Navigating the moral maze

November 27, 1998

South Africa's search for a new ethics must involve everybody in a living bill of rights, says Brenda Gourley

Academic diversity, some claim, can lead easily to moral and ethical apathy. It has been argued that when the canon is abandoned and all knowledge systems are contested or considered equal, people lose the ability to defend their own culture or to choose one point of view as more valid than another.

A 1991 Club of Rome report refers to a "human malaise", "affecting societies and individuals lost in their brutal break with the past and with no new, coherent vision of the future to go by". The report, The First Global Revolution - A Strategy for Surviving the World, concludes that a raising of universal awareness and a new international ethics is essential to our survival.

Universities should take the lead. As the prime sites of diversity and competing knowledge systems, they are responsible for providing new ethical maps and navigational skills for the maze or malaise of the present.

Many universities find themselves almost paralysed by the multiplicity of cultures and values and religions as we steadily become a more diverse people. As they struggle to be politically correct or avoid the risk of offending any group or persuasion, they end up doing nothing at all. Anxious to be tolerant of differing ethical systems and creeds they would rather not embark on the complex discussions that would attempt to discover and impart what might be called a "post-obedience" ethics.

Martin Prozesky, director of the new centre for comparative and applied ethics at the University of Natal, South Africa believes that ethics can no longer be a matter of simple obedience, that in the search for a new ethics it is important to involve "everybody in the moral quest so that we all accept the responsibility of moral transformation as equals. We must all now become the moral leaders of our nation's needs". He sees education playing a critical role in this.

The centre's name announces the intention of moving away from the idea that moral wisdom rests in any particular person or institution. Professor Prozesky says: "The only moral aristocracy is one that includes us all, where every one of us is empowered to build lives, careers, families and societies that are noble, caring, truthful and good."

Its courses, taught on and off campus, will emphasise applied, not theoretical, ethics, picking issues relevant to courses of study and teaching ethics out of problem situations. It will focus on major, practical, life challenges and seek partnerships with other centres to build capacity and bring in a range of academics and others from different parts of the world to provide a global view.

The challenge is the reconstruction and development of our country. Last month Nelson Mandela called a Morals Summit.

He said: "We knew that the social transformation of our country could not be separated from its spiritual transformation. And that at the very moment when a sense of community, tolerance and concern for one another could reinforce welcome social change, we were witnessing the stark reality of a past that had corroded the moral fabric of our society. At the critical moments in our continuing transition, South Africans have overcome obstacles that others regarded as insurmountable. They decided to put their shared long-term interests above short-term considerations I The time has come to do all we can to seek out, beyond the political differences which we have, common ground as a basis for national action."

President Mandela focused on the fact that ordinary people can achieve what governments cannot. Judge Pius Langa, deputy president of the constitutional court and Natal's new chancellor, made the same point in his installation address last month.

"We have a constitution with a bill of rights that is the envy of the civilised world," he said. "It is, however, for the people of South Africa to make it a living document ... If we take responsibility for our constitution, we would be quick to get involved in seeking solutions to problems; we would criticise constructively but work vigorously to make the country a better place and its institutions even more effective."

Judge Langa quoted William Douglas of the United States Supreme Court:

"What our constitution says, what our legislatures do, and what our courts write are vitally important. But the reality of freedom in our daily lives is shown by the attitudes and policies of people toward each other in the very block or township where we live. There we will find the real measure of a living bill of rights."

If we are inspired by the belief articulated by a learned American judge that "liberty lies in the heart of men and women; when it dies there no constitution, no law, no court can save it", then we will not fail to ensure that those values which are the foundation of our constitutional order are given life.

The task of ethical revitalisation is huge. The Club of Rome report defines ethics very broadly indeed. Its definition includes: "the ethics of nature, imposed by global environmental issues; the ethics of life, exemplified by genetic engineering; the ethics of development, resulting from the increasingly unbearable gap between the rich and the poor; the ethics of money, because it is divorced from economic realities and dominates the ambitions of too many individuals; the ethics of images, which should rule over the media and moderate the influence of television in excessive dramatisation of the image; and finally, the ethics of solidarity, dictated by the fact that the dimension of the problems posed to humankind today requires co-operation between human beings as a condition of their survival."

The task may be immense, but it will also be immensely rewarding. Archimedes said: "Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world." Ethics may well be that fulcrum.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, Durban.

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