In Zambia many social media enthusiasts share their views on moral topics on a minutely basis. The issues range from homosexuality, sextapes, corruption, nudity, gassing, divorce, incest, to divining.
Morality is clearly spelt out in Article 8 of our country’s constitution. We have even gone ahead to create a ministry to spearhead ethical values. And yet, sadly, not many Zambians know how to think about morality. Even more sad, most of us think we know what is good or bad and what is right or wrong. Everyone is an ethicist.
In this article, I want to show that what many people think is morality is, in fact, not morality. I also suggest the philosophical approach.
Culture and Tradition
Culture is an essential part of human society. Each culture or tradition has a wealth of moral guidelines for young men and women, mothers and fathers, for courtship and marriage, treatment of the dead and other rites of passage. Those of us who took RE 2044 in high school know this well. Are such cultural norms sacrosanct, immutable, or infallible?
The Paramount Chief of the Ngoni has from last year banned a longstanding practice of women baring their breasts during their magnificent traditional ceremony. The chief’s decision may slow down Bemba tourism to the ceremony. Some men just love temptation and a little indulgence, perhaps. What’s Sunday confession for anyway? But my point is that the Mpezeni saw it fit to review the practice and thought it better to not allow it going forward. What this demonstrates is that culture is reviewable though it’s not reviewed often enough.
Many innocent women and men died from sexual cleansing before the practice itself died a slow death. The Malawian Hyaena men left a trail of HIV with unsuspecting underage pubescents. Many rightly see these practices as barbaric and should have been banned without waiting for the BBC exposé.
Elements of culture or traditions can be evil. A corollary of this is that laws that are based on them are evil as well. It is a fallacy, therefore, to reason that since our tradition permits or requires something, it is morally acceptable to do it. It’s also wrong to think that because our traditions prohibit something, it is immoral to do it. Those who claim homosexuality is morally wrong because it is unZambia or unAfrican (meaning against Zambian culture) are treading on really thin ice, morally. Culture is not morality.
God and Morality
Perhaps our morality comes from God through burning bushes, inscribed in God’s handwriting on stone tablets, revealed to a papa in a nightmare. 2 Timothy 3: 16 affirms this. And isn’t this the whole point of Ms Godfridah Sumaili and company pushing for Christian morality in the infamous Bill 10?
Let’s take a glance at the Bible. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart deliberately so he could unleash plagues on all including firstborn dogs (Exodus, chapters 7-12). He drowned many innocent children who couldn’t make it into Noah’s super gigantic Titanic (Genesis 7:21-23). He sanctioned the genocide of many tribes simply for exercising freedom of religion (Deuteronomy 20). Women can’t talk among men in church and innocent pigs are needlessly sent down the cliff (animal cruelty, animal rights). Would this God stand a chance at the Intergalactical Court of Justice if tried by other gods?
I’m not saying the Bible contains only satanic verses. The Bible contains some moral gems condemning corruption, envy, incest, murder, greed, and gluttony. There are many moral lessons spoken and exemplified in the lives of some Bible characters. But the evil it recommends or condones explicitly or implicitly suffices for us to disqualify it as an impeccable source of morality.
The Bible is a malfunctioning moral compass. Now it points us in the right direction, next it gives us wrong directions. So, if an act such as homosexuality is morally wrong, it not sufficient to simply say it is not biblical. And those advancing Christian morality and ethics have taken a wrong turn logically and exhibit a cultural inferiority complex.
The Bible is a written tradition of a particular people around the Middle East. Nothing here more special than Tumbuka, Lozi, or Ushi morality except these others did not write. Additionally, slavery and colonialism helped kill what were probably rich African Traditional Religions with moral guidelines on diverse aspects of people’s lives. The colonial cultural imperialism worked wonders because we all now look down upon ourselves and look up to the coloniser’s God and flawed moral compass. How else do we explain Sumaili barring the imploring of the Nyami Nyami of Zambezi for the droughts in Southern Province? How is Sumaili different from a black girl who thinks her skin and her hair are ugly and she must bleach her skin and wear Brazilian hair to feel human?
The first thing we have to do is identify what is valuable. Beauty, pleasure, happiness, friendship, knowledge, courage, love, and autonomy come to mind. If we look at the list, we see that there is nothing Jewish, African, Christian, or Eskimo about it. These things are good for everyone: young, old, lesbian. True morality cuts across all superficial difference among humans even if the values will be coloured superficially by the culture a particular individual belongs to.
Once we have found something of value, there are two things to do with it. We can respect it or promote it. Autonomy is one value that needs respecting. One thing that sets humans apart from everything else we know is the capacity to think, direct their lives towards certain goals and to differentiate between right and wrong. Each person is her own master over her choices and her destiny. We disrespect a person when we undermine her power of autonomy.
How do we know we are respecting someone’s autonomy in our dealings? Through consent. If we do something without or against someone’s consent, then we disrespect them. This is why rape is inherently wrong. Please note, it is not actual consent that matters. It is whether that person, in her right state of mind, would agree to being treated in a certain way. If someone is unconscious, we can still treat them with respect by asking if what we want to do to or for them is something they would agree to where they in a position to give consent. Understood thus, when any activity is consensual, it is pro tanto morally permissible.
Mentally immature or sick people are not covered in our consent requirement. This is because they are unable to know the relevant information for, or consequences of, their choices. And this brings us to a further point about consent. Consent is voided by deception or nondisclosure of vital information. Sometimes a woman consents to unprotected sex with her lover and assumes he is a person of goodwill who will not want to cause her harm. It is not very romantic, and it may signal distrust to start quizzing your lover about STIs they may have exposed themselves to recently. A man disrespects his lover by having unprotected sex with her when he has an STI or is likely to have picked up one. Betrayal of trust is in a way undermining someone’s autonomy by doing something with them which, had they known the facts, they would not have consented to the live sex.
When there’s proper consent among rational adults, society or other people have no business with what those adults consent to do. Interfering undermines their autonomy and is thus disrespectful. The only reason we can use to interfere with other people’s actions is to prevent harm to ourselves or other people. This is John Stuart Mill’s famous Harm Principle. There’s a catch. It’s not just any harm, but wrongful harm.
If Zuba purchases a Bugatti and knowing this harms you, you are not permitted to seize, stone, or torch it. You have actually just harmed yourself through jealous and envy, maybe. Yes, you may have moral qualms about someone spending money on a toy that could buy a fire engine plus an ambulance or pay UNZA and CBU salaries. Buying a Bugatti itself does not wrongfully harm anyone, other things being equal. Granted, such conspicuous consumption doesn’t sit well in a country where over a third of the population is extremely poor and over two thirds is below the poverty line. But that’s the Patriotic Front government’s fault and not Zuba’s.
What can or must be done is personally persuading Zuba to spend some of her wealth on uplifting some less fortunate in society. After all, we have a moral obligation to promote wellbeing for other humans and animals. This does not have to be through charity but can be through investments that deliberately target some worse off in society, agriculture or manufacturing, for example.
If some rational Zambian adults want Zodwa to come to perform for them at an exclusive venue and she consents, it’s disrespectful to her and her expectant fans for Sumaili or immigration to deport her. Like I have argued they cannot simply point to the Bible. The Mpezeni’s case is different. He is the custodian of the Ngoni culture and with his advisers, he can play around with contents of their traditions. He has not given a proper justification apart from making some incoherent reference to sexual cleansing which is a different matter. But as outsiders, he owes us no apology or justification. Ni nkhani zao bene bake! What dissenters can do is create a merry-making carnival-like rival event where women and men may dance topless. Those who’d choose to do so would deserve respect from Sumaili and the Nkosi. That’s the real morality of an open and tolerant society.