OPINION | Moral imagination key for human rights to flourish

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Moral imagination is needed to inspire citizens that life can be different, writes the author. (Picture: iStock)
Moral imagination is needed to inspire citizens that life can be different, writes the author. (Picture: iStock)

We will need strong leadership and moral imagination, rooted in constitutional values and human rights, to move away from our current system of patronage, writes Chris Jones.


Human rights, which are celebrated in South Africa during the month of March, are deeply rooted in moral imagination. Therefore, the adoption of the Universal Charter of Human Rights by the UN on 10 December 1948 and the inclusion of human rights in our own Bill of Rights found in chapter 2 of our Constitution (1996) were great achievements.

Throughout history, our moral imagination, which is so closely linked to our creative abilities, could not be erased. Moral imagination is, of course, not a longing for the luxurious and self-indulgent or the yearning for an admiration and imitation of so-called "cult figures" often embodied in celebrities and stars.

Moral imagination, however, is related to dialogue on violence and order, evil and good, injustice and justice. It is especially about what people consider and accept as the good and just life.

Moral and human rights sensitivities have led not only to the establishment of human rights charters, but also to important institutions such as the UN and the World Court. In fact, a truly imaginative move on the political chessboard of democratising countries was undoubtedly the idea of an independent judiciary.

Moral imagination is a human being's ability to rise like an eagle above his or her established ideas and beliefs and then to look down at the existing circumstances in new ways. To inspire people that this world could look different. That there can indeed be a better life for all.

Ashoka the Great

There are many beautiful stories about moral imagination from our history, especially if you turn your telescope to our pre-modern past.

One such story is about Ashoka the Great. Regarded as one of India's former major heroes, Ashoka ascended the throne in the Gupta dynasty in 268 BC after he killed two of his brothers. Apparently, he was a complex figure.

On the one hand, he was the builder of an empire that stretched far and wide, and on the other hand, a ruler who, over time, developed a moral and socially responsible consciousness.

We read that, to use a biblical metaphor, he had a Damascus experience.

His army marched to get control over a rebellion in a conquered territory (Kalinga). More than 100 000 rebels were killed, and many more died of diseases and famine. A further 150 000 were deported to other areas to work as labourers on farms.

Afterwards, it was said "Ashoka walked across the battlefield, looking upon the death and destruction, and experienced a profound change of heart".Shocked by these circumstances, the ruthless Ashoka began to look differently at brutality, for which he had a reputation. He had his moral response carved out on a rock. Military victories and the pleasures they provide are temporary in nature. Victories and punishment must be done in a humane way. There must be something like compassion, he reasoned.

It was as if Ashoka realised there must be shared values, shared benefits, and shared justice. In fact, he started to speak out strongly against corruption, greed, extravagance, and abuse of power. He promoted development projects such as hospitals, water wells, plantations, "guest houses" as well as religious tolerance.

Ashoka as well as many other similar examples point out that as human beings, we have choices. That our moral imagination can be activated to create and establish an ethic of compassion and caring. We can choose and promote humanity and harmonious coexistence.

Unfortunately, we can also choose wrongly with associated consequences.

But real moral imagination does not rest with the given; with the status quo, but instead always seeks new possibilities. This is normally mediated through education and upbringing, socio-economic circumstances, experiences, political systems, personal characteristics, social networks, and human rights, among others.

Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker says in his famous book, The Better Angels of our Nature  that we have made progress through the ages. In other words, we managed to use certain tilting points positively and thereby made more peace and meaningful coexistence possible.

But we cannot yet say, as English poet Alexander Pope dramatically stated: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night; God said, 'Let Newton be! and all was light'."

Arrogance of personal power 

Although we have accomplished much and progressed, we still have a long way to go because we got the smell of gold and money. Of political desire for power, of empire formation and control. And we know how much blood and how many corpses lie along this path of conquest and political ego-massage.

Today, we often refer to the arrogance of personal power. Leaders who hijack political processes and even the state for personal gain and to manipulate power.

Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, South Africa's liberation struggle has resulted in a new form of slavery, oppression, and privilege of the elite. A patronage state, which not only promoted the privilege of the elite and systemic corruption, but in which especially the poor were structurally and politically oppressed and are still oppressed.

The dream of a better life for all was unfortunately shattered in this process and the exploited poor are still being forced into mass action to make themselves audible and visible. We've seen how often this results in violence.

Former president Jacob Zuma and essential elements of his party are the example of a liberation struggle that betrayed its own leaders (Luthuli, Tambo, Mandela, and Mbeki), its legacy and "the people" in the 21st century for the "sound of money".

In fact, in the words of Stellenbosch philosopher Willie Esterhuyse, this behaviour has led to a "rotten form of imperialist capitalism" that will take strong leadership and moral imagination, rooted in constitutional values and human rights, to rectify.

- Dr Chris Jones heads the Unit for Moral Leadership in the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University.


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