The year is barely a month old and we already have ample evidence of how easily societies can fracture. The escalating violence in West Africa perpetrated by Boko Haram, the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in France and, thankfully less dramatically, the Twitter storm that broke after President Zuma’s remarks in Cape Town as well as Zelda la Grange’s tweets from London, all graphically illustrate how different beliefs and opinions can pull nations apart.
We all want to live in countries that are safe and prosperous and destructive conflicts make that impossible. Nations, and particularly nations like South Africa with its history of division, need a strong moral glue to hold them together. Unfortunately ethical behaviour cannot be legislated; we all have to make it habitual or we will find ourselves in a race to the bottom.
In order to create a safer and more decent society, we need to cultivate the following three ethical habits (or virtues):
Moral sensitivity means considering how what we say or do affects others in the community. It is about transcending narrow, short-term interests to consider how our words or actions affect others. The misuse of social media, for instance, is a concern because people use it in the heat of the moment. They forget to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and consequently remain trapped in the business of scoring debating points and ending up in tit for tat spirals of retaliation.
Moral sensitivity should be complemented by cultivating the ability to look beyond the moment at what might be—and see the “big picture”. Moral imagination is the ability to look beyond existing divides and see the potential that can unfold if we approach matters differently. Take the Twitter storm that erupted after the President’s remarks linking Eskom’s current woes to apartheid, and that the arrival of Jan van Riebeeck spelled trouble for the Cape. The reactions were largely all too predictable, but what if they had focused more on the kind of society we want to create? Instead, the heated responses kept the debate at the same level, by and large.
Most people have the intention to act morally or ethically, but they also need to act on their moral intentions, even when doing so would be inconvenient or not self-serving. When we see corruption occurring, we have to put aside feelings of loyalty or expediency and report it; and if we are caught out, we should not take the easy way out by offering a bribe.
Nelson Mandela was a moral exemplar of somebody who had moral sensitivity, moral imagination and considerable moral courage. He was able to place himself in the minds of his opponents, he never allowed a current issue to make him lose sight of the South Africa he ultimately wanted to create and he acted on these insights even though it might have cost him popularity.