High Office & Ethical Conduct: Let Us Not Go After Shadows

because with great power comes great responsibility, we as a people must demand that the unique marker of holders of high office should be their ethical conduct

‘My husband once said that every time an intellectual has the chance to speak out against injustices and yet remains silent, he contributes to the moral paralysis and intellectual barrenness that grips the affluent world.’
– Frida Laski, widow of Harold Laski, British political theorist, in the foreword to his famous ‘Grammar of Politics’, 5th edition, 1966

Over the past few weeks, the country has been rocked and practically held to ransom as the tussle between the former President, Mrs Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, and Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth came into the open following the public disclosure of the dealings between the President and an Angolan businessman, Mr Alvaro Sobrinho upon whom there were allegations of corruption in his country. During this period until the departure of the former President, a forced resignation, the events were splashed in the international media, painting a very black picture of the country. Locally, the social media as well as the political opposition were unsparing in their criticisms of the former President and her repeated luxury spending, albeit ‘inadvertently’,  with a Platinum card which was given to her by Sobrinho’s Planet Earth Institute. The Planet Earth Institute’s activities are themselves dubious and under scrutiny.

Almost half a century ago, an eminent scientist, Erwin Chargaff, writing about the ‘whirls and frenzies of disgusting publicity and propaganda’ in the natural sciences by certain people, lamented about ‘these forever titillated and nauseated intimacies, splashing all over us from newspapers and magazines, from radio and television; this bubbling and babbling emptiness of deadened imagination’. He went on to add that ‘it is not difficult to understand why our youth experiences a revulsion from all these synthetic celebrities… from the ever-increasing pollution of our intellectual and our actual atmosphere’.

Such a feeling of revulsion among the people has vitiated the country’s atmosphere as a result of the daily coverage of these disturbing events. Naturally, bruised by such a vile accident of history that, to boot, took place even as Mauritius was about to celebrate its progress in the 50 years of its Independence, the greatest wish of Mauritians is that no such incident should ever happen again which posterity would be ashamed of and judge very severely. But how? How can we as a people guarantee that?

The answer, I think, lies with Jeeves, a butler and the famous character in the novels of British writer P.G. Wodehouse who never failed to remind his master that in life everything depends on the ‘psychology of the individual’. This must be understood in terms of what makes up the personality of an individual which, besides the body, comprises the mind, the intellect and a spirit which acts as a rudder. Its function is to control the base tendencies and give guidance about the proper direction in which the person must steer his life. This is an extremely important dimension which is meant to override all the others which are intrinsically limited. Here we cannot but agree with one of our political leaders who once characterized a minister and some journalists as being ‘intellectuellement limité’ (although properly used the intellect has a definitive role in our lives). He wasn’t discovering America. May our future aspiring national leaders keep this truism in mind.

Eons ago the Indian rishis (sages) described the five major weaknesses of the human personality at variance with its spiritual essence, known as ‘thieves’ because they steal a person’s common sense. These five thieves are kaam (lust), krodha (rage), lobha (greed), moha (attachment) and ahankaar (conceit). Greed is for attractive material objects to which one clings and hence develops an obsessive attachment, and the more expensive the objects the greater the attachment.

Ahankaar is the over-bloated ego which gives one a sense of self-importance, and thus become possessed by conceit and arrogance which, along with lust, lead to hankering after the temporal glory associated with money and power. And these, as we all know, are ephemeral. But blinded by our passions we get enticed with delusions of grandeur. History, both ancient and modern, is littered with countless examples of such deluded personalities who fell from grace after riding their crest, propped up by shifting waves that could plunge into a trough at any moment.

Corruption, fraud, graft, seeking of perks and privileges beyond what one already has access to, misuse and abuse of power to exert undue influence, seeking or extracting sexual favours: these are what have shattered the lives and careers of several prominent people around the world who keep making the news. Think of the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein accused massively of sexual harassment, which gave rise to the #MeToo movement by the victims; he was charged and his business shut down. And yet he, like others here and elsewhere in similar predicaments, had everything going for them – but everything was still not enough.

It is not sufficient that in our choice of people to occupy positions of great responsibility we focus solely on their physical attributes, their looks, their competence, their qualifications, their intelligence because, in any case, all of them will possess these to some degree. Nor must purely political or politically correct considerations be the determining factors. What, on the contrary, must be of overriding significance is what we call the character of the potential aspirant. It is made up of qualities that are expansive rather than limited, unlike the attributes of the body and the mind-intellect as pointed out above. What constitutes character includes among others: attitude, humaneness, goodness, humility, a sense of fair play and justice, absence of prejudices, objectivity, rationality and reasonableness, a sense of morality.

It is essentially the character of a person which frames his conduct, and that is why the single most important quality that we look for and admire in a person is the character, and by extension the single most important attribute that we respect in a person is his sense of morality and ethics. And because with great power comes great responsibility, we as a people must demand that, everything else being equal, the unique marker of each and every holder of high office should be their ethical conduct. Period.

Truly is it said that ‘character is a tree, reputation its shadow; most people go after the shadow, whereas it is the tree which is more important’. For heaven’s sake, let us not go after shadows.


* Published in print edition on 30 March 2018

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