My book group finished the 2021-22 season with one of the best books I’ve read: Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, by Jonathan Sacks. Sacks calls on his broad range of learning in philosophy, religion, history, and the behavorial sciences to demonstrate how human beings have strayed from the fundamentals of civil society.
Sacks makes simple points: Human beings can’t survive alone, families are the basic survival unit, and tribes of about 150 people are the largest naturally occurring groups of people where each person feels personally attached to, and will sacrifice themselves for, each of the others. In order for larger groups to survive, say, 500 people, or 1,000 or 100 million, they need to organize in some sort of civil society.
Sacks concludes that civil society prospers only if it has three fundamental characteristics: liberty (which begets capitalism), government, and community (my words, not necessarily his). In tribes, people are naturally free, do not require government in any significant sense, and care for each other instinctively. In larger groups, it becomes necessary to establish government to impose laws that tend to limit liberty but are necessary for the greater good. It’s equally necessary to have laws to protect individual liberty. In larger groups people tend to ignore the problems of others outside their family; thus, in larger groups it also becomes necessary to come together in some ways to help other people, people who lose a loved one, whose property is destroyed, or who suffer any of the many other things that befall individuals in the course of their lives.
Sacks didn’t invent these ideas. He draws on scholarship from multiple eras and disciplines to demonstrate how political philosophers have sought to discern how human beings can best organize to maximize survival, prosperity, and freedom. What Sacks teaches us is that civil society cannot succeed if liberty, government, and community are out of balance. Absolute freedom leads to chaos or anarchy or autocracy; too much government, even if well intended, leads to loss of liberty. And what of community, the commitment of each of us to take care of the others, the kind of commitment that comes naturally to families and tribes? Community is that thing that allows us to keep liberty and government in balance, that keeps us focused on the life we want for all of us. Without community, liberty and government are locked in a battle for supremacy, and everyone loses. Without community, we end up where we Americans are right now.
What is community? Sacks says community comes from sharing common morals. That’s why his book is called Morality. He says people need some life principles in common in order to remain together in civil society. For most of human history, and in the United States until World War II, religion was the basis of a common morality. Since the War, our society has become more diverse, our jurisprudence eliminated, for legitimate reasons, religion from our public schools, and our people have become less religious. The result has been that Americans share less of a common morality than they once did. Worse, we tend to ignore those non-faith-based things that we do have in common, core beliefs like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Alexis de Tocqueville identified community as the aspect of American culture that made the United States uniquely successful as a civil society. Our Constitution established liberty under law, our government established order without constraining the freedom of the people, and it all worked because we cared for each other locally. De Tocqueville identified the churches as the source of that caring. He also identified the societal trend that led to the great explosion of increasingly non-sectarian social service organizations in the late 19th century and early 20th century: the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA and YWCA, labor unions, the Salvation Army, community hospitals, and schools and colleges and universities. Americans undertook with enthusiasm all manner of activities to support others as we all sought to enjoy the fruits of the freedom we had.
In modern America, the impact of those great social-service institutions that allow us to care for one another has faded, and it has been replaced by nothing. We seem to have very little in common – the Super Bowl is celebrated nationally with more enthusiasm than Memorial Day or the fourth of July. We look for reasons to reject great Americans like Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than look for and celebrate the great moral principles they espoused and that are the foundation of the greatness of our country.
We even find it easy to reject one of the expressions that best represents what community is and why we need it – “It takes a village,” because a divisive political figure chose those words as the title of a book.
Without community, we are left with just liberty and government. The proponents of each are locked in a struggle, and there is little community, little in terms of core principles that brings us together. Both liberty and government are necessary, but neither binds us together. Only community can do that.
We need to cooperate as neighbors, outside the political arena, in the spaces where we live our lives together, in our neighborhoods and schools, in our workplaces. We need to recognize what brings us together, not what separates us.
Since my book group completed the 2021-2022 cycle of books and hasn’t yet selected books for the upcoming season, I needed something to read. So, with Morality behind me, I picked up Eleven Rings, a basketball memoir by Phil Jackson. On the off chance that you may not know who Phil Jackson is, he won two NBA championships as a player with the New York Knicks, six NBA championships as the coach of the Chicago Bulls and five NBA championships as the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. His success in the NBA is nearly unparalleled.
He’s also a bit of a counter-culture freak. He’s a serious long-time Buddhist, he adopted some aspects of Lakota Sioux culture in his coaching, and I suspect he has been, at times, a casual drug user for consciousness-raising purposes. He’s an interesting dude, different drummer and all that.
I’m about half way into the book. He has begun to describe the Bulls’ second string of three consecutive NBA championships, and Jackson has explained much of his coaching philosophy. Although he doesn’t present it tied together in quite this way, he says this about having a successful team:
The tendency of the players is to free-lance, to do whatever they want. Most players want to be scorers. Some others see themselves as defenders, some as rebounders. When they play, they do what they want to do, what comes naturally. Those tendencies are fine, to a point, but they have to be controlled.
The common understanding is that the coach is supposed to control the players, bring order to the chaos that comes with the players’ expression of their individual freedom. The tendency of most coaches is to tell the players what to do. The coach has the power, so when the coach sees something they don’t like, they tend to tell the players not to do whatever it is they just did. If the player persists, the coach puts the player on the bench – and the player can’t play. The players, of course, don’t like being told what they can’t do. They want to play the way they want to play, and they want the coach to leave them alone.
What Jackson, and some other coaches, have come to understand is that for the individuals, the players and the coaches to achieve their common goal – the championship, each must recognize, respect, and support the others as individuals. They must acknowledge that they each have goals, and that they each can have a role on the team that contributes to the team’s success. They must behave in ways that recognize that the success of the team is dependent on shared respect and support for each other. In other words, the coaches and players have to have – yes, fans, a shared morality. They have to value above all else what they can do together by supporting each other. If they don’t have that, then the team dynamic fails, because the players do what they want to do, and the coaches tell them all the things they can’t do.
Liberty, government, and community.
Jackson would get Sacks.