Posts

Morality through the eyes of chief rabbi

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.

Let us focus on national values in Covid-19 times

At this time of national crisis I’ve been thinking about our national values – that long list buried deep in our Constitution. For the small proportion of Kenyans who may have forgotten one or two of them (pardon my sarcasm) here they are:

  • Patriotism, national unity, the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people
  • Sharing and devolution of power
  • Human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised
  • Good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability sustainable development.

As I scanned the vast collection I asked myself whether what we’ve been going through has led us to live these values differently from before, and it didn’t take me long to reach a positive conclusion. At least for many of them, and in particular the bunch in the third bullet.

Certainly the government, and by no means just the government, has been concerned about protecting the marginalised, and adopting an inclusive approach to its policies – which it has been developing in partnership with the private sector and others. We have seen fine examples of respect for human rights and human dignity – with the notable exception of that terrible display of police brutality on the first evening of the 7pm curfew.

Keeping with government, we have applauded the way our elected leaders have put aside their political games to focus on the wellbeing of the citizenry. In a spirit of national unity, we are so relieved that the boisterous BBI rallies and all the money wasted on them is now being put to better use.

What a challenge it’s been for the media, who must now come up with headlines other than ones that just feature Ruto, Raila and Co. But they’ve done well, informing us and guiding us on the latest developments with the Coronavirus outbreak, enabling citizen participation.

Then, as far as national unity in the context of devolution is concerned, the national and county governments have been collaborating well together, with the frequent zero-sum games between them muted.

Kenyans have never been known for exhibiting great patriotism – except for when our athletes break the tape in New York or London or Berlin. But now we have one of our cabinet members on the global podium: Mutahi Kagwe, recognised in America’s Wall Street Journal as “Kenya’s unlikely coronavirus hero,” making us all proud of him.

Next my mind turned to the Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund, whose board consists of a distinguished group of private sector leaders who have pledged transparency and accountability as they “support the government’s efforts in the supply of medical facilities and equipment and support for vulnerable communities with their immediate needs, including food.” Plus working with professional services firms PwC, Deloitte and EY who are providing pro-bono assurance services.

See? It’s too easy to pick out examples of different levels and sectors of society doing a great job behaving in ways consistent with our national values.

The big question will be whether what we are seeing now is sustained. The last value in the list features sustainability, along with development. For sure what we are going through presents a massive national challenge to the sustainability of everything from the Big Four to public debt to tax revenue generation, while so many both for-profit and not-for-profit private entities are at risk of total collapse in the not -too-distant future.

For now though let us celebrate all the ways in which our national values have come to life at this most difficult of times. They have brought the best out of us, and it is a good moment to reflect on what it will take to prevent us regressing to those more selfish, greedy ways that already seem like long ago.

It’s all about leadership of course. In the last few weeks many of our leaders have proved to us that they are more than capable of guiding us to better places. Yet when the Coronavirus will no longer be there to draw us together, and as the 2022 elections beckon ever closer, it is us citizens who will need to insist that our leaders hold on to the higher standards they have reached, making these the new normal. Kenyans, we have shown we can. But will we?