🔬 Research summary by Connor Wright, our Partnerships Manager.
[Original talk by Thaddeus Metz]
Overview: Philosophers have been puzzled over searching for an underlying principle expounded by a moral theory for over 400 years. Through his talk, Thaddeus Metz demonstrates how Ubuntu is also worth considering in the journey to solving this puzzle.
Thaddeus Metz aims to demonstrate how Ubuntu looks when construed as a moral theory. The goal is not to show Ubuntu being ‘better’ when compared to other moral theories but rather as a perspective worthy of consideration. With the slogan of “a person is a person through other persons”, we shall explore what Ubuntu construed as such entails and how this is applied to different situations. The Utilitarian and Kantian views are explored as comparisons, with the path that Ubuntu utilises to arrive at similar conclusions proving particularly interesting.
Ubuntu is first represented as a moral theory. To be the case, it must offer the following:
- A comprehensive account of right and wrong.
- A specification of what all immoral actions have in common.
- A reduction of various duties down to just one.
Interpreting Ubuntu as such has the following benefits:
- Having a fundamental principle in philosophy would be super interesting.
- Having an underlying ethical principle can also be used to solve controversial issues (like abortion and the death penalty).
Hence, the question becomes how we might draw on indigenous African thought to construct a moral theory?
Figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Gessler Muxe Nkondo and Justice Yvonne Mokgoro have commented on Ubuntu. Here, they mention Ubuntu’s emphasis on being generous, hospitable, holding a commitment to the community and towards sympathetic social relations as basic tenets of the moral theory. As a result, Metz suggests the following two guidelines:
- A real person becomes so through respecting others’ capacity to relate harmoniously.
- An act is wrong if and only if it fails to honour those that commune or be communed with.
However, what is a communal relationship, and how do you relate communally? A communal (harmonious) relationship includes two different strands: Identity and Solidarity. Identity is a sense of togetherness and coordination. Solidarity (caring for someone else’s quality of life) includes sympathetic altruism.
Three corollaries of Ubuntu as a moral principle follow to pursue the harmonious relationship:
- You must avoid treating people in the opposite way to harmony; there is no us vs them.
- You must go out of your way to relate communally (exhibit identity and solidarity) and emphasise another person’s dignity by allowing them to identify communally.
- Prioritise maintaining ties with people you already have a relation with, rather than strangers.
Following these steps leads to a communal relation. To fully manifest this, we can expect to see actions like those listed below:
- Appealing to consensus – everyone sits together until a solution is reached – necessary condition for a just way of going forward. COnsensus = no split between majority and minority.
- Collective labour – everyone gathers to help one another harvest from plot to plot. Mutual aid for one another’s sake.
- Reconciliation – rather than punishment that seeks to confine, punishment that aims to reconcile differences is pursued, like with the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
- Moral value attributed to tradition, ritual and custom.
To show Ubuntu as a moral theory in action, Metz draws on examples from two different forms of considerations. Here, a basic intuition is explored through the Utilitarian, Kantian and Ubuntu views, allowing us to see how each differs. In this sense, Ubuntu entails the same kind of intuition as other Western theories, but for different reasons. To demonstrate, I have selected the most personally interesting examples from each section and listed how Ubuntu differs from the other two views explored.
The first comparison: whether to fight poverty:
- The intuition: it is unjust for the extremely wealthy not to help out those who are poor due to circumstances out of their control.
- Ubuntu: poverty is unjust because the poor now have nothing to give to others, rather than the harm it does to the individual (Utilitarianism) or because the poor are less free to choose (Kantianism).
The second sort of comparison: whom to rescue from death:
- The Intuition: when having to choose between a young adult stranger and your mother, you should save your mother instead of a stranger.
- Ubuntu: the long-standing communal tie with your Mum means you should save her, rather than the stranger. A utilitarian would advocate for saving the stranger as they probably take up less resources and the Kantian would advocate for randomizing on who to save, seeing as their dignity is equal.
Between the lines
While it certainly proves controversial at times to say that one moral theory is ‘outrightly’ better than another, it is certainly less so to say one is worthy of consideration. I think Metz does exceptionally well not to force Ubuntu down our throats but to succinctly demonstrate why it ought to be considered. At times, I find that discussions in the West are susceptible to being stuck in the conventional ways of thinking about problems, a well-worn path, if you will. Ubuntu, in this sense, provides a welcomed new perspective on the issues at hand. An Ubuntu perspective is not only worth considering, but it’s also beneficial.