Americans faced tremendous challenges in 2019, but 2020 has turned the temperature way up, increasing pressure on families, civil society, and government. It’s been a year of stress and strain for many, bringing into sharp relief both social issues requiring urgent attention, as well as our common humanity and shared vulnerability. That makes this a prime time to consider how we might repair our long frayed social fabric and polarized politics.
These are the questions that Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations, turned his attention to in his final book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times. Rabbi Sacks, who passed away last Saturday, was concerned by changes society has undergone over the last half century that have left Americans, and others in the liberal West, so divided and deeply unhappy.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with many of the problems Sacks catalogued and referred to collectively as “cultural climate change.” Among the many problems liberal Western societies now face, Sacks noted: broken families, loneliness, drug use, teen depression, deaths of despair, growing economic inequality, media that reinforces individuals’ pre-existing biases, universities’ embrace of safe spaces and no-platforming, public shaming, and a polarized political atmosphere that dehumanizes those who don’t fully agree with us. Sacks described these as “the long-term consequences of the unprecedented experiment embarked on throughout the West a half-century ago.”
Sacks pointed to the 1960s as the starting point for the shift in what he described as a “We-to-I” orientation, whereby everybody follows their bliss and doesn’t worry about the still unknown, long-term consequences. However, he also applied his knowledge of philosophy, tracing the origins of our individualist emphasis back centuries. Rabbi Sacks considered the theories of Epicurus, Cicero, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Durkheim, Darwin, de Tocqueville, Marx, Adam Smith and many others, while also offering biblical insights, as he argued that societies’ We-to-I shift has been widely harmful.
Sacks described the economy, the state, and the moral system as the three basic pillars of society. Sacks saw a strong economy and state, focused on “wealth and power” respectively, with morality as the weakest link. “When there is no shared morality,” he wrote, “there is no society.” This concerned Sacks, who believed
we must recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another . . . There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility, no viable ‘I’ without the sustaining ‘We.’
In support of this point, Sacks provided numerous examples of ways that we all benefit not only from human contact, but also from cultivating community. (Any readers who might have been skeptical about these points previously are likely to agree after living through spring’s lockdowns.) Face-to-face contact builds relationships and bonds of trust, which strengthen society, faith in institutions, and the likelihood of group survival.
In one of the most thought-provoking chapters of the book, entitled “Democracy in Danger,” Sacks compared the Anglo-American and French visions of rights. In the former conception, there’s a protected space for civil society, wherein government is not welcome. Meanwhile, in the latter, rights are “delivered by the state.” Sacks opined,
It is genuinely sad to see how, almost without people noticing, Britain and the United States have abandoned their own unique tradition . . . and instead embraced the Rousseau-esque French revolutionary model of rights as claims against the state.
For anyone concerned with empowering families and civil society, this point requires serious consideration. Namely, how does one create societal change in a culture that has already ceded so many private responsibilities to the state? It’s not a small question.
After nearly 300 pages of laying out the immense problems facing liberal Western societies, it’s notable Rabbi Sacks remained optimistic that we can still overcome these challenges together. He pointed to the thoughtfulness of members of Gen Z that he had met, as well as the spontaneous altruism many people showed to strangers in the wake of 9/11 and this spring’s widespread lockdowns. That such care and compassion can exist even in societies that are increasingly secular and lacking a common language of morality offered hope to Rabbi Sacks—and should give us hope, as well.
In spite of his repeated emphasis on “we,” Sacks saw room for each of us to contribute to societal change individually. By doing acts of kindness and behaving in ways that make others trust us, Sacks believed there were opportunities for incremental improvements.
In the immediate term, Rabbi Sacks also emphasized that we could improve our own lives by controlling our reactions to events around us, as well as thinking carefully about the stories we tell about our own lives. He cited the examples of Steve Jobs and JK Rowling, who found success after overcoming incredible personal setbacks, as well as Holocaust survivors, who focused on building the future they wanted, rather than ruminating about their unspeakable past experiences.
It remains to be seen whether our experience with COVID-19 will prompt major, positive societal changes. But it has already provided countless examples of Rabbi Sacks’ contention that our individual well-being is tied up in the well-being of others. As the world mourns Rabbi Sacks’ loss, perhaps we can all use this time to reflect on how we can better help others and repair what’s been rended.
Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former U.S. Department of State speechwriter, is now an independent writer in Washington, D.C. She frequently writes about culture, religion, and issues affecting families. She shares all of her writing on her website.