In the last book published before his death in November, 2020, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses the trends that have gradually transformed modern Western society from emphasizing “we” to a relatively exclusive concern for “I.” He feels that many of the ills we confront today, such as dramatic increases in depression, suicide, drug abuse, divorce, single-parent households, overall unhappiness, and a lack of trust in one another and public institutions, can be traced to this fundamental change. Over the course of the book, R. Sacks considers in detail both the factors that have contributed to this shift: social media, philosophical and economic theory, conversational and political civility, trends in populism, as well as dimensions of personal identity and piety.
In the final section of Morality, entitled “The Way Forward,” R. Sacks writes with powerful understatement, “It would be easy after the analysis set out in this book to be pessimistic about the future of Western liberal democracies….” He contends that regardless of the extent to which it might appear that general human world culture has lost its way, living the moral life is in fact humanity’s “default mode.” “Bad behavior,” he writes, “can easily become contagious but so can good behavior, and it usually wins out in the long run.”
In the last chapter, entitled, “From I to We,” the author begins by asking, “Can we restore what has been lost?” R. Sacks’s affirmative answer rests on what he terms “moving from a ‘contract’-based to a ‘covenantal’ society.” According to him, “contracts” are intended to address the question, “What’s in it for me?” whereas “covenants” attempt to answer, “How can I act beneficially on behalf of someone else?” R. Sacks reassures us that one way of thinking does not have to preclude the other, and that research shows that it is advantageous to personal achievement when we also care about the less-advantaged individual.
Finally, R, Sacks claims that the past supports being optimistic about effecting such a sea change, since it can be demonstrated that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, “I-” oriented societies have been successfully retooled into “We-” collectives in a number of cases.
In the volume’s “Preface and Acknowledgements,” R. Sacks states that he wrote the book prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. And in the “Epilogue” he wonders what the parameters of a post-coronavirus world might look like. R. Sacks categorizes himself as an optimist throughout Morality, writing that he looks forward to learning how the difficult lessons that have been forced upon society during these challenging times will be perpetuated.