Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 11 January 2021

The end of ethics in South Africa

The social good is above the individual good, only insofar as individuals make up a society and their actions attain the good of the society – in its entirety. The ANC and EFF have long crossed the line of moral rectitude. The DA is too smitten with liberalism’s excessive individualism and mythical market forces to consider the common good as indivisible from individual good.

There is a growing diminution of ethics in South African politics, or at least a blurring of lines between the historical, somewhat acceptable, binary of utilitarian and Kantian ethics. 

Utilitarian ethics, put quite simply (I hope not too simplistically – this is an enormous subject, I apologise in advance for taking short cuts) is that you treat someone in a particular way, because you expect something in return.

Kantian ethics is that you treat someone with kindness, respect, grace, dignity, and you dispense justice because these are good in and of themselves – and you don’t expect anything in return. 

Our politicians, those in government as well as elites outside government, have either dispensed with any moral obligation to do good for its own sake, or they have surrendered any notion of justice for its own sake, and abandoned any ethical considerations. That’s a mouthful. But let me try to explain.

First, I should lay out my (personal) position of departure, which is that I consider “ethics” to be the ultimate ends of human conduct, and that ethical conduct – treating someone with kindness, respect, grace and dignity – is good in and of itself. This rests on the (firm) belief that one should never treat someone (else) as a means to an end, but as an end in themselves. Yes, this is drawn from Kantian thought, but (for the record) I disagree with him on the immortality of the soul, the existence of god, and on free will.

There is a vast literature on ethics reaching back to at least 400 BCE. I am, therefore, necessarily and because of space constraints terribly brief. To avoid accusations of ignoring African ethics, I tried to find African literature on ethics from around the same time as Plato, or Socrates, and especially Aristotle (400-300 BCE). It was a fruitless search. What I did find was produced mainly in the 20th century. In this literature I noted the African ethics postulate of “partiality,” which I consider to be exclusivist, and contradictory to the cosmopolitanism I associate with. I cannot see the value in being partial in the process of securing rights, justice, or providing public goods and services. 

There may, indeed, be instances where the state ought to focus on rolling back injustices of the past, and be “partial” to previously disadvantaged groups. But in the process, rent-seeking has been rampant in South Africa, with naught for the comfort of the precariat. This, more than anything, has ruined any ethical basis of government and leadership for the common good, increased rent-seeking, and the building of fortunes among the elite.

The life world of South Africans

It is fairly evident that our politicians have failed us – most especially over the past 10 years – and many of them (and their cronies) have become wealthy in the process. To them, and to many elites, getting to positions of power is enough. In such instances, partiality ethics is homologous to “it’s our turn to eat”, in the sense that it once was other people’s turn to eat, and now you battle and trample on others to get to the top because it’s your turn. This way, ethics of partiality, and the masses of evidence that we have seen over the past four or five years, demonstrate that once you have achieved your goal of, say, becoming a CEO (Brian Molefe), or a COO (Hlaudi Motsoeneng), or a presidential spokesperson (Khusela Diko), “you’ve made it” to the feeding trough, and it’s “your turn to eat”. Anyway, beyond that, there is no commitment to the common good, and all senses of rectitude have been violated. The ethical motive is to get into a position of power, for its own sake, and the idea of doing good (for the public) either for utilitarian reasons or because it’s necessarily good, is ignored or dispensed with.

There is no need, here, to go through all the cases of corruption, maladministration, nepotism, cronyism (that made very many people wealthy) and the continued decline in the delivery of public goods and services. It is well enough embedded in all our minds. The evidence is overwhelming that there is a growing gap between most of the political elite, and public service, and the life world of the population, which is (ontically) beset with crime, violence – especially against women and children – displacement, dysfunctional municipalities, failures in the delivery of goods and service, and a growing precariat that has pushed people to the threads of our horribly frayed social and political economy fabric. Compare that with the apparently unabashed corruption, theft, maladministration, bra’skap (the idea that we have to be partial to our own kind, and not criticise or rat on them to supervisors), and the mendacity and selective morality of elected leaders – those in government, and in opposition. Set these in the context of State Capture, and the picture that emerges is one of a complete absence of ethics, or, at best, an ethics of partiality. It’s our turn to eat.

A return to ethics?

In any society, we look to parents, teachers, pastors and politicians for guidance. We also expect political parties, in particular, to lead us and conduct the business of government, and the public service in an ethical manner. Unfortunately, the main political parties, the ANC, the DA and the EFF are in various states of dysfunction, denial and self-defeat. The political economy is on its knees, and although the Covid-19 pandemic is relatively small in the longue durée, the fractures and fault lines that were exposed in about 2007 have only widened and deepened. 

The government and the political parties have presided over State Capture, and the hollowing out of the state.  Almost six years (March 2015) ago, having developed some insights into the way that the state had been hollowed out, I wrote, in this space, the following passage (with reference to organised crime in Italy) which has become even more relevant as we enter 2021:

“Claims of corruption are usually quite rapidly followed by an ethical outcry. In other words, there is almost no time-lag between the act and the outcry. Over time, however, the delay becomes longer; ethical outcries arrive late, and eventually, they peter out. At the latter stages, there is no outcry, and then resignation, tolerance and permissibility become the norm. The criminal propaganda machinery goes into overtime. The public become inured to crime and corruption. For their part, agents in the criminocracy would dismiss accusations of systemic unlawful conduct as myth-making, lies or conspiracy theories.”

I did not have the time, ability and skill-set to do what colleagues at amaBhungane did the following year, with the detailed exposure of State Capture. But the whole shebang is now in front of us, for everyone to see – with the customary denials, and cries of persecution and victimisation. The question is, can we return to ethical governance and public service – and cut off the flow of money to cronies?

Is there a single ethical basis, or are there several?

One of the more prominent contestations in the world today is the continued, and eternal validity of the beliefs, values and scientific methods that emerged from the European Enlightenment. This is an enormous subject, that has most recently been sparked (again) by Steven Pinker, (I have several disagreements with Pinker’s arguments, but that’s for another essay) from which a single strand may be pulled: the idea that one should always treat a fellow human as an end in itself, and not a means to an end. This is, of course, not always followed or adhered to; especially not in capitalist society, the ethics of which rests, in large part, on the dual beliefs in the natural, and eternally applicable and valid concept of utility maximisation, and the improvement of productivity, to the point where human labour is (rapidly) replaced by a somehow natural progression of technology – as a means to increase production and returns. I am really simplifying capitalist ethics, but I don’t think that what I have drawn is too much of a caricature of capitalism.

There is a case to be made that in Aristotelian terms, an “individual cannot regard his own well-being apart from others”. This has clearly not been part of the thinking among South African elites – although one can single out decent individuals among them. But, it should be stressed that the social good is above the individual good only insofar as individuals make up a society and their actions attain the good of the society – in its entirety. We know that the ANC and EFF talk a good game, but have long crossed the line of moral rectitude. The Democratic Alliance is too smitten with liberalism’s excessive individualism and mythical market forces to correct injustices, to consider the common good as indivisible from individual good.

In the meantime, we have a society that has reached what one clever person referred to as the end of ethics. It’s probably not entirely true, but looking at the corruption and looting that were part of State Capture, it’s hard to claim it’s totally false. 

To conclude, there are, indeed, very few general ethical principles that can be used with precision unless they take into consideration the life world of people – of individuals and communities, as a totality of society. A good place to start would be to treat all civilians, the publicum, as recipients of public goods and services, as ends in themselves, and never as a means to an end. And to treat public service, and politics, as a commitment to the common good, and not in a utilitarian way – as a means to become wealthy. DM

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All Comments 12

  • Thanks, Ismail. A very useful and absorbing essay. Should ethics not be a compulsory school subject? -to give our kids a compass to navigate life and community, especially if parents are not fulfilling that role

  • Thanks Issy. I enjoy reading your thoughtful essays. Todays piece is particularly disturbing. The optimist in me thinks if we can just rid ourselves of the ANC government, things will change, go back to “normal”, while the cynical me knows theres no going back anywhere when the entire state service – all three levels of it – are on the take. Ethics smethics …

  • A timely and thought provoking piece, but as with much opinion and commentary today, is light on why the main political parties apparently fall far short of any ethical standard. ‘Talk a good game’ is not analysis when it comes to dismissing the ANC and EFF, and suggesting that the DA is too ‘smitten with liberalism’s excessive individualism’ (to consider the common good), is trite to say the least. It would be useful to see a follow up article on why it is that the ANC appears unable to act in the common good (that is to say, ethically). What is it about its view of SA, it’s own history, it’s view of colonialism of a special type, its deeply held ideology of African Nationalism that see it (and therefore SA) drift closer to authoritarianism. The EFF is easier surely to reflect on as there appears (in public anyway) not much more to think about past its fascist violence (in words and deeds). And surely there is more to liberalism and the DA’s version of it, which to me seems highly modified and in acknowledgement of the role of the State to support the most vulnerable. A weighty topic like ethics needs more considered commentary than simply dismissing the three main parties with the flick of a pen.

  • An interesting article, thank you. My two cents — for what they are worth:

    My first cent: When casting a vote, a political party’s policies and the ethics of the person or people who are supposed to execute them should be sharply distinguished. My ward councillor is a highly ethical man, and I am happy to vote for him, irrespective of his party’s policies. The EFF leadership, large swathes of the US Republican party leadership, and a significant subset of the ANC leadership I judge to be highly unethical and substantially opportunistic — I would not vote for them, irrespective of their policies. Some DA personalities may have limitations in the ethical behaviour, and DA policies may be deficient in some ways. However, the DA’s general aspiration to adhere to ethical standards, and various concerted efforts to enforce these standards — even though there are blemishes — seem to me sufficient reason to give them my vote. In summary, ethics trumps (no pun intended) policies.

    My second cent: Apart from cursorily disagreeing with Kant’s notion of soul, your otherwise interesting piece wholly ignores the millions of South Africans who, in one form or another, give adherence to a formal religious system or some spiritual reality. Many believe in a transcendent reality that in some ineffable way is personal, just, loving, merciful, etc. Yes, there are many variants in the religious / spiritual positions that people hold. And, yes, the deficiencies alleged to inhere in many — and perhaps all — such positions have been copiously debated and, indeed, scorned by a self-appointed secularist elite. But it is undeniable that such people have an ultimate and rational reason to adhere to Kantian ethics, even if their personal lives sometimes betray their stated aspirations. Materialists may appeal for ethical behaviour and indeed often behave admirably and ethically. But ultimately their appeals cannot reasonbly explain why non-utilitarian ethical behaviour should be embraced. If the universe is cold, impersonal and indifferent, the ethics of Ayn Rand and Donald Trump make more sense than those of Martin Luther King, or St Francis, or Bishop Tutu, or Ghandi. In summary, to marshal the forces for ethical behaviour in our country, one has to inspire, direct and motivate the widespread spiritual convictions of our people, rather than simply ignore or disdain them.

  • There is clearly no milk of human kindness in the veins of any of our political leaders. In your post-God world the politicians are behaving perfectly rationally. If humans are no different spiritually to animals then the logical approach is to look after yourself first and others only if it is in your own interest.

  • To consider ethics as a compulsory school subject (as suggested by the first reply) would create a lot of comment, but importantly it would raise and open the debate and viewpoints to a wider audience.

  • An otherwise excellent article is tainted with intellectual dishonesty in its dismissive treatment of the DA. At its most recent Federal Congress the party adopted a comprehensive Social Justice policy. Mr. Lagardien, as a seasoned commentator, can hardly be unaware of its existence and has either not bothered to read it or chooses to be partisan in order to foist his uninformed views on the readers.l

  • Bad ethics drive good ethics out of circulation. Example: knowing what happens to whistleblowers, would you be one? Or: if you live amongst gangsters, will (Kantian) ethics do any good? If we want to live in a better ethical world, we need to act (vote) against bad ethics.

  • This is a typically thoughtful and interesting piece, but it contains a few blatant errors which are worthy of correction. First, utilitarian ethics is decidedly *not* the idea that we ought to do something only if we expect something in return. This is better described as the view, “ethical egoism.” Utilitarian thought insists that the morally right thing to do is that which brings about the most good (with “good” needing independent characterization) *for all those affected by the action*. Kantian ethics insists that rational beings–read “humans”–are ends in themselves, not (mere) means to other ends, and (morally) must be treated as such. Lagardien is on firmer ground here. Finally, while African ethics, whatever else it is, is not remotely ‘homologous to “it’s our turn to eat”.’ African ethics, while admitting many variants, is roughly communal in nature. Moral rightness is tied to the development of, or preservation of, communal ties between people. Much closer to the idea of African ethics is what Lagardien rightly attributes to Aristotelian thinking: an “individual cannot regard his own well-being apart from others”.

    I agree with the general tenor of this piece and admire its lament for the abject abandonment of ethics amongst our governing elite (and its opposition elites). The attitude of “it’s our turn to eat” has no plausible ethical justification on *any* of these (or other) bases, nor does the rank nepotism or “jobs-for-friends.” While African ethics (and Kantianism) has a place for partiality, this is not the sort of partiality it would endorse. But the ethical/conceptual framework in which this critique is made is mis-characterized in these important ways.

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