I have been reading an amazing book by an amazing man. The title of the 2020 book is Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and its author is Jonathan Sacks. Sacks rose to become the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and was known as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.
He was knighted in 2005, and was later awarded a lordship. Lord Sacks died in November 2020, the year in which his last book was published. His first rabbinical appointment was at the Golders Green Synagogue in North West London, just a few miles from where I was brought up. He was appointed there in 1978, a year after I moved to Kenya, but I have since heard him speak on BBC – which was always very rewarding.
His morality book is so consistently informative and thought provoking that I felt like quoting every other sentence. In it he worries about the current unfortunate move from “We” to “I” in the West, with liberal democracy threatened by the demagoguery of populism (as personified by Trump’s election in America and the Brexit battle in Britain). Public discourse has grown toxic; family life has been breaking down, and drug abuse and depression are on the rise, particularly among youth.
The book takes us back to how morality has looked from the time of the hunter-gatherers to the philosophers of ancient Greece and through the subsequent centuries until today. His gloomy contemporary analysis relates in particular to Britain and the US, but as soon as I saw his distinctions between the “We” and the “I” I immediately thought of Ubuntu as capturing the spirit of the former and of our Kenyan scenario as reflecting too much of the latter.
Relative to those in many other African countries we Kenyans tend to be more individualistic, materialistic and aggressively competitive, and our politics reflect the same never-ending zero-sum squabbles as Sacks writes about in his world. It’s why despite him never referring to Ubuntu or to Africa more generally, so much of what he describes is as relevant for us as it is for his Western readers.
He traces today’s crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and to our promotion of self-interest over the common good. We have “outsourced” morality to the market and the state, he complains, but neither is capable of showing us how to live. Sacks shows 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.
He comes down really hard on the liberal revolution of the 1960s, the “Swinging Sixties” of my youth, which championed individual freedoms over traditional values. It was the time of “free love”, the time when smoking marihuana became all the rage. For many, life was all about self-indulgence and instant gratification, about rights over responsibilities.
He also blames the deregulation of the 1980s that defined the economics of Thatcherism and Reaganomics; and the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2008. All this has led to increasing inequality, with many being left behind.
Sacks shows how the “culture climate change” of migrating from “We” to “I” has seriously undermined the moral foundations that once held us together, and it is what led to many of the societal problems with which we are grappling in this 21st century.
So is there hope for a future with a stronger moral underpinning? For the late Chief Rabbi the answer, as it always has been, is to work from the bottom up, through the family and the community, through small groupings where the blight of urban and national anonymity is absent.
He recognises the higher levels of morality shown to be displayed by those who regularly attend places of worship, and by those who are active in voluntary organisations. And he emphasises the vital importance of building high-trust relationships, not least in business – the contemporary idea that one can simultaneously do well and good.
There’s some talk in Kenya about living our national values and developing a national ethos, including in the BBI. But there’s woefully little on that from our leaders. So it’s up to us, you and me. In our families, in our communities and in our workplaces; in our places of worship and where we volunteer.