying that religion “has something to add to the conversation and to society regardless of its metaphysical foundations.”
These statements may be true, but religion also has a record of severing communities and encouraging people in cruel and outright murderous behavior. Moreover, defending religion on the basis of measures derived from social science, rather than on its own terms, undermines the intrinsic source of its validity. (It could just as easily be criticized on the basis of those same criteria.)
These are the moments in which the book falters, because Rabbi Sacks chooses not to use the tools that would seem to be most readily at his disposal: the wisdom of his particular faith and the authority it holds for him. People do not become religious simply because it encourages law-abidingness or personal discipline or even community (at least, few would admit to such motivations). And while in Morality Rabbi Sacks movingly describes many real problems—our loneliness, our lack of connection to a clear common good, the mental fragility of a generation glued to its screens—this great spiritual leader does not much emphasize the spiritual elements of those problems.
As Rod Dreher notes in The Benedict Option (2017), certain Orthodox Jewish practices seem particularly well suited to a distracted and fragmented age. Orthodox Jews do not use electronics on the Sabbath, a practice that guarantees a built-in break from social media, video games, and the intrusions of the online world in general. The requisite ceremonial meals on the Sabbath, free of electronic noise, can enhance family life and friendships: There is little choice but to speak face-to-face. To practitioners, these are more than simply good ideas. The beliefs undergirding the observances provide them with vital force; they are linked to a profound sense of purpose and commitment. Examples like these would have provided a fuller view of what a religious life offers in a lonely time.
This book is a noble project, one of many in a rich and noble life. And it is through Rabbi Sacks’ life that a bolder version of the lessons of his book takes shape, one with positive instructions: that we have a responsibility to serve our families, communities and nations; that loyalty, humility, and integrity are indispensable to these forms of service; and that religious conviction ought to undergird our understanding of all of the above.
In a panel conversation with Yuval Levin and Robert P. George shortly before his death, Rabbi Sacks acknowledged the book’s lack of a forceful spiritual direction and promised that his next book would be more “no-holds-barred.” The tragedy of his passing is compounded by the knowledge that this work was unfinished.
Devorah Goldman, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the Tikvah Visiting Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.