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The difficulty of being good

We currently have about a billion young people (between ages 15 and 24) in the world of which 518 million are female and about 543 million are male. Of these, about 15% live in Africa and the same percentage in the developed world. Globally, the youth represents about 18% of the world’s population. The UN runs a World Programme of Action for Youth. Herein they cover ten priority areas, to which the Member States added another five. These are clustered in three broad dialogues, i.e. Youth in a Global Economy, Youth in Civil Society and Youth and their Wellbeing.

Celebrations and media coverage of Youth Day are all still fresh in our minds. In the presence of so much good done by our youth, their fantastic energy displayed on the sport fields, their many academic and other achievements, we have to countenance the reports coming from Mannenburg, Lavenderhill and other areas, of gangs destroying lives – their own and those of others – ripping communities apart. There are also reports of so many young people committing suicide, and of many juvenile crimes happening that are not even gang-related. Looking at the significant number of young people and the challenges they face in a globalised world, having to contend with limited resources and interacting with multiple cultures, one cannot but help to wonder how they keep their moral compass intact. Amidst all of this, I am trying to read (it is not an easy read!) a book by Gurcharan Das titled, The Difficulty of Being Good. The question is raised: Is it so difficult to be good?

In an honest effort to try to find an answer and for fear of being simplistic, let me immediately acknowledge that these and other moral concerns are indeed complex and that they do have a complex origin. Studies abound offering evidence in support of this point. As it is not the purpose of this piece of writing, I cannot deal with all the academic, philosophical and theoretical truths, and want to move to a space where we can think of how to do something about this. I shall work on the premise that our youth can only realise their potential in a community. Hence the sayings “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” and “It takes a whole village to raise a child” apply.

Back to the issue: My current logic tells me that if someone can be good, they can also do good. To this, you may want to offer a caveat: the presence of being and doing good does not guarantee the absence of doing bad things. Granted, we are all fallible beings. Therefore, if you allow me, I ask that we reflect on this some other time.

Every day we do things: we practise different forms of behavioural schemas. We practise doctor behaviour, parent behaviour, scholar behaviour, teenager behaviour, gang behaviour, etc. Behind this constellation of acts are purpose and meaning – they may be conscious or unconscious. In this sense we are all practitioners, we are all acting to derive some form of value from our action. The ‘practitioners’ are guided by definite social and societal codes which serve as the measure whether a particular practice is ‘good’ and whether it complies with the broadly accepted code. Does this suffice? All of this makes for very interesting dynamics, especially if we limit our conversation to what is ‘morally good’.

If we want to sustain a ‘morally good South African youth’, what then constitutes ‘moral good’ and how do we go about making it happen? What indeed is the meaning of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ and ‘moral’ and ‘good’? It depends on whom you ask: a clergyman, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other denomination; a psychologist, whether cognitive, narrative, analytic, client-centered, etc.; an educationalist, a PAGAD member, an army general, the head of the CIA, etc. To escape a multiplicity of responses, Immanuel Kant offers a position: It is impossible to conceive at all in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without qualification, except a good will. His reasons for this position seem simple in that he states that the value of all things like talents, skills, etc. are dependent on a good will, as in its absence all of these may be misused and applied to the detriment of the whole, the community, or someone. This good will does not depend on anything outside of it; it does not come from convention and is not dependent on the consequences flowing from this act of will.

In dealing with our youth, we ought to move beyond convention. It is in the nature of the young to challenge convention. This shows its face at the age of two and reappears vigorously in the rebellious teenage years. To sustain morally good behaviour under heteronomous conditions is not feasible, and convention is relative from one community to the other. The infantile moral code in the political community where the pragmatism of ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’ is a case in point. We have witnessed how this turns just as easily into ‘you hit me, I hit you back’. Yet, convention is needed to uphold the values of a community and a society. It is not enough, though. Not even when this convention transforms into a law. Our over-populated prisons are testimony to this. In respect of the Arab ‘Spring’ and similar events: are these behaviours morally good? From whose or what perspective?

We need to consider transcending convention and seeking ways in which we can find a principle on which to mould our moral values, behaviour and judgement, and to direct our daily ‘practice’. How do we impregnate our educational moments so that we develop a society where we act not only in accordance to convention (we are imperfect and so we need convention), but from a deep sense of duty as well: a duty to ourselves and others? The space Kant urges us to occupy is that of a Kingdom of Ends: our will, as a universal law, brings us to live in a kingdom where we are simultaneously the sovereign and the subject; we are king and subject at the same time. We treat ourselves and others not just as a means but also as an end.

It is difficult to be good, to be consistently morally good. Our progress will be measured by the diminishing of our societal evils.

Frik Landman is CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED). 

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