Volume 11, Issue 1
Ronald Nicolson (ed.). Persons in Community: African Ethics in a Global Culture. Scottsville, South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008.
Persons in Community is a collection of essays commissioned by the Unilever Ethics Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal that gets ambitious billing in its introduction. Sadly, it fails to live up its billing. The book sets out to answer four important ethical questions: “Is there such a thing as a set of African ethics? What constitutes African ethics? Are African Ethics consistent with, or different from, the prevailing set of Western ethics (however confusing and disarrayed Western ethics may seem to be)? Do African ethics have anything valuable to say, not only to an African context, but also in a wider world?” (p. 1).
There are other interesting, related question which arise in the book: To what extent can the concepts and moral imperatives that constitute African and western ethical systems fit into the same dialogue? Is western ethics at odds with the basic African worldview? These are all very interesting questions in need of answers. The book’s seven essays do not answer them in a completely satisfactory way, however. Some stray too far from the above questions by discussing solutions to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, aspects of the assimilation of capitalism in Africa, the importance of traditional African healing, and whether or not the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did justice to all South Africans. These are all important issues, but the discussions of them takes focus away from the above questions. Only one essay (Shutte’s “African Ethics in a Globalising World”) discusses in-depth the parallels between the views of certain contemporary Thomist (hence western) thinkers and African ethics. Furthermore, only one essay (Mkhize’s “Ubuntu and Harmony: An African Approach to Ethics”) directly and properly discusses what constitutes African ethics. Perhaps it is best to view this collection as a first attempt to answer the four key questions and not a comprehensive answer.
There, nevertheless, is a picture of African ethics that emerges from this book, one centered on the concept of ubuntu, a familiar word to South Africans. It is of Bantu origin, and has translations in other African languages (e.g., ‘maat’ in Egyptian); yet there is no one-word translation in English. Even so, we can talk about this concept in English. More than one author says that ubuntu is the idea that a person is a person through other people. This concept captures the communalism in which we typically think African societies are rooted. Perhaps the clearest articulation in the book comes from a quotation of Desmond Tutu:
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished, when others are tortured and oppressed, or treated as if there were less than who they are (p. 68).
Nhlanhla Mkhize writes: "Ubuntu, the process of becoming an ethical human being, is the process by which balance or the ‘orderedness of being’ (Karenga 2004, 191) is affirmed. This is realized through relationships characterized by interdependence, justice, solidarity of humankind, respect, empathy and caring. From this perspective, then, ethics is not a matter of individual legislation by abstract, solitary thinkers; rather, it is grounded in practical life and human action" (36). This last part of this quotation supposedly shows how a ubuntu-centered moral theory is different from traditionally western ethical thinking.
Ubuntu seems to be, in part, a realization of the shared fate of humanity. First, one must understand that others are as valuable as oneself and that one’s own fate depends on others. Second, one must act in light of this realization. Ubuntu, then, is an ethical attitude and motivation that one acts in light of and because of. It is a concept grounded in empathy. This is surely a concept that is important, perhaps of utmost importance to ethics. The notion of ubuntu could use a fuller articulation in this book. It is, after all, difficult to translate in Western languages, according to more than one author in this book.
Understanding ubuntu helps us to understand the answers to the four questions. African ethics have the concept of ubuntu to contribute to western ethics, which many of the authors see as flawed for its focus on man as a solitary individual. The essays are united by rejecting the flawed perspective of Western ethics: a lack of focus on the interdependence of community and individual, and the necessity of community for the growth of the individual. The answer to what constitutes African ethics and whether there is such a thing as African ethics could be more developed, but what we see is that there is an African ethics, and it is constituted by the notion of ubuntu. As I said, a comprehensive articulation of the concept of ubuntu would be needed if one is to fully answer our above questions.
In closing, I should note that the essays’ general criticism of western ethics is an attack against a straw man. One weakness of many of these essays is that they fall into the trap of thinking that the entirety of western ethics sees man as an isolated individual in search of pursuing his own self-interest. This—certainly at odds with ubuntu—has also been criticized by many within the Western tradition. If we truly want to understand how the key concepts of African and western ethics can contribute to our moral lives, to our lives as global citizens, then the many perspectives of western ethics—and not the too simple articulation in this book—will be given their due alongside African ethics.
Casey Woodling University of Florida