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An African Conception of Human Rights? Comments on the Challenges of Relativism



The belief that human rights are culturally relative has been reinforced by recent attempts to develop more plausible conceptions of human rights whose philosophical foundations are closely aligned with culture-specific ideas about human nature and/or dignity. This paper contests specifically the position that a conception of human rights is culturally relative by way of contesting the claim that there is an African case in point. That is, it contests the claim that there is a unique theory of rights. It analyses three examples of what often passes as African conception of human rights arguing that they have little or nothing to do with human rights, are simply inadequate or are not African in the sense at issue in a cultural relativism. Along the way, it distinguishes between two meanings of the term African contending that to the extent that the practice of prizing the ‘community’ higher than any other value is definitive of African, the idea of African human rights remains suspect.
An African Conception of Human Rights? Comments
Oritsegbubemi Anthony Oyowe
#Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014
Abstract The belief that human rights are culturally relative has been reinforced by
recent attempts to develop more plausible conceptions of human rights whose philo-
sophical foundations are closely aligned with culture-specific ideas about human nature
and/or dignity. This paper contests specifically the position that a conception of human
rights is culturally relative by way of contesting the claim that there is an African case
in point. That is, it contests the claim that there is a unique theory of rights. It analyses
three examples of what often passes as African conception of human rights arguing that
they have little or nothing to do with human rights, are simply inadequate or are not
African in the sense at issue in a cultural relativism. Along the way, it distinguishes
between two meanings of the term African contending that to the extent that the
practice of prizing the communityhigher than any other value is definitive of
African, the idea of African human rights remains suspect.
Keywords Personhood .Human rights .African .Relativism .Universalism
The title of my article expresses a suspicion. Let me begin then with a comment on the
root of my scepticism concerning the possibility of an African conception of human
rights. It comes from an observation by the Beninois philosopher Pauline Hountondji.
Wor d s,he noted, do indeed change their meanings miraculously as soon as they pass
from the Western to the African context…’ (Hountondji 1983, p. 60). He was writing at
a time when the debate over the true meaning of African philosophy was a dominant
discourse. What bothered Hountondji, it seems to me, was how the mere addition of the
Hum Rights Rev
DOI 10.1007/s12142-013-0302-2
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the University of Johannesburg Philosophy seminar series on
21 August 2013 under the title African Conceptions of Human Rights? Between the Demands of
Universalism and Relativism. I am grateful to the participants at the seminar for their very helpful
comments and criticisms.
O. A. Oyowe (*)
University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa
prefix Africancould so radically alter the meaning of a concept. But he was not alone.
Early on in the literature, Kenyan philosopher Odera Oruka had observed rather
humorously that
What may be a superstition is paraded as African religion, and the white world
is expected to endorse that it is indeed a religion but an African religion. What in
all cases is a mythology is paraded as African philosophy, and again the white
culture is expected to endorse that it is indeed a philosophy but an African
philosophy. What is in all cases a dictatorship is paraded as African democracy,
and the white culture is again expected to endorse that it is so. And what is clearly
a de-development or pseudo-development is described as development,and
again the white world is expected to endorse that it is developmentbut of
course African development.(Oruka1972,p.23)
I suspect that it is the same with human rights. A family of practices and ideas that
have little or nothing to do with human rights often passes as a conception of human
rights and this misconception has often gone unnoticed. Notwithstanding Hountondji
and Oruka, there remains a degree of support for the idea that when employed in the
context of Africa, concepts evoke unique, cultural-relative meanings.
More specifi-
cally, the claim is that the meaning of human rights is culturally relative and that
African culture shapes and informs a unique conception of human rights (Cobbah
1987;Ake1987; Wiredu 1996; Woods 2003; Elechi 2004 and Deng 2006).
Ironically, in the years immediately following the independence of many African
states, it was frequently noted in the face of gross human rights abuses that human
rights are not applicable to Africa. Instead, it was maintained that human rights talk
constituted one further piece of evidence of Western imposition and imperialism
(Nhlapo 1989, p. 2). Now, it is quite fashionable to talk about human rights in
Africaand not just any conception of human right but the African variety.
The main thrust of this article is to reject in a somewhat roundabout way the position
that human rights are culture-relative phenomena by way of contesting the corollary
claim that there is an African case in point.
I explore three examples of what often pass
as African conceptions of human rights, including Thad Metzscontributioninrecent
years, and argue that they have little or nothing to do with human rights, are inadequate
or are not African in the sense at issue in a cultural relativism. The term African is
potentially problematic. Along the way, I shall rely on a distinction between two senses
of the term: One picks out a geographical category merely while the other refers to a
family of ideas distinctive of cultures in the geographical area denoted as Africa.
suspicion about African conceptions of human rights revolves mainly around this latter
employment of the term.
For example, theorists have more generally defended an African meaning of democracy (Kwasi Wiredu
1997; Edward Wamala 2006;JoeTeffo2006) indicating that the meaning of the concept is culturally relative.
I should note that I am not interested in a catalogue raisonné of human rights; my interest is in the question
of whether there are diverse, culturally relative (more specifically African) foundations for human rights. Or,
alternatively, the question of whether ideas about human nature and/or dignity supposedly unique to African
cultures can provide a plausible philosophical foundation for human rights.
For a similar employment of the term African in this latter sense, see Hountondji (1983,2002),
O.A. Oyowe
The Challenge of Relativism
It is not uncommon to find among many human rights theorists, moral philosophers as
well as legislators, the judgment that human rights are basic entitlements owed to
human beings simply because they are human beings. The judgment strikes me as fairly
uncontroversial and may be held by believers in human rights quite generally
(Donnelly 1982, pp. 304, 305, 306; 2007,p.282;DSa 1985,p.74;Wiredu1996,p.
157; Ake 1987,p.5;Hellsten2004, p. 61; Oyekan 2012,p.144;Metz2012a,pp.19
12). A Universalist about human rights should accept this judgment maintaining that
human rights are universal and inure to the human being simply in virtue of her being
human. She would add that no further qualification is required for having a human
right. This supposed universality of human rights is seen to follow unproblematically
from the idea that human nature is universal (Ghai 2000, p. 1096; Donnelly 2007,pp.
282283; 1984,p.400).
Typically, the conception of human nature underlying the Universalist intuition
about human rights is one of the human individual stripped as it were of the particu-
larities of culture and identified primarily by that core property she shares with every
other human being. Take, for example, Kants idea of human nature as a function of the
capacities for rationality and autonomy. The emphasis on capacity permits the
Universalist to focus on that which all human beings have in common qua persons,
turning attention directly away from whatever else distinguishes them, in particular the
contingencies of human nature.
A Relativist about human rights is likely to object, however. The objection may run
along two mutually reinforcing paths. She may deny outright the Universalist picture of
human nature. She may hold that the conception human nature upon which human
rights are grounded is not an abstraction because humans are defined by their relations
to others…’ (Ghai 2000, p. 1097). On this view, it is difficult and even undesirable to
make sense of human nature without due attention paid to the ways in which the
elements of culture and the various contingencies of human life have contributed to its
realisation. The Relativist would insist that focusing on isolated human capacities is not
sufficient to show what it is about human beings that distinguish them from each other.
In addition, focusing on isolated human capacities is not sufficient to capture what it is
about human beings that makes them special.
Alternatively, the Relativist may claim quite generally that the enforcement of values
and the meanings of concepts are always relative to some culture. This argument would
begin from the observation that there are in fact non-trivial, non-superficial variations
among the different cultures of the world to the assertion that there are no cross-cultural
standards for understanding and assessing the values and practices of particular cul-
tures. Consider Donnellys pithy description of cultural relativism. Cultural relativ-
ism,hesays,is a doctrine that holds that (at least some) such variations are exempt
from legitimate criticism by outsiders(1984, p. 400). To the extent that meanings and
values are culture-relative, the Relativist may insist that the idea of human rights,
including whatever is taken to be its foundation, is a culture-relative phenomenon.
This is the idea of the individual birthed in the Enlightenment and given full expression in the writings of
Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1821), and Immanuel Kant (1785).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
All these indicate that cultural differences in the conception of human nature may
yield different philosophical conceptions of human rights (Hellsten 2004, pp. 63, 69).
So even if the Relativist believes that human rights are based on human nature, she
would still insist contrary to the Universalists position that the meaning of human
nature/dignity are relative to particular cultures. Thus, controversies remain regarding
the details of what constitutes human nature or dignity, leaving theorists of human
rights on different sides of the universalism-relativism debate.
I intend to engage the challenge of relativism not necessarily by contesting relativ-
ism as a theory but by contesting the idea that African conceptions of human nature can
provide adequate foundations for human rights.
African Conceptions of Human Rights
A conception of human rights as it is employed here is a theory proposing a philo-
sophical foundation, typically a conception of human nature and/or dignity in virtue of
which human rights are grounded. My reading of the discourses on human rights in
Africa evince very broadly three distinct ways of conceptualising human nature, and
upon which human rights are subsequently grounded.
I should add that there is an underlying theme running through all three conceptions.
Because the Universalist picture of human rights rests on a thin concept of selfi.e. of
the individual stripped off all particularitiesit is often closely linked to excessive
individualism associated with the West.
These three approaches to understanding
human nature may therefore be seen as alternative ways of offsetting the perceived
threat of individualism and alleged moral imperialism inherent in the notion of human
Human Nature Based on the Priority of the Collective
Perhaps, the most common and widely cited conception of human nature discussed in
the African literature on self is the idea that the human being depends both descriptively
and normatively on the community. Consider John Mbiti who debunked the idea of the
lone individual in African thought suggesting that the existence of the individual
human subject could not be rendered intelligible without first presupposing the collec-
tive. The individual,hesays,does not and cannot exist alone except corporately.
And the reason is that he owes his existence to other peopleHe is simply a part of the
wholeso that the ‘…community must therefore make, create, or produce the individ-
(1969, p. 108; see also Tempels 1959, p. 58; Menkiti 1984,p.171;Masolo2010,
As Nhlapo observes, African Relativists about human rights hold that unlike the African one, Western
conception of human rights reflects the liberal, individualistic tradition of Western Europe and America and
therefore has no relevance for African society(Nhlapo 1989, pp. 2, 4).
The question of what the appropriate relationship between individual and community should be has
generated lively debates in African philosophy. I have examined elsewhere three ways of characterising this
relationship and argued in favour of the approach that takes individual as basic in relation to the collective (see
Oyowe 2013a).
Mbitis(1969) widely cited maxim I am because we are; since we ar e therefore I am(p. 109) captures this
concept of human nature.
O.A. Oyowe
p. 134; Wiredu 2009, p. 13; Ikuenobe 2006, p. 117; Hellsten 2004, p. 63; in all these
cases, the idea of priority of the community figures prominently).
Additionally, it is typical of proponents of the view that the community takes priority
over the individual to insist that there is a normative element to the idea of a human
being. Menkiti (1984), for instance, argues that the various societies found in tradi-
tional Africa routinely accepted this fact that personhood is the sort of thing, which has
to be attained, and is attained in direct proportion as one participates in communal life
through the discharge of the various obligations defined by onesstations(p. 176).
Elsewhere, Wiredu (2009) adds that the African conception of a human being is one of
a morally sound adult who has demonstrated in practice a sense of responsibility to
household, lineage and society at large(p. 16). That is to say, human nature is also a
function of approximating certain cultural cum moral ideals.
This conception of human nature has been described as collectivist because it locates
both ontologically and normatively the individual human being within the collective.
Naturally then, the conception of human rights that emerges is also collectivist (see
DSa 1985, p. 74; Hellsten 2004, p. 63). Several inferences follow fairly easily. For
example, the collectivist orientation of African conception of human rights is believed
to imply emphasis on economic and social rights over civil and political rights (DSa
1985, p. 78; Cobbah 1987, p. 331; Nhlapo 1989,p.4)
and a rejection of the
individualism that underpins Western conceptions of human rights (Hellsten 2004,
pp. 68, 69; Ake 1987) as well as the perceived imperialism associated with the
individualism (Howard 1995, p. 1; see also Cobbah 1987, p. 314; Donnelly 1982,p.
311). This is why Cobbah (1987) insists that in African thought, the starting point is
not the individual but the whole group …’ (p. 322).
All of the foregoing seems attractive. But there are very good reasons as to why we
might want to reject this conception of human nature and the human rights conception
it supposedly engenders. First, the idea that individuals derive ontologically from the
collective seems unattractive as a logical option. This insight was first noted by
Kaphagawani (2006) who, in response to the uses of MbitisdictumIambecause
we are and since we are therefore I amas a foil against Descartescogito ergo sum and
as a justification for a collectivist conception of human nature, pointed out that the
argument failed the simple test of validity. Although the cogito argument could have
pretensions of validity when provided Whatever thinks existsas a suppressed pre-
miss, Kaphagawani (2006) writes, I find it difficult to imagine quite what suppressed
premiss would render Mbitisargumentvalid(pp. 337338).
The believer in Mbitis dictum, or more generally, the collectivist conception of
human nature owes us a plausible story about how to clinch the validity of the
argument. Certainly, more than mere assertions will be required if a plausible theory
of human rights is to be grounded on this or related claims about human nature. Until
During the drafting of the African Charter on Human and PeoplesRights, the drafters explicitly appealed to
this idea of human nature as part of the commitment to remain faithful to African traditions. According to the
rapporteur report, Noting that in Africa, man is part and parcel of the group, some delegations concluded that
individual rights could be explained and justified only by the rights of the community(OAU Rapporteur
Report 1981).
I should note that the question of which set of rights are more fundamental is beyond the scope of this paper.
Instead, the focus is to contest a specifically African conception of human rights (whether social, economic,
political, civil or otherwise).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
then, it seems fair to hold that there is something particularly undesirable about
grounding human rights on a conception of human nature that is logically suspect.
Second, the idea of the collective as producingthe individual implicates a ques-
tionable idea of community i.e., the idea of community as a natural formation. It is the
idea of the community as some fixed, unchangeable entity existing independently of
the individual (see Mbiti 1969;Menkiti1984; see also Masolo 2004,p.490,2009;
Hountondji 2002 for a description and interrogation of this idea of community). It is
questionable because in order for the community to create or produce the individual its
existence must be independent of and prior to the existence of individual human beings.
I should note that my criticism here raises two critical questions:
(a) Is the community prior to the individual?
(b) Is the community a fixed entity?
These questions are fundamentally related. In response to the first question, I have
noted that an answer in the affirmative necessarily involves an idea of community as
some fixed and unchangeable entity that exists independently of individuals. With
regards to the second question, it is worth pointing out that if the community is a fixed
and unchanging entity then it is quite difficult to account for the ways in which
individual actions continually shape the community. It seems rather odd to conceive
of community as an empty set as it were, existing independently of individual mem-
bers. This is because the very existence of a community and its realisation is dependent
on individuals who constitute that community. Adherents of this idea of community as
fixed, unchanging entity fail to consider that individual human beings have multiple
interests and do not neatly fit into rigid wholes. Instead, they are part of more fluid
communities that are always changing, which changes and the overall nature of
community is dependent ultimately on the creative inputs of individual members.
Third, because it prioritises collective or peoples rights over individual rights (DSa
1985,p.77;Howard1995, p. 2) by construing collective rights and interests as existing
over and above individual ones, this conception of human nature yields the undesirable
consequence that individual rights must always make way for collective rights. It seems
to me that the litmus test for any serious conception of human rights is its performance
over a range of conflict situations; so-called African conceptions of human rights
readily imply that human rights always give way to traditional values (e.g. communal
harmony, kinship relations, etc.) whenever these values conflict. Moreover, prioritising
collective rights over individual ones may summarily exclude non-conforming indi-
viduals and minorities.
These upshots of the preference for collective rights are not particularly desirable if a
conception of human rights is to be regarded as plausible (Gyekye 1997, p. 38; Okolo
2003, pp. 253254; Coetzee 2001, pp. 275277). This is because they show human
rights to be of less value and incapable of protecting the dignity of human beings (that
is, if they are readily overridden by other non-rights considerations). A conception that
yields these results cannot be a plausible conception of human rights.
Fourth, there are difficulties associated with the idea that human nature is a function
of being located in this or that culture, satisfying group norms, obligations, adhering to
rituals of social transformation, etc. One obvious problem is that since these practices
are contingent on particular cultures, it would counterintuitively imply that onesstatus
as a human being is lost or diminished if one were to be removed from that cultural
O.A. Oyowe
context. This seems to me clearly false since we do not conclude that human beings
who have relocated to unfamiliar cultural terrain thereby lose their standing as human
beings. The other problem is the unwelcome consequence of asserting unequal rights. If
what it means to be a human being depends on how one approximates particular
cultural or social ideals, and since human beings are likely to approximate these ideals
to varying degrees, it seems that they are likely to possess human rights unequally. Yet,
not only is it hard to understand what it means for one human being to have, for
example, more right to life or freedom of speech than another, it seems objectionable as
far as the moral equality of human beings is concerned to hold that view.
Admittedly, a believer in the conception of human nature under scrutiny may wish to
bite the bullet and admit that human rights are not equal for all human beings. Yet, such
an admission would cast further doubts on the plausibility of this conception since it
negates the logic underlying the moral and political salience of human rights. It seems
to me that the reason why we care deeply about human rights is because they are
important protections against abuses and disregard for human dignity. The idea of
unequal rights would worryingly justify a regime of torture, assault and many other
ways of violating the dignity of those whose rights are judged to be lesser or inferior.
Fifth, a conception of human nature that descriptively and normatively conceives the
individual as derivative vis-à-vis the collective is philosophically ill-equipped to
explain what it is about a human being that makes her the bearer or agent of right or
any other intrinsic property.
That is, it cannot fully capture the intuition that rights are
properly grounded in the individual. This is because it takes the individual to be a
derivative of the collective such that whatever attribute the individual has is merely an
instance of something ultimately attributable to the collective. This is perhaps what
Hellsten (2004) had in mind when she observes that African communitarians tend to
draw moral foundations for rights from the need to protect different communities,
which individuals are valuable members of(p. 70). But as Coetzee (2001)says,The
individuals claim to be considered only as an individual, regardless of race, colour or
sex, is reduced at the expense of claims to group affiliation(p. 274, see also Appiah
Suppose there is a plot of land. A view of human nature built on the notion of
collective priority would imply that such land belongs primarily to some clan or family;
the individual only has a claim to such land in virtue of the clan or family to which he
belongs owning the relevant land (Donnelly 1984, p. 419; Wiredu 1996, pp. 165166).
Notice, however, that the issue is no longer about a right but a reward the individual
enjoys in virtue of belonging to this or that group. But thats not all. Collectivist
conceptions of human nature characteristically prioritise obligations or duties to the
collective over rights individuals may claim against the collective (Menkiti 1984,p. 180;
Here, I distinguish between factual and moral equality, where the former relates to considerations of
equality based on mundane facts about human beings (e.g. height, intelligence, educational and social
background, etc.) and the latter has to do with considerations about how to treat human beings as equals
making equality a moral ideal. It is highly unlikely that human beings are factually equalit is a simple
empirical fact that people are unequal in terms of mental and physical strength, intelligence, social back-
ground, etc. Identifying human nature with the variations that characterize human life cannot guarantee the
moral equality of persons.
To have an intrinsic property is to have a property that is internal to ones nature. Most, if not all people
believe that each human being has properties (or characteristics) that are intrinsic as opposed to extrinsic (i.e.
external to the nature of human beings).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
DSa 1985, p. 76; Gyekye 1992, p. 116; Howard 1995, p. 2; Hellsten 2004,p.63;
Nkondo 2007, p. 90). But duties, like benefits and rewards, are conceptually distinct
from rights in general and human rights in particular.
How might one distinguish between rights and duties, contesting the view that
human rights are just another way of analyzing basic human duties? To say that one
has a right in the sense described above is not to say that one has specific moral or legal
obligations, although such obligations may arise for one with respect to the rights of
others. Some duties, therefore, constitute appropriate moral responses to the demand of
respect that human rights elicit. As such, they are not equivalent to human rights; one
involves doing what is morally obligated, the other involves having an entitlement
(Donnelly 1982, p. 304). In addition, it seems logically possible to do good without
necessarily recognising or invoking a human right (as in certain cases of truth-telling
and obedience to the law) and to do good while simultaneously failing to honour
human rights (as when doing good involves maximising social utility, where this may
involve aggregating the overall consequences of some policy in the manner Jeremy
Bentham originally envisaged). Moreover, duties can be grounded on facts (e.g. natural
law, divine command, tradition, etc.) other than the requirement to honour human
rights. This category of duties may have little or nothing to with human rights.
All these scenarios indicate that human rights and duties come apart so that
conception of one is not strictly speaking a conception of the other.
And since the
considerations that occupy believers in a collectivist account of human nature in which
the collective takes precedence are about duties and benefits individuals have or enjoy
by virtue of being members of particular groups, it seems to follow that the alleged
conception of rights that emerges is a conception of duties or the collective good, which
may have nothing to do with rights or in which talk about human rights figures only
marginally. But a conception of the collective good and an account of the duties one has
to perform to promote it or the benefit one receives via membership is not quite the
same as a conception of human rights, which are entitlements that may be held against
the collective.
Human Nature Based on Equality of Individuality and Community
Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Gyekye, was at the forefront of the attack on the
conception of human nature based on the idea of communal priority. This view
Similar distinction can be made between human rights and benefits. Human rights are not the same as
benefits, although there are obvious benefits to having such entitlements as human rights to freedom of
association, life and not to be tortured. Moreover, there may be benefits where no rights can be claimed. In this
sense, not all benefits that human beings enjoy are entitlements. In this connection, acts of charity are often
cited. While a beggar may benefit from the generosity of another, it is not obvious that the beggar is entitled in
the sense at issue in a human right to that generosity. If the generous persons action is a strong obligation, it
may be explained in terms of a general obligation to do good, which may involve a divine command, rather
than a special entitlement owed to the beggar. It may be grounded, for instance, on the duty to advance the
collective good of all; in this case, rights as special human entitlements need not be claimed, for what is it to
claim that a beggar has a right to the money in each and every persons wallet? This is also true of ones
kinsmen; if there is a strong obligation to provide for ones kinsmen, such obligation has its roots in the value
placed on kinship relations rather than on special entitlements ones kinsmen have.
It is worth noting that many commentators on human rights in Africa have found it less attractive to ground
claims about human rights and individual freedom on the a conception of self that prioritizes the collective
over individuals (see Okolo 2003; Metz 2011).
O.A. Oyowe
engenders what Gyekye terms unrestricted communitarianism because it fails to ade-
quately capture what it is about human rights that make them entitlements that belong
irreducibly to the individual. He argued that a useful way of satisfactorily grounding
human rights in contemporary African thought is to give full appreciation to the role of
individuality in the making of a human being since such rights are properly vested on
the individual. In his view, the most that can be said, then, is that a person is only partly
constituted by the community(Gyekye 1997,p.59).
For Gyekye, other non-communal features, including a persons individual capaci-
ties, also play a role in the constitution of human nature. The human being is as much
communal in nature as she is an individual. The most satisfactory way,saysGyekye
(1997), to recognize the claims of both communality and individuality is to ascribe to
them the status of an equal moral standing(p. 41). That is to say, Gyekyeswayof
circumventing the difficulty of the first conception is to propose a conception of human
nature that is based not on priority of the collective but on the equality of individual and
collective features in the constitution of human nature. The resulting view of human
rights is one that assigns equal moral importance to these individual entitlements as
well as to the duties of individuals in service of the collective good.
Notice how Gyekye attempts to integrate the twin intuitions that rights are properly
grounded in the individual and that they are properly African in the collectivist sense.
The former is grounded on the individualistic component of human nature, while the
latter is explained by reference to the communal aspect of human nature. In other
words, it is thoroughly African in the sense that it captures what is culturally valuable
about the community both in its constitution of human nature and its assumed role in
the conception of human rights. Gyekye sees his account, which goes under the name
of moderate communitarianism as able to account for the collective orientation of
human nature since the community remains the axiomatic principle around which other
facts or values in African cultures, particularly the Akan culture, revolve.
Difficulties remain, however, both conceptually and practically. At the level of
conception, the idea that collective and individual features mutually constitute the
human person is quite hard to render intelligible. Consider Dzobos attempt to rework
MbitisI am because we are; since we are, therefore we arein a manner that is faithful
to Gyekyes idea of equality of the two. The result is the following bizarre conjunction:
I am because we are, and since I am therefore we are(Dzobo 1992, p. 132). This
thesis is intended to capture the same intuition Gyekye hasthe idea that neither the
community nor the individual is prior. However, it strikes me as implausible. In
particular, it is bizarre precisely because it is unclear how the Iis at once dependent
and independent of the we. At best, the expression suggests a misunderstanding of the
relation of supervenience.
Furthermore, at the level of conception, the possibility of assigning equal moral
status to individuality and collectivity strikes me as potentially counter-productive. This
is because the two are potentially at odds in ways that may often necessitate tradeoffs.
It is believed that by balancing as it were the claims of individuality and collectivity, this conception of
human nature and, by extension, human rights stop short of the excessive individualism that is often the target
of attack in supposedly Western conceptions of human rights (Hellsten 2004, p. 68; Howard 1995,p.1;
Cobbah 1987,p.314).
In addition, if Kaphagawanis criticism of Mbitis claim (on which see above) is correct, then it is the case
that Dzobos own version is doubly troubled by the charge that it is logically problematic.
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
In South Africa, for instance, where important recent policies have been geared towards
meeting social objectives including especially compensatory justice, the right of the
white male applicant to equal opportunity, including the opportunity for employment is
potentially at risk in a system in which policy choices prefer members of previously
disadvantaged groups, typically black members of the population. It is not always clear
that the imperatives to equally regard the right of the white applicant and to promote the
socially desirable objective of compensation are politically achievable simultaneously.
Nor is it desirable morally that policy choices should fail to distinguish between these
evidently conflicting aims in terms of which is basic.
The impossibility objection follows directly from the fact that the two aims are at
odds; meeting the relevant social objective usually means overriding the right of some
actual individual or vice versa. The undesirability objection follows from the fact that
heeding the imperative to assign equal moral regard does not take us beyond a conflict
which begs to be resolved through moral and political tradeoffs. Thus, the conception
of human rights emerging from a notion of human nature that is based on the equal
moral standing of community and individual is not quite appealing.
Additionally, such a conception is also fundamentally naive. It fails to see that
human rights by their very definition are for the most part conflict notions, entailing
claims that are held against others, society or the state. Because human rights are
protections against legal, social and political abuses, including policies that threaten
human dignity (Donnelly 1984, p. 415), they may not always be consistent with
programmes and policies that purport to advance the collective good (e.g. state-
sanctioned torture against terrorism). A sophisticated conception of human rights must
demonstrate keen awareness of the political and moral tradeoffs that respect for human
rights often demands rather than insist on blanket claims that presuppose that there
could be no radical conflicts between individual rights and collective good or that these
claims ought to be equally held.
Another reason we shouldnt be persuaded by Gyekyes conception of human nature
accounted for by means of the equal moral standing of individuality and community is
that on the way to arriving at this conclusion Gyekye misconceives the original source
of the individual-community dilemmathe problem of how best to account for the
relationship between the two. His proposal of equality seems to imply that the dilemma
is a function of not equally recognising both. But this is mistaken. Consider Gyekyes
own comments on the source of the dilemma:
The problem arises because we believe, on one hand, that individual human being
has autonomy, freedom, and dignityvalues that are considered most worthwhile
and ought therefore to be respected by the society; we believe, on the other hand,
that the individual not only is a natural member of the human society but needs
society and all that it makes available for the realization of the individuals
potential, and for living a life that is most worthwhile (Gyekye 1997,p.35).
Yet, if Gyekye is right about why the problem arises, then he must be wrong about
what he proposes as the solution since his proposal of equal recognition is on his own
view the source of the problem. It is because we hold such things as individual
autonomy, freedom and dignity to be fundamental and equally hold the communal
nature of human beings to be similarly fundamental that we encounter the tensions
O.A. Oyowe
between individuality and community. What this means is that Gyekyes way of
accounting for the relationship between the individual and community in our under-
standing of human nature ultimately restates the original dilemma rather than resolves
it. This account of nature cannot possibly ground human rights claims since it leaves
unattended the potential tension that will always arise when individual human rights
claims and the pressure to advance the collective good head in different directions.
Practically, then, and because of the tradeoffs necessary when individual rights and
collective good are in conflict, a conception of human rights that is premised on the
equality of the two is pressured into judgment about which of the two is basic. On the
one hand, if the individual is taken as basic vis-à-vis the collective, the resulting
conception of human rights would be one firmly grounded on the individual. Yet, it
would have surrendered its claim to be culturally African since assigning priority to
individuality would cast the collective in the secondary, derivative role, thus valuing the
collective less than is characteristic of many sub-Sahara African cultures. On the other
hand, if priority is assigned to the collective vis-à-vis the individual, we would
inevitably arrive at the first conception, which, as we have seen, is more correctly a
conception of the collective good and duties of individuals than of human rights. My
view is that Gyekyes moderate communitarianism buckles under the pressure of
application, preferring collective good over individual human rights in cases where
they conflict.
All these tensions at the heart of Gyekyes account of human nature makes it
unsuitable as a plausible foundation of human rights.
Human Nature Based on the Capacity for community
More recently, Thad Metz has urged us to turn attention away from Gyekyes concep-
tion of human nature and towards one he deems more plausible. He has proposed a
conception of human nature by way of articulating an idea of dignity that on his view is
faithful to ideas associated with sub-Saharan African cultures. Metz has in mind ideas
that relate sub-Saharan African cultural valuation of community to what is most special
about human beingsi.e. their dignity. This leads him to a conception according to
which a human being has dignity insofar as she has the capacity for community, where
community is characterised in terms of solidarity (Metz 2010,pp.8285, 2011,p.538,
2012b,pp.6869); friendship and love (Metz 2012a, p. 27) as well as having a shared
identity and exhibiting a good will towards relevant others with whom one shares a life
or a common sense of self (Metz 2007, pp. 335340, 2012a:, pp. 23, 27).
Human rights are consequently grounded on this conception of dignity so that a
human right naturally accrues to one simply because one has the capacity for harmony,
shared identity, love, friendship and goodwill. Interestingly, Metz believes that we can
arrive at a different set of moral judgments about various human rights issues by
focusing on this conception. Thus, he envisages it as a rival to the most popular
Western conceptions, including especially the Kantian conception of dignity based on
the capacity for rationality and autonomy.
Many critics of Gyekye are in agreement, arguing quite compellingly that his conception of human rights is
actually indistinguishable from the first conception analysed here, which Gyekye strongly rejects (1997,pp.
3839). For criticisms of Gyekyes conception of human rights see Matolino (2009) and Famakinwa (2010).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
IshouldnotethatMetzs account attempts to combine two insights. First, it seeks to
capture the key idea that rights are properly vested in the individual, in the sense that
they are intrinsic rather than extrinsic to the constitution of the individual. This is why
he insists that it is the individualscapacity, rather than the relationships constitutive of
actually being in community, that matters for dignity (Metz 2011,p.543,2012a,p.26).
As such, it sidesteps one of the key drawbacks with the first conception, viz. human
rights are only available to the individual qua individual derivatively. Second, to the
extent that emphasis is placed on the capacity for community rather than autonomy,
Metzs account seeks to show commitment to the view that human nature is, in some
non-trivial sense, communala commitment that is ostensibly characteristic of sub-
Saharan African cultures. Its merit is that it makes sense of the intuition that human
rights are basic entitlements belonging irreducibly to the individual while still remain-
ing culturally African.
Yet, it is precisely because Metz aims to combine these insights that his supposedly
African conception of human rights encounters major difficulties. First, it is not at all
clear that locating dignity in the individual capacity for community can adequately
capture what is distinctive about sub-Saharan African valuation of community. One
reason for holding this suspicion is that the cultures found in this region characteristi-
cally place a higher premium on the value of community than Metz would allow. More
specifically they take being in certain kinds of relationships as constitutive of the
ultimate moral good and the basis of human dignity, insisting that merely having that
capacity is not sufficient (Gbadegesin 1991, p. 65; Mokgoro 1998,p.3;Gyekye2004,
p. 16; Iroegbu 2005,p.442).
Consider the statement by the renowned Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom Metz
cites approvingly. Tutu (1999) notes that it is not merely the capacity for but more
appropriately harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for
us the summum bonumthe greatest good(p. 31). In addition, in an earlier work in
which Metz develops an account of what sub-Saharan African cultures take to be the
greatest good he concludes that certain kinds of relationships are constitutive of the
good, in particular, ones in which shared identity and goodwill are exhibited (Metz
2007, pp. 334341), thus indicating that the value sub-Saharan cultures attach to
community is not merely in the possession of the capacity for community but in the
proper exercise of that capacity.
Indeed, the conception of human dignity held by theorists in sub-Saharan Africa is at
odds with what Metz takes to be representative of these cultures. This idea of dignity
locates whats most valuable about human beings in the actual harmonious relation-
ships within which individuals exist. It is the view that having a dignity is a function of
some extrinsic fact, viz. being in community or exercising ones capacity for commu-
nity in a way that promotes community, rather than some intrinsic property as Metz
would have it (see Bujo 2001, p. 88; Botman 2000; see also accounts of personhood in
African thought, e.g. Menkiti 1984; Placide Tempels 1959; Wiredu 2009). Yet, Metzs
I wish to indicate briefly how Metzs African based conception of human rights may be deployed in
practice. Because it is based on the individualscapacity for community, Metz sees a violation of human right
as a matter of exhibiting extraordinarily unfriendly behaviour towardothers. Thus, with regards to socio-
economic rights he maintains that it involves the State doing what it can to improvethe quality of life of its
people, fight poverty, and all such objectives that seeks to promote community well-being (see Metz 2011).
O.A. Oyowe
account privileges the capacity for community over actually being in the kinds of
relationships sub-Saharan African cultures take to be constitutive of the good.
A friend of Metz may argue that it is more important that Metzs conception is
plausible than that it is Africanin the sense of being faithful to the ways sub-Saharan
African cultures value community.
My response is that indeed my objection does not
yet cast doubt on the plausibility of Metzs account. But to the extent that he wants his
conception of human nature and human rights to remain faithful to ideas characteristic
of sub-Saharan African cultures, it falls short in its present formulation.
Metz is not persuaded by the view that dignity is a function of being in relationships;
neither am I persuaded by the reason he provides for rejecting the view. Metzsreason
is that if dignity is a function of being in community or based on the exercise of ones
capacity for community, then it would counterintuitively imply that being in isolation
would amount to a loss of dignity (Metz 2011,p.543,2012a, p. 26). But cases of
isolation need not imply that connections with relevant others are severed and therefore
a loss of dignity. Important familial and friendly relations may be preserved in cases of
isolation. Consider something that perhaps was commonplace during Apartheid: A
father is forcefully taken away and placed in isolation. This case of forced isolation
doesnt thereby sever her relationships with her family, neighbours, friends etc.
Although he is now isolated, he may still be connected to them in important ways
and this connection need not be mysterious or spiritual.
The point is that a believer in the idea that dignity is a function of being in
community need not accept Metz reason for claiming her view is counterintuitive.
That is to say, Metz has not given us enough reason to prefer his conception of dignity
(and therefore of human rights) over what many other theorists of human dignity in
sub-Saharan Africa characteristically hold.
Perhaps, Metz might insist that his view gives equal moral importance to individual
capacity and the communityin the way these cultures tend to value it. The difficulty is
that his account would include two candidates for the title of ultimate value. On the one
hand, the individual capacity may be seen as what has ultimate moral importance and
all moral agents ought to respect. On the other hand, it may be claimed that the
promotion of community, that is relations of solidarity and harmony, is the ultimate
good and all of morality should be about realising this aim. We would be uncertain
which one Metz takes to be basic.
Beyond the uncertainty, however, it appears also
that as in the second conception of human nature above, respecting individual dignity
and rights may not always be consistent with the aim of realising the collective good.
Many of the problems identified with Gyekyes account are thus imported here.
As indicated above, Metz may be willing to sacrifice the African pedigree of his
conception in favour of plausibility. Thus, it would useful to examine the independent
plausibility of Metzs account of human dignity upon which he grounds human rights. I
I am grateful to Thad Metz for pushing me on this point.
It seems to me that this is what Alasdair McIntyre (1984, p. 137) and Charles Taylor (1991,p.33)hadin
mind when the argued that even in situations of isolation vital familial and friendly connections with others
Indeed, there is a tension noticeable in Metzs works. For instance, in an earlier work Toward an African
Moral Theoryhe seems to hold that community rather than some individual capacity is the most important
value in the world (2007, p. 334), something he clearly denies in his discussion of his supposedly African
account of human rights (Metz 2011,2012a).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
do not think that Metz has offered a plausible conception precisely because it is not
sufficiently distinguished from the Kantian version, which in any case seems more
plausible than Metzs.
Metzs account comes as close as anything to the conception he describes as
West er n i.e. Kants conception of dignity based on the capacity for autonomy. One
way to see this is to consider that the so-called capacity for community appears to hinge
heavily on the Kantian capacity for autonomy or voluntary decisions. This is evident in
Metzs description of that capacity. ‘…What is valuable about friendship or communal
relationships,Metz(2011)says,is that people come together, and stay together, of
their own accord(p. 548). That is, as Metz conceives it, the capacity for community
upon which dignity is based is on his view closely tied to the capacity for autonomy or
deliberative judgment.
This leads naturally to the problem of which one is actually
doing the work for Metzs conception of dignity.
Given what Metz has to say, it is impossible to imagine that there are people who
possess Metzs capacity for community independent of the capacity for deliberative
choices; it is this rather heavy dependence of the capacity for community on Kants
capacity for autonomy that leads me conclude that it is the latter that is doing the
important work in Metzs own account. Moreover, the capacity for community as Metz
defines it is only one possibility of human agencyone that is available among others
to one whose dignity is a function of the Kantian capacity for deliberative judgment. As
such, it could not possibly ground dignity ahead of the more basic capacity for
autonomy or deliberative judgment.
An analogy may be helpful at this point. Suppose that in the constitution of South
Africa it is explicitly stated that what distinguishes South Africans from other citizens
of the world is that they unlike, say, Ghanaians, Germans, Lithuanians, Argentines, etc.
have the right to vote for a particular political party (e.g., ANC). Citizens of other
countries would be forgiven if they find this clause ridiculous and redundant seeing that
this is a right they also have in virtue of having a right to vote quite generally. They do
not see the right to vote for this or that political party as making one special or adding
anything non-trivial to the more general right to vote, including the right to vote for a
particular political party. As well, they may even regard this supposed special right as a
limitation on the autonomy of South Africans casting further doubt on its value.
Similarly, it seems ridiculous and redundant to claim that what makes human beings
special, in the sense of having dignity, is the capacity for community while
presupposing about human beings that they have the capacity for deliberative choices
quite generally, including the capacity to be in community with relevant others. In other
words, just as there is no additional value in having a right to vote for a particular
political party if one already has a right to vote quite generally (including the right to
vote a particular political party), so also it seems superfluous to maintain that human
dignity is a function of having the capacity to act in ways that promote community, if
human beings already have the capacity to make deliberative choices (including the
choice to promote community).
The terms capacity for autonomy and capacity for deliberative judgment are often used inter-
changeably as I have done here. In particular, I am guided by Metzs employment of these terms in
characterizing what Kant takes to be constitutive of dignity. Employing these terms this way seem
to me uncontroversial since the capacity for autonomy (or self-government) involves agent having
the capacity to make deliberative judgments.
O.A. Oyowe
The difficulty with Metzs account is that it singles out the capacity for community
as the basis for human dignity. But because he already implicitly admits that this
capacity depends on the Kantian capacity for deliberative choices, it is unclear that the
former capacity adds anything new or non-trivial to the status of a human being. It
seems more plausible to hold that dignity is a function of possessing the capacity for
deliberative judgment quite generally than that it is a function of possessing the
capacity to make a particular judgment, which is a subset of the general capacity. In
fact, they may be good reason to think that accounting for what is special about human
beings in terms of only one of the subsets of choices available to human agency is
unhelpfully restrictive. If what makes a human being dignified is the capacity to make a
particular choice (e.g. to promote community), then this requirement unjustifiably
narrows down the range of choices available to human agency. As such, it becomes
an unreliable basis for a dignity. And if Metz takes it to be the conception capable of
grounding African conception of human rights, then it is an implausible view for the
same reasons.
I should indicate that Metz is not unaware of the problembut he argues that
although rationality and autonomy are necessary to relate with others, on the African
view, one has a dignity insofar as one is capable of using ones intelligence in a
particular, other regarding wayand that it is possible to have the Kantian capacity
for deliberative judgment, which has nothing to do with identity and solidarity. Thus, he
concludes that they are not one and the same thing (Metz 2012a,p.27,2010,p.94).
However, Metz response misses the point of the objection, which is not that they are
one and the same thing. Instead the objection expressed in stages is that (1) they (i.e.,
the Kantian and the Metz-inspired African conception of dignity) do not describe two
different scenarios about what makes human beings special in the sense at issue in
having a dignity; (2) that Metzs capacity for community is entirely supervenient on
Kantian capacity for deliberative choices and so the former cannot provide adequate
foundation of human rights; and (3) that we could have a complete and robust account
of dignity that makes no explicit or special mention of the capacity for community even
if it may be inferred.
It seems to me that the only way Metzs account can overcome this objection is to
incorporate the added clause requiring that the capacity for community is exercised in
the relevant way in order for one to have a dignity. In this case, what makes human
beings special is not merely the possession of this or that capacity but exercising that
capacity in a particular way. This would imply that dignity is a function of being in
community as the exercise of the capacity for community must presuppose a network
of relationships. But to claim this would involve Metz (2011) admitting to something
he explicitly denies by virtue of denying the commonplace view among majority of
adherent of sub-Saharan cultures that having a dignity is a function of actually being in
community (p. 544).
I have argued elsewhere that in applying his conception of human rights to various socio-political issuesthat
have generated animated controversies in Africa, including especially land reform, Metz employs a tenden-
tious meaning of human rights (see Oyowe 2013b).
Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
I have been contesting the position that a conception of human rights can be plausibly
described as Africanto the extent that the term African picks out the collectivist
orientation of cultures below the Sahara or the ways in which adherents of these
cultures rank community as a final, non-instrumental and superlative moral value.
Because these cultures must value community as such and because human rights are
properly grounded in the individual, there is a potential conflict of values confronting a
conception of human rights that purports to be African in the relevant sense.
Nowhere else has this tension been more visible than in the African Charter on
Human and PeoplesRights. This regional instrument was intended to articulate the
core tenets of human rights doctrine while remaining faithful to the traditions of the
peoples of Africa.
The result is a major tension at various levels. First, the Charters
provision that rights and freedoms are guaranteed without distinction of any kind such
as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion,
national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status
is at odds with the African
concept of human nature. This idea of the human being, which ostensibly derives from
traditional worldview, must locate the individual in this or that group and normatively
requires the attainment of pre-defined social and moral status in order for one to be fully
a human being and therefore to have this or that right. While the Charter itself seems to
dissociate group membership from the idea of a human being and therefore vest rights
on human beings irrespective of group membership, the African concept of self must
presuppose group membership as the basis for being a human being and therefore
having a right.
Second, and as Nhlapo (1989) has indicated in his very careful analysis, the primacy
given to the family or more accurately the extended family (see especially Chapter 2 of
the Charter, articles 18, 2729) is potentially at odds with some of the more modern
rights contained in the Charter, in particular, those closely aligned with the notion of
individual consent and equality of persons. Nhlapos position is that to the extent that
the notion of family impinges upon almost every area of community life, including
property ownership and even civic status, to that extent traditional thinking about
family remains inconsistent with the rights of women, individual consent and property
ownership. This is because the African family is riddled with inequalities, in status, in
property, in divorce law and in many other areas(Nhlapo 1989,pp.13,19).Assuch,
how is the injunction to protect traditional values and the family consistent with notions
of individual consent where, for instance, marriage is not seen as a matter between two
individuals but between families?
All these seem to suggest that a conception of human rights that seeks to achieve
these aims would veer dangerously in the wrong direction. In Nhlapos(1989)words,
what seems to have received scant attention is the possibility that the twin objectives of
the Charter [i.e. being uniquely African and guaranteeing basic human rights] are
incompatible, and that achievement of one must necessarily be at the expense of the
The drafters of the Charter were required to draw on the ‘…the virtues of [African] historical tradition and
the values of African civilization which should inspire and characterize their reflection on the concept of
human and peoplesrights.(Article II, OAU Charter, cited in DSa 1985, p. 74).
Article 2, African Charter.
O.A. Oyowe
other(p. 9). Like Nhlapo, I have been arguing that an African, collectivist conception
of human rights, in particular the three variations explored here, cannot adequately
capture what it is about human rights that make them rights of individual human beings
without further qualification. The three examples explore here ultimately prioritise the
collective in the characterisation of human nature, thus making the notion of rights
properly grounded in the individual human being a derivative fact merely. This feature
of the African conceptions of human rights examined in the article make them less
What, then, is a plausible conception of human rights? Developing a full-fledged
account of human rights is beyond the scope of the paper and is important work for
future research. Nevertheless, my understanding of human rights as entitlements owed
to individual human beings in virtue of being individual human beings should not be
missed (see pp. 1314 above). Indeed, what I found problematic with all three African
conceptions of human rights I explored is that they cannot explain why human rights
belong irreducibly to the individual, something I take to be central to a plausible idea of
human rights.
Should we then dispense with African, Relativist conceptions of human rights, or
would these conceptions benefit from substantial revision? Indeed, it is not all gloomy.
My proposal is that we take these conceptions for what they truly arenot conceptions
of human rights, but rather conceptions of human duties in which rights figure only
marginally and derivatively. Because they focus extensively on the duties individuals
ought to perform as members of the collective, they are less likely to prioritise the
notion of human rights as entitlements owed to human beings. The proposal here is in
line with Donnellys claim that in traditional African thought systems, the substantive
issues discussed today in terms of human rights, such as life, speech, religion, work,
health, and education, are handled almost entirely in terms of duties that are neither
derivative from nor correlative to rights, or at least not human rights(Donnelly 1982,
p. 306).
This point seems to me a very powerful one. This is because it suggests that
although African conceptions of human nature, or at least the ones explored here, do
not provide adequate foundation for human rights, understood as entitlements owed to
individual human beings, they nevertheless can pass as plausible accounts of human
duties, the performance of which can guarantee the protection of human dignity. And
this may not be a bad thing if indeed the idea of human rights is but one way of
protecting human dignity.
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Comments on the Challenges of Relativism
... Female genital mutilation, a custom believed to have existed in Africa and some parts of the Middle East for more than 2500 years, involves partial or complete removal of female genitalia (Mitchum, 2013) for cultural, religious and social reasons; to prepare young girls for womanhood; and to cleanse them (Oyowe, 2014). It has led to death, trauma and long-term effects, especially during pregnancy and marriage (Von Der Osten-Sacken and Uwer, 2007). ...
... It has led to death, trauma and long-term effects, especially during pregnancy and marriage (Von Der Osten-Sacken and Uwer, 2007). While the universalist social workers' approach to this issue is total condemnation, citing Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which posits that people should not be exposed to inhumane, cruel treatment or torture (UN, 1994), a relativist social worker, in contrast, may argue that the imposition of this article to discard centuries of indigenous culture is arrogant (Oyowe, 2014). They may also cite indigenous women's belief that this practice is essential for the success of their marriage and as a valued social status symbol, which aesthetically looks better and attracts suitors (Mitchum, 2013). ...
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With the indigenisation of social work gathering momentum, the lens of universalism and relativism can highlight some critical social justice concerns. Sociocultural beliefs around human rights and gender equality, reproductive health and traditional fostering, among others, pose unprecedented dilemmas for social workers in Africa and indigenous societies globally. Furthermore, the blind pursuit of indigenisation can reinforce discriminatory and oppressive beliefs and practices. To rectify this, developing ethical decision-making screens and additional research promoting indigenous cultural competency within the social justice goal of social work is needed.
... The chapter explores the multifaceted roles of civil society and NGOs in human rights in Africa, and provides a preliminary account of their e ectiveness in dealing with human-rights-related challenges on the continent. The nature of political systems and the traditional understanding of the human rights culture are major factors that shape the role of civil society in advocating human rights in Africa (Oyowe, 2014). ...
... Indeed, several African philosophers have contested Afro-communitarianism. Philosophers such as Táíwò, Oyowe, and Matolino have contended that Afro-communitarianism is not only unrepresentative of African views but also an ethically dubious perspective, because it oversubsumes the individual into the community in a way whereby the individual disappears (Taiwo 1985;Oyowe 2014;Matolino 2013). Although we understand that Afro-communitarianism does not represent all Africa, our point is not to reduce Africa to Afro-communitarianism. ...
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The fact that there is animal suffering in the world seems to challenge the existence of God. This is because although we can find plausible reasons for the existence of human suffering (the pursuit of a greater good), it seems that the suffering of animals in the world is gratuitous and serves no function in terms of the pursuit of a greater good. In this article, however, we challenge the idea that animal suffering poses a problem to the existence of God by using an Afro-communitarian viewpoint. We contend that animal suffering is logically compatible with the existence of God because it can be understood as promoting different forms of social harmony. In particular, animal suffering can be understood as an enabler for being a subject and/or an object of communion.
... The latter connotes an entitlement that one has, while the former implies doing what one is morally obligated to do in light of the entitlement(s). 27 For example, entity A has an obligation not to intentionally or wrongfully set back the interests of entity B[ iii ] because B is entitled not to have her interests wrongfully and intentionally set back. B holds this entitlement against other humans and institutions because (or so Afro-communitarianism would consider) of B's moral status, which B has by virtue of B's capacity for communal relationship. ...
The article argues the thesis that institutions have a prima facie obligation to fund the feedback of individual findings in genomic research conducted on the African continent by drawing arguments from an underexplored Afro-communitarian view of distributive justice and rights of researchers to be aided. Whilst some studies have explored how institutions have a duty to support return as a form of ancillary care or additional foreseeable service in research by mostly appealing to dominant principles and theories in the Global North, this mostly normative study explores this question by appealing to underexplored African philosophy. This is a new way of thinking about institutional responsibility to fund feedback and responds to the call to decolonise health research in Africa. Further studies are required to study how this prima facie obligation will interact with social contexts and an institution’s extant relationships to find an actual duty. The research community should also work out procedures, policies and governance structures to facilitate feedback. In our opinion, though the impacts of feeding back can inform how institutions think about their actual duty, these do not obliterate the binding duty to fund feedback.
... A further objection holds that appeals to rights are inherently Western in the sense that they presuppose a conception of persons existing apart from the trappings of culture and society. According to Oyowe, "[T]he conception of human nature underlying the Universalist intuition about human rights is one of the human individuals stripped as it were of the particularities of culture and identified primarily by that core property she shares with every other human being" (Oyowe, 2014). If that is the case, then human rights are culturally relative because they require a commitment to a thin conception of self, stripped of all particularities of culture and community. ...
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This paper examines the ethic of respect for dignity within African relational ethics. Following an introduction to African relational ethics (in Section 1), Section 2 introduces two ways of respecting dignity associated with two strands of African communitarianism: strong and moderate. Section 3 tests each version by considering a challenge case involving an oppressive social structure, the Osu caste system in Igboland (Southeastern Nigeria). It argues that both strong and moderate communitarianism are compatible with respecting the dignity of moral dissenters who oppose the Osu caste system. The result is somewhat surprising: while it is generally held that moderate communitarianism is compatible with respecting dignity, it is often thought that strong communitarianism is not. The final section (Section 4) considers and replies to objections. It concludes that an African relational framework lends strong support to respecting dignity in the case of moral dissent.
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This article critically examines the competitive, adversarial nature of the Western neoliberal style of democracy. Specifically, this article focuses on Amartya Sen’s notion of a “universal democracy” as a means of addressing socio-economic inequalities through Sen’s capability approach. Sen’s capability theory has become an acclaimed and widely used theory to evaluate and understand development and inequalities. However, we employ a distinctive critique by engaging Amartya Sen through Herbert Marcuse’s analysis of one dimensionality and the adversarial nature of Western democracy. We further highlight how contemporary neoliberal society employ a particular, adversarial form of public participation. Through this, we underline the various neoliberal problemata, such as Western idealism, political passivity, and a “flattening of choice,” within contemporary democracies and locate how their competitive, winner-take-all nature has become essential to contemporary, Western democratic models. Consequently, we argue that democracy, as a functional concept and form of public engagement, should be fundamentally re-examined in order to address inequalities.
Beliefs play a central role in our lives. They lie at the heart of what makes us human, they shape the organization and functioning of our minds, they define the boundaries of our culture, and they guide our motivation and behavior. Given their central importance, researchers across a number of disciplines have studied beliefs, leading to results and literatures that do not always interact. The Cognitive Science of Belief aims to integrate these disconnected lines of research to start a broader dialogue on the nature, role, and consequences of beliefs. It tackles timeless questions, as well as applications of beliefs that speak to current social issues. This multidisciplinary approach to beliefs will benefit graduate students and researchers in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, political science, economics, and religious studies.
Beliefs play a central role in our lives. They lie at the heart of what makes us human, they shape the organization and functioning of our minds, they define the boundaries of our culture, and they guide our motivation and behavior. Given their central importance, researchers across a number of disciplines have studied beliefs, leading to results and literatures that do not always interact. The Cognitive Science of Belief aims to integrate these disconnected lines of research to start a broader dialogue on the nature, role, and consequences of beliefs. It tackles timeless questions, as well as applications of beliefs that speak to current social issues. This multidisciplinary approach to beliefs will benefit graduate students and researchers in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, political science, economics, and religious studies.
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Human dignity is, or should be, at the heart of global justice. This is because dignity underpins conceptions of human nature and is simultaneously a fundamental foundation and an intrinsic end of human rights. However, conceptions of human dignity vary significantly in western and non-western societies, with important implications both for the theory and practice of human rights and global justice. This is because in major international declarations, conventions and agreements about human rights and international justice, human dignity is articulated using a repertoire of linguistic/philosophical resources originating in the west to the exclusion of the non-west. This phenomenon is what I refer to as the coloniality of human dignity, arguing that an acceptable theory of global justice ought to be preceded by a decolonial articulation of human dignity, a notion of dignity that eschews the parochialism of nativist essentialism and disavows the oppression of civilisationalist universalism masquerading as cosmopolitanism.
Reciprocity has long been recognised as a key feature in intragenerational relations amongst kin, affines and trading partners, but also in intergenerational relations, especially those between children and their caregivers in diverse societies. This paper seeks to explore reciprocity as the tie that binds relationships between caregivers and children while the latter are still ‘dependents’ and the consequences for both parties when this tie is broken. Data presented were collected from two mixed-method studies undertaken in Ghana. The findings indicate the importance of linking studies of childhoods within this context to indigenous moral and ethical frameworks about personhood and its associated features relating to the mutuality of both duty and dependence, reciprocity, relatedness, and collectivism. Failure to make these connections between children’s lives in this context and the broader belief systems and their attendant moral frameworks that continue to underpin conceptualisations of childhood and intergenerational relationships results in depictions of African childhoods that are partial, limited and out of context.
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There are three major reasons why ideas associated with ubuntu are often deemed to be an inappropriate basis for a public morality in today's South Africa. One is that they are too vague; a second is that they fail to acknowledge the value of individual freedom; and a third is that they fit traditional, small-scale culture more than a modern, industrial society. In this article, I provide a philosophical interpretation of ubuntu that is not vulnerable to these three objections. Specifically, I construct a moral theory grounded on Southern African world views, one that suggests a promising new conception of human dignity. According to this conception, typical human beings have a dignity by virtue of their capacity for community, understood as the combination of identifying with others and exhibiting solidarity with them, where human rights violations are egregious degradations of this capacity. I argue that this account of human rights violations straightforwardly entails and explains many different elements of South Africa's Bill of Rights and naturally suggests certain ways of resolving contemporary moral dilemmas in South Africa and elsewhere relating to land reform, political power and deadly force. If I am correct that this jurisprudential interpretation of ubuntu both accounts for a wide array of intuitive human rights and provides guidance to resolve present-day disputes about justice, then the three worries about vagueness, collectivism and anachronism should not stop one from thinking that something fairly called 'ubuntu' can ground a public morality.
When After Virtue first appeared in 1981, it was recognized as a significant and potentially controversial critique of contemporary moral philosophy. Newsweek called it “a stunning new study of ethics by one of the foremost moral philosophers in the English-speaking world.” Since that time, the book has been translated into more than fifteen foreign languages and has sold over one hundred thousand copies. Now, twenty-five years later, the University of Notre Dame Press is pleased to release the third edition of After Virtue, which includes a new prologue “After Virtue after a Quarter of a Century.” In this classic work, Alasdair MacIntyre examines the historical and conceptual roots of the idea of virtue, diagnoses the reasons for its absence in personal and public life, and offers a tentative proposal for its recovery. While the individual chapters are wide-ranging, once pieced together they comprise a penetrating and focused argument about the price of modernity. In the Third Edition prologue, MacIntyre revisits the central theses of the book and concludes that although he has learned a great deal and has supplemented and refined his theses and arguments in other works, he has “as yet found no reason for abandoning the major contentions” of this book. While he recognizes that his conception of human beings as virtuous or vicious needed not only a metaphysical but also a biological grounding, ultimately he remains “committed to the thesis that it is only from the standpoint of a very different tradition, one whose beliefs and presuppositions were articulated in their classical form by Aristotle, that we can understand both the genesis and the predicament of moral modernity.”.
An oral tradition is a transmission of thought over generations by the spoken word and techniques of communication other than writing. Under this definition, such items as poems, lyrics, proverbs, and maxims, of course, qualify as elements of our oral traditions. So too do drum texts and art motifs. But languages do have embedded in their syntax and semantics various notions about reality and human experience. Through these, our habits of speech influence our habits of writing. And so we cannot regard written traditions as altogether independent of orality. I illustrate this point with a brief discussion of the influence of orality in the empiricism of John Locke and in the normative conception of personhood in African philosophy.
It is regularly argued that human rights are not a Western discovery and that non-Western societies have long emphasized the protection of human rights. Such claims, however, are based on a confusion of human rights and human dignity. A concern for human dignity is central to non-Western cultural traditions, whereas human rights, in the sense in which Westerners understand that term—namely, rights (entitlements) held simply by virtue of being a human being—are quite foreign to, for example, Islamic, African, Chinese, and Indian approaches to human dignity. Human rights are but one way that has been devised to realize and to protect human dignity. Although the idea of human rights was first articulated in the West in modern times, it would appear to be an approach particularly suited to contemporary social, political, and economic conditions, and thus of widespread contemporary relevance both in the West and the Third World.
Revisiting African philosophy's classic questions, D. A. Masolo advances understandings of what it means to be human - whether of African or other origin. Masolo reframes indigenous knowledge as diversity: How are we to understand the place and structure of consciousness? How does the everyday color the world we know? Where are the boundaries between self and other, universal and particular, and individual and community? From here, he takes a dramatic turn toward Africa's current political situation and considers why individual rights and freedoms have not been recognized, respected, demanded, or enforced. Masolo offers solutions for containing socially destructive conduct and antisocial tendencies by engaging community. His unique thinking about community and the role of the individual extends African philosophy in new, global directions.
In this paper, I explore the African normative idea of personhood as a philosophical theme in Things Fall Apart.^ I do this in the context of communalism, which involves the mutual dependence between individuals and community. This dependence, which provides the foundation for people's actions, characters, and identities, is founded on the view that people have complex normative and spiritual relationships with others and with their ancestors in a community. The community and the relationships provide norms that indicate people's obligations, on the basis of which their achievements are evaluated and socially recognized. The recognition of one's achievements and demonstration of what I term "psychological wholesomeness" indicate that one has acquired a normative sense of personhood. I discuss some philosophical accounts of the African idea of personhood as a backdrop for exploring how this theme is utilized by Chinua Achebe. I explore how the ideas of achieving and not achieving personhood based on communal norms, obligations, achievements, and recognition are illustrated in the characters of Unoka and Okonkwo, who did not achieve personhood, and Obierika and Ezeudu, who did. Philosophical Views of Personhood There are two philosophical conceptions of personhood in African thought: the descriptive metaphysical and the normative.^ A metaphysical account of personhood may seek to analyze the essential ontological make-up of a person, examining, for instance, whether he or she is essentially material or immaterial, or whether he or she has one or two essential natures. Analyses of the nature of the mind and body, and the relationship between them, are efforts to give metaphysical accounts of personhood.^ However, it is the normative and not the metaphysical idea of personhood that is germane to African communal traditions, as personhood is a status earned by meeting certain community standards, including the ability to take on prescribed responsibilities that are believed to define personhood. Such responsibilities may be defined in terms of personal achievements that are worthy of social recognition.
This book offers philosophical interpretation and critical analysis of the African cultural experience in modern times. In their attempt to evolve ways of life appropriate to our modern world culture, African people and their society face a number of challenges; some stem from the values and practices of their traditions, while others rise from the legacy of European colonialism. Defending the cross-cultural applicability of philosophical concepts developed in Western culture, the book attempts to show the usefulness of such concepts in addressing a wide range of African problems. Among the issues are as follows: economic development, nation-building, evolution of viable and appropriate democratic political institutions, growth of appropriate and credible ideologies, political corruption, and crumbling of traditional moral standards in the wake of rapid social change. Throughout, the notion that modernity must be equated with Western values and institutions is challenged, arguing that modernity must be forged creatively within the furnace of Africa's multifaceted cultural experience.