Putting conscience to work

2008-03-04 00:00

The plaques at Pietermaritzburg railway station commemorating Mahatma Gandhi’s experience of racist injustice in 1893 never fail to move me. More important, they also never fail to inspire me. They remind me that when we find ways to put conscience to work effectively, good can triumph over evil.

Then I think of the evils that still plague us, and I find myself dismayed. Some of them were around in Gandhi’s day, like racism, violence and oppression. Others are evils of the electronic and jet age in which we live, like the fraudulent passport schemes that are in the news as I write. Just thinking that some clever scumbag has figured out a way to make our South African passports “not worth the paper they are written on” makes me want to smash crockery at the way this betrays the wondrous new miracle nation that was the toast of the world.

Then I remind myself that the selfsame creativity these fraudsters so cunningly use is a power that can work wonders of goodness when decent people put as much effort into building moral character and contexts as those scoundrels put into their evil schemes.

So it seems to me that the main challenge now facing society, besides curbing its greed for energy and its contempt for the environment, is to find new and powerful ways of putting conscience to work. As I embark on a new phase of my work in applied ethics, under the banner of a structure I have named compass ethics, I see this is the most valuable work I could do in my post-academic days.

By no means am I alone here. That is why a small group of us has identified early childhood as a crucial starting point for a programme of putting conscience to work. Those early days, months and years before school and in the earliest years at school strike us as critically important for the moral foundations of an honest, caring and responsible adult life.

Are we doing the best we can as a nation and a world to give our children the strongest moral grounding? We need to tap into the best modern knowledge of those early years and of the moral influences they need. We also need to understand the harmful forces affecting early childhood and how best to overcome them. And we must ensure that all who look after our littlest children — parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers and older siblings — know how to plant the seeds of goodness in those trusting lives.

Thanks to the vision and commitment of Brookby Centre and others, these ideas are now becoming a reality. Together they are organising a day-long seminar at Varsity College, Pietermaritzburg on March 8. An outstanding group of speakers and panellists will be taking part and I have been honoured with a request to deliver a keynote address.

With a strong emphasis on practicalities as well as vital knowledge, and on finding ways to get the benefits of the seminar to as many as possible afterwards, an event like this will never be a one-off thing but a first crucial step towards mobilising the huge potential for good that is in us when we use our time, creativity, money, energy and commitment in wise and practical programmes of moral enhancement.

Together, we can take back our world from those who are so contemptibly disfiguring it.

The Brookby Centre can be contacted at 033 344 3094 or by e-mail at brookby@futurenet. org.za

• Martin Prozesky is an independent ethics teacher and an emeritus professor of the UKZN.

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