Freedom and Morality

One of my friends who is Jewish sent me an absolutely lovely article on the meaning of Rosh Hashanah by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, originally printed in The Jewish Chronicle ( The whole piece – which speaks to my Christianity nearly as directly as it does to my friend’s, and the author’s, Judaism – is well worth reading; the following sentences particularly caught my eye:

“The thesis I wanted to test was that, for the past 50 years the West has been engaged in a fateful experiment: that we can do without a shared moral code. Words that once guided us — like “right”, “wrong”, “ought”, “should”, “duty”, “obligation”, “loyalty”, “virtue”, “honour” — now have an antiquated air about them, as if they come from an age long dead.

“Instead, we’ve outsourced morality to the market and the state. The market gives us choices; the state deals with the consequences; but neither passes any kind of judgment on those choices. So long as we don’t directly harm anyone else, we are free to do whatever we like.”

Britain’s former chief rabbi couldn’t be more right about that. Non-judgmentalism is the order of the day (unless, of course, we’re talking about religious conservatives – we are encouraged to be judgmental about them). For the most part, we are now expected to look at the broader context that has caused criminals to act as they have done rather than to impugn them for having committed crimes. And to a point, that’s all well and good – context is always relevant; but the new paradigm too often essentially denies that criminals had any agency, any choice in the matter of their behavior – making them pawns of fate rather than free people, morally responsible for their actions.

Notice, too, that even in the example I have just given – the criminal who has presumably been caught and whose illegal acts we are now contemplating – the fact that what the man did was a crime is treated as ethically dispositive, i.e., we assume that it was morally wrong because it was forbidden by the state and too often focus instead on not blaming the criminal. This treatment of crimes as definitionally immoral is itself a logical fallacy since not everything the state forbids is immoral, and is thus a fine example of what Sacks meant by writing “we’ve outsourced morality to the state”.  None of us really believes that the laws are always right – or obeys all the laws all the time – but in the absence of a shared moral code law is the only truly common point of reference for quasi-ethical judgments.

The law is a very poor substitute for clear, shared values. For one thing, it’s highly imperfect and only spottily enforced. More fundamentally, it’s heavily (and I do mean heavily, with tens of thousands of prohibitions) weighted toward what in religious terms might be couched as “thou shalt nots” and other than the payment of taxes, pretty much bereft of positive obligations. In other words, religions generally tell us that God wants us to go forth and multiply, honor our parents, love our neighbors as ourselves and so on, but the laws are silent on such matters. If law is all we have as a moral code, we don’t have to do nuthin’ for nobody, which is not my idea of what leading a good life – not the good life – is all about.

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote that trust is more important than law. Trust rests more or less solely on people on both sides of whatever question is at issue having a shared moral code. This shared code enables them to know what to expect of each other, whether or not the government has spoken on the topic or is nearby. Within the Jewish and Christian traditions, the foundation of a fundamental moral code was spelled out with admirable clarity in the Ten Commandments. In an increasingly secularized society that ignores such religious traditions, it’s less and less clear what, other than the law, defines the mutually dependable assumptions that are the basis of interpersonal trust.

Without the trust that comes from a clearly understood, shared moral code – one that gives each individual the dignity of free will, and places both guardrails and affirmative obligations on personal behavior, society will break down. Sacks writes: “The bottom line of all of this is that society needs more than the free market and the liberal democratic state.” Again, he is right.

Free markets and democratic governance are, in my view, necessary but not sufficient conditions to the creation of a better world. Both are ultimately reflections of the Judeo-Christian heritage out of which our culture grew; that heritage views each individual as a decision-maker, beloved of God. Ultimately the dignity of man came to mean that each of us should have equal voices in our governance and the ability to buy/sell/work etc. based on our own choices. But neither the market nor the law provides guidance as to what individual behaviors should be judged as good or evil.

The common critique of libertarian thought is that small-government advocates hope for a dog-eat-dog world. In my view, that’s dead wrong; without a shared moral code that imposes affirmative obligations as well as behavioral prohibitions, neither personal freedom nor capitalism could long survive; anarchy would be the result, and a world red in tooth and claw. I hope to further explore the necessary connection between freedom and moral responsibility in a future post.

Sack’s conclusory paragraph begins with these sentences: “From the dawn of our history, Judaism has been driven by a moral passion, God’s command to Abraham to “teach his children to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice”. That passion is, in the long run, the only thing capable of sustaining a free society.”

Amen to that. And to my Jewish friends, Shana Tova.


M.H. Johnston

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