Moral regeneration


There’s no doubt that South Africans are finally waking up to the fact that we need to reset our nation’s moral compass. Just let’s be clear: this is not something that we can outsource to the state. The buck stops with communities.

Driving to work the other morning, people were debating on radio a ban on the sale of alcohol in Gauteng on Sundays—even in restaurants. Such an act, I presume, would be intended to reduce the social ills caused by drinking via cutting the supply on a day that is traditionally a drinking day.

These are the kinds of things we are all talking and thinking about in the wake of the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen, a crime that appears to be bringing the whole issue of morality to a head.

Much of the public discourse, like the discussion about amending the liquor laws, sees our salvation in the actions of the state. This way of thinking, for me, begs the question: Can the state regenerate its citizens’ morality?

It’s a complex question but, in the end, I think the answer has to be, No, it can’t. Let me explain.

The first thing I need to point out is that the state’s existence is utterly dependent on the morality of its citizens. More precisely, a safe and stable democracy is only possible if the citizens of that democracy all share a number of beliefs: in freedom, in tolerance, in human dignity, in taking responsibility for the state of society itself.

Without these virtues, a democratic, pluralistic society that is pleasant to live in simply cannot exist—as we are beginning to find. But experience shows that the state is not at all effective in putting these conditions in place, particularly if one is talking about reversing an established pattern of behaviour rather than simply adjusting it.

You can’t legislate goodness

South Africa’s experience since 1994 offers us compelling evidence of the unpalatable fact that promulgating laws does not change behaviour. The world agrees that our Constitution is one of the shining lights of jurisprudence, creating the ideal of a just and equitable society. However, it largely remains just that: an ideal that is yet to be realised. Simply creating just laws does not create a just society—it only gives us a legal framework by means of which we can discipline those whose behaviour deviates from this just law.

But the law is a blunt instrument, and the forces of law are always several steps behind those who set out to break it. At best, it can react to breaches, but it has little effect, I would argue, on promoting positive moral development. I think this type of thing is the best the state can do: make it as unattractive as possible for people to commit antisocial acts, be they rape, theft, diverting public monies or driving aggressively. To move beyond this, to make desirable behaviour the “default setting” for the majority is much harder.

Achieving this type of behaviour change requires a process of moral formation, through which the majority of society buys into certain values, which in turn guide the way they behave. The hard truth is that this sort of moral formation is most likely to take place in communities, usually quite confined communities.

Examples of these types of community include families (nuclear or extended), schools, sports clubs, voluntary and professional associations, and workplaces. These are the most fertile areas for developing moral values because they are the groupings to which people feel allegiance, where their lives are lived. In very sophisticated societies with long histories of urban living and strong traditions of nationhood there is a strong sense of a very large community, but I would argue that this is really the outcome of many smaller communities that share a set of common values.

In short, moral formation begins at that place so beloved of political speeches: the grassroots. You get the moral nation only once you have moral communities. In these types of community, value systems are collectively owned and are reinforced by rewarding those who follow them and penalising those who do not.

Building moral communities

It’s at this level that a new set of moral values can be most successfully be created. One sees it happening in, for example dysfunctional schools which are turned around. The process usually begins with the appointment of a new head, who then articulates new values that the school community—staff, pupils and parents—starts to rally around. In time, once the school community is secure, it will start to reach out into those areas of the broader community whose value set conflicts with its own: an example would be drug trafficking or gang activity in the neighbourhood, or dysfunctional families.

I have given a lot of thought to how the turnaround process actually works in an attempt to come up with some guidelines that will allow us to replicate it. One source of inspiration is the work of Lawrence Kohlberg, the moral psychologist. He saw civic and moral development as highly interlinked, and he believed that moral and intellectual development ought to be the aim of education, with schools providing active exploration rather than passive learning.

In line with this way of thinking, I think that simply teaching ethics at school is, at best, inadequate and, at worst, a waste of time. Rather, the school itself should be run in such a way as to drive this moral change in its community.

As noted above, the example of a respected leader is the catalyst. This leader needs to create a tripartite governance alliance between the school governing body, the staff itself and the student leadership body. Each of these bodies would have to identify what values the school needs (good passing rates and being on time are examples) and then take responsibility for their practice.

Doing this successfully is likely to require some training, and a conscious attempt to reward those whose actions embody these values—and penalise those whose actions threaten them.

Workplaces are also good “laboratories” for driving moral/ value change. A company gets in trouble, a new CEO is appointed and he or she builds consensus around new values, which are then integrated into the way the company does business.

Leadership is not enough, nor is a good set of values: they must be underpinned by widespread community buy-in. Once these three elements are in place, they can create pockets of morality that in turn will influence other communities—not least because they are successful. The school’s pass rate is high, the company is making good profits, the neighbourhood is safe.

There is no quick-fix solution, and it cannot be imposed. We have to change the country, one school, one company, one neighbourhood at a time. And, yes, a leader is important, but it is us who have to be the agents of moral regeneration in our own communities.

Deon Rossouw (CEO, the Ethics Institute of South Africa)

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