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

Daily News - - VIEWS & ANALYSIS -

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.

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