"A free society is a moral achievement," Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in the preface to his most recent book. But, he says, it's a truth that many people have forgotten, ignored or denied.
The reason for morality’s decline, he asserts, is not because people aren't interested in the success of their communities, but because our collective pronoun has shifted from "we" to "I." And it's in our focus on "I," according to Rabbi Sacks, that we lose what makes our communities thrive.
Rabbi Sacks served as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991-2013, and is the author of countless books. We talked with him about his most recent, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times [Bookshop|Amazon|Audible]in September ahead of his online lecture at Brigham Young University's Wheatley Institution.
Jonatha Sacks: The leading theory in moral philosophy in those days was something called emotivism. And emotivism means that when I say something is good, I mean, I like that. This was a theory put forward in the 1930s by a famous logical positivist called A.J. Ayre, and was then taken up in the ‘60s.
And it seemed to a lot of philosophers to solve the problem. I mean, how on earth do we know scientifically or any other way what is right and what's wrong? Oh, we got the answer! It's a matter of feeling: You like it? It's good. You don't? It's bad.
Now, this is absolutely ridiculous. This is this wonderful Latin phrase, "de gustibus non est disputandum." There's no arguing about taste. Obviously, there's no clear argument that coffee is better than tea. So, you know, the end result was the only thing that mattered in moral philosophy is what I feel. Whereas I always thought moral philosophy is about what we ought to do. What are our obligations? What are our aspirations, and so on? What are the actions that make the world better? And what are those that make it worse?
But to say, all that matters is feeling is really throwing out moral philosophy after two and a half thousand years, since Plato and Aristotle.
So I thought this was a total and absolute catastrophe, and it turned out that I was underestimating, you know, nowadays. Nowadays, when you get people who are woke, for instance, what they mean is, they feel very strongly about something, but they can't actually argue it. So they will impose it by force by canceling anyone who disagrees with them. Well, you know, that's what happens when you lose a sense of shared rationality, and instead, you substitute private and individual feelings.
So I had a very, very dark suspicion 50 years ago that something extremely bad was happening. And I have to say that my tutors also felt something like that but they hadn't really got to a point where they could say, here's an alternative.
Doug Fabrizio: You mentioned how no society has been able to survive where individualism is the order of the day. No society that focuses on the individual has been able to survive very long, but you do mention, for example, ancient Greece and Rome and Renaissance Italy, they do have these, as you described in the book, these bursts of energy and creativity, when they're released from moral restraints, but in the end, they decline and fall. It's just not sustainable, I suppose, is what you're saying?
JS: Yes, because in the end, if what matters is me and I, you get this huge release of creativity as we have had in our time. I mean, historians 1,000 years from now, are going to look back and say that was the age of the smartphone, of the app, of the social media. These are just developments and interventions of a kind that come along once in 1,000 years. They are at least as significant an invention as printing in the middle 15th century. So the creativity is fabulous.
But what in the end happens is that if I am only interested in my interests, not in our interests, in the end, I will act in such a way that you will no longer be able to trust me.
Trust only exists where a group of people are assured that the people involved will put the interests of the group ahead of the individual. And that's not just true for us. It's true of a lot of animals, as well.
So for instance, a fruit bat. When a fruit bat finds some food he comes back, and shares it with its fellow friendly fruit bats because it knows that tomorrow it may not find any food, and it will rely on other fruit bats to share their food with it. So this idea of behaving altruistically, behaving for the benefit of the group is so basic that it applies to any social animal whatsoever.
DF: You asked in the book, why is morality so essential to a good society? And one of the ways you get the question is through the stories of two people I wanted to ask you about – two men who went on these journeys that would change their lives.
One was Darwin – his journey to the Galapagos where he had all those crucial insights. And the other Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled through a rather young United States, rather see what he could make of it.
Just briefly, could take us through those stories? Because you say that they were both struck by the same thing, that is, as you put it, morality is the domain of what you were mentioning before trust and cooperation.
JS: Did you ever see a film called The Imitation Game? You know, the one about Alan Turing?
DF: Oh, yes. That's absolutely yes, indeed.
JS: You know, Benedict Cumberbatch plays this very brainy mathematician, and Keira Knightley was the female mathematician who realizes that he's really upsetting everyone by being a little standoffish.
So she says to him, “Tell them a joke.” And so he does and the joke he tells is this: two explorers are in the jungle and they hear a lion roar. One of them immediately starts looking around for a place where both of them can hide, the other one starts putting on his running shoes. The first one says to the second one, “That's ridiculous, you can't run faster than the lion.” And the second one says to the first one, “I don't need to run faster than the lion, I just need to run faster than you.”
Now, this is a quick entry into Charles Darwin because what happens clearly is that the egoist is the person who puts his own interests first and puts on the running shoes, that person survives at the cost of the altruist who tries to save both of them. And therefore, Charles Darwin, all the time he was working on Origin of this Species, thought that's what was going to happen or what they called the survival of the fittest.
Charles Darwin was such a good man because he recognized when a fact contradicted his theory, and in this case, what contradicted his theory was that everywhere you go, altruists are valued. There's not one society in which they're not. Whereas, according to his theory – as we would put it today – the gene of altruism should have gone extinct.
In the end, Darwin came up with an answer, which he wrote in his book, The Descent of Man, and said that any group whose members were willing to sacrifice for one another, would be stronger than other groups and would survive. Or as we would put it, today, we pass on our genes as individuals, but we only survive as groups. So what he discovered was that for any group to survive, it has to have altruism at its core.
Now, Alexis de Tocqueville. You really imagine these two young people setting out on a journey the very same year, I find it absolutely extraordinary.
He comes to America. And he wonders why on earth, in America, which has separation of church and state, where religion has no power whatsoever, why in America should religion have so much influence? In the end, he comes to the conclusion that religion has influence, because it is the great force for altruism. It brings people together. And it does this by never ever mixing religion and politics. And he asks all the ministers, “Why is it that you don't talk about politics from the pulpit?” And they reply to him because politics is divisive, so if we talked about him from the pulpit, we would be divisive too, and we would prefer to be uniting.
So I found it incredible that in a strange way, they both hit on the importance of altruism, for the survival of groups.
DF: This is something you feel strongly about, you don't mix religion with politics. You call it a misuse of the pulpit. And I was struck by something that I read that you had mentioned, I'm not sure when it was exactly, but not even your wife, who you you're now, you've been married now 50 years, I think? She doesn't know how you vote.
JS: Correct. I never told her that. And do you know what being a wonderful wife, she never asked.
DF: She knows how strongly you feel about not mixing these two.
JS: Sure, and of course, that doesn't mean to say I disengage from politics. I am a member of the British Parliament. I'm a member of the House of Lords. But the House of Lords has something called the cross benches, which are reserved for people who have no affiliation to any political party. That's where I sit. And when I speak, and I speak there a fair amount, I only speak about moral issues, and not party political ones. And I've been in the House of Lords for 11 years and I still have not voted once.
The reason is that I believe, as a religious leader, I should have a voice but not a vote. I'd rather not take advantage of my status to exercise a vote.
So you can get really engaged but not in party politics. So for instance, I often get asked to speak at political gatherings, and I would always reply, the answer is yes, so long as representatives of all parties are present, and by and large people said yes. So that's how I tried to be a unifying force in Britain.
We know that in Jewish history, on one occasion that line was crossed. Religion and politics did mix and they were the Hasmonean kings. Some of the Hasmonean kings, in the Second Temple period, combined the office of king and high priest. It was a horrendous mistake. And the end result was that the Jewish people became so divided, worse than ever, that, as I'm sure if you know the story of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews inside the temple were more busy fighting and killing one another than they were fighting the enemy outside.
And it took us 2,000 years pretty much to recover from that, by eventually rebuilding the State of Israel.
I can't understand why people who know Jewish history don't realize that mixing religion and politics is a mistake at every level, politically, religiously and in terms of the ability to unite people around a set of moral ideals.
DF: Let's come back to this idea of creating a basis of trust on which groups can form. One of the things you mentioned in the book is that you say we don't necessarily need religion for that – that all social animals can work this out. That trust and cooperation is, you know, as you were mentioning, this survival mechanism. So why do we need religion?
You explained that, basically, we needed it as we grew and created larger communities, cities and civilizations. So we have to establish trust between strangers. So the reason we needed religion, if I'm getting this right then it is because of scale. Religion did the trick where biology or natural selection wouldn't when we're talking about, you know, millions if not billions of people. Is that right?
JS: I don't know, would you leave your front door unlocked in downtown Manhattan?
JS: If you're a member of a small village, you leave your front door unlocked. Because you know the people around you, you trust them. They know that you know that you trust them.
So whenever you have a little village, whenever you have a group, which is relatively small, then you have a situation where you will eventually generate trust, and that trust will be self sustaining. But when it's a matter of relating to a complete stranger – do you trust them?
Truth is, nobody trusts a complete stranger. So what led to the kind of big religions? I mean, people were always spiritual, all the way back. But the big religions with temples and priests and sacrifices and rituals. That is roughly coexistent with the birth of cities. The cities are places where you need to establish trust between strangers.
DF: You write about how the most powerful force in getting us to behave well, is this belief that we're being observed. And I wanted to have you talk about that. Is this a good thing? Doesn't that disqualify you from being truly moral, if you would behave differently if you're being watched, than if you aren't being watched?
JS: Being moral is what you do when no one's watching. So yes, hundred percent. It's just that there's been a lot of social science research, which shows that when people aren’t watching, people cheat.
You know, the classic example, some students put out a table in one of the corridors with coffee, boiling water and cups. And they left it to your good graces, as to whether you paid for it or not. But every other day, they put on the wall, a big, rather abstract drawing of an eye. You know, in the instances when the eye was there, three, three, or four times as many people actually paid as the days when the eye wasn't there.
So you know, it's true: We shouldn't need extra eyes to get us to do the decent thing. We really shouldn't. But the fact is, that we do. And I don't feel corrupt because I'm a member of a species that needs this kind of reminder. It's just the way things are.
DF: Yeah, I do remember Christopher Hitchens comparing this idea of being watched over by, by God or anyone else, like living in North Korea, where you're constantly being surveilled, judged, punished for your actions and your thoughts. What do you make of that? How do you respond to that?
JS: Oh, totally. Absolutely. He was absolutely right.
There will be surveillance over every single one of us. The Chinese are already developing that in leaps and bounds. But you know, for years now we've had CCTVs. And the more we get artificial intelligence, and face recognition, and very small cameras very cheaply the more there will actually be surveillance. And so you know, when we don't have God watching us, we seem to need to invent somebody else watching us.
DF: You mentioned how religion and regardless of the metaphysical foundations, you say, have something to add to this conversation about society. And I wanted to ask you about where religion may have failed.
I wanted to use the example of predominant faith here in Utah, The Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is struggling right now, as you may or may not know, to retain time with younger members, many of whom could be saying that, you know, the aspect of guilt and shame and intolerance in organized religion is something they don't need to live with in their lives and don't want to. Do you think that religion needs to maybe shift its approach? How much of the blame should they be sharing in the scheme of things?
JS: Quite a lot, actually, I'm sorry, I'm really, really not talking about your situation. But let's talk about our situation. When we have spoken to young people in the language that reaches them that touches them that speaks to where they are – and I try and do this the whole time – by any means whatsoever.
Whether it be, you know, writing books, or whether it be, I tend to work, working with pop musicians, actually. I love music as an expression of spirituality. And the great thing about Judaism is because we've been around for a long time, we have all sorts of different styles of Jewish Music. And what's happening now in Israel is real, real pop music from musicians who themselves are deeply religious. And this music, it's touching secular people in a way that I find really quite moving.
So religion should make us feel uplifted and not put down. And that becomes terribly important. Give young people a face that challenges them to a certain kind of moral and spiritual greatness, and they will really respond. So if we are seeing people leaving the faith, I don't think we can blame society or blame believers, I think it's up to us.
DF: I want to ask you about a concept you write about in the book called covenant. But explain what it is and why this is significant, because one of the things you mentioned is, you say we cannot have a society without an agreed moral code and this idea of covenant seems important because covenants you say, are different from contracts, for example, we're a contract is it is a transaction, a covenant is a relationship to that identity, or sustained by loyalty and fidelity. Talk about the importance of the idea of a covenant.
JS: The contract is quite obviously about self interest. I want my car mended, (the mechanic) wants the money. So we make a contract and he mends my car and I give him the money, and we both benefit. But we haven't entered into any kind of moral relationship.
Covenant is like a marriage. And a marriage is entered into in love. What happens is not self interest, but our shared interest. In a marriage, two “I’s” become a “we.” So marriage is the most basic form of covenant.
However, covenant entered political history in the 16th century in an extremely powerful way, and became the most potent force for freedom that we've had. Covenant means a group of people who come together to agree to build a society in the light of certain ideals. And the person after the Reformation who expressed this most clearly was (John) Calvin. So you find the spread of freedom is the same as the spread of Calvinism. First Geneva, then Holland, and Scotland, than England, then America.
The founders of America were covenanters. The Mayflower Compact is a covenant. John Winthrop's speech aboard the Arbella in 1630 is a covenant. Covenant means we come together, bound by certain principles in order to create a better world.
And if I can give you an example, because it's such a good one. I'm not sure whether Lyndon Baines Johnson was the greatest president ever. But I do think his inaugural was one of the finest ever and in it, this is what he says, in, when was it? In 1965.
He says, “They came here – the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened – to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.”
Now, I haven't heard anything that great since then. He then said:
“If we fail now, we shall have forgotten in abundance what we learned in hardship, that democracy rests on faith, that freedom asks more than it gives. And that the judgment of God is harshest on those who are most favored.”
What a beautiful idea, you know, that every American is bound in justice and liberty and in union to help those who are less well off than he is. And then (Johnson) goes on.
“Men want to be a part of a common enterprise – in a cause greater than themselves. Each of us must find a way to advance the purpose of the Nation, thus finding new purpose for ourselves. Without this, we shall become a nation of strangers.”
That was the American vision. And that is covenantal politics.
DF: You mentioned in the book, toward the end, the different responses between how people reacted after World War I and how they reacted after World War II. There was an important difference in the way people responded, but you say something about that. I thought that was an important lesson.
JS: Now the question that obviously we're all asking is when all this is over, will we have gone back to where we were? Or will we have done and created something new?
And I said, if you want an answer, look at the two previous occasions in which the world went through a crisis of this kind. Number one, 1918, World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. And number two, 1945 and the end of World War II.
At the end of World War I, 1980 people basically seem to want to forget everything that had happened. They went back to a very “I” based, selfish society.
We had the roaring ‘20s, you had The Great Gatsby, we had wild parties and wild dances. And the end result was we had a great crash; the Great Depression; the growth in mainland Europe of Fascism and Nazis; and within 21 years after the war to end all wars, the world was at war again. That's what happens when you just try and go back to where you were.
After the Second World War, the response was completely the opposite. People moved from “I” to “we.” So, in Britain, we had the Education Act, which allowed everyone to have secondary education, however poor.
You had the birth of the National Health Service, you had the birth of welfare state. There was a real “we” situation. Now in America, you had the GI Bill and many similar acts of legislation also had from my mind, it's one of the greatest political acts of all time, namely the Marshall Plan, whereby America gave loans to all European countries, including Germany to rebuild their shattered economy.
The end result of that was 75 years of peace. So, if you really, really want to get from the current situation what we need to get to build a future, we need to move from “I” to “we,” and then we will look back and say, gosh, it's helped us change for the better.
DF: Let me ask you finally: You think there's an important difference between hope and optimism. You feel more hope, than optimism. What's the difference, as you're now reflecting?
JS: The difference is simple. Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things better.
Optimism is a passive virtue, whereas hope is an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naivete to be an optimist and sometimes it needs a great deal of courage to have hope.
I always say to people, as to looking at all the past Jewish history, no Jew can be an optimist, but no Jew worthy of the name ever lost hope.