The book Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (amazon) was recommended to me by my dad in late January 2021. I was intrigued and looked up the author Jonathan Sacks online. According to wikipedia he served as the chief rabbi in Great Britain for the main branch of Judaism from 1991-2013. After his service, he taught as a professor in various disciplines at multiple distinguished universities. He sadly recently died in November of 2020 of cancer.
While scrolling through wikipedia I came across some things on Sacks that were deemed religiously controversial. It ended up being controversial to the orthodoxy of Judaism, and as a corollary, orthodoxy in any creed or religion. It was his comment in a book he wrote that stated: “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth.” My interest was peaking. He defended his claim by both acknowledging Judaism had a unique perspective that should be taken seriously but “He also stressed, however, that mainstream rabbinic teachings teach that wisdom, righteousness, and the possibility of a true relationship with God are all available in non-Jewish cultures and religions as an ongoing heritage from the covenant that God made with Noah and all his descendants, so the tradition teaches that one does not need to be Jewish to know God or truth, or to attain salvation.” (link) With this interesting finding, and my genuine interest in the subject matter, I was sold and decided to pick it up.
Morality is a profoundly difficult concept to untangle. Conceptually morality is a system of values, principles and behaviors that guides a culture. Sacks attempts to claim the act of choice, or free will, as a central component of morality. As he puts it, “to become moral, we have to make a commitment to some moral community or code.” (274) But is there an axiomatic morality to which there is a universally grounded morality? If there is not, how are the various forms of morality not on a sandy foundation, bound to subjective interpretations, and thus deemed to be relative? For example even a self professed atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Satre said of France in the late 1880s as they were trying to come up with a secular morality as they first framed the morality project as “God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a civil society, and a law abiding world, it is essential that. certain values be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them.” Even though Sacks admits there is not one true moral path and thus subjective, he does lay a ground work to build a moral foundation that leads to a moral injunction.
Sacks lays out his argument for a moral system in a three part societal structure namely: political, economic, and moral. Within that structure there is a human relationship component of either “I” based or “we” based. For example, when the three societal structures are aligned with a “we” component we are looking out for each others’ best interests economically, politically, and morally. Our economic competition is grounded in respect and trust in our fellow citizens. We compete, but we are not abrasive or ruthless, ignoring the losers and prizing solely the winners. Politics are based in truth and respect, though again, highly competitive. Morality is cooperative rather than competitive. It is grounded in an “all of us together” ethic. As Sacks puts it, “a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, and it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable.” (20)
In order to orient the moral conversation and its current state, Sacks pinpoints the 1960s as the era when we in the west began our decline into moral decay. Cultural shifts around authority, lifestyle, and ideology moved people more into an “I” based culture rather than a “we” position. The rise of self-help, individualism, and performative social media have contributed to a slew of negative consequences that can rightly be bracketed in the “I” column rather than the “we”. This cultural shift to a more individualistic basis has occurred gradually over time. It has also been radically reinforced with technology. This shift has been influenced by things like identity politics, populist politics, consumerism, and social media.
One example of an outcome from the movement to individualism is an increase in loneliness. We have moved from a society where “we’re all in this together” to a society of “I’m free to be myself.” The shift into a more individual centric culture has resulted in many people losing a community of belonging. Evolutionarily our ancestors relied on each other for protection, food, and reproduction. We evolved to be social animals. For many reasons in our age (most of them technological) we are not required to be as communal as we once were to meet basic needs. One study of chronic loneliness found that social isolation “itself is as harmful to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and more harmful than obesity.” (28) Also, paradoxically, though we may be in a crowd or have many virtual friends that we connect with and communicate with, we may feel isolated or alone because of the culture of performance instead of authenticity. We may be with others, but because we may lack genuine social connections, we remain alone emotionally and psychologically.
How do we move back to or strengthen a “we” based morality? Religion has provided an important sense of community for centuries. Military service is well known as a community of close-knit comrades that strengthen each other through loyalty, acts of bravery and unselfishness. A sports team has a communal “we are in this together” identity. Community building is something that I have thought deeply about since I left the religion of my youth some years back. One of the most noticeable things I found when I removed myself was the massive void of community that I once had. It was a gift to learn of the many surface level friendships that were sadly based on Sunday attendance and simple conformity to dogma. But I was also robbed of the potential deep connections that I could have developed or maintained had I remained faithful. Religion creates community, it binds us to an ideal. For some it is less about the belief than it is about belonging. How do you recreate the magic of a religious community without the dogma of religion? Is it a coherent goal? Is it proper? As Sacks says “We are who we are because of the groups to which we belong.” (136) The group you actively choose to belong to is a foundational element of morality.
Can we develop a moral structure without religion? Sacks questions this idea when is says, “is something lost to the moral life when it departs from its transcendental bearings?” He says this in relation to the rise in secularization. He believes that it is either or. Either religious or secular. There are understandably serious doubts to the viability of morality in the absence of religious faith. Voltair said he liked other people to believe in God because “if they do, I shall be robbed less and cheated less.” Dostoyevsky said in The Brothers Karamazov that “if God did not exist, all would be permitted.” This is a scary thought. I think there is some merit in this line of thinking, but it does not hold true for all people. Some of the worst people I know are very religious. In an odd conundrum, religion can cause ordinarily good people to behave immorally based on religious teachings. I refer to examples like how homosexuals are treated by many religious adherents, the paradox of humility and arrogance in “the true church,” and fearing God and his punishment over kindness to and support of friends or family members.
Sacks then directs concern with the ideas of postmodernism and disinformation. Postmodernism posits that reality is constructed on the basis of language and power struggle, and that there is no objective reality outside an individual’s perception or language. What is called the sun to you may be called “roaring eagle” to another. It may rise in the east or it may rise at “mothers peak” depending on your culture. There are no universals, it is all socially constructed. Combine this with the idea that there are those that have power and darkly aligned incentives will rewrite history or even current events in order to “ensure that the tale told by future generations [or current] is one in which they emerge as the heroes.” (162) This way of thinking is pseudo-intellectual. It’s solipsism, or the idea that nothing is actually real except what you are experiencing in your mind. This line of thinking is no way to build social cohesion. It is imperative that in community building we emphasize honesty, truth and truthfulness as central characteristics of a prosperous society. Respect for truth requires humility. In order for a healthy community to thrive we have “to be able to recognize that certain facts are true even though they challenge [our] convictions.” (163) Our commitment to truth is expressed as a moral imperative. It is a foundational element of morality.
Okay then, we have some groundwork laid for the case for morality, how then do we convince ourself and others that pursuing a moral life is worthwhile? What techniques should we use? Sacks gives an outline in a chapter entitled Two Ways of Arguing. He uses his Jewish tradition to describe how they view arguments or debates. “What matters in Judaism,” he says, “is why the argument [is] undertaken and how it [is] conducted.” (191) The fundamental difference is the intent in the discussion. You must ask yourself, “am I arguing for the sake of truth, or am I arguing for the sake of victory?” When you argue in the name of truth if you win you win and if you lose you win because you are getting closer to bedrock truth. On the other hand if you are arguing for the sake of victory and you win you lose, if you lose you lose. As Sacks puts it, “for by diminishing your opponents, you diminish yourself.” (192) Committing to discussing important subjects in the name of truth is another foundational element of morality.
A question still arises within me, “why should I care?” For me it comes back to the well being of conscious creatures; the identification with the suffering of others. There is a simple idea that suffering is bad. Moving away from various states of suffering to states of wellbeing is good. In the same way that we show respect for the game of basketball by not only respecting the rules and the officials but also our opponents is the same way, we should also show respect to our fellow human beings in the game of life, because, like us, they also have similar capacities of consciousness that connect us. The team is bigger than the player and the game is bigger than the team. Relayed in this same chapter was the story of a powerful speech that John F Kennedy gave just four hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He urged all of us to not choose “violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.” (215) We show our fellow humans dignity even if we do not agree with their opinions or way of life. We show our fellow humans that civility matters because it recognizes that “violent speech leads to violent deeds; that listening respectfully to your opponents is a necessary part of the politics of a free society.” (215) Civility is another foundational element of morality.
Before arriving at the last section of the book I thought the content was rather bland. There were great concepts and some interesting takes, but I was not overly impressed. The last section is, in my opinion, the real meat of the complex topic of morality. The final chapters are as follows: Human Dignity, Meaning, Why Morality?, Which Morality?, Religion, and Morality Matters. Wow right? Incredible chapter titles. There were some important points that we disagree on, but in all, this final section made me pause multiple times. It focused more directly on the reason for morality, not necessarily why morality has declined (as was the subject of the first three sections of the book).
Similar to the chapter on civility Sacks goes deeper as to why morality is fundamental to our humanity in the chapter Human Dignity. He goes straight for, but over simplifies the atheistic / materialistic idea of human worth citing important figures in history. He quotes people saying things like humans are “insects devouring one another.” (Voltaire) Humans are no more than mere “chemical scum on a planet … among a billion galaxies.” (Hawking) Humanity “will turn out to be just a ripple within the cosmic flow.” (Harari) Sacks sets this up in a sort of straw man outline. He lashes out at these assessments saying this kind of thinking is expressed as, “we are part of nature nothing more. There is nothing corresponding to the soul in this view, nor is there anything in the rich repertoire of the works of the human spirit.” (227) He argues for a loss of dignity inherent in this view, that we have become simply “a naked ape”. Does believing that the most reasonable explanation for our current state simply mean that life is not special? He leaves out this part and curtly makes the case that if you think humans are simply evolved protoplasm then that means humans themself have no inherent dignity. This is simply a classic case of yet another straw man argument, one that should not be taken seriously. I have found the numinous, the profound, the awe inspiring ideas and experiences of life while still holding true to the descriptions above. It simply is not an either or argument. It is more complicated.
Sacks then commits a fateful error. In this chapter he does not maintain logical consistency with his prior propositions. I respect his proposition that one must choose, through covenant, a deep commitment to a moral life which consists of the contents of the book. However he does not use this same line of reasoning when it comes to human dignity. Why cannot it not be that humans are simply thrown into existence as philosopher Martin Hieddegar described in his idea of throwness. That humans simply exist first and then find their own essence (Sartre). Why can’t these things be true? This choice, that we commit to the idea that humans have worth, that humans have an inherent dignity is a choice not a fundamental reality. Is that not the same process Sacks puts forth for all the other reasons to choose a moral life? He says, “dignity is inseparable from morality and our role as choosing, responsible, moral agents.” (231) We show therefore human life as dignified and worthy of preservation because we choose to take on that responsibility. We have thus chosen human dignity based on the divine spark of reason brought on by conscious experience. Why then can we not choose to aim at a meaningful life despite the meaningless that is inherent in human experience?
What about the meaning of life? As just described, there is inherent in each of us a yearning for meaning. The philosopher Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus “This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” Sacks attempts to make the argument that few have “felt the world as sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars, without intense spiritual discipline and focus.” He continues by saying that none of the mystics of the past “assumed that you could achieve this kind of experience without years of training.” (243) In my experience this is simply untrue. This is the kind of reasoning that allows the authorities of religions to be gatekeepers on people’s own spirituality. Sacks believes that people erroneously attempt to find spirituality with “personal theology” or “sporting events or rock concerts” or God forbid “through psychedelics.” In Sacks estimation, this form of meaning is empty of any deep and lasting foundation. I think it’s more complicated.
Sacks once again missteps in his desire to nudge people to religion systems as a means of finding meaning. He introduces Yaval Harari as central character on this topic who has had a tremendous impact on my life. In his book 21 Questions for the 21st Century he says “the universe has no meaning.” Cultures have experienced meaning according to pagan cultures as fate, to the religious as faith, and to the modern day culture as fiction. The religious have an adverse feeling toward the word fiction (I know that I did) as it describes something this is made up, which is antithetical to the reality of human experience of many faithful people. Religion can “provide us with distraction but not with meaning.” (245) Sacks take on this idea is to describe it as “an impoverished view of the nature of stories and the unique human gift of narrative understanding.” Sacks is basically admitting that religion provides a powerful narrative framework and that it does not necessarily need to be true to be motivational. Harari is not saying fiction is something that is simply a fairytale like any other story. There is something interesting there to explore at some further time, but it is out of the scope of this exploration. What is the difference between faith in a fictional narrative and simply studying a fictional narrative? I do think you can develop meaning in life through the study of a multiplicity of narrative fictions and putting into practice what can be learned. In my opinion, devoting yourself to a single fiction is a powerful distraction from the reality of meaningless and leads to a kind of eternal cognitive dissonance that will leave you empty, yearning and confused.
There are multiple moralities to choose from. How do we choose? Sacks outlines the variety of foundational ethics in the many cultures and religions of the world. They include things like, civic ethics, ethics of duty, honor, love, and dignity. There are many interpretations of how to interact with these ethics and their value hierarchy within the great cultural structure. Sacks categorizes these ethics, or morality types, into thin or thick morality. Thin morality relates to liberal individualism which is based on the avoidance of personal harm. Thick morality, on the other hand, concerns itself with “loyalty, reverence, and respect.” (273) It is further described as actively choosing instead of being reactive to things happening to you that might cause you distress. It is the distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Freedom from is “absent of constraints” (273) or commitment. “Freedom to” is to make a commitment to do something, to actively participate in the courage needed to develop and maintain moral footing. In a respectable act, Sacks does not recommend a certain morality but instead this commitment framework. “Out of the many moralities available,” he says, “there is one that is ours, and we do not have to denigrate the others to make that one our own.” (275) There are many paths, make a choice, commit to it and actively develop it.
Okay great, we have decided to dignify humanity. We accept as true enough the various moral creeds that coalesce into something somewhat akin to a personal philosophy or depending on how you look at it, a personal theology. Sacks describes this personal aspect by saying “morality in its truest sense cannot be outsourced. It is about taking responsibility, not handing it away.” (298) There is commitment or covenant making in the process of proactively pursuing that which is of most value. This moral covenant making is also best accompanied by a community. This matters. It is both personal and communal. Even though there have been powerful ideas established by Marx and Nietzsche that “what passes for morality may be a mask over a hierarchy of power, a way of keeping people in their place,” it is simply not the entire picture. To believe this is the sole outcome of moral thinking is to miss the mark completely. Morality is related to character. What matters at the end of life is not the resume of accomplishments but the character described in a eulogy. How will you be remembered?
As I attempt to coalesce some of the thoughts from this book into a coherent morality I think of it as a combination of factors. Factors that begin with the idea that there is not one true universal moral path. However, there are some foundational elements to begin, commit, develop, and take on a personal morality:
- Expand our concerns of ourself to others, including other conscious creatures (from “I” to “we”)
- Establishment of truth over power
- Setting as paramount free speech in service of a dialectic of truth
- Commit to the idea of human dignity
- Actively commit to a path and develop it
I will end with a mashup of the last few paragraphs of the chapter entitled “Morality Matters” The following basically outlines Sacks entire idea in the book. It is powerful and motivating. I actually wrote in the margins of the book, “preach Lord Sacks, preach!” It is Sacks plea to us to take seriously that in fact morality matters.
Morality matters. Not because we seek to be judgmental or self-righteous or pious. Not because we fondly recall a golden age that never was, when men were chivalrous, women decorous, sin discreet and all ranks of society knew their place. It matters, not because we are fundamentalists, convinced that we alone possess the moral certainties that form the architecture of virtue. Nor is it because we wish to relieve ourselves of responsibility for the pain, suffering, and injustices of the world by blaming them on the victims who made the wrong choices. It matters not because we wish to impose a tidy-minded order on the chaos of human imagination and experiment, nor because we are ignorant of autres temps, autres moeurs, and of the fact that ours is not the only way people have chosen to live.
Morality matters because we cherish relationships and believe that love, friendship, work, and even the occasional 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.
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 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.
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.