Some characteristically thoughtful words here from Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize:
A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom … At some point the West abandoned this belief …
Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics … [And] having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.
And it seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone …
You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away …
But the West has, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa in Frozen, “Let it go”. It has externalised what it once internalised. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. And one day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?
Every observer of the grand sweep of history, from the prophets of Israel to the Islamic sage Ibn Khaldun, from Giambattista Vico to John Stuart Mill, and Bertrand Russell to Will Durant, has said essentially the same thing: that civilisations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being in the first place. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. The sure signs are these: a falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, a loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence on the part of the rich, hopelessness on the part of the poor, unintegrated minorities, a failure to make sacrifices in the present for the sake of the future, a loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These are the danger signals and they are flashing now.
There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. In short, it means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, and not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.
One can read the full lecture here.