Op-ed May 2013 Mps and Integrity

The MPs and Integrity

One of the cardinal principles of our new 2010 Constitution concerns the issue of ‘integrity’ – an issue that is a recurrent theme in our body politic and one that we seem to have a major difficulty in responding to. As a result, so often we over ride or side step the burning question. This clearly was the case when the Supreme Court declined to rule on the legitimacy of the two ICC suspects running for electoral office. I believe this accelerated our slide on the slippery slope of impunity and has led to the present unquestionably blatant violation of our hard-fought-for constitution as MPs and their allies discard all integrity in their quest for higher salaries.

The dictionary explanation of the word ‘integrity’ is ‘firm adherence to moral and ethical principles, soundness of moral character and honesty’. So what then is ‘moral’ or ‘morality’? ‘Conformity to the rules of right conduct’ is the linguistic meaning. But ‘right conduct’ is a very subjective term as what is ‘right’ or ‘not right’ varies with individual perception.

In this 21st century, almost all of the world’s humanity (except for the so-called ‘primitive’ societies) lives in a class divided society, a structure that has developed over the last 5000 years – bourgeois versus proletariat, haves versus have-nots (and the last category includes the middle classes who have only the illusion of ‘ownership’).  That the richest three people in the world have a combined wealth greater than the world’s 48 poorest countries, while billions struggle to have enough to eat each day or find access to clean water is immoral, most of us would say. Surely we cannot judge the starving person who steals a loaf of bread and the corrupt leader who dips into the national kitty with the same moral canon. Can there be a ‘neutral’ set of moral rules then, that all of us can adhere to?

At the heart of modern ideas of morality is a fundamental divide between our needs and desires on the one hand, and on the other our supposed moral duties. There is an assumed gulf between what we want to do to satisfy our selfish interests and what is held to be right. Disinterested altruism and selfish egoism appear to stand in irrevocable opposition. How then can we create a stable moral society?

One response is to judge morality not in terms of our subjective intentions but in terms of the outcomes of our actions. But that would mean then that selfish acts could generate morally good results! The dominant thinking is that in a ‘free’ society, i.e. in a free market economy, in spite of people acting in their perceived self-interest the interaction and interdependence between social groups will generate social harmony and be beneficial to all. However, this notion clashes with our actual experience – we live in a world of vast and growing inequalities, repeated crises and social upheaval. Instead of leading to harmony, competitive interests are tearing society apart. Whether it is Ethiopia’s Gibe Dam or the poaching of elephants and rhinos, the intrusion of foreign interest in our fertile land and national polity or the ownership of our national resources – everywhere we look, the story is the same. Can it be the case that our needs and desires are utterly opposed to living an ethical life?

This discussion assumes that human beings are naturally egoistic, atomised and competitive. Yet reality demonstrates to us that human beings think and act according to their circumstances. Employers and owners of capital have profit as their goal, for them competition and individuality are paramount, exploitation of labour and acquisition of wealth are ‘natural’. The vast majority, on the other hand, are compelled to engage in cooperative and collaborative labour in order to survive. They live in crowded estates or slums, they travel in matatus and they shop, not in exclusive stores but in busy markets. They work at close quarters with fellow work mates and have little or no control over their working conditions or the products of their labour. Unity and basic humanity are their moral codes.

The morality of the boss is therefore very different from the morality of the worker and it is the latter which, both in terms of majority as well as ethical behaviour, should be the standard for the whole of humanity.  When a labour union leader proclaims that the president is the country’s number one worker, we know instinctively that this is one more attempt to obfuscate the class question and that this person is not on the same page as his/her constituents. It is an immoral statement. When people protest against the price of unga they are demanding a moral economy; one that is based on human values not profiteering.

It is only the collective struggles of the have-nots that can lead to a transformation of our social and moral fabric. Assata Shakur, a 20th century escaped slave and ex political prisoner in the USA, says: ‘Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them’.

Zarina Patel


7 May 2013

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