The Steinhoff Saga Management review - University of Stellenbosch Business School

January – June 2018

Can leaders commit moral treason?

  • Prof Piet Naudé
  • MAY 2018
  • Tags Features, Leadership
10 minutes to read


Prof Piet Naudé
Director: University of Stellenbosch Business School

Repeated calls are made that – in the light of Zuma and the Guptas – politicians should act and vote ‘according to their conscience’. And with organisations such as KPMG being exposed, companies are asked to reconsider their links ‘in the light of their conscience’.

Con-science, which literally means with knowledge, has evolved to mean knowledge of one’s innermost thoughts and intentions. Later the meaning further narrowed to an inner sense of right and wrong that governs one’s thoughts, attitudes and actions.

It is supposed that all people have this faculty of moral insight on a personal level. A group of people in a close-knit community also develops a supra-individual or communal conscience, i.e. a sense of what is right and wrong, and what is morally (un-)acceptable in the context of that specific community. A whole nation may develop a shared sense of conscience. And, at times, one may even speak about a global conscience, referring to purported universally shared moral convictions.

Once I repeat that initial ‘wrong’ action a few times, my conscience adjusts to a new moral orientation.

How good a moral guide is one’s personal conscience?
The answer is simple: Not a very good one.

Firstly, my conscience is the product of a socio-moral formation process and that process may be flawed. I am not born with a conscience. I develop one via the varied, messy, and often contradictory influences of parents, friends, teachers, religion, mass media, politics, history and culture. The outcome of a ‘good’ conscience is therefore not guaranteed. People differ. And not everybody is ‘right’ or morally intelligent.

Secondly, the inner voice of my conscience is easily quietened. When I ‘do something wrong’ for the first time, it might bother me. Once I repeat that initial ‘wrong’ action a few times, my conscience adjusts to a new moral orientation. What was wrong yesterday, is accepted as morally normal today.

Thirdly, I cannot guarantee one hundred per cent that I will in each instance listen to my conscience and not occasionally simply overrule my sense of right and wrong. Many good people, overestimating the power of their convictions, took a hard knock when they cheated on their partner (‘things just developed …’) or accepted a bribe (‘the tender was crucial for the employment of my people …’).

… the collective conscience … evolves over time. There were times when slavery was widely deemed morally acceptable.

But can we not trust our collective conscience?
Here the answer is yes and no. It depends.

The answer is no for at least two reasons: Firstly, when a collective conscience is trapped in an ideology – national socialism, apartheid, fossil fuel economy – all people sharing that conscience might honestly think they are right and good. I grew up in a white collective conscience where racism and sexism were socially approved and promoted. Only after the moral lie of the system has been unmasked (and a lot of damage has been done), can new moral insight arise.

A whole nation might be wrong.

Secondly, the collective conscience is not static but evolves over time. There were times when slavery was widely deemed morally acceptable. Today it is hopefully seen as wrong by most people.

As our collective insight grows, the ‘slavery’ of today – trans-sexual adoption rights, patenting genetic information, the privacy of big data and the commodification of everything, which we cannot yet ‘see’ as morally wrong – may dawn upon us as morally unacceptable tomorrow.

The whole global community might be wrong. (Think climate change before 1960.)

And when moral incoherence and systemic corruption set in… those in power commit moral treason against the nation.

Regaining a collective moral conscience
But there is a sense in which the collective moral conscience does indeed provide fairly trusted guidance. This happens when moral convictions are codified in rites of passage and in good customs and are captured in a code of law supported by a constitution in which the ultimate rules of society are expressed.

This represents a move from subjective and quite varied moral convictions to more ‘objective’ rules guiding our collective moral formation, attitudes and actions.

There is obviously no automatic guarantee that people and leaders will respect the codified collective conscience. But at least they and we have a point of reference about which there is – for now – sufficient moral consensus to build a national ethic.

That is why a misuse of political and financial power to erode, undermine, dodge, ridicule or suspend our collective moral consensus is such a serious issue. Much more than a particular mis-deed, this spirit of impunity destroys the very foundation upon which a sense of collective moral coherence is built.

And when moral incoherence and systemic corruption set in, aided by the undermining of institutions designed to protect our consensus, those in power commit moral treason against the nation. Perhaps this is the key legacy of the Zuma presidency. But unfortunately, no law makes provision for a charge of moral treason.

To rebuild a junk-status economy is tough, and it might take five to seven years. To regain moral coherence and a collective conscience requires a change of leadership and a generation of collective effort.

Prof Piet Naudé is the Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School where he lectures in ethics related to politics, economics and business. He holds an MA in Philosophy (cum laude) and a doctoral degree in Systematic Theology from Stellenbosch University.


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