Ethics challenge our society in SA today
When the state loses its head, which may well be the situation today, it is up to the citizens to replace it, writes Dr Ndiakhat Ngom
ETHICS is a fundamental discipline on the border between philosophy, law and morality. It is interested in our ways of life and our conceptions of social and professional life.
It is an active philosophy that invites us to reflect deeply and to give direction to our actions in the future. From Aristotle to Kant, Locke, Singer or Habermas, beautiful and admirable pages have been devoted to it.
Less theoretical than we think, it inscribes values as an unavoidable preliminary framework that must nourish our commitments and allow us to project ourselves towards the future with relative optimism.
For some time now, this transversal discipline has been in the news in South Africa, notably in the profound controversy over the moralisation of political life and the virtuous management of public goods.
The nature of the debate, its duration and the verbal violence accompanying it provides an abundant insight into the importance of the concept to populations in a global way.
At least on two aspects, ethics today violently challenges South African society and invites it to rethink its relationship with itself.
The first inquiry is political. Philosophically, politics can be defined according to the French philosopher Claude Lefort in two ways.
First, the horizontal or social relationship that unites the members of the social body. It is the symbol of the pearls of the necklace. By using articulated and complex language, human beings construct not only their humanity, but they are also part of politics, in the generic sense of the term. Hence the expression of Aristotle, a “human being is a political animal”, to say that a human being is essentially and deeply political.
Secondly, the second definition of politics concerns the vertical relationship, those of command to obedience between the base (citizens) and the top (the state). Sociologists such as Herbert Spenser who are adepts of the so-called “organicist” current talk about the organisation of social life as a complex system in which the various organs contribute to the manifestation or the production of life. It is enough for a failure or a fault of an element for disorganisation to take place.
In the present South African situation, it seems that the head of the social body that is the state, is openly challenged. And as the philosopher says, when the state loses its head, it is up to the citizens to put it back in its place.
It seems clear that today there is a deep crisis in the ethics of the perception of authority, those of the state.
Psychologically, absolutely nothing prevents the use of the term “tension” to describe the mental state at the limit, sickly, of South Africans themselves to these nagging questions of ethics that engage the intro- spective look at their past to understand the challenges of the present in order to better prepare for the future.
This mental state is thus an excellent barometer to appreciate the relations of South Africans with politics and from behind the public thing res publica. The relationship of mistrust, loss of confidence, quarrels and invectives seem to gnaw at them like cancerous cells, inexorably devouring the vital organs of the human body.
Cancer, metastasis, anomie, entropy and inexorable death of the social body, seem to be the fatal outcome if we are not careful of this unprecedented moral and political crisis of South African society.
Today, elders, eminent members of the prestigious generation of struggle for freedom such as Dr Matthews Phosa or the late Ahmed Kathrada invite themselves to debates for a call to order and to remember the heavy sacrifices made to build the present. This informs about the gravity of the situation. From epic battles to the restoration of human dignity, South Africa today has drawn the best: Great national pride, immense international respect, relative economic prosperity and promises of well-being for the next generations. Moreover, its dominant regional position and its strong economic situation make it a politico-economic power that is listened to in global geopolitics.
By demanding scrupulous respect for the memory of the Ancients and a better management of their political heritage, the ancients summoned the ethics of responsibility and management of public goods to reconcile more generally South African society, not only with the legacies of its glorious past, but with its own elites. That is extremely important.
The second important aspect of the inquiry into ethics today concerns the publication recently of a polemic book on the last moments of Nelson Mandela. Doctor Vejay Ramlakan, head of the medical team that treated the former charismatic leader of the ANC, gave details that violated the patient’s privacy.
It is curious to note that the ethics of medicine or of scientific practice (bioethics) stemmed from the anxiety of the advances in science, not coupled with reservations and the prudence of philosophy and law in socially exploded countries or in crisis.
Historically, it was in the US in the 1920s, during the period of racial and social segregation, that this discipline emerged.
We can think here of the dubious medical experiments carried out on the Afro-American community to treat the syphilis in the city of Tuskeguee in 1930. But the urgency of patient management to respect their rights and protect their interests has been delayed.
Physically and psychologically, they are in a deep dissymmetrical relationship with their doctors. It was from 1941 with the Nazi experiments on prisoners of Gypsy wars, Jews or sick or malformed Germans that this discipline won sadly its titles of nobility.
Today, it is in a country in full doubt that this doctor, brilliant, cultivated and aware of the stakes of his medical practice and its objective limits, tramples underfoot the universal prescriptions of the discipline whom Hippocrates had drawn the outlines of since the distant antiquity.
Thereafter, the polemic between the wives of the historical leader of the ANC or the reserve of the Ministry of Defence or that readers, embarrassed, learn the crusty details on the medical record of the patient Mandela, all this constitutes in itself a lightness or awkwardness of guilt or even a serious ethical fault.
Clearly, Vejay Ramlakan paid little attention to respecting the relationship of confidentiality that united him to the dying.
It is clear that Mandela would certainly not have wished for the postmortem disclosure of his own clinical affections.
The fact that the physician had made arrangements with the family beforehand can in no way undermine his responsibilities since the complex relations between law and ethics are often forgotten. Lawyers say that anything that is not prohibited is allowed.
But this is not always true on the philosophical level. All that is legal is not necessarily moral. All that is permitted is not necessarily ethical. In the end, the book was finally removed from sale. It constitutes a triumph not of law but rather those of ethics over commercial or economic considerations.
These two illustrations on the scope of management ethics and bioethics provide information on the urgency of popularising or at least strengthening the promotion of this discipline in higher education in South Africa. It can indeed be a powerful weapon against professional excesses and defects.
Dr Ndiakhat Ngom International consultant Ancient member of Unesco Ancient chief of project in Amnesty International PhD of philosophy and Master of Political Science at Sorbonne University.
An important aspect of the inquiry into ethics today concerns the publication recently of a polemic book on the last moments of Nelson Mandela. Doctor Vejay Ramlakan the head of the medical team who treated the former charismatic leader of the ANC gave details that violated the patient’s privacy and could throw or add to the discord between Mandela’s family members.
Today, elders, eminent members of the prestigious generation of struggle for freedom such as Dr Matthews Phosa or the late Ahmed Kathrada invite themselves to debates for a call to order and to remember the heavy sacrifices made to build the present.