18 March 2020, The Tablet

Personal morality and the need for ethics

Personal morality and the need for ethics

‘We will have to rebuild families and communities and voluntary organisations’


A former Chief Rabbi argues in his latest book that if we are to repair an aggressive society we have to restore the mutuality, compassion and grace that the Hebrew Bible saw as a lasting ideal. ‘The coronavirus is going to test our capacity to work for the benefit of others,’ he said this week. ‘Selfishness is not going to protect us’

It would be easy to be pessimistic about the future of Western liberal democracies. The loss of the idea of society as a moral community began as the rarefied vision of intellectuals in the second half of the nineteenth century, followed from the 1930s onward by existentialists and emotivists who denied that there was a morality beyond the self. Then came the liberal revolution of the 1960s and the economic revolution of the 1980s. They were followed by the fragmentation of culture and communication brought about by computers, the internet, smartphones and social media.

That is where we are today: often lonely, confused, disillusioned and mistrustful, living in societies divided into non-communicating groups, each of which believes that it is exploited, abused or threatened by others. From this comes a politics of anger that can easily lead to populism and the search for the strong leader who will somehow make the problems go away, but often makes them worse.

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