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ETHICS

Why we must accept principles of social justice

Kenyan citizenry is a textbook example of an Epicurean society.

In Summary

• When families of victims of police brutality took to Parliament gates in April to protest against extrajudicial killings, they performed their dissatisfaction almost on their own.

• Kenyans who haven’t experienced police violence don’t see the essence of speaking against it; if they do, they tend to think it’s unimportant.

Police beat up Mombasa residents after the nationwide curfew took effect on Friday, March 27, 2020.
POLICE BRUTALITY: Police beat up Mombasa residents after the nationwide curfew took effect on Friday, March 27, 2020.
Image: JOHN CHESOLI

Most societies accept the two principles of social justice: Equal right to the most extensive basic rights and acceptable arrangement of socioeconomic inequalities, but Kenyan society isn’t most societies.

For instance, we don’t have equal right to protection of our dignities and our social systems have all the characteristics of an animal farm.

Every society must, as John Rawls explains in Theory of Justice, set principles of social justice for determining the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.

Ethically legitimate function of every state is to ensure that there’s a form of social cooperation that serves to satisfy these principles, which are unique for every society.

First, Kenyan citizenry is a textbook example of an Epicurean society. Epicureanism – the theory that personal pleasure is the highest good – was part of the four main schools of philosophy in Greek and Roman periods following Aristotle.

Capitalism, Kenya’s independence ideology, created individualism. Under individualism, our peoplehood has withered and our social transaction is anything but selfless. Of course every human being cares about their pleasure first before anyone else’s. However, when a people are obsessed too much with pursuit of their individual pleasure, humanity is threatened.

When families of victims of police brutality took to Parliament gates in April to protest against extrajudicial killings, they performed their dissatisfaction almost on their own. Kenyans who haven’t experienced police violence don’t see the essence of speaking against it; if they do, they tend to think it’s unimportant.

Second, by virtue of its obsession with pursuit of individual tranquility, Kenyan citizenry presents itself as a Stoic society. A stoic is a person who maintains a calm indifference to pain and suffering. Stoics believed that people should not struggle against the inevitable – however absurd the inevitable was – instead they should understand that what is happening is for the best.

In May, Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi said ‘they’ would reveal killers of Chris Msando, the former Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission ICT manager, if the state continued to frustrate politicians allied to DP Ruto.

While investigative agencies ought to have taken up the matter in earnest, to allow Sudi to tell us what he knows about the murder of Msando, that process would ordinarily be instigated by public anger and calls for justice. But we’re not the ones in the business of caring about the pain of others.

In 1791, during the early stages of the French revolution, Barnave appeared before the Colonial Commission and said the following about the King Louis XVI’s regime: “This regime is absurd, but it’s established and one cannot handle it roughly without unloosing the greatest disorder. This regime is oppressive, but it gives a livelihood to several million Frenchmen. This regime is barbarous, but a still greater barbarism will be the result if you interfere with it without the necessary knowledge”.

Kenyan citizenry is behaving like the foolish Barnave. We excuse state indiscipline not because it’s rational but because fixing it means disturbing our imaginary tranquillity.

Third, Kenyan citizenry can be understood as a utilitarian one. If the pleasure of misappropriating public resources brings more happiness to the people than it brings unhappiness to the lords of corruption, then corruption should be instituted. For our total happiness would be greater with corruption than without it.

When ODM says it’s necessary to impeach Migori Governor Okoth Obado because he’s corrupt, we say no, that isn’t fair because other ODM leaders are also corrupt and have integrity issues yet the party hasn’t asked for their impeachment. That’s bizarre. What we ideally ought to do is to recall or demand resignation of underperforming leaders, not to defend them.

Fourth, Kenyan citizenry is morally evil. As we see in ethics – the philosophical study of moral judgment – the source from which a society draws its morality determines its understanding of principles of social justice.

St Augustine, Christian philosophy’s most influential figure, is best known for christianising ethics. The heart of Augustine’s ethics lays in his version of moral evil which he maintained was a case of misdirected love and not misdirected education, as was previously suggested by Plato. According to Augustine, moral evil arises when we turn away from God.

As a country, we cannot say we’ve turned away from God, although the moral evil in us is still flourishing. In early days of the pandemic, we held an extra-religious gathering at Statehouse to pray away the virus. The performance by the evangelicals on that day dispelled any doubt that Kenyan story might be digressing from God.

In sum, monstrous immorality of our politics is as a result of our weak principles of social justice. How weak these principles are depends on who you ask.

The writer is a journalism student at Multimedia University of Kenya

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