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REVIEW – Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks 

In a world increasingly directed towards individualism and the atomised self, the erosion of community and engaging in common acts has been replaced by a clamourous demand for rights and entitlements. A competitive market place of grievance and victimhood creates the impression of a zero-sum game of loss and gain in human interaction. Jonathan Sacks, in his last writings before his unexpected passing, understood that ‘we are living through a period of cultural climate change; we have outsourced morality to the markets on the one hand and to the state on the others.’

Not often spoken of in the same space, Sacks’ argument in morality is reflective of much that Pope Benedict XVI has said about charity and justice. While progressives argue that justice (of varying sorts) is all that matters and the State is the vehicle to provide every type of it (social, gender, climate, economic etc) and that charity is merely a sticking plaster, a sop to keep the poor, poor, and the rich, rich, Pope Benedict, like Sacks, understood that our relational responsibilities cannot be passed off to a faceless state without doing damage to how we treat each other as humans.

Sacks argues that this approach has left many in society rudderless and adrift. Each individual is alone to be provided for by the power of the faceless state in reciprocation for playing its role as citizen (through the paying of taxes) with an ever decreasing sense of commonality, community and mutual responsibility and dependency between neighbours and citizens. The increasing tendance to outsource responsibility and the treatment of virtue as anachronistic will ultimately lead to a dystopia. Sacks says:

‘Morality cannot be outsourced because it depends on each of us. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habit of heart that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.’

Although the popular claim is that the threat comes from the far right, Sacks understood the threat to a free society coming from both sides of an increasingly polarised world ‘at risk from the far right and the far left, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, and the far left dreaming of a utopia that never will be.’

Presciently, and evident in much discourse that pervades social media but also the in the Irish sphere, resentment along with a sense of helplessness as competing groups vie to have the state implement their preferences at the expense of others, at the expense of engagement, dialogue, compromise, communication and shared lives.

‘Market economics and liberal politics will fail if they are not undergirded by a moral sense that puts our shared humanity first. Politics will continue to disappoint our expectations. There will be a rising tide of anger and resentment, and that, historically, is a danger signal for the future of freedom.’

The division of society when morality is reduced to ‘mine’ and ‘them’, a competition for resources and endorsement from an all knowing and omnipresent State has contributed to, and reinforced by, a politics of identity and grievance.

‘A new phenomenon has begun to emerge: of ‘identity politics’- that is, political campaigning focused not on the nation as a whole but on a series of self-identifying minorities, leading to the counter-politics of populism on behalf of a beleaguered and enraged native-born population who see themselves sidelined by the elites and passed over in favour of the minorities. Meanwhile the very principles of political discourse have been damaged to the point where there has been a serious breakdown in trust. The manipulative use of social media, the distortions that have gone by the name of post-truth, alternative facts and fake news, and the mining of personal data that should never have been available for such purposes, have led to widespread cynicism concerning the political process.’

Sacks sees this increasingly fraught path as leading to the inevitable demand for opponents to be silenced and to be quashed.

‘The idea that certain views, and people holding them, might be banned merely because they might upset someone, which is what is happening in many academic circles today, is astonishing. It is the new intolerance.’

This dynamic, growing more shrill by the passing day, is cropping up in every pocket of society, where instead of disagreement and working to live together, life and politics is treated as a zero-sum game, where people feel that to protect themselves the only solution is to vanquish the ‘other’. Instead of seeing others as people, looking them in the face, they are just words, opinions on a screen, that cannot be tolerated.

‘Campus witch-hunting is itself only one of a cluster-of new phenomena that are having a corrosive effect on tolerance and truth. We have seen the return of public shaming and vigilante iustice via social media campaigns. There is post-truth, the term that came to prominence during the 2016 American presidential election, signalling that veracity is taking second place to the mass manipulation of emotion. There is the loss of civility in public discourse. Social media have given everyone a voice, and often it is a shrill one. All these things undermine the sense of belonging together as a single community that reasons respectfully together.

Whereas in the past, people had to live together – mobility was limited and though communities were more homogeneous and less diverse, it is type-casting to consider diversity merely in terms of todays’ labels. People had to learn to live together, to compromise and sometimes to lose – but they could not avoid each other. Today, communities are formed online, in the workplace, in shared political spaces, ‘anywheres’ rather than ‘somewhere’, shared dependencies and accountabilities are replaced by shared ideas and ideals. Recourse is to a morality of economics and politics, where often the ’anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’ exchange in the economic market place, playing different roles in society, some considered more valuable than others. Morality is agreed through politics, often to enforce perspectives on others, intolerance often being the overriding principle.

‘Whatever its source, morality is what allows us to get on with one another, without endless recourse to economics or politics. There are times when we seek to get other people to do something we want or need them to do. We can pay them to do so: that is economics. We can force them to do so: that is politics. Or we can persuade them to do so because they and we are part of the same framework of virtues and values, rules and responsibilities, codes and customs, conventions and constraints: that is morality. Morality is what broadens our perspective beyond the self and its desires. It places us in the midst of a collective social order.’

This shared type of morality has been understood through history and formed, ironically, the backdrop to a process where it is now being abandoned, at great risk to the freedom that it inspired and enabled.

‘Morality is essential to freedom. That is what John Locke meant when he contrasted liberty , the freedom to do what we ought, with license, the freedom to do what we want.’ It is what Adam Smith signalled when, before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is what George Washington meant when he said ‘Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people’, And Benjamin Franklin when he said ‘Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom’. Or Thomas Jefferson when he said ‘ A nation as a society forms a morl person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society’. Lose morality and eventually you will lose liberty. That was received wisdom for centuries.’

It is not trendy to talk of cultivating virtues in society today. That language is old-school and modern parlance is of rights and entitlements, stemming from the shaping of morality and its outsourcing to politics and economics, but with, what were for many, foreseeable consequences. It is not clear to many that society is a better, kinder, warmer place than it was in the past. This has been evidenced in much social analysis, such as in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, where social bonds are reduced as dependency and expectation of the state increases. The world is of course different, and better in many ways as people are better off, live longer, healthier lives, but there is much that is missed and freedoms for some, license more than liberty, have consequences for others in society, and society itself.

Sacks risks the ire of many who wish to delegitimise the past and demand utopia: ‘As for the consequences or our choices, these have been outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Marriage was no longer needed as a sacred bond between husband and wife, and the state would take responsibility for any negative consequences. Welfare was outsourced to government agencies, so there was less need for local community volunteering. As for conscience, which once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So, having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

Sacks is strongly of the view, that morality cannot be outsourced because it depends on each of us, and has to be renewed, just as we cannot be complacent about democracy, each day it has to be fought for and protected anew.

‘When morality is outsourced to either the market or the state, society has no substance, only systems. And systems are not enough. The market and the state are about wealth and power, and they are hugely beneficial to the wealthy and the powerful, but not always to the poor and the powerless. The rich and strong will use their power to exploit the rest, financially, politically and, as we know after the rise of the #MeToo movement, sexually also’.

Pope Benedict mirrored this in his approach to charity and justice as complementary requirements for society, understanding that the personal, communion, cannot be replaced by the state or by processes.

‘Love – caritas – will always prove necessary, even in the most just society.  There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.  Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.  There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help.  There will always be loneliness.  There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.  The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person – every person – needs: namely, loving personal concern.’

Pope Benedict understand the common good as being comprised of charity and justice together, covering all aspects of life but without farming every thing out to the control of the secular state. The proper ordering of human engagement is vital for human fulfilment.

‘To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity.  To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or “city”.  The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them.’

Sacks understands the common good in the same way, speaking almost from the Benedictine hymnsheet, that human flourishing needs more than systems and processes, that it cannot be simply constructed but that it is built on right thinking and action.

‘When we move from the politics of ‘Me’ to the politics of ‘Us’, we rediscover those life-transforming, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, that it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. If we care for the future of democracy we must recover that sense of shared morality that binds us to one another in a bond of mutual compassion and care. There is no liberty without morality, no freedom without responsibility, no viable I’ without the sustaining ‘We’.’

The alternative to taking responsibility for the politics of ‘us’, is not a benign politics of atomised individuals but one that Sacks sees as risking, an inevitable decline into totalitarianism.

‘When people leave everything to the state, everything becomes political, and liberty – the space free from politics and the pursuit of power – depends on there being something strong to stand between the individual and the state.’

Morality is Sacks’ final work and possibly his most important, a warning to society, for its own sake, to escape from the bunkers and silos that it has sleepwalked in to, the opium of the people no longer religion, but the lazy outsourcing of life’s responsibilities to a secular state, withdrawing to the safety of online chats, shared ideological spaces and consumerist lifestyles. Eloquently written, analytical, concise and accessible, this offering is worth talking about.



  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Basic Books (1 Jan. 1900)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1541675312
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1541675315
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 15.88 x 3.18 x 24.13 cm



Dualta Roughneen 

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