Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times


By Jonathan Sacks

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A distinguished religious leader's “brilliant, urgent” (The Washington Post) case for reconstructing a shared framework of  values.

With liberal democracy embattled, our public discourse growing increasingly toxic, family life breaking down, and drug abuse and depression on the rise, many fear what the future holds. In Morality, respected faith leader and public intellectual Jonathan Sacks traces today's crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and our elevation of self-interest over the common good. Sacks leads readers from ancient Greece to the Enlightenment to the present day to show that there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility, arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.  
A major work of philosophy, this is an inspiring vision of a world in which we can all find our place and face the future without fear. 



THE JOURNEY of which this book is the culmination began more than fifty years ago. Although I have spent much of my adult life as a religious leader, my first love, long before I decided to become a rabbi, was moral philosophy, which I studied at both Cambridge and Oxford. I was incredibly blessed to have as my tutors three of the greatest philosophical minds of our time. My third-year undergraduate tutor was Roger Scruton. My doctoral supervisor at Cambridge was Bernard Williams and at Oxford, Philippa Foot.

They were outstanding. But the state of moral philosophy in general was not. It was clever but not wise. A. J. Ayer told us, in a famous chapter of Language, Truth and Logic, that moral judgments, being unverifiable, were meaningless, the mere expression of emotion. Another philosopher told us that ethics was a matter of inventing right and wrong. Morality—so went the popular view—was either subjective or relative, and there was little in academic philosophy of the time to say otherwise. James Q. Wilson, the great Harvard political scientist, discovered, while teaching a class on Nazi Germany, that there was no general agreement that those guilty of the Holocaust had committed a moral horror. “It all depends on your perspective,” one student said.1

All three of my teachers knew that there was something wrong with all of this. It was superficial, philistine, and irresponsible. Each found a way out, though it took time. Bernard Williams told me in 1970 that he did not know how to write moral philosophy—though he quickly recovered and produced his first book, called, like this one, Morality, in 1971. I had meanwhile decided that the best place to begin was within my own tradition of Judaism, which has had an almost unbroken conversation on the nature of a good society since the days when Abraham was charged to teach his children “the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19).

There were others who could see what was going wrong. Philip Rieff said that “culture is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realised and satisfied,” and that this was now being systematically abandoned in pursuit of what he called “the triumph of the therapeutic.”2 Joan Didion, in her book The White Album, wrote, “I have trouble maintaining the basic notion that keeping promises matters in a world where everything I was taught seems beside the point.”3

For me, the most persuasive was Alasdair MacIntyre and his masterwork, After Virtue, in which he argued that though we continue to use moral language, “we have—very largely, if not entirely—lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.”4 All we possess, he said, are disconnected fragments of what was once a coherent view of the world and our place within it. He ended the book with a warning of “the coming ages of barbarism and darkness.” That book, despite its pessimism, brought me back to moral philosophy. MacIntyre has been one of the great influences on my life, though there is this obvious difference between us: being Jewish, I am disinclined to pessimism.5 I prefer hope.

Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Hear the cry of the otherwise unheard. Liberate the poor from their poverty. Care for the dignity of all. Let those who have more than they need share their blessings with those who have less. Feed the hungry, house the homeless, and heal the sick in body and mind. Fight injustice, whoever it is done by and whoever it is done against. And do these things because, being human, we are bound by a covenant of human solidarity, whatever our color or culture, class or creed.

These are moral principles, not economic or political ones. They have to do with conscience, not wealth or power. But without them, freedom will not survive. The free market and liberal democratic state together will not save liberty, because liberty can never be built by self-interest alone. I-based societies all eventually die. Ibn Khaldun showed this in the fourteenth century, Giambattista Vico in the eighteenth, and Bertrand Russell in the twentieth. Other-based societies survive.

Morality is not an option. It’s an essential.

THIS BOOK was written before the coronavirus pandemic and published in Britain just as it was reaching these shores. Yet it spoke to the issues that arose then: the isolation many suffered, the selfless behaviors that allowed life to continue, the self-restraint we had to practice for the safety of others, the realization that many of the heroes were among the lowest paid, the challenge of political leadership in time of crisis, and the importance of truth-telling as a condition of public trust. These are all moral issues, and I explain in the newly written Epilogue how their significance suddenly became vivid. I hope that, in the context of a post-pandemic world, the book might serve as a guide to how, after a long period of isolation, we might think about rebuilding our lives together, using the insights and energies this time has evoked.

It is structured as follows: in Part One, “The Solitary Self,” I look at the impact of the move from “We” to “I” on personal happiness and well-being, in terms of human loneliness, the overemphasis on self-help, the impact of social media, and the partial breakdown of the family.

Part Two, “Consequences,” is about how the loss of a shared morality has serious negative consequences for both the market and the state. This section begins with a chapter, “From ‘We’ to ‘I,’” that is a brief intellectual history of the growth of individualism. It ends with a chapter, “Time and Consequence,” that attempts to explain why decisions that seem sound in the short term can be disastrous in the long term.

Part Three, “Can We Still Reason Together?,” is about the progressive loss of respect for truth and civility in the public conversation. It has become very difficult to talk and listen across divides. Is truth still of value in politics? Is the collaborative pursuit of truth still the purpose of a university? How have social media affected the tone and tenor of our relationships with one another? What does all this do for trust, an essential precondition of the good society?

In Part Four, “Being Human,” I look at the connection between morality, human dignity, and a meaningful life. I also look at why morality is necessary, the different forms it can take, and the connection between it and religion.

Finally, in Part Five, “The Way Forward,” I set out my own credo as to why morality matters, and then suggest ways in which we can strengthen it in the future.

THIS BOOK is about the power of “We,” and it is a delight to say that it took shape through three encounters with remarkable groups of people.

The first was the ceremony on my receipt of the Templeton Prize in 2016.6 That was when I first set out my argument about the outsourcing of morality. It was a memorable evening, and I want to express my thanks to the Templeton family for the occasion itself and for the great work they do through the John Templeton Foundation. It was a great sadness that Dr. John (Jack) Templeton had died a year earlier, and another that his wife, Dr. Josephine (Pina), passed away just before I could send her a draft of this book. I miss them both. They were wonderful people whose lives were lifted on the wings of high ideals. My thanks to their daughters, Heather Templeton Dill and Jennifer Templeton Simpson, for their friendship and their great work—and to all involved at the John Templeton Foundation, which funds some of the most visionary research into the impact of altruism and positive emotions like joy, hope, and forgiveness on society and on physical and emotional health.

The second occasion was my TED Talk in Vancouver in April 2017.7 This was the first time I had spoken at TED, and it was the most nerve-wracking speech I think I have ever given. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, and his team have lifted the communication of ideas to a new plane, and it was inspirational if daunting simply to be in their company. Because they are the best listeners in the world, they bring out the best in their speakers. The topic of the 2017 conference was “The Future You,” so I argued that for the sake of the future “You,” we should strengthen the future “Us.” I said that ours is an age in which there is too much “I” and too little “We.” I spoke about the “We” of relationship, the “We” of identity, and the “We” of responsibility, and I suggested that we perform a search-and-replace operation on our mind. Wherever we encounter the word “self,” we should substitute the word “other.” So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. That, I argued, would transform us and begin to transform our world.

The third was the five-part series, Morality in the Twenty-First Century, that I did for BBC Radio 4 in September 2018.8 I’ve always enjoyed working with the BBC. For more than thirty years I have done “Thought for the Day” on the Today program on Radio 4, and for twenty-two years I produced television programs each year for BBC One. Religion and ethics are and must remain a central part of the BBC’s remit as a public service broadcaster and as one of the most influential shapers of British culture as a whole. That role becomes all the more important when, in the unregulated chaos of online information, misinformation, and disinformation, we find it ever harder to identify trustworthy sources of the truth. So it was a great delight to make this series, made all the more so by the active involvement of Christine Morgan, series editor and head of radio religion and ethics, and Dan Tierney, the series producer. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed program making so much.

The eleven expert participants in the programs, drawn from Britain, the United States, and Canada, were outstanding, as I fully expected them to be. They were: Nick Bostrom, Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Oxford; David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author; Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and philanthropist; Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University; Noreena Hertz, Honorary Professor at University College London; Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto; Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University; Michael Sandel, Professor of Political Philosophy at Harvard University; Mustafa Suleyman, co-founder and Head of Applied AI at DeepMind; and Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. Their influence on my thought is evident throughout this book. No less significant is the encouragement I received from having studied their work, in some cases over many years, and realizing that I was not alone.

The stars of the programs, however, were undoubtedly the students from five high schools who joined me in the studio to discuss the responses of our experts. They came from Manchester High School for Girls, Manchester Grammar School for Boys, Loreto College in Manchester, Graveney School in Tooting, and Queens’ School in Bushey. They were intelligent, engaged, had the confidence to challenge some of the experts’ views, and had a delightful sense of humor also. Almost everyone who commented on the programs singled them out for praise, and they are a compelling source of hope for the future.

I might have guessed in advance that a book seeking to reprioritize the “We” over the “I” would turn out to be a thoroughly collaborative endeavor. But never could I have suspected how true this would be. Here my heartfelt thanks go to my UK editor, Ian Metcalfe, and his team at Hodder, and my US publisher, Brian Distelberg, and his team at Basic Books. Never have I been as thoroughly edited as I was on this occasion by Ian, who went through every line of every page of several drafts with a critical focus and willingness to challenge that I’ve never encountered before. The good things in this book are largely due to him. I take credit for the mistakes and the infelicities. This was real teamsmanship.

As always, Louise Greenberg, my literary agent, has shown a faith in me that I find humbling and largely undeserved. Louise produced my first foray into this territory, the 1990 Reith Lectures on “The Persistence of Faith.”9 Her help and understanding this time were exceptional. Thanks to Justin McLaren and D-J Collins, Dayan Ivan Binstock, and David Frei, who offered helpful and insightful comments on the book.

For the “We” dimension of my working life, I am blessed with the best team in the world: Joanna Benarroch, Dan Sacker, and Debby Ifield, who have made everything I do possible. What makes them special is not just their total dedication, professionalism, and enthusiasm. It is their unremittingly high moral standards. They care about doing the right thing in the right way. They live by the values of loyalty, integrity, responsibility, and humility, and I have become a better person because of them. Dan on this occasion did much of the research for the book and made many suggestions concerning substance and style.

The most important person in my life is my wife, Elaine. This year we will celebrate our golden wedding. I tried to explain in my TED Talk what drew me to Elaine in the first place: the fact that she was as unlike me as possible. I was earning graduate qualifications in self-doubt and existential angst. She was radiating joy. Hence my theory, which is a summary of the book: namely, it’s the people not like us who make us grow.

Finally, I have dedicated this book to our grandchildren. It was for the sake of their future that I wrote it.




ROBERT Putnam, an American political scientist, has done more than anyone in our time to document the loss, in contemporary America, of social capital, the bonds that join us to one another in relationships of mutual responsibility and trust. In a famous 2000 book he gave the phenomenon a name. Noting that more people than ever were going ten-pin bowling, but fewer than ever were joining teams, he called it Bowling Alone. This became a metaphor for the decline in membership of clubs, movements, and voluntary associations, the attenuation of community life, and the decline of marriage as an institution. In many areas of life, what people used to do together, they now do alone.

As part of my radio series on morality for the BBC, I sought his opinions on current trends. In his office in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he spoke with passion about how society had moved since the 1960s from the “We” society of “We’re all in this together” to the “I” society of “I’m free to be myself.” The loss of community has many consequences, one of which is social isolation. As we will see, this has proved deeply damaging for our physical and psychological health.

One of the hypotheses he has tested is that the use of language, measured over time, shows that we have moved in the past half-century from a “We” culture to an “I” culture.1 As his full findings have not yet been published, I asked Dan Sacker, who helped me with research for this book, to use a Google Ngram search to chart the frequencies of the words “We” and “I” in all English and American books, year by year, from 1900 to 2008. The two graphs are quite different. The use of “We” is relatively stable over time, but the use of “I” falls steadily from 1900 to 1965, at which point it begins a precipitate rise. From then on, the first-person singular dominates.

A similar, though more restricted, test was carried out in 2011 by Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky. He studied the lyrics of top-ten pop songs between 1980 and 2007, and discovered that the use of first-person plural pronouns—we, us, our—had declined, while first-person singular—I, me, mine—had increased. Words that expressed anger or aggression—hate, kill, damn—also increased, while words for social interactions—talking, sharing—became less common, as did those conveying positive emotions.2 DeWall’s view is that pop lyrics are a mirror of social and attitudinal change, and that the shift from “We” to “I” is reflective of the wider culture.

In another context, Prospect magazine commissioned a linguistic analysis of the angry Brexit debate in the House of Commons on September 25, 2019, during which Prime Minister Boris Johnson used terms like “traitors,” “betrayal,” and “surrender” of his opponents. The analysis noted that, on average, the Prime Minister used a word from Harvard University’s list of semantically hostile terms every twenty-eight words, roughly every one and a half sentences—an unusual level of aggression. More relevant here is the fact that he used the word “I” 340 times—far more frequently than normal.3 Political discourse, especially when used by prime ministers and presidents, has historically tended to the inclusive, even royal, “We.” Increased use of the word “I” suggests that politics has become more about personalities than policies, and about the leader rather than the nation he or she seeks to lead.

Admittedly, there are limits to what you can infer from pronouns.4 But the linguistic shift does seem to reflect this deep move from the structures of togetherness to the solitary self, the assertive “I”: cultural climate change. The whole of this book will be about the consequences in different areas, but this chapter is about the disastrous impact on our sense of connectedness to others. When “I” prevails over “We,” loneliness follows.

For any social institution to exist, we must be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of the relationship or the group. That is true of marriage, parenthood, membership in a community, or citizenship in a nation. In these environments we enter a world of We-consciousness in which we ask not what is best for me, but what is best for “all of us together.”

A soccer team of the most brilliant players in the world will not succeed if each acts like a diva. An orchestra of dazzling musicians, each of whom feels entitled to give their own interpretation of a symphony, will produce not music but noise. A political party in which each member publicly delivers his or her judgment as to what policy should be will be a shambles. A government in which representatives publicly contradict one another will be a disgrace.

A Jewish joke puts it nicely. One year, the Yeshiva University rowing team lost all of its races. To find out what they were doing wrong, they sent an observer to watch the Harvard University team in action. Three days later, he came back shell-shocked. “You won’t believe it,” he said. “You know what we do. They do the exact opposite. They have eight people rowing and only one person shouting instructions!” British and American politics these days can sometimes seem like the Yeshiva University rowing crew.

Those are nonmoral examples. The moral ones touch on more fundamental relationships. A marriage in which one or both partners act selfishly is unlikely to last. A parent indifferent to the needs of his or her child will damage the child. A community in which the members are not willing to bear their share of the burden of keeping it going—a group of free riders—will cease to exist. A nation without a sense of collective identity and responsibility will split apart, as the United States and Britain have split apart since 2016. You cannot build a social world out of a multiplicity of I’s.

Simultaneously with the rise of “I” over “We” since the mid-1960s, marriages, families, and communities have all atrophied. Fewer people are marrying. They are marrying later. They are having fewer children. More marriages are ending in divorce. The result is that more people are living alone. In the United States, the proportion of single-person households has more than doubled in the past fifty years.5 This is particularly so in large cities, where they represent 40 percent of households. In Britain, in the twenty years between 1997 and 2017, there was a 16 percent increase in the number of people living on their own.6

In the mid-1990s, the Secretary of State for the Environment invited the then Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey), the leader of the Catholics in England (Cardinal Hume), and me (as Chief Rabbi) to come and meet him. He told us that because of the breakdown of marriage, more people were living alone. The result was pressure on the supply of housing. Four hundred thousand new units needed to be built, he said, in southeast England alone. Could we not do something about it? Could we not make marriage attractive again? I thought this showed spectacular faith in the power of prayer, but even were a miracle to happen, it would take more than a generation to reverse the decline.

To be sure, there is a difference between living alone and feeling lonely. Not everyone who chooses the first feels the second. But there is a connection. Genetically we are social animals. Our ancestors, in the hunter-gatherer stage of humanity, could not survive alone, and they have left a trace of this deeply ingrained in our emotional setup. Separated from others, we experience stress. Many prisoners have testified that solitary confinement is as terrifying as physical torture. John McCain said of the five and a half years he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam that being kept solitary “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”7 Obviously, social isolation is mild in comparison, but the body nonetheless responds by heightened awareness of potential threats in the environment, and the resultant stress eventually weakens the immune system.8 That is one reason why most people seek company, the presence of others, the touch of another soul. The less there is of “We,” the more there is of loneliness.

A CARTOON in the November 4, 2019, issue of New Yorker magazine showed Humphrey Bogart, wearing an ivory dinner jacket and black bow tie, sitting alone at a bar, a glass of bourbon in his hand. In front of him is an electronic device. He is turning to it and saying, “Alexa, play ‘As Time Goes By.’”9 A poignant image for an age in which communication technology is smarter and faster than ever before, but in which human interaction, direct, face to face, other-focused, I–Thou, is all too rare. We are becoming a lonely crowd.

So serious has the problem become that, in January 2018, Tracey Crouch was given the task of becoming what the press dubbed Britain’s first ever “Minister for Loneliness.” The appointment struck a chord. Loneliness is hardly new—it makes its first appearance in the second chapter of the Bible, when Adam finds himself without a partner and God says, “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). But not until relatively recently has it been seen as a major health hazard. One of the factors prompting the appointment of a minister was a 2017 research report by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness that showed that more than nine million people in Britain feel lonely. Two hundred thousand older Britons had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.10

A similar state of affairs exists in the United States. A 2018 Cigna survey showed that 46 percent of Americans always or sometimes feel alone, and 47 percent feel left out. One in four rarely or never feel that there are people who really understand them. Forty-three percent feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others. Fifty-four percent feel that no one knows them well. Those most distressed by loneliness were young people between eighteen and twenty-two years of age.11 The phenomenon is not confined to the West. In Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Latvia, 34 percent of the population declared themselves lonely.12 In Japan, meanwhile, there is an entire subpopulation known as the hikikomori, numbering more than a million, people who shut themselves up in their homes, seldom if ever venturing out, and living in hermit-like seclusion.

As noted above, more people than ever in the West are living alone. Only half of American adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960.13 More than half of those between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four do not have a steady partner.14 More people are cohabiting rather than getting married, and the average length of a cohabitation is less than a third as long as the average marriage.15 Fewer children are living as adults in close proximity to their parents. Corporations often call on individual workers to move to a different region or country, which further disrupts relationships. Isolation particularly affects the elderly. One-third of Britons and Americans over the age of sixty-five live alone, as do more than half of those over eighty-five.

Then there is the phenomenon charted by Robert Putnam, the marked decline in membership of the kind of associations that used to bring people together on a regular basis—sports teams, local charities, religious congregations, and so on. Increasingly, people are using electronic means of communication rather than face-to-face contact, which itself is potentially dangerous, as the health benefits of relationships are quite often associated with actual physical presence.

Loneliness has serious health implications.16 It has long been associated with psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia. Recently, strong connections have also been established with physical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.17

There is a difference between loneliness and social isolation. The first is a subjective, self-reported state, whereas social isolation is an objective condition, usually defined as a lack of contact with family, friends, community, and society. Social isolation is itself as harmful to health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day and more harmful than obesity.18 A 2015 study tracking 3.4 million people over seven years showed that individuals judged to be isolated had a 26 percent greater risk of dying. If they lived alone, the risk was 32 percent higher.19

Chronic loneliness is associated with raised levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and high vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure. It can also lead to a reduced capacity on the part of the body’s immune system to fight infections. A 2012 study of patients over the age of sixty, in which 43 percent reported feelings of loneliness, showed that they had higher rates of declining mobility and inability to perform routine daily activities.20 The evidence by now is compelling that loneliness and isolation are significant health hazards, physically and psychologically.


  • "I highly recommended people check out [the new book]...I can think of nothing more important right now in embracing this and shifting from 'I' to 'We.'"—The Tim Ferriss Show
  • “Sacks’s command of the historical sweep of intellectual thought is breathtaking…One can only wish that Sacks’s brilliant, urgent ‘ethical will’ can transcend his grandchildren and inspire all who fervently hope to emerge from this difficult time with an enhanced sense of human solidarity, responsibility, morality and love.”—The Washington Post
  • “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was among the most morally serious, intellectually honest, and insightful public intellectuals of our time. He will be greatly missed by believers and non- believers alike. We should be thankful he left this book with us. May his memory be for a blessing.”—Claremont Review of Books
  • "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."—Jerusalem Post
  • "This major work in moral philosophy and theology should engage all readers, but particularly scholars, undergraduates, and graduate students."
    Library Journal
  • "An impressive tour d'horizon of the state of the western world -- the US and the UK in particular -- at the end of the second decade of the 21st century."
    Times of Israel
  • "If you are looking for a book to read during these strange and stressful days, look no further than Jonathan Sacks' magnificent Morality."—Evening Standard
  • "In his new book, Morality, the former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, makes a very basic and crucial point about the nature of morality: it is based on 'we' and not 'I.'"—Daily Telegraph
  • “’Morality’ has the potential to become a decade‑defining book… [it] holds up a bracing revelatory mirror to this moment in human history. In his poignant, poetic and prophetic way, Sacks reminds us that a free society is not only a political achievement, nor is it just an economic achievement — a free society is ultimately a moral achievement.”—Deseret News
  • "Jonathan Sacks is one of the great moral thinkers of our time. His latest book, Morality, applies his powerful approach to the unprecedented challenges of our time --social, political, economic, and above all, cultural. May his words be heeded throughout the land."—Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and The Upswing
  • "Jonathan Sacks has produced a work of extraordinary depth, beauty, urgency, and erudition. If the prophets of the Hebrew Bible came back to guide liberal democracies and anxious citizens through this difficult time, but first they studied modern history and social science, this is the book they would write for us."—Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind

On Sale
Aug 30, 2022
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books