Is, Ought, and All: In Defense of a Method

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A sufficiently distinct kind of challenge to the methodological validity of attempts in contemporary African philosophy to ground moral-political obligations on a given metaphysics of the self and of nature has been recently put forward by Thaddeus Metz. It is quite unlike the usual focus on the philosophical status of ethnophilosophical inquiry. Instead, it relies heavily on some established philosophical principle, typically attributed to David Hume, and according to which characteristically is-statements may not be derived straightforwardly from ought-statements. More clearly, Metz argues that attempts in African philosophy to ground a set of moral-political obligations on some metaphysics of the self and of nature flouts Hume’s Law and so should be abandoned. In this chapter, I defend the relevant argumentative strategy in African philosophy against the charge that Metz mounts by both contesting his assessment of the sort of derivation African philosophers characteristically undertake and expressing doubt as to whether he is applying a plausible interpretation of Hume’s Law. Moreover, drawing on ideas from John Searle, Frank Hindriks, and Margaret Gilbert, in the field of social ontology, I argue that Metz is unsuccessful in his attempt to drive a wedge between “is” and “ought” claims in the work of contemporary African philosophers—or, at least, the one he refers to.

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