Ethics by candlelight: meditations on virtue

by Grace Garland | Published on 25 March 2019 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

The current power crisis is doing many things – damaging our economy, causing our nerves to fray, and exposing as laughable South Africa’s claims to be leap-frogging into the fourth industrial revolution. As many witty commentators have pointed out, we seem not to have got the second industrial revolution right yet, and should perhaps focus on that first. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so serious. The crisis is something else, too: profoundly unjust. There is nothing fair about what is happening, either to the tax-paying population (who have paid their dues and received darkness in return), or to the rest of the population (who are rightful signatories to the social contract of a transforming welfare state). We are all on the losing end of systemic ethical failure – what can we do about it? The corruption has already happened, the money’s gone, the power stations are gutted. How do we do ethics in the dark?

Candlelight

"There is a 'just-right' attitude, somewhere between false optimism and all-out pessimism, which the current situation demands of us as responsible citizens. What does it look like?"

I hesitate to make a series of (impotent?) statements about what a just society should look like, and how a nation’s citizenry should be able to count on centralised government to sort out common services because, well, it would be stating the obvious. I want to instead reflect on what sort of attitude would be the right one to try to maintain in a load-shedding world. My intention is to identify the ‘sweet spot’ between being aware of the seriousness of the situation on the one hand, and maintaining decency on the other. We do not want to pretend that all is well, and nor do we want to hoot and rage our frustration at every set of perilous deceased traffic lights. There is a “just-right” attitude, somewhere between false optimism and all-out pessimism, which the current situation demands of us as responsible citizens. What does it look like?

As a start, there are a few attitudes that can be dismissed as not appropriate. First there is anger, which leads to aggressive behaviour towards others. Anger is not only exhausting, but revealing of an error in judgment, particularly when the aggression is (mis)directed at those who are not to blame. If we have a psychological need to go through the initial experience of anger, then so be it, but it has a shelf-life and will become inappropriate after a certain period. In our current case, the expiry date for righteous anger was, perhaps, after the sixth day at stage four. Things are terminal – it is unwise to waste further energy being cross. Once anger passes from being generative and cathartic to being degenerative and stifling, it must be overcome.

A second sort of attitude, on the other end of the spectrum, is inappropriate for similar reasons. Excess cheerfulness is also an error of judgement when it arises from baseless projections of the future or, worse, from not paying attention in the present. If the Minister of Public Enterprises tells the nation it will take two weeks to figure out the scale of the problem, we should not waste energy on rosy speculations of a cure-all solution. There isn’t one. Sure, we need hope to get out of bed every morning – and our wicked sense of humour as a nation is an invaluable source of resilience – but hope should not be completely untethered from reality. The right amount of hope, padded with humour, is generative and energising. Too much, and we languish in a false sense of security.

There is another, uniquely South African, attitude, that is inappropriate: the badly-hidden racism of those who point out that the lights stayed on under the previous Nationalist government. They ignore or refuse to acknowledge what else “stayed on” under Apartheid South Africa: systemic violence, legalised discrimination and the theft of multiple generations’ talent and potential. Almost as bad are those South Africans who seek to stifle any criticism of government by labelling such criticism as automatically racist. Both of these attitudes are loads that desperately need to be shed if we are ever to realise greater social cohesion.

I have, in this brief essay, been exploring different responses in search of the “just-right” one or, to use an academic term, the most “virtuous” one. Ancient philosophers obsessed over virtue ethics, and some of the questions they asked are the same ones we are sitting with today: How can one be a good (virtuous) person? Consistently? Even as the circumstances of one’s life change? The answers tend to invoke a “golden mean”, or a balance between extremes. For example, “courage” is not recklessness, nor is it meekness; it is something in between. “Honesty” is not being blunt, nor is it concealing a hurtful truth; it is something in between.

Perhaps the “golden mean” for being virtuous, even as we sit in the flickering light of candles and wonder whether our beloved country will pull itself out of this crisis, is to stay… engaged. Not too engaged, so that we get emotional and either rage or spout platitudes, or worse blame the blameless. And also not dis-engaged, so that we feel a sense of hopelessness and miss out on the daily joys that are still very much a part of life in this country and don’t need electricity to work. If we are engaged, just enough, then we will stay up-to-date with what is happening and interact with our fellow South Africans in a constructive and empathetic way. We will not rage at the robots, nor sit smugly, nor go careening through, endangering everyone. We will be alert, wait for our turn, and wave at the other motorists, acknowledging the common experience of the moment. And in the longer run, we will stay engaged and use sound reasoning and collective problem-solving to achieve the sustainable outcomes we all desire for the country. 

For now, I am trying to be the right amount of engaged in South Africa. I am building resilience in this attitude with each candlelit evening, each hair-raising Johannesburg intersection. But my, and our, real moment of active engagement will come on 8 May 2019, the day of the National Election. We are historically a country of high voter turnout – the last in 2016 being the highest ever – which is evidence of an engaged citizenry. These are the sort of indications to build real hope on; now, more than ever, we must give a damn, and show up to democracy.


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Grace Garland is an Associate of The Ethics Institute, responsible for communications and editorial projects. She holds a Master of Business Administration from University of Stellenbosch Business School, and is currently studying towards a Master of Applied Ethics at University of the Witwatersrand.