OPINION | Not for sale: Dignity and the value of rejecting profitable but insulting offers

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We must applaud individuals who have had the courage to reject exceptionally lucrative offers, which insult an individual’s dignity, writes Willie Thabe

The political and business reverberations emanating from the "state capture" controversy has become common parlance, yet our basic appreciation of dignity and exhibiting clear-cut ethics remains short-changed.

The opportunities and possibilities spawned in South Africa’s dynamic economic landscape continue to test the mantle of individuals, both in the public and the private sectors. Decision-makers are perpetually engaged in business transactions that may seem commendable, but have ended up questionable at best and obtusely corrupt at worst, tarnishing the repute of many, but most unfortunately South Africa’s hard-earned good name.   

This not only leaves the businesses and job growth prospects in tatters, it further exacerbates the trust deficit between the haves and have-nots, contributing to greater social malaise we are witnessing across the country.

An informed and honest assessment of our basic idea of dignity can help us to determine the behaviours that are morally salient and the kind of conduct that is exemplary.

Hobbesian or Kantian tradition?

There are several ethical traditions in classical philosophy, however two distinctly stand out in terms of their relevance or usefulness to our situation, where we find ourselves seemingly on the ropes regarding our wavering moral compass. .

In one tradition, called Hobbesian, the dignity or worth of an individual, and the regard they should be shown by others, ultimately depends on that person’s ability to advance or impede the interest of others.

The Kantian tradition, on the other hand, treats the dignity or value of an individual as independent of any advantage that can be gained from social interaction. "The notion of human dignity in this tradition specifies duties and constraints that limit the way that inequalities in power, including social or strategic advantages, can be leveraged in social interaction."

The issue of dignity defines the Kantian concept and holds that individuals, because of their rational nature, have dignity - are uniquely valuable and that their value is above all price.

Conversely, the Hobbesian theory posits that there is no real difference in the value of persons.

READ | Opinion: Steinhoff debacle: Power failure in ethical leadership

The value or worth of a person is similar to the value of a complex tool; it is a function of the degree to which that person is needed by, relied on, or is capable of advancing or frustrating the goals, ends, or interests of others.

In fact, it speaks of an individual’s price, so much as would be given for the use of his power, thus it is a fluid concept that depends on the judgement of another.

It is in this light that the evidence being led at the Zondo Commission and the seemingly unchecked corruption in the public and private sectors require a truly honest ethical response from every sector of the South African society.

There have been a number of influential members of society with strong links to government and the ruling party who have been implicated by testimony presented at this commission and the previous ones.

Generally speaking it is far easier to isolate unethical conduct in public sector transactions than in the private sector. The private sector commands greater economic power and has an uncanny ability of effecting transactions through conduits, facilitators and intermediaries.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the necessity to rekindle our commitment to principled behaviour, which would have the effect of increasing the cost of unethical behaviour.

Faustian bargain

It seems that, in the ultimatum game - to use mathematical economics parlance - when it comes to that Faustian bargain - a pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power or riches in this particular case profitable but insulting offers, many, dare I say lesser dignified souls, would succumb to obtuse selfishness.

At some level we have to dispassionately evaluate certain Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) transactions whether they do not inadvertently result in the dignity of the individual being called into question. Our efforts to do so must be principled and informed by careful research and commitment to the fundamental transformation of the South African economy.

READ | Opinion: Organisations with stronger ethics perform better. Here's why

Simultaneously, we should applaud individuals who had the courage to reject exceptionally lucrative offers, which insult an individual’s dignity. We should be cognisant of the fact that for every "corruptee" there is a "corruptor", and corruptors wield tremendous economic power and, in an environment of extreme inequality, the resolve to resist is limited.

The language of these individuals spells out clearly the value and dignity of rejecting lucrative but insulting offers, no matter the absolute price. Such principled accountability would reverse the tide of corrupt and unethical behaviour and show our next generation of leaders and the world that South Africa is absolutely not for sale.

- Willie Thabe is an independent private equity practitioner and a practicing business ethics consultant

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