Morality - Rabbi Sacks discusses moral issues in today's world

Sacks turns the reading of such an inflammatory topic into a discussion one can honestly ponder upon.

POPE BENEDICT XVI meets then-UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks in London in 2010 (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
POPE BENEDICT XVI meets then-UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks in London in 2010
Explaining complex ideas in simple terms is not a straightforward task. All the more so when the ideas can instigate reactions ranging from preachy, intolerant rants to mocking skepticism. In his new book Morality, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain Jonathan Sacks, however, approached the subject with unwavering hope tempered with wisdom and deep respect for his readers’ religious and political stands.
Sacks turns the reading of such an inflammatory topic into a discussion one can honestly ponder upon.
Referencing youtube speeches by J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs, quoting modern “celebrity” thinkers such as Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari and Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, approaching the political thoughts of Alexis de Tocqueville and moral theories by Frederick Nietzsche, Sacks speaks to every generation, age and ideology. His goal? To reach the core of fundamental questions that very few are in a position of seriously daring to answer – what is morality, what does it mean to be moral and why do we need to be so?
Different spheres of life are approached in each chapter – politics, social media, interpersonal relationships, universities, world markets – where functioning and dysfunctioning elements that have led to crises of morality are analyzed. He does what only one who has profound insights and deep caring about the course of today’s world can do – connect philosophical and cultural ideas, past events, modern references and ancient knowledge, to deliver a message of harmony and hope to his readers.
In “Loneliness,” Sacks warns against the dangers of a global culture that has begun to speak only in the first-person singular. “The less there is of ‘We,’ the more there is of loneliness,” he alerts the reader, coupled with staggering statistics on the social phenomenon that has been described as the 21st century most widespread epidemic, such as the nine million reported cases in Britain of people feeling lonely, 200,000 older Britons who have reported not having had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.
“Something is missing when human interaction is no longer face to face,” he points out, connecting the importance of true, face-to-face communication, which involves personal presence, to morality. “Morality is about engaging with the raw human vulnerabilities of others that lie beneath the carefully burnished image. When the connection between us is not direct either in time or space, I am not forced to recognize you as a human being,” he says. “When that happens, I am unlearning morality.”
Through various routes, Sacks returns to the point stated early on and reinforced throughout the book, that “the market and the state, the fields of economy and politics, are arenas of competition, while morality is the arena of cooperation.”
In “Immoral Markets,” Sacks brings to the surface moral issues related to what has become the reality that rules today’s workplaces, such as ratios of chief executives’ to workers’ pay, which were 20:1 in 1965, compared to today’s 312:1 ratio; the moral consequences and the impact on public trust of CEOs that still earned millions in bonuses during the 2008/2009 crash; and the outsourcing of what could be seen as an integral part of an individual’s moral duty, such as volunteering and caring for one’s community, to governmental agencies.
“Markets were made to serve us,” he reminds the reader, “we were not made to serve the markets… They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we will lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”
Sacks brings justice to his formal background in philosophy by providing the reader with a smooth journey through the history of moral and political thought, from Luther’s groundbreaking moral concept of individual responsibility for deciding his or her own life; Thomas Hobbes’s radical decision of placing the self-interested individual as the center of Leviathan; to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s destruction of the foundations of Western morality as it was known for many centuries to replace it with “a profoundly personal, subjective vision of the moral life. The culmination of the individualist thought and its consequences can be clearly seen today through social media and increasing rates of depression and suicide, given that the ‘I’ had become not just the principal character in the moral drama, but its author, the writer of its rules.”
Shattering the idea that modern cultures “evolved” by letting go of strict moral codes to a self-absorbed and at times all-permitting lifestyle, Sacks returns to Ancient Greece, Rome and Renaissance Italy to remind the reader the heavy price paid by societies who put the collective aside, placing individuals on pedestals.
“The release from traditional moral restraints for a while unleashed a burst of energy and creativity, but was too quickly followed by decline and fall. A society of individualists is unsustainable. We are built for cooperation, not just competition.”
Morality is not an argument or a compilation of thoughts – it is a wake-up call to a world that has become self-obsessed, self-centered and lonely, and whose moral standards have withered as a result. 
By Jonathan Sacks
Hodder & Stoughton
384 pages; $30