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Let’s talk about our moral code

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

Many South Africans would support the recent call by President Jacob Zuma for a national dialogue on our moral code. While quips about foxes guarding henhouses may be the first thing to come to mind, two serious and separate issues are raised by this call: the desirability of such a dialogue, and the practical issue of who should take part.

On the first issue, perhaps we should start by noting that the perceived moral failings of some influential South Africans and the public response to these have a feature in common, namely a tendency to pluck a ready-made moral viewpoint off a shelf and then present that as either defence or accusation. Neither of these responses demonstrates commitment to moral reasoning or sensitivity to the fact that some issues cannot be resolved by appeal to dogma. They are, nevertheless, often successful in that new South Africans have been bred to be tolerant of difference and reluctant to criticise things they may not understand.

But if we are to have a sincere dialogue on our moral code, the opportunity to do so would be wasted if we were simply to try to understand or respect each others’ views, regardless of what those views were. What if one of us – or all of us – is simply wrong on a particular issue? A dialogue that has the intended outcome of “creating a platform where there is no community that does not respect another” leaves little room for any argument. Regardless of the non-judgemental attitude we use as starting point, it’s nevertheless possible that particular views held by a culture or person are not worthy of any respect at all.

As examples of this, first consider the non-moral view that the earth is flat – surely an incontrovertible example of a view that merits no respect. Then, consider the moral view that female circumcision is an appropriate cultural practice. Here, an appeal to traditional values cannot be used as justification as we are obliged, for consistency, also to tolerate slavery, since that too has a massive weight of culture behind it.

We do not tolerate slavery nor should we tolerate female circumcision. Respecting views simply because they are deeply held by one culture or another may demand that we tolerate both, but we can shrug off that demand for respect by pointing to the harms these practices cause. Doing so is a simple example of a moral argument, rather than an example of settling a dispute by appeal to culture, habit or tradition – appeals which, in most cases, appear as thinly disguised appeals to existing prejudices. The success of moral arguments in these cases should allow us optimism that there is a point to moral argumentation in general, and thus support the case for the desirability of the dialogue Zuma apparently calls for.

These successes also guide us in clarifying the second issue, namely that of who the participants in such a dialogue should be. While Zuma has pledged that “individuals who are not identified with any political ideologies” would be asked to lead the process, reports suggest that the National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), headed by Ray McCauley of the Rhema Church, has already been assigned this task.

There is, of course, no logical obstacle to members of a particular faith (or ecumenical group such as the NILC) having the expertise to spearhead a dialogue on South Africa’s moral code. But it is worth remembering that their general disposition is to support an existing moral code, namely the one expressed by their distinct faiths. This disposition does not seem to allow much room for recognising that objective moral arguments may not always support conclusions reached by appeal to the existing moral code of any particular faith. A related problem is the fact that many South Africans may object to the knee-jerk association of religion with morality, and argue that religious definitions of what is good sometimes bear little resemblance to what reason tells them is the right thing to do.

Reason tells us that the right thing to do is to denounce the homophobia expressed by Jon Qwelane – even if you believe homosexuality to be immoral – and to speak out against his possible appointment as ambassador to Uganda, where lawmakers want to make homosexuality a capital offense. Reason tells us that the right thing to do is denounce abuses of power by state organs such as the police, when they unlawfully imprison a citizen for allegedly insulting the president. It also seems plausible to suggest that churches should be first to condemn the actions of the (self-proclaimed) pastor from Mpumalanga, who insists that God instructed him to impregnate his daughter.

Reason tells us this because in these examples, people are harmed – or stand to be harmed – and avoiding harm is the foundation of any moral viewpoint worth taking seriously. But we seldom encounter such responses from groups such as the NILC, which prefer to limit their interventions to reminding us that, according to their existing beliefs, we may want to revisit laws on same-sex marriage or abortion.

There are, of course, exceptions to this selective approach to moral intervention, and Desmond Tutu is perhaps the clearest example. In general, though, religious groups such as the NILC are frequently heard from only in cases where some vested interest is at stake, or an existing item of dogma is threatened – but rarely to offer moral guidance through argument or reason, in a way that appeals to all, rather than simply to members of that particular faith.

A final complication, of course, is the fact that the NILC hardly seems to be separable from “political ideologies” – in this case, Zuma’s ideology. As has been widely reported, four prominent ANC members are part of the 20-strong NILC, and NILC press releases have emanated from the office of the ANC chief whip, Mathole Motshekga. This indicates a worrying tolerance for collapsing Church and State, and also provides very little reassurance for those of us who want to believe that the ANC remains committed to the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion – including the freedom to not have religion interfere in matters that affect all.

Morally complex issues deserve careful consideration, rather than resolutions by appeal to tradition, prejudice or superstition. Asking the NILC to initiate and manage this process gives rise to some suspicion regarding both the timing, as well as the sincerity, of Zuma’s call for a dialogue on South Africa’s moral code. While finding out that our moral code is a relativistic free-for-all, in which culture determines right and wrong, will no doubt relieve some pressure on the president, it won’t contribute in any way to illuminating the question of what our moral code should be.


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