Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times

A keynote address at the Legatum Institute

On 5th March 2020, Rabbi Sacks joined a Legatum Institute: Forum Network event for one of his final public appearances as he promoted his book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

The book tour for Morality was unfortunately cut short due the the first lockdown of March 2020, but Rabbi Sacks did continue to write, record podcasts, engage in live-streamed interviews, and speak directly to his audience online up until September 2020.

Reflecting on this event 1 year later, the Legatum Institute wrote the following:

Today would have been the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ 73rd birthday. Once again, we mourn the loss of this extraordinary statesman.

Rabbi Sacks was able to hold in balance the institutional, economic, and social dimensions of life, and provided valuable insight into all three. He was not afraid to speak truth to power or to grapple with complex and often uncomfortable subjects, but always with a vision of a more unified society. And he understood the importance of ideas to drive society forward and achieve real transformation.

We were enormously privileged to host Rabbi Sacks at a Forum Network event almost exactly a year ago – just three days before his 72nd birthday – in one of his last public appearances. He was promoting his final book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.

As always, he inspired attendees to lift their gaze and recognise the opportunities available to each of us to create a more inclusive society in which everyone can thrive. He is sorely missed.

The Legatum Institute, 8th March 2021


It’s now my great privilege to welcome Lord Rabbi Sacks to speak. The Times calls him one of the great public intellectuals of our age, and he’s going to be speaking to us on his new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good to Divided Times. In Jonathan’s own press release about his book, he says, “We have outsourced morality to the markets on the one hand and the state on the other. The markets have brought wealth to many and the state has done much to contain the worst excesses of inequality, but neither is capable of bearing the moral weight of showing us how to live.”

At Forum, I think we would recognise some of that conflict in our times, but we are also a network of people who see possibility and ways through. One of the reasons why we wanted to invite Rabbi Sacks to speak to us this evening was because we are a people of hope who want to take responsibility for our nation and for our society, and we know that Jonathan has some of the clues to that.

So it is my great pleasure. You are called by The Telegraph, “Britain’s most authentically prophetic voice,” and so I just want to welcome you tonight to bring that prophetic voice to this community. Thank you, Rabbi Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks:

Philippa, thank you so much, and on behalf of all of us. Friends, I just really want to say a few words about the new book and why I wrote it and invite you with me on the journey I’ve taken intellectually for the last four years. I have gone out of my comfort zone for this book because I have moved away from the rabbi/religious leader and gone back to my first career before I even dreamed of becoming a rabbi, which was as a moral philosopher.

Whenever you write a book outside your comfort zone, that’s always a hazard. You take a risk. My favourite story of that was the Harvard lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, who is a secular Jew, but comes from a very, very religious family. His uncle in particular is an ultra-religious Jew. Alan once wrote a book about law in the Bible and called it The Genesis of Justice, and sent it to his ultra religious uncle, whom he thought, he’d be impressed that I’m finally dealing with a good book.

He waited for a few weeks and then he phoned up his uncle and said, “Uncle, what did you think of the book?” And he said, “Well, Alan, there’s only one word in the book that I want you to change.” And Alan said, “Which word?” And his uncle replied, “Dershowitz.”

So I may find most over that sort of position, but let me just tell you about this journey that began in 2016. It’s a four-year journey, and it’s one I just want to describe very, very simply in five stages. Number one, that I was seized with a question that I think all of us had around 2016. Things suddenly seemed to be going wrong. We had an extraordinary three years post-Brexit in which the government, the governing party, the cabinet seemed to be voting against itself, briefing against itself, all sorts of things. I’d never seen politics like this, although I did immediately recognise the syndrome. The syndrome’s very simple.

There is a Jewish university in New York, I had a professorship there a few years ago, called Yeshiva University. Yeshiva University one year lost all its rowing races. They thought, well, we can’t carry on like this. We better send our coach to spy on the Harvard team and find out what they’re doing and we aren’t. Three days later, the coach came back, shell-shocked and reported to the team, “You’ll never believe this. They do the exact opposite of what we do. They have eight people rowing and only one shouting instructions.” I never thought the British government would look like the Yeshiva University rowing team, but for a while it did.

As you know in America, the 2016 presidential election and all to this day created divisions of the kind that America has never seen. Last week, a research survey came out saying that 45% of Americans, almost half of Americans, have stopped talking politics to either a close friend or a relative because politics had become so divisive.

I have a very, very insightful friend in Washington. I phoned him up after the presidential election. I tell this story in my TED lecture. I said, “What was it like to be there as the result was being announced?” And he said, “Well, it was like the man standing on the deck of the Titanic with a tumbler of whiskey in one hand. And he’s saying, “I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.” So why did politics change?

Number two, why did economics change? JP Morgan of the bank that bears his name said, “The ratio of CEO pay to lowest pay should be twenty to one, not more. In 1965, that is what is was, twenty to one. Today, it’s 312 to one. Last week, was it Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of Disney? In 2018, Bob Iger’s financial package was 1,424 times the median salary of a Disney employee.

Now, inequalities of this kind are serious, and it’s not just people on the fringes like me who think it’s so Ray Dalio. Ray Dalio is the head of Bridgewater Capital in America, the world’s largest hedge fund. He himself is the 57th wealthiest person on the planet. He of all people said, “The income inequality in the United States is a national emergency and an existential threat to the American future.” Now, if he says something like that, it’s serious. So how did economics get the way it is?

Number three, possibly a consequence of inequality, but different, and that is social isolation and loneliness. Did you notice last week the stunning fact that for the first time in a century, life expectancy in the UK is no longer increasing? I mean, that is a real jolt to the system, and for the poorest sector of the population, life expectancy is actually decreasing.

One reason obviously is, I mean obviously much has to do with poverty, much has to do with austerity measures and cutbacks in social services, but also loneliness. More people than ever are living alone and we have compelling medical evidence based on a lot of research that loneliness has the same effect on health as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So we’ve got the loneliness thing.

And then the thing that really upsets me very, very much, the assault on free speech in our universities. A new phenomenon, not entirely new but has proliferated since around 2013, no platforming safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression, the call out culture, the cancel culture, and you saw this this week with Selina Todd, the Oxford professor and feminist who was barred from speaking at a conference at Exeter College Oxford celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of women’s liberation because being a feminist means you must be transphobic. And Germaine Greer has been banned for the same reason, and Peter Tatchell, the gay activist has been banned for the same reason, and so on and so forth. I personally got very upset that the Cambridge Divinity School banned Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist. I was just wondering what they teach in the Cambridge Divinity School these days about forgiveness, or is that too controversial a topic? I’m not sure.

But at any rate, so there were four of what in fact are a lot of things because it’s quite a big book, and I deal with a lot of others. But the question I asked was were they connected? They’re very different. Universities on the one hand, loneliness on the other. Politics on the one hand, economics on the other. Are they connected? Yet they were all happening at the same time and they seemed to have something in common, and that was stage one. That’s what started me on the journey, stage one.

Stage two was the model that I had in mind. Take climate change. Climate change translates into phenomena that are very, very different from one another. So last summer, we had unprecedented heat in Australia, unprecedented cold in Delhi in India. Sometimes climate change translates into drought, sometimes into torrential flooding, but it all has the same logic. It is all part of climate change. I came to the conclusion looking at all of these phenomena that what we are seeing in liberal democracies of the West, and if you’ve seen Parasite, if anyone’s seen this Oscar-winning movie in South Korea, likewise what we are seeing is what I call cultural climate change, and it has three symptoms.

Number one, it has to do with the start in the 1960s of a whole lot of stuff that began with the word self. All of a sudden, there appeared self-fulfilment, self-actualisation, self-realisation, self-esteem, self-respect, and now it is translated into the iconic religious ritual of our time, the selfie. People used to go to Machu Picchu to see Machu Picchu. Now they go to Machu Picchu to do a selfie of themselves at Machu Picchu. So somehow or other, the self suddenly seemed very large.

Number two, somebody who’s been taking a very similar journey to me over years, Robert Putnam, the great Harvard sociologist. Robert Putnam introduced me to something I hadn’t come across before. Have you come across a Google Ngram? Do you know this? Google have digitised most of the world’s literature, certainly all the world’s literature in English, and you can therefore do a Google search of any given word in all British literature, all American literature, year by year by year. And Robert Putnam did an Ngram to look at the relative preponderance of the words “We” and “I”, and you can see it’s a pretty standard even thing until 1964. And from 1964 onwards, suddenly the “We” stayed stable but the “I” zooms up, and that is number two.

And number three, somebody has done the same study on the lyrics of pop music, which always used to be about love and meeting up and us together, and today, is all about being lonely and sometimes quite angry and such. In other words, the journey from Simon and Garfunkel to Eminem is quite a journey. So one way or another, putting those things together, it seemed to me that we were experiencing cultural climate change, and the question that I then asked, that was number three, was: why does it matter? Why does it matter? Why does the balance between “I” and “We” matter?

And this brought me to Charles Darwin’s big problem, and the best way of describing Charles Darwin’s hard problem is, if you remember, have you seen the film The Imitation Game? Benedict Cumberbatch doing the Alan Turing thing? And he’s not much fun, if I remember the film correctly, so the winsome super-mathematician, Keira Knightley says, “Tell them a joke.” So he tells them a joke, and you remember the joke he tells them, which is two explorers in the jungle, they hear a lion roaring. The first one starts searching for a place where they can both be safe. The second one starts putting on his running shoes. The first one says to the second one, “You’re crazy. You can’t run faster than a lion.” And the second one says to the first one, “I don’t need to run faster than the lion. I just need to run faster than you.”

This is a neat way of telling Charles Darwin’s big problem, because Charles Darwin’s big problem is if you believe in natural selection and life is competition for scarce resources, and it will be the self-interested people who will survive. As Charles Darwin put it, anyone who takes risks for the sake of others will die disproportionately young, and as we would put it today, will not pass on his genes to the next generation. So Darwin believed as it were, if you could say it metaphorically today, that the deep gene for altruism should have gone extinct. And what bothered Darwin, what puzzled him is that in every society he ever encountered, altruism was the key value and the altruists were the most admired.

Eventually, Darwin found the solution and he writes it in Descent of Man, which is that any group that has a lot of altruists, that people in the group are willing to make sacrifice and take risks for the sake of the group, will be a stronger group than one where everyone is only interested in themselves, and therefore the group will win. To put it in today’s terminology, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive in groups, and groups need altruism. And that was Darwin’s solution. And we now have huge amount of evidence. This was all starting in the 1970s, game theory, Darwinian biology, evolutionary psychology, computer simulations. We know all this stuff. But the simple bottom line is that any group requires competition and cooperation. It requires the ability to make sacrifices for the sake of the group.

We compete and we cooperate. When we compete, we are thinking of the “I”. When we cooperate, we’re thinking of the “We”. And now we come to the heart of the matter, which is we have assumed in the West that you can sustain a liberal democratic state on the basis of two institutions, the free market and the democratic state. And that I believe is the mistake. We need a free market and we need a democratic state, but both of those things are arenas of competition. The market is about competition for wealth, the democratic state is about the competition for power, and they are mediated arenas of competition. And that is their greatness. That is their strength. But there is a third element in life that we need and we can see the difference between them very simply.

Take competition, take wealth. If I have a thousand pounds and I decide to share that with nine others, how much do I have left? I have a hundred pounds, I have a 10th of what I began with. If I have total power, like the chairman of the committee who says, “All those in favour say aye, all those against say I resign,” if you have total power and then you decide foolishly to share it with nine others, how much do you have? One 10th of the power with which you began.

Supposing I have a certain amount of knowledge or friendship or influence or love, and I share that with nine others, how much do I have? Not less. I have more. Why? Because those are social goods. And social goods are goods that only exist in virtue of sharing. So we have the material goods, the more we share, the less we have. And we have social goods, the more we share, the more we have. And social goods exist in families and communities, as Baroness told us, in support networks and in congregations and in communities and in voluntary associations. That’s where we share knowledge, friendship, love, influence. They are the places where the good of the group takes precedence over self-interest. Those are the places where we live and breathe the common good. They are the places where we learn the habits of cooperation. They are the places where we speak the language of we, and they are the places where we learn to be moral human beings. That’s how I define morality. Morality is that which we engage in for the benefit of all, not just the benefit of me. That is the moral institution.

Virtually every society that has ever existed has been held together by some form of moral code, often a religious one, but not necessarily one. And that is what we need, that third element. We need the market, we need the state, and we need that sense of shared responsibility for the common good whose simplest description is morality. Because without it, we only have competition and we don’t have cooperation, and you can’t sustain a society on that basis. So those are the three institutions we need. Why did we lose that third one? I think it happened in three stages.

Number one, social revolution of the 1960s, where morality became whatever works for you. It became a matter of me, not a matter of us. Number two, the economic revolution of the 1980s, Reaganomics and Thatcherism. I don’t think Reagan or Thatcher ever intended to weaken our moral situation, but you know how it ended up? It ended up with Michael Douglas and those fine red braces in Wall Street saying in so many words, “Greed is good.” And thirdly, the technological revolution of smartphones and social media. Social media are wonderful, they’re fantastic, but they’re all about presentation of self. And so they do contribute to the “I” over the “We”.

So through those revolutions, the “We” was weakened, the I was strengthened, and that is the nature of the culture change, climate change that has happened in every liberal democracy in the West and on the basis of some of the culture coming from South Korea is happening there as well. So number four, stage four, how does it work out?

Have you been following the democratic primaries in the States? I’ve even been following the elections in Israel as well, which is not entirely … And suddenly, do you remember, politics used to be about policies. Today it’s about personalities. And the most powerful thing you can do politically today is character assassination of your opponents. And it turns out that if you do that, the biggest ego wins.

Now, that’s not how I remember politics. And of course, that is not how politics happens in the House of Lords, which is a little oasis of decency. But I mean, basically everyone’s message is, “Vote for me.” And this is politics of the Facebook age, and it is bad, bad politics. We’re also seeing the fragmentation of the electorate into what is called, and Francis Fukuyama has spoken about this and Mark Lilla and who else, Anthony Appiah, identity politics. The politics of competitive victimhood. Now, victimhood is serious and it has to be addressed and we have to take it seriously and we cannot ignore it. But splitting up the electorate into noncommunicating minorities, each one of which is asking, “Is this good for us?” Not, “Is this good for the country?” Is not good for politics. So altogether, we have lost the politics of the common good and we really and truly have to recover it.

Secondly, economics. I think the saddest conversation I ever had, one of the saddest in my entire life, was with … Does the name Arnold Weinstock mean anything to people? Lord Weinstock was Britain’s leading industrialist for something like 40 years. And he asked to see me and it turned out this was just three or four months before he died. And he sat and he told me about how he built up GEX. He told me how much salary he paid himself, which was exactly the 20 to 1 rule. He said, “I spent 40 years building the company up. My successor pays himself 10 times what I paid myself and is destroying everything I’ve built, and he did destroy everything… because Arnold Weinstock still believed in “We”. He understood that a CEO of a public corporation has a responsibility not only to shareholders but employees, to suppliers, to customers, to communities in which it has factories and centres. He understood an economics of “We” and he could see the first signs of the emergence of an economics of “I”. Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of Apex, one of the first venture capitalists in Britain, one of the most successful, has spent the last three years developing a concept and persuading the G7 of it and he’s working on the G20, called impact economics. Impact economics is a formula which says that a company will be judged not only on its profit but on its quantifiable impact socially. And he’s got all the algorithms and he’s got really the agreement of the G7 on this and this is a completely new way of thinking about economics.

Somebody who is moving in very similar directions is the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, Raghuram Rajan, who is now teaching at Chicago. I mean, I think Milton Freeman must be turning in his grave on this one. And he’s calling for socioeconomics. Again, an economics that factors in the impact of an economy on community. His new book just came out called The Third Pillar. Really, really important. So we are beginning to see a new approach to economics that would bring back the “We”. Then we have universities and here… it’s wonderful to have sitting in the front row, Professor David Conway with whom I used to lecture in moral philosophy. And David, you will remember this, that when we were studying in the 1960s, the reigning orthodoxy was something called emotivism, which said that moral judgments aren’t really judgments, they are simply disguised way of saying “this I like” and “this I don’t”.

Now if all moral judgments are about is feelings, then you can’t have a moral argument. Because you like tea, I like coffee, you can’t have an argument about that, de gustibus non est disputandum. So how can I win a moral argument? Well now we know the answer. I can say you are hurting my feelings. I win the argument because I’m the victim. Therefore you are the victimizer. Therefore we are not going to give you a platform. And that is what has substituted for argument. When philosophers destroy the possibility of argument, then fifty years later society pays the price. We have to bring back argument.

And I have to say, there is a Divine Providence in all things because we were caught in a traffic jam coming here. We landed here about 50 minutes late and the end result was I was forced to listen to Radio 5 Live, which is not my normal habitat, and Radio 5 Live today for the first time ever, has done an experiment in broadcasting called Deep Listening in which they bring together people of markedly opposed views politically and otherwise, and they just have to spend the day listening to one another. It was kind of epiphany for all of, “Oh, you know, I never knew that people who thought that are real people.” So I was wondering how do we bring back the etiquette of argument to moral philosophy and there was Radio 5 Live delivering just on time. So thank you Radio 5 Live. And as for loneliness, well look, this is a difficult one and therefore obviously Forum, you’re doing great job on bringing people together. But I tell the story in the book, it was so funny.

Way back when John Major was Prime Minister and we had Secretary of State for the environment called John Selwyn Gummer and John Selwyn Gummer invited Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, Archbishop Cardinal, Archbishop Westminster, the late Basil Hume, and myself for lunch. And we were thinking, what’s he going to talk about? Does he want to make confession and make sure he’s covered all the options? And lo and behold, he said, “Gentlemen, because marriage has disappeared and fallen into abuse, I have to build 400,000 extra housing units in the south of England. Can’t you do something to bring back marriage?” I thought, never have I heard such a testament of faith. If not in God, then at least his representatives down here on earth. But I mean, the truth is that we do have to do what we can to rebuild communities and it can be done and they’re really working hard at various community rebuilding.

But it has to be done because loneliness is serious and must be addressed. So what do I finally, stage five, want to achieve in the book? Number one, to do what the late Steve Jobs did in his 2005 Stanford commencement address. He called it ‘Connecting the Dots’. I want us to see that things like dysfunctions in politics, economics, loneliness, universities, social, all sorts of stuff that I deal with in the book, are actually connected and a part of cultural climate change. Number two, to make the case as strongly as I can for a balance, restoring the balance between “We” and “I”. The “I” is important. Individuality is important, liberty is important, but there have also to be networks of “We” where we work for the common good.

And then finally, to suggest one way we might do it, which is do a search and replace operation in our minds. And whenever you come across the word self, delete it and substitute other. So instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. Instead of self-respect, other-respect. Just turn your thinking outward and you will find that reaching out and reaching morally, you will find that your life has changed for the better. That in bringing out the best in yourself, you are bringing out the best in others. That in a time of fear about a virus being contagious, you should also know that good things are contagious as well.

And let us bring back that sense of “We” in pursuit of the common good. Many thanks.