Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Individualism’s impact on morality and the markets
“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
This is how the book of Judges in the Bible describes the chaos and immorality that threatened the community in the early days of ancient Israel. The phrase is used by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his chapter describing the movement from “We” to “I” in his book Morality.
[Note: We continue the Insights following the chapters in his book currently being read by the Kaufman Interfaith Institute’s book group. This week, October 14, a new Zoom discussion group will meet Thursday evenings from 7 to 8:30 pm. If you have not already signed up, you can do so by clicking here.
While humans have been inclined to selfish acts from the beginning of time, Sacks tracks the development of individualism in society, philosophy, and even religion, during the past few centuries. Autobiographies and self-portraits became common from the early 1600s. The philosopher Descartes built his system on the individual realization that his own self-consciousness cannot be doubted: “I think; therefore I am.” Earlier, the reformer Martin Luther built his religious understanding on the primacy of the “individual’s direct encounter with God, the ‘I’ of faith unmediated by the ‘We’ of the church.”
Other philosophers from Hobbes, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche continued the development of a radical individualistic approach to what was right, or even to what is truth. Sacks writes, “Morality thus ceased to be what it had usually been understood as being, a shared code by whose rules the member of a group agreed to abide … and became a mere matter of personal taste.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French diplomat, philosopher, and observer of the beginnings of the new nation wrote his famous book in 1830, Democracy in America. He warned of an individualism that could be, as Sacks describes, “the single greatest danger to democratic freedom in the long run. People would simply cease to interest themselves in the welfare of others, and they would leave that responsibility to the state.” Sacks continues, “The only thing that protected America from this outcome was the strength of its families, communities, churches, and charitable organizations: in other words, its moral environments where people actively cared for one another.”
Sacks’ analysis continues with his concern with how individual needs and “desires take precedence over the collective” as he examines, in the next chapter, “Market Without Morals.” With examples from both Britain and the United States, he describes companies experiencing disastrous results when they pursued short-term profit instead of the “long-term benefits to the public, shareholders, and employees alike.”
He further observes that, “If the corporation’s purpose is no more than the pursuit of profit, why should that not apply to individuals in positions of power? Why should they not translate their sense of self-worth into financial reward? When only profit counts, what, then, happens to service, loyalty, and duty to others?”
In evidence of this phenomena, Sacks cites the shift in salaries when comparing the chief executive to worker pay where the ratio went from 20 to 1 in 1965 to the ratio today of 312 to 1. This has contributed to a “profound loss of trust in business, and the capacity of the market to regulate itself in the interests of the common good.” The market economy has been enormously successful in creating wealth and moving millions of people out of general poverty. However, Sacks writes, “The market is better at creating wealth than distributing it, and equitable distribution requires something other than self-interest. It needs a sense of the common good, of the ‘We’ not just the ‘I.’ Markets need morals.”
Sacks does not despair, however, and notes that a basic sense of fairness is built into human instinct and is observed in young children who cry out “It’s not fair” as one of the “first moral propositions we articulate.” This innate sense of justice is not unique to humans but is also observed in other social animals and has been demonstrated by the primatologist Frans de Waal in a now famous TED talk. [You can view the short clip of his experiment with primates expressing their outrage when something unfair happens here. This very short video has been seen by over 17 million people, and you can also watch it by going to YouTube or Google and searching for “Monkeys paid unequally.”]
Sacks also gives credit to the market economy for providing a solution to the problem of personal and national violence. “When two nations meet … they can do one of two things: they can wage war or they can trade. If they wage war, both are likely to lose in the long run. If they trade, both will gain.”
Markets driven by greed rather than integrity and service to others lead to income disparity and damage to the common good. Sacks concludes the chapter, “Markets were made to serve us; we were not made to serve markets. Economics needs ethics. Markets do not survive by market forces alone. They depend on respect for the people affected by our decisions. Lose that and we will lose not just money and jobs but something more significant still: freedom, trust, and decency, the things that have a value, not a price.”