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Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity and History in Modern Sri Lanka (1995 | 2009).

Pradeep Jeganathan & Qadri Ismail (eds.)

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Thursday
Dec202012

An Ethos of Ethics

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name ethike is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).

 

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2.

 

On the 22nd of March, 1952, D.S. Senanayake, first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon, passed away after falling off his horse, during his morning ride at Galle Face.

It is widely known that his son, Dudley Senanayake succeeded him. It is not so widely known that the circumstances of the succession were controversial, and Sir John Kotalawala, then Senior Vice President of the UNP, and more importantly Leader of the House, had fully expected to be called by the Governor General, Lord Soulbury to form the next government as Prime Minister.

But he never was; Soulbury who was away from his post, had left instructions with the acting Governer General, the then Chief Justice, Sir Alan Rose, QC to either call on Senanayaka Junior, or await his return. And so he did.

Kotalawala himself accepted this desicion at the time after much protest, but in a pamphlet written a few months later suggested that among the much back stabbing and deal making that went on, was a quid pro quo: Senanayake would offer the Governor Generalship to Solbury, who chaired the Royal Commission investigating the suitability of Ceylon's Independence, if he would ensure the succession of his son, upon his demise.

I should underline that the paragraphs above deal with allegations, not proven fact. I am not in possession of new facts either, all what I say above was in the public domain in 1950s.

But I will say I find it rather persuasive, as much as I find articles of impeachment against the current Chief Justice Dr. (Ms) Bandaranayake unpersuasive.

But often, as we are caught up in urgent, partisan political struggles, we lose sight of the larger issues. In this case, what is paramount, is an ethos of ethics which we have clearly lost. I present a historical example, at the dawn of what we call independence, to underline that two important British royal officials were implicated in the controversial, and arguably sordid, transition from Senanayake Senior to Junior.

It militates against the often expressed view, that the decline of an ethos of ethics we see in Sri Lanka happened the day before yesterday. To me it is sobering to wonder if we ever had one. If I am right, the task of an Ethos of Ethics is much harder, yet necessary.

Often, we adults know right from wrong. But we carefully lull ourselves into thinking that some small wrong, doesn't matter if it benefits us, and doesn't seem to do much wrong to others. And then we continue along that path, as the unethical behavior grows in magnitude.

It is not just a matter of conscience, even one's conscience could be an important starting point in an ethos of ethics. It is certainly not a matter of law, even though legal arguments are important seeing that justice is done.

It is, I submit, a matter of habit, custom and manner. Such needs to go far beyond law. Certainly at this late stage, the only right thing to do in the matter of the impeachment of the Chief Justice, is to step back, making clear amendments to the Constitution, allowing the impeachments of the members of the Superior Courts to follow common and well understood protocols of Justice rather than an unhappy combination of the custom and manner of the Kings Rajasingha II and Kakkille.

But is this really enough? For that would be to end the matter in a question of law. It is not. We do not need to learn right from wrong. But we need to think of how we teach such to children, and teach this again, to ourselves.

The matter becomes deeper, when we begin to understand, that both loyalty and fairness are virtues, deserving a place in an Ethos of Ethics. Often they come into conflict. Loyalty is certainly slippery, for it can contain implicit or explicit quid pro quos. You do this for me, I will do that for you -- even if it seems unfair to others. Each situation may be different, but navigating that boundary is some thing we need to teach ourselves.

Even after the constitution of two republics, we haven't yet even begun.

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