Moral­i­ty: Restor­ing the Com­mon Good in Divid­ed Times

  • Review
By – December 28, 2020

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.

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

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