Nelson Mandela

Well-known people are usually praised at the time of their death, but not like this. Mandela, judging from all the descriptions, was more than a great person, more than a hero. He was a role model. Many of the tributes are about his character, his moral standing.

Typically it is said that he was a superb reconciler, largely because he was so good at forgiving. These virtues are associated with his patience and his ability to empathise with his opponents.

This side of his character is shared by many others. What makes him exceptional is that he combined it with a strong, determined commitment to the cause he believed in. Of course the tributes would not have been so glowing if his cause had been contentious; but today, even the British Conservative Party, which in the past did so much to condemn him as a terrorist, accepts that his cause was a morally good one.

His humility could be seen for itself – for example in the way he submitted to the divorce court.

Others may reconcile and forgive, but rarely does someone with so much cause to be bitter and angry, so many memories of cruelty and mistreatment, put aside all desire for revenge and work so effectively for reconciliation and the common good.

To achieve such virtues in such difficult circumstances does not come easily. Recently the development of virtue and character has has become a major theme among ethicists: to live a good life requires not just knowing about good character and virtue but practising them. We all know this from our own experience. When faced with a tricky decision, especially if it needs making quickly, we do what we are used to doing. Mandela’s ability to forgive and understand in big difficult situations was built on past experience of doing it in other, less newsworthy situations.

He was a Christian. Is this relevant?

I guess that these virtues could have been learned if he was a Buddhist, Jew, Hindu or Muslim – though the example of Jesus, and the way Christianity has interpreted it, does proclaim self-sacrifice rather pointedly. Where I think he would not have learned them is in secular God-free morality. People who think ‘we create our own values’ never oblige themselves to behave as Mandela did. Scholars of secular morality, all the way from David Hume in the eighteenth century to the present day – John Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong would be a good example – do not explain why anybody ought to behave like that. Mandela, like Jesus, is an aberration.

There is a reason. If the human mind is the only mind that thinks some lifestyles better than others, then we always do our judging from our own point of view. For apartheid-supporting South Africans it was obvious that the governing needed to be done by whites; for the Government of the USA today it is obvious that sending drones to drop bombs on foreign countries is sometimes necessary. Because we do not recognise any authority higher than our minds, we allow no check on them. We imagine that we can see the whole picture, but we never can. No human can. This is why, when the Members of Parliament expenses scandal hit the British newspapers, one revelation was that the average MP has a far worse criminal record than the average citizen. The law prescribes our actions, but MPs prescribe the law. They get to think of themselves as above it.

Sacrificial lives like Mandela’s make sense when, and only when, there is recognition of a higher moral authority: higher than oneself, higher than the government, higher than society’s norms. An authority that makes true judgments. The true judgements on our opponents justify a sacrificial struggle for justice; the true judgements on ourselves set limits to what we may do in that struggle.