Right angles

2009-05-29 00:00

IS there a need for some sort of support structure for the great many, but often isolated, ethical individuals and groups in our society and even globally? Perhaps Witness readers can help answer this question.

For me it arose as follows. I had introduced a course at the University of KwaZulu-Natal a few years ago called “The ethics of power”. As I developed it, I became more and more interested in a point made in one of the books I used, namely that the single most powerful form of power in today’s world is the organisation. Organised structures bring massive power to various aspects of life and work. Thus we have universities for higher education, religious institutions for faith, parties for political activity, corporations for business, administrations for sport, the Red Cross/Red Crescent/Red Star for emergency medical treatment, and so on.

What struck me was that there is no such organisational or institutional support specifically and exclusively for ethical effort, at least not in parts of the world known to me.

In the past, where largely monocultural societies were the norm, religious institutions provided moral guidance and support for individuals. But that has greatly changed, although not in parts of the world like the Vatican and some Muslim countries where a single religious tradition is present or dominant. Where religious diversity has grown, or where religious influence has declined and secular societies have emerged, this religious framework of support for moral practice is no longer there for many people.

Nor is there much else to support them except for a few pockets of financially strapped academic ethicists, individuals with resources of their own and, very occasionally, sympathetic corporates and politicians.

There seems to be nothing with any on-going organisational coherence, capacity and crucially-no- other-agenda, to support acts of conscience, above all when they involve moral courage and risk to the person concerned. Andrew Feinstein and Terry Crawford-Browne come to mind as examples in relation to the arms deal saga. In the United States, we have David Griffin in connection with the official report about 9/11, not to speak of brave whistle-blowers everywhere.

Moral backbone does not take care of itself but has to be nurtured and supported. Conscientious individuals who resist the evils of their societies, whether in Burma, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tibet or the U.S., can find themselves isolated and hounded by powerful agencies. They have no organisational backup. That is why I arrived at the question at the beginning of this article.

I approached an internationally eminent, ethical figure about this and the reply was positive, asking me to explore it further with others and come back with some suggestions about the next steps.

Hence this article, asking readers if they think that in our globalising world, with so many destructive forces, the human conscience needs some kind of support structure, and if so, what key functions it could best provide, what form these might most effectively take and how it could finance itself with complete integrity. I have developed some tentative answers of my own but think it is best to hold them back for now and wait for the wisdom of Witness readers.

After all, while it is painfully clear that together we can wreck our world, together we can also do something to save it. I look forward very much to seeing some responses in the letter columns of the Witness.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant, an emeritus professor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and author of Conscience: ethical intelligence for global wellbeing, published by the UKZN Press.

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