Without conscience there can be no trust. Without a shared moral code there can be no free society. Either we recover the moral sense or we will find, too late, that in the name of liberty, we have lost our freedom.
Concepts like duty, obligation, responsibility and honour have come to seem antiquated and irrelevant. Emotions like guilt, shame, contrition and remorse have been deleted from our vocabulary, for are we not all entitled to self-esteem? The still, small voice of conscience is rarely heard these days. Conscience has been outsourced, delegated away.
So, in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities. Where once people believed that God sees all we do, now we have CCTV and video surveillance. When self-imposed restraint disappears, external constraint must take its place. The result is that we have created the most regulated, intrusive society ever known.
And still it fails, and will always fail, because without a sense of responsibility to others, people will always find ways of outwitting the most sophisticated systems.
Two extraordinarily farsighted thinkers foresaw all this in the 1950s. The first was the American sociologist David Riesman, who argued that we were moving from an inner-directed society to an other-directed one.
An inner-directed society is one where people have an internalised sense of right and wrong. An other-directed society is one in which people take their cues from what other people do. Only in the latter can you have a situation in which people say: “If everyone else is doing it, it can’t be wrong.”
The second was the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who argued that morality had become incoherent because we had lost the foundation on which it was built. Words like obligation and ought belonged to a culture in which people believed that there was such a thing as a divine law: the belief shared by Jews, the Greek Stoics and Christians. Lose this and the words themselves lose their meaning. It is, she said, as if the word criminal remained when the criminal law had been abolished and forgotten.
If this is true, we face a much larger crisis than we think. Parliamentary reform and financial re-regulation will treat the symptoms not the cause. Without conscience there can be no trust. Without a shared moral code there can be no free society. Either we recover the moral sense or we will find, too late, that in the name of liberty, we have lost our freedom.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth