Jonathan Sacks’ radio series Morality in the 21st Century is a useful introduction to the subject, with some good contributions from world-renowned experts, but it’s rather one-sided. Almost all of these world-renowned experts (such as Jordan Peterson, Robert Putnam, David Brooks) share his approach. There is not much airing of other views, or questioning of basic assumptions.
The series is another blast on the communitarian trumpet. Communitarianism is the view that individualism has gone too far, that secular liberalism has descended into selfishness, that a shared moral code has got lost. It has been a major intellectual movement since the mid 1980s. One of its central metaphors is thinness and thickness. Western society has moved towards a problematically thin idea of morality – meaning that it is very abstract, not rooted in shared social practices. We still need to learn from the thicker morality of close-knit moral communities, most obviously religions. It also talks a lot about virtue, and taking responsibility. It is, of course, the approach favoured by religious leaders – it allows them to present their teaching in semi-secular terms.
I think this approach to morality has plenty of important insights, but ultimately it’s too negative. It forgets to say the first thing about Western morality. The first thing to say about Western morality is that it is good. It is the most ambitious moral universalism there has ever been, the fullest humanism. Because of this universal scope, it is necessarily thin, necessarily critical of tighter moral traditions, necessarily in tension with them. But we must affirm the thinness before we bemoan it. We must affirm secular humanism as the best possible public ideology – and only then try to address the problem that it is too thin to give one’s life meaning. In other words, we do have a robust public morality – universal humanism, basically – but there is a gap between this and the individual’s pursuit of a meaningful life. Sacks and his communitarian allies unhelpfully accentuate the negative, and imply that the thinness of secular humanism is the enemy. Instead, it’s our proper context, within which we may find moral meaning.