Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ final book, represents more than 50 years of thinking about moral philosophy, religion, history, and law by one of the great moral thinkers of our time. Although formulated over decades, and largely written before COVID-19, the book addresses a central problem of some Western societies’ response to the ongoing pandemic: the absence of a sense of collective responsibility strong enough to convince people to adopt safety measures even in the absence of law or sanctions. Without a concern for the welfare of others, Rabbi Sacks argues, without a willingness to do not just what is good for me but what is good for “all of us together,” we start to lose the cohesiveness that holds countries and cultures together. We even, in his view, put the foundations of liberal democracy at risk.
Rabbi Sacks places the blame for this weakening of our collective responsibility for one another on trends which have placed the individual, not faith or society, at the center of our moral universe. These movements in law, economics, and technology, have convinced many of us that morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of our own desires. So, if shop keepers, to protect themselves and their employees from the transmission of the corona virus, ask customers to wear a mask before entering, some patrons see this request only through the lens of their own autonomy. In their view, accordingly, a mask mandate is only an infringement on their rights without any moral claim to others that they need honor.
Rabbi Sacks, building on the work of Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, maintains that this “rights-talk” in western societies is increasingly becoming less about collective responsibility and more about individual selfishness. In economics, we elevate greed over employee or community welfare. In law, we give priority to rights over duties and in politics we value power more than the common good. As a result, we treat the individual as the core social unit and treat all others as strangers to whom we owe nothing, whether in law or morality. This attitude in some western countries, particularly our own, has severely hampered our efforts to bring the current pandemic under control.
Rabbi Sacks points out elsewhere in his writings that Judaism is constructed in terms of responsibilities and not rights. These responsibilities of the faith of Israel place demands on us for the sake of others, while rights are demands we place on others. If we lived in a society that cherished responsibilities at least as much as rights, our current discourse about COVID restrictions would not be so mired in the legality of mandates or policies but might instead be focused on how to best discharge our collective duty to protect others. We have, to be sure, seen a lot of altruistic behavior since the pandemic began, much of it behind the scenes and unheralded. On the other hand, the increasing discussion about what the law should or should not compel individuals to do has diverted attention away from what our faith or our sense of responsibility to others calls us to do, even in the absence of the threat of state coercion. Rabbi Sack reminds us that human beings are social creatures and that we are elevated by helping others. Indeed, by sharing responsibility for others, we often gain ourselves because respect, friendship, caring, and love are social goods with a moral or spiritual dimension; the more we share, the more we have.
If we can remember that as we look forward to the distribution of vaccines in the months ahead, perhaps we can find ways to think less of own self-interest and more about the common good. This reorientation of our public discourse can perhaps, to paraphrase Rabbi Sacks, redeem us from our pandemic solitude. For, in the closing words of his introduction to his final and timely book: “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.” May we rediscover these truths in the months and years ahead.