Paul Vallely: The limits of the market and the State

07 September 2018

Neither are equipped to make moral judgements, says Paul Vallely

BBC

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

SORRY, I should have told you this earlier. Around the house for the past few months, I’ve been overhearing intriguing telephone conversations, and then snippets of recorded interviews, from a new Radio 4 series that my wife has been working on.

Now that I have heard the final product on air as Morality in the 21st Century, presented by Lord Sacks, I wish I had alerted you sooner. It’s a good job it is still there on the iPlayer.

The basic thesis of the former Chief Rabbi is that, in recent decades, we have outsourced morality to the market and the State, which are finely tuned for making judgements about price and efficiency, or political popularity, but ill-equipped for making value judgements. To explore it, over five programmes, he has interviewed an impressive array of the world’s Big Thinkers.

He began with the public intellectual Jordan Peterson, who has been much criticised for his views on gender and archetype (which appear to confuse what is with what ought to be). But Lord Sacks’s interview went deeper into the thinking of the clinical psychologist, who complains that recent generations have been fed a diet of happiness and rights which is a thin gruel.

The point of life, Peterson asserted, is to find meaning, not happiness, and to understand that responsibility must balance rights.

The public philosopher Michael Sandel underscored this, insisting that decisions over issues such as abortion, or fair tax rates, can never be arrived at by the market, nor by a State which limits itself to the managerial. Neither of them can make moral judgements nor determine the qualities of character that we want to inculcate in our children.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks contrasted the virtues we list on our CVs, and those we would like to be spoken in our funeral eulogies — and suggested that social and economic pressures force us to concentrate too much on the former.

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The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam suggested that our most desirable qualities can be built only by interacting with others in our community. Melinda Gates spoke movingly of how, to change the world, you must begin by changing one life. And Stephen Pinker produced a raft of statistics to show how — contrary to the ingrained views of cynics and pessimists — the world is a much better place now than it was three decades ago.

The five programmes were filled with arresting insights: on the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary identity politics; on the rise of puritanism on university campuses; on the coming benefits and risks of artificial intelligence; and some disturbing research on the impact of social media and smartphones on the current iGeneration.

But some of the best input came from that generation themselves, as Lord Sacks bounced the opinions of his Big Thinkers off groups of sixth-formers from schools in the UK. Their contributions, far from being stuck in the simplistic confrontational tribalism that the programmes lamented in contemporary culture, were thoughtful and nuanced, supple and sophisticated.

After the gloomy analysis of some of the older experts, the young people made you feel that morality in the 21st century is in safe hands.

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