The main ethical theory that seems to be informing how Wits and UJ are positioning themselves in the case is Utilitarianism, ‘the greatest happiness principle’, (Bentham, J. & Mill, J.S.(2004)). This is because their reason for proceeding with online learning is based on the argument that majority of the students resides in areas that have good and sufficient internet connectivity and that 90% of the students had received data. It is therefore believed by the two universities that proceeding with online learning will bring the greatest happiness to the majority of the student population. This theory judges action by virtue of consequence, hence the majority’s happiness overrules minority’s misery.
According to Bentham (Reichlin, M. (2016)), the theory based on the principle of utility is the one ‘which states the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question, as being justified as the right and proper. This is because the rightness of an action would have been decided on after considering the pleasures and pains produced and the number of people involved. In this case, the two universities considered the how the students would feel with the online learning and came to conclusion that the academic year needs to be save because the majority begged for it. Although there are students who would not be happy with this decision, especially those who live in areas with insufficient internet connection and those who did not receive data, their concerns would have to be side-lined, so as to take a decision that favours majority.
There are main advantages that this thinking could introduce to educational practice in South Africa. Utilitarianism has brought reinforcement of majority rule. This is a political principle that provides the largest group the power to make a decision for everyone. This rule is simple and easy to implement and does not have any complicated procedures. For example, the Students’ Representative Council(SRC) is elected on a majority vote. The advantage of this theory is that it introduces justice to the South African educational practice. Decisions are meant to be taken based on what majority of students want. Also, this theory brings equality between individuals because each person counts for one, and in turn eliminates discrimination.
The main danger that this theory brings to the South African education practice is that majority is not always right. Often students take decisions that suits them without considering the less privileged. Looking at this case, the students who have gadgets and internet connectivity want the academic year to be saved for their own benefit of not having to add a year to their degrees. Those students who do not have gadgets or internet connectivity might have to add a year to their degrees and watch their peers graduate before them, simply because the majority rule did not favour them. The main danger is that this theory promotes sacrificing the minority provided the majority is happy. Another danger is that we cannot really know if an action is right or wrong before it takes place, we can only know after it has taken place. This is dangerous
The SADTU and EFF position is informed by the Kant’s theory of Duty for the sake of duty. This is because their argument is against the idea of utilitarian and it stands with the idea that human beings are distinct and unique. Kant’s theory argues that there should not be any exception, majority or cultural. A right action should respect the integrity of people and should be out of free will. It further argues that moral principles have to be universal and not just for the pleasure of the majority. In this case, since Wits and UJ are basing their decision on majority, SADTU and EFF resist arguing that this decision is not serving the ends of a just society and also increases educational inequalities.
Kant’s theory has principles that propose a universal system of morals. A categorical imperative is a condition that does not depend on external circumstances apart from its own characteristics. The first categorical imperative principle is the universalizability test. An action must be universally accepted irrespective of individual circumstances. Secondly, a good action should make sure that no person in being used, instead they should benefit from the process. It acts so as to treat humanity. Thirdly, the principle of autonomy, a good action does not force anyone to do anything, people should do things from their own will.
The argument by SADTU and EFF would claim a higher moral ground in South Africa because the history of this country was one based on oppressive ideologies. During the apartheid era people(specifically blacks) were forced to do things against their own will. The educational practice was based on subjectivism, relativism and utilitarianism. Post-apartheid, Kant’s theories helped in a number of precepts in the South African Constitution, The Bill of Rights, and many more regulation, hence the argument brought forth by SADTU and EFF would claim a higher moral ground influencing educational practice in South Africa.
This theory informed educational practice in South Africa in different ways. Its principles were used in the SACE code of conduct and The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for learners in South Africa. For example, The SACE code of conduct instructs educators to respect the dignity, beliefs and constitutional rights of learners. This comes from Kant’s theory that recognizes that humans are distinct and unique.
The issue of Covid-19 has presented Ethical dilemmas to the education system and practice in South Africa. Questions such as “is it necessary to save the academic year?” or “should we wait and see where the lockdown takes us?” and many other questions were on the minds of all the stakeholders of the education system. One huge dilemma that surfaced in almost all the university was the issue of introducing online learning or not. Some institutions such as UJ decided to save the academic year by introducing online learning and sending students data to access activities. Although most of the students were at their homes due to the lockdown, the university had to take a decision that would make the majority of the students happy, and this theory is known as utilitarianism. Other institutions decided not to proceed with online learning looking at the fact that it is immoral to take a decision that favours other students and compromise the need of others, this theory is known as the duty for the sake of duty. This dilemma has caused an imbalance in the South African education system and practices. Those that went with utilitarianism will wait to see if their decision was right, and those who went with moral principles will also have to wait and see if the situation of the Covid-19 has hindered their progress or not.
- Bentham, J., & Mill, J. S. (2004). Utilitarianism and other essays. Penguin UK.
- Constitution, S. A. (1996). Bill of rights. Retrieved November, 12, 2013.
- Kant, I. (2003). Theoretical Philosophy, 1755–1770. Cambridge University Press.
- Reichlin, M. (2016). Hume and Utilitarianism: Another Look at an Age-Old Question. Journal of Scottish Philosophy, 14(1), 1-20.
- South African Council for Educators. (2002). Handbook for the code of conduct of professional ethics.