Wealth redistribution and poverty eradicationÔÇô a philosophical perspective

‘My task, therefore, is to bring prosperity to all Namibians’ President Hage G Geingob, Windhoek, 26 October 2015. ‘There is no freedom in silence’ Steve Bantu Biko

Politics, like everything else, has its fashions. Have we entered a new phase; that of ‘geingobism’? Philosophers were, and still are, interested in deconstructing the language and arguments of politicians. Such should be the case of the President of this country at the recent National Conference on Wealth Redistribution and Poverty Reduction. Philosophers are interested in working out what the principles of the just society are, as are moral philosophers in the nature of duty and the ethical concepts attached to it. Philosophical reflection is wedded to the employment of a particular kind of persuasive device: argument.

This brief contribution to the public conversation is not about the strategies that could conceivably lift the people of this country out of poverty. These should best be left to development economists, planners and presidential advisers, and such contributions would ultimately be linked to the political line of those who acclaim or disclaim the President’s thinking on poverty reduction and wealth redistribution. As a philosopher, I would find such contributions interesting, if of lesser reflective value.

Philosophy: a trivial pursuit?

But: is philosophy in general and moral philosophy, in particular, a trivial activity? Does philosophy take place at such heights, or depths, of abstraction that it tends to ignore the ‘real world’? There is, also in this country, a romantic conception of the philosopher, as a person with no or limited interest in practical matters. As an intellectual pursuit, philosophy is indeed often far removed from the activities of the everyday world, in the same way, arguably perhaps even more so, as that the study of linguistics is very different from the actual practice of language. But what we should bear in mind is that philosophy should really be seen as an intellectual process rather than a series of products, and the variety of processes which exist in the subject is a sign of philosophy’s fascination, relevance and richness.

Although we may well have entered a ‘postmodern society’, or in the case of Namibia, a ‘post-colonial society’ we are certainly not entering a ‘post-philosophy’ society. Clearly, there is room for both science and philosophy. In our country, not nearly enough philosophical arguments enter into the ongoing development- and political discourse. Science, too, needs to play an even greater role. Philosophers, however, require a sense of history, of the intellectual history of their discipline and the context within which philosophy takes place. Philosophers should also think about the future, and that means thinking about the present and the past. Widening the range of questions asked, too, is of great value.

On metaphors and meaning

The President’s metaphor of ‘our Namibian House’, first articulated in his robust inaugural State of the Nation Address delivered in April this year, and of biblical bent, was again invoked as a construct that shows his genuine concern with unity, reconciliation, stability and justice. Reconciliation, a construct close to the incumbent’s heart, would be achieved through material gratification and greater social equality, rather than through truth speaking to power. This metaphor has cast him (as Head of State) and the State, through government its agent, in the role of delivering ‘prosperity’. The President seems to agree with utilitarianism that the aim of political and moral action is human prosperity/happiness, but defines prosperity/happiness as human fulfillment, as the satisfaction of needs rather than of what a person simply happens to want. Many moral philosophers would find this a more plausible basis for morality than the classical utilitarian one, though they share the merit of giving a reason for morality (human prosperity/happiness) rather than doing one’s duty as simply moral in itself.

Moreover, this notion of ethics, a fulfillment of basic human needs and desires, provides, in principle, a reasonably objective basis for ethics – though working it out in practice, while meeting meaningful standards of justice is significantly more difficult – between what is the case and what ought to be the case, thus getting rid of a problem, as the President seems to argue – how to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. It does, though, have its own problems.

Critical remarks

One is that it focuses too exclusively on human needs and concerns and on the role of the state in achieving these. It is true, of course, since the President is human, it is appropriate for him to be particularly concerned with humanity, or more precisely with every Namibian. But, this does not justify ignoring the needs of other species, such as wild and domesticated animals, or the environment, or even of always giving preference to human needs – though this may well be morally right under certain circumstances.

Secondly, human needs are so bound up with the needs of other species, and even with the biosphere as a whole, that to separate them out is impossible: perhaps it was possible once, when our impact on the environment was much less and less permanent, but it does not seem to be possible now in this nihilistic consumerist age.

Wealth redistribution and poverty eradication, however, morally and socially desirable, can and should be framed and integrated within sustainable policies on the environment, agriculture, fisheries, mining and biodiversity, and should ultimately rest on sustainable human development.

Virtue ethics

There are two other dimensions of ethics that matter most. One is the emphasis on virtue and the primacy of personal virtues – virtue ethics; the other is the working out of a theory of justice. I would hope that these two aspects and that of the voluntary and the involuntary, which transcends the more complex and less useful ideas of free will and determinism, will also play their part in morally adding value to the proposed poverty-related interventions put forward by the President.

Apart from ethical considerations of sustainability and recognizing ecological and resource limits, personal virtues – virtue ethics – play and should play a key role in the equation.

Philosophy is more than mental gymnastics. It can enable us to understand better, how a person confronts the complex moral demands that often accompany power and responsibility, as in the case of the President, and how to engage change and challenges with the ethical weight they deserve. Unlike most individuals, the President is not shielded by circumstances that most severely put to the test his allegiance to his values and ideals. Thus, in his case and those of other public personae, such as business leaders, educators, civil servants and politicians, virtue ethics count for much, but are especially complex to achieve. The issue of how to bring the complexity of many of these and often contradictory challenges into meaningful partnership with the necessarily more abstract demands of philosophy lies at the very heart of moral philosophy.

The declaration of personal wealth by the President and the First Lady, even if the provenance of his wealth remains a bone of contention for some Namibians, his more recent town-hall meetings – a practice inspired by US politics – and public statement to commit 20% of his salary towards poverty reduction, provide evidence of a person with a sense of virtue ethics. This is not a statement of the depth of the President’s virtue ethics, but rather that he has demonstrated (through the examples cited above and his support for performance and governance contracts) that he values personal agency, perhaps not in the Kantian sense of the ‘Categorical Imperative’, a sovereign notion informed by rationality, that specifies specific dispositions of character that enhance, or aim at the ‘perfection’ of, practical life. On many counts, the Kantian construct of virtue ethics looks rather ambitious. Arguably, the President is somewhat closer to Aristotle’s notion of virtue ethics, namely, that one choses in accordance with some virtue, decides what to do and how to perform in a certain condition or context, that is, knowingly, virtues are chosen on their own account and an attempt is made to proceed from a relatively firm and stable character. The recent National Conference on Wealth Redistribution and Poverty Eradication, and the earlier State of the Nation Address, provided two such contexts or conditions. So did the State of the Nation Address.

It is important to remind ourselves that the latter condition, that of choice, is shared by many theories of virtue, and enables such theories to engage with the longer-term project of character building within a particular life. A further concern, also in evidence in the more recent public statements by the President, another departure from pure utilitarian concerns, revolves around an engagement with the qualitative concerns of life, respect for human life and dignity. Virtue ethics, in this understanding, transcend pure questions of quantity – how many Namibians would be lifted out of grinding poverty, by when and at what rate – to an engagement with the quality of their daily lives, replete of their ethical lives.

A critical reading of both the earlier State of the Nation Address and of the President’s keynote address at the said National Conference however, shows scant evidence of this most important aspect of virtue ethics – the virtues life itself. From such a perspective – that of the virtues life - it is not only a case that the virtues should exist within the context of a broadly shared morality, but that such morality should be highly determinate of the virtues present in the lives of people and in the decisions that they make. Perhaps, there should be greater trust in Plato’s (or at least Plato’s Socrates’), ‘self-mastery’, self-reliance, through collective vision and imagination. More concretely, in the context of wealth redistribution and poverty eradication, there should be no room for ‘tender insiders’, parasitic elites, personal greed and the economics of affection. In such a context, ethical values, inclusive of personal virtues, are unlikely to prosper, as the disastrous ‘mass housing scheme’ and various recent ‘development projects’ demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.

Poverty reduction and justice

Clearly, social grants have their place within a multiple poverty reduction strategy and approach, and the President needs to be congratulated on his invocation of the celebrated Indian economist, Amartya Sen’s, construct of ‘poverty’ as transcending income, proposing instead that “poverty is about the deprivation of basic capabilities of human beings”. Yes, indeed, but Sen’s construct of poverty rests upon a deeper virtue, his important idea and theory of justice and the philosophically associated idea that ‘justice’ needs to be defined through a process of public reason. Precisely because there are always choices to be made between alternative understandings of what is reasonable and feasible. I sincerely hope that the coterie of presidential advisers would take not of this insight!

Among Sen’s many virtues, his insistence that one should accommodate divergent points of view when it comes to justice and poverty reduction is particularly helpful. To his credit, the President acknowledges the many complexities associated with the ‘fight/war against poverty’. He also says, with considerable justification, that the war against poverty is the responsibility of all Namibians and of a diverse range of co-operative agencies, both public and private. What is less clear, however, is how, in practical terms, the proposed social interventions – many that I value – would meaningfully transform the conditions that led to poverty and inequality in the first place? The answer to this complex question should relate to Sen’s (and the President’s) understanding of poverty as ‘the absence of basic human capacities’. Put differently, how would the proposed social interventions build and support basic human capacities? Moreover, notwithstanding the historical context of poverty in this country, how did post-independent policies, misguided public expenditure on luxury cars and expensive trips, shaky governance and uneven implementation contribute towards creating new forms of poverty? From a moral philosophy point of view, it would be incumbent to engage modestly and honestly with precisely questions like these. Hopefully, this would happen during the more detailed strategic phase that would follow the Conference.

Finally, there is from the perspective of virtue ethics, the matter of building radically new and different people-centered public institutions. Frantz Fanon in his The Damned of the Earth (also translated as The Wretched of the Earth) is resolute: better to fight an imperfect revolution (or war against poverty) than to remain still, degraded, subservient, and poor. The victory of dignity is already won in fighting for it.

André du Pisani is Professor Emeritus at The University of Namibia (UNAM) and is the Chairperson of the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST). He values art, ideas, critical thinking and good conversation. As always, the views expressed in this contribution are solely his own.