By Yusuf Serunkuma
Debating the morality verses pragmatism of abandoning a project simply because an official has swindled money
Dealing with social ills such as corruption pragmatically, that is, realistically, as opposed to moralistically or ideally continues to divide discourse on how societies should respond to ills for the benefit of the community.
The pragmatists have accused moralists of pursuing ideals; that is things which are really not possible to achieve. It is not possible to have a corrupt free transaction, the pragmatists say, and argue that corruption has blossomed in Uganda in spite of an abundance of moralism, especially in media and among opposition politicians.
Pragmatists criticise the moralists for being theoretical, impractical, and pursuing a world of saints and angels. They view efforts expended on fighting corruption as an escalation of its financial toll on the public purse, and an impediment to social service delivery. They frustrated that once corruption is investigated and a whiff of it is discovered, and the project is abandoned, all the resources already spent will be lost.
The pragmatists say that in the next attempt, the corrupt dealers only get smarter, pay bigger bribes, cover the gaps that had not been covered in the first go, and the public pays the price.
The usual understanding of what constitutes the `theoretical’ is that which is arrived at after much reflection and is upheld as most right. Of course, it is difficult to define and set a standard for what is `morally right’ for there will be questions on how and who defines and sets the standard. A weak but neutral position is that every community has what it considers as “morally right.” This could be based on religious, cultural or even scientific justifications, or a combination of all. The bottom line: morality is social consensus.
Human experience, the pragmatists argue, has showed that it is difficult to achieve the ideal, despite its unquestionable goodness. To be pragmatic, therefore, is not to be morally right, but to be contextually right. In other words, responding to context – not moral right.
The pragmatists argue that abandoning a development project that would improve livelihoods within the community simply because corruption has been discovered is wasteful. They argue that as the corrupt officers are held to account, ways and means should be found to ensure that the project goes ahead in spite of the noted corruptions. Everything; time, money, and human effort, should all not be lost in the dust of pursuing the corruption. It makes business sense. To them, there can never be a kickback-free transaction. The moralists say simply that once corruption is detected, then the project is not right, and it should be aborted.
The debate on corruption is often framed between these two extremes, oftentimes, discussed as rival standpoints. The pragmatics versus morality debate can be exemplified in the relation between a corrupt man who beats his wife in the morning and expects intimacy in the evening.
The imagery might sound far off. But these two present the discursive units of our debate, morality and pragmatics. As wife beating is often read through the lens of morality while expecting intimacy is understood through the lens of pragmatics or (hu)man need. Should a small corruption like being beaten, stop a woman from meeting her husband’s need? The answer is `yes’ if the wife is a moralist, but if she is a pragmatist, she might contextualise her response to her man.
The moralist wife has the potential to terminate the marriage (temporarily or forever) and much will, of course, be lost. The donor will withhold aid. The pragmatist wife will seek what little can be salvaged from the corrupted marriage.
The moralists will ask why the husband doesn’t avoid beating his wife in the first place. The pragmatists will say that is useless pursuit of the ideal, moral response/circumstance.
But if we would ask: If human beings are moral beings, why do we have to act pragmatic and not moral? Is acting pragmatic biologically determined or is moralising inherently a failure to be pragmatic? Finally, how did we get to the point where pragmatism and morality are poles apart? The answers are in our sense of history.
As the world evolves, especially after the 1600s when capitalism fully rose in the English countryside, two things have happened: First, human experience became economised – what is often called commoditization, and second came a boom in many ills – often vaguely defined as corruption.
Capitalism does not focus on the past perfomance, preferring instead, to respond to the needs of the present. It thrives on a dismissal of history. Its exploitation of surplus value tunes humans to a desperate present; of finding food, clothes and other immediate needs, without any guarantees for the future.
Desperation about the future denies men the opportunity to look back at how their surplus labour/value is expropriated. Capitalism ensures they do not have the time to. The condition hardens over time until it extremely difficult to dislodge. It becomes theorised in the language of pragmatics. Humanity loses its history.
The man who beats his wife in the morning and expects intimacy a couple of hours later has no sense of history or the effect of the past on later events. Of course, man should not be prisoner to history, for much of our history has been involved in discarding stale practices. But history also is the single preserver of human values, including morality and the avoidance of corruption.
Exploring the history of values shows us that values are built on human biology and human interaction in an environment. Although the environment changes, human values never change. That explains why the common people in the streets do not mind which government officials swindles the biggest chunk of the countries resources, but focus on who ought to be setting the example for not stealing. They want the big politician prosecuted and not his small accountant. The message: Corruption is about abuse of morality, not the pragmatics of who has stolen more.
The pragmatists are bent on looking at what makes business sense, that is, context and the future. In the end, this elevation of context over history has created excessively selfish and “existential” societies. Like Albert Camus pointed out in the Myth of Sisyphus, they exist without history. That is why corruption is so hard to deal with.