African Ethics



  1. Introduction
  2. A background
  3. Ontology and the African Ethics
  4. Conclusion
  5. References

1. Introduction

One attempt here will be to examine what could be called the African ethics. An elaborate effort will be made to show how the questions of mortality features in the African setting. But a fairly different approach will be adopted, and that will be to look at the issue of African ontology because the relationship between ontology and mortality is very important. When this is done, we shall examine the goal of life in the African setting to see how it affects the mortality of the African setting to see how it affects the mortality of the African people. The belief in tradition will feature prominently in the understanding of African ethics. Also the view that African ethics is the combination of egoism and utilitarianism will be analyzed. It is hoped that at the end of this analysis and examination, we will be able to figure out what African ethics is.

2. A Background

Philosophy is culture bound though professional philosophy transcends all cultures and aspires to look at reality from a holistic point of view. However, since our focus is on African ethics we cannot but look at philosophy in this sense from the pigeon-hole of its cultural setting. The African is said to be highly religious in the sense that everything he does is guided by the hopes and fears of not only the living but the departed, the gods or divinities and the omnipotent Being God. His everyday life is pervaded by thoughts that are directed by taboos and the sacred, all in keeping with the desire to be in line with the entire existence (ontological structure). It is in this respect that African ethics is said to hinge on ontology. The configuration of all entities in existence constitutes ontology. The African ontology on its part is one that consists of interconnections which result in a massive chain of inter-relationships. All existent are bound up into one by a pervading cord that maintain the balance and which keeps things in their proper places. For instance, all human beings, spirits and the entire cosmos are seen as being intricately interwoven in a mesh that is called reality. The concomitant of this view is that there are no disparate units-all entities are knitted together in a determinate manner. Any upsetting of the position of one entity immediately affects the positioning of other entities.

The bearing this view has on African ethics is that the African innately realizes the eternal link that binds him and other existents. He is aware that there is a balance which he has to maintain. That is, that he has to obey the principle of ontological balance which holds that all things are in their right places, and that any upsetting of the organic whole will require a compensation to redress the balance. In the African belief system, it is held that these compensations are often very devastating and this makes informed men to thread with care. A germane question to ask here is-what is ethics? And why is it reasonable to talk about African ethics? Ethics is a theory of morality which deals with principles of good conduct. It deals with judgment as to the rightness or wrongness, desirability or undesirability, approval or disapproval of our actions. The subject-matter of ethics is human actions. It is therefore concerned with the norms of acceptable conducts. The essence of ethics is to enable man to understand the reasons behind the approval and disapproval of not only his actions but those of other human beings with whom he interacts in his day to day earthly living. Human beings as we are aware will not willingly accept sanctions against those attitudes and actions which they cherish unless it is clearly pointed out to them why such attitudes or actions are not approved by the society in which they live. This means that ethics takes serious view of the reason behind the prohibition of certain acts and the approbation that goes with certain other acts. The task of ethics is to explain moral good. It is not the norms, principles or values themselves that stand in need, and are capable of explanation, but rather the actual facts from which they are abstracted. Questions are asked as to what gives rise to certain norms and as to why they are reasonable to be obeyed.

We must bear in mind that ethics or morality is important simply because man lives in society with other men. A Robinson Crusoe banished in an island of his own does not necessarily need a moral code or rule for moral behaviour. There cannot be sanctions against his behaviour, and if there are, then he imposes them on himself and can only be enforced by him. But there is no doubt that in such a case the issue of strict adherence to such laid down rules of morality will not obtain since Robinson Crusoe will not feel obliged to maintain or keep to the rules since nobody is actually with him to either enforce them or to induce him to keep to the rules. This view may however be attacked on the basis that man lives in nature with nature’s laws overwhelmingly staring him at the face. This means that even if man is living alone, he still has to keep to a certain code of behaviour as dictated by the laws of nature. When a man goes contrary to a particular law of nature, he faces the consequences which may make him to retrace his steps and to modify his behaviour to suit the new demand made on him by nature. For example, if the early man thought that a stone thrown up would hang in the air, would be taught a practical lesson if on the stone’s downward journey he is hit on his head. Then he would know that what goes up has to come down. And if he wanted to prevent the downward thrust by putting his head, then he would learn the hard way. The law of nature operates in this way. There are rules and boomerangs. If one goes against the rules he gets a boomerang. But there is often the difficulty in dictating what actions would cause a boomerang. This is so because the individual might carry out several acts together, and when the boomerang consequently comes, it may be difficult for him to discern the wrong action which may have caused the boomerang. But with a good deciphering sense, one can point out the action that has brought about the boomerang.

It is necessary to give the above details because in our starting point we said that ethics is tied to ontology and nature, and its laws constitute the ontology we are talking about. It is therefore important to understand that man is not an isolated entity. In the universe, he finds himself in an intricate link with other contending, competing, contrary, reinforcing, etc, force all done without his consent. He did not decide to be born neither was he contacted when he was made part of the massive machine of nature. We find that man has more or less a limited power in the face of the whole complicated system we call nature.

At the level of society man finds himself compelled to act not only by the dictates of nature, but by his fellow men. If we throw our minds back to the Hobbesian account of the state of nature, we remember that he portrayed man as a self-seeking individual that is ruled by passion which leads him into conflict with other men. In essence, he portrays man as evil with the law of self-preservation as the only guiding law of existence. He rightly points out that in such a state there will be no industry, no navigation, no trade, no intellectual activity and man’s life is bound to be nasty, brutish and short. This means that the willingness to come into society must have been propped up by the reasoning that the self can be better preserved in the atmosphere where each will voluntarily accept to respect each other’s feelings and right to pursue a good life which is not in conflict with other’s pursuit of the same end. Morality therefore can be meaningful when set within the confines of society. That is, when strings of interrelationships exist among men. Morality therefore, becomes the rule which expects every individual in a given society to act in accordance to laid down rules which take into consideration the fact that happiness is the only end which should ultimately be sought for. This then shows why it is important to talk of morality. Morality is synonymous with society. There is no society that has no set of dos and donts. A society that has no norms or ethically intelligible way of ascertaining and enforcing good conduct is bound to disappear in the short or long run.

3. Ontology and the African Ethics

On the categories that inform African morality, it is important to note that human existence and pattern of living is premised upon the peoples’ perception, and this is closely related to their theory of knowledge. In African set-up, knowledge is got through effect and cause. By this I mean that individuals observe things that happen and then try to identify their cause. But in doing this, they do not rely on naked observation alone-in fact their attitude is predominantly mystical. This explains why the African religious attitude is described as magical. The truth is that the African believes that the Almighty God (Chukwu in Igbo) sends down people with extraordinary insight into the arts and mysteries of a people to enable other ordinary persons to understand what God is actually doing and what he expects from the people. Such people called sages are believed to evince sufficient proof of their extra-ordinary endowment. How do the people verify the veracity of the authenticity of these sages?

The first way is by identifying a strange occurrence which completely astounds the intelligence of the community. This event will lead to their running to such sages demanding to know what caused the event to occur (for instance it might be a natural disaster, e.g. the invasion of locust). They will seek to know why such a thing has happened. The sage does not only say why the events has happened but has to prescribe what should be done to stop such event from continuing. That is tried out and if it works the sage is acclaimed a God sent one.

What we are driving at in essence is to show the roots out of which norms, belief system emerge, which forms the corner stone of morality. This shows why the African man adopts the attitude of “seeing is believing” but it is wrong for anybody to say that this wholly characterizes the attitude of Africans. The fact remains that a lot of things are accepted on faith and trust. For example, if repeatedly a sage proclaims events that have come to pass, the people are bound to accept his future proclamations. Again, they believe in the invincibility of oracles and mystic cults. Through some mystical means information is often passed down through those oracles or cults and they are accepted by faith. This shows the extent the life of the African is tied to forces outside himself. African morality is therefore fashioned or tailored by the interplay of human and divine forces. Force here must be seen in terms of being and existence. Everything is force. In other words, force is the other term for being. Force is not different from the objects. Force in the African context is not seen as energy exerted by a thing-instead force is the entirety of being. In the African set up we have a hierarchy of forces God, divinities and spirits. These are divine forces. We also shave human beings, certain animals, trees, stones and other existents which are endowed with force or degrees of hierophany.

As V. C. Uchendu rightly pointed out, “to know how a people view the world around them is to understand how they evaluate life, and a people’s evaluation of life, both temporal and non-temporal provides them with a ‘charter’ of acting, a guide to behaviour”. This supports our earlier view that morality depends on peoples perception of life. The point here therefore is that the African takes a lot into consideration while fashioning his dos and donts. And the exercise is not static. As new events or phenomena take place and affect the lives of people, the moral expectations of the people change to meet up with the novel realities that have confronted them. They therefore, act in such a manner as not to encounter the wrath of not only their fellow human beings but the gods.

In the African set-up things are seen to happen not without a cause and the communal system makes it imperative for them to view any problem as that which affects all and it is in this that the African, more than anything, is his brother’s keeper. He knows that while protecting his brother he is as well protecting himself. What happens to one happens to all and this makes morality a unanimous affair. Sanctions are provided to deter and to nip in the bud any disposition that is likely to spell doom to the whole community or do a member of the community because a harm caused one is a harm done all. Hence the saying that if one finger touches oil it quickly spills over to the others. This saying completely epitomizes the African belief which informs its mortality.

Moral goodness refers to the concordance of man’s actions with the standards of behaviour dictated by the laws of his nature and ultimately by the intension of God. And these natural laws are perceived differently by different communities. Since interpretations of these natural laws differ, the way different people apply themselves to these laws also differ, and this is why morality is more or less relative. Moral relativism therefore becomes a more persuasive perspective in treating ethical issues. Though it is possible to discern uniformities in different moralities, they have differences which arise from the scope, margin of perception, the level of understanding and the temperament of the people concerned. P. K. Roy talks of the principle of ontological balance. This is pertinent to the proper understanding of African ethics because it is the belief of the African that all forces are interrelated in a regulated balance. This view explains why an evil by one member of the society is seen as affecting all because the whole balance is upset by that singular act.

To do wrong, as Anyanwu put is, means to be individually in disharmony, and means causing harm and involves the disorganization of order itself. This means that breaking a taboo is seen as upsetting the ontological equilibrium of the group. The African perception is holistic. The African does not talk about detailed reality as it affects not only his entire being but his entire universe. This is why there is nothing like personal morality in the African setting because whatever morality that exists is shared by all. This may have prompted Anyanwu to opine that the metaphysical, physical and moral goodness interpenetrate each other in mythical consciousness.

In the African setting, goodness amounts to those acts, attitudes and behaviours which are congenial to the attainment of peaceful communal coexistence. An act is regarded as good if it does not jeopardize the spirit of oneness, solidarity and single purpose that guide the social existence of men in the society. Good acts then will include those acts that have been approved by the oracles, those laid down by the law makers of the community (which comprise mostly of elderly people). It is the accepted belief among the Africans that wisdom goes with age because the longer one lives the more he experiences things. Hence the Igbo adage which says that he who starts cooking first has more cooking utensils. This is not to say that there does not exist room for the young and prodigious. If a young man proves his mettle early, he is co-opted into the law-making machine, hence the saying that if a small boy washes his hands well he could dine with the elders. What is moral therefore becomes all the acts which will bring joy to the community: the strict obedience to the customs and traditions of the people.

The social expectation for a man is different from those of a woman. There are certain things a man is not supposed to do. For instance, a man is not supposed to have sex with his wife during her period of menstruation. A man is not supposed to disobey demand made of him by oracles especially in the form of sacrifices. The woman is expected to show or pay obedience to the husband at all times. A woman in words and deeds, is supposed to be aware that she is the weaker partner. Women do not hunt, etc.

It is the belief among Africans that any act of immorality will mean desecrating that land. Land is highly valued because it is the source of life. Food and habitation will not be possible without land. The earth goddess is seen as the goddess who owns the land. So any transgression against the community is seen as a transgression against the goddess who can only be appeased through sacrifices. The charter of morality is regarded highly because the people believe that any wrong done will, in one’s life time bring the repercussion. This may come in the form of affliction or complete destitution or other forms of deprivations. And in any such cases, the family of the afflicted will be directly affected. It is the general belief that he who has people has wealth and this would mean that any person rendered useless by the gods has denied his people the services which he should have rendered not only to the family, but to the entire community. Since the afflicted does not suffer alone, the entire community then acts as the watch dog on all members of the community. As a result, wrong acts are deprecated once they do not bring joy to the community. The worst moral offenders are the sorcerers, the witches and thieves (rogues).

The sphere of morality is governed by hierarchies of good and evil. Certain evils are condemned more that others. Incest, for example, is not permitted. People are expected to expose any evil committed by any member of the community since its effect does not discriminate, it affects all, either directly or indirectly. But if any evil done by a member is immediately made known, early expiation may help restore the ontological balance and the offender is punished as a deterrent to him and others who may be similarly inclined. This suggests why people like P. K. Roy argue that egoism and utilitarianism are harmoniously interwoven in the African moral behaviour. The individual thought considers those things that will be conducive to his personal well being but having been brought up to appreciate the intricate structure of reality which embraces himself and other beings and having also been made to have insight into the importance of the established balance, he make sure that his actions though proper for his individual enhancement is also conducive to the well being of the generality of the community. This is because he realizes that what augurs well for him should also go well with his kit and kin, or else the joy is incomplete.

It is this search for the whole and unity that underlies the morality of the African. It is believed that for a child to appreciate the interconnectedness of forces, the child has to be initiated into the ontological structure of the living which has its link with that of the dead which together form the complete ontological structure. Life and death are not discontinuous but a cyclical stage which characterizes the existence of the living and the dead. It is through these initiations involving rituals, ceremonies, etc, that the child becomes a member of the community and his actions are no longer viewed solely as they affect him, but as they will affect the entire community.

Secret societies also constitute a veritable organ for enforcing moral codes. Their duty is to issue out threats to people who exhibit a tendency towards transgressing the customs and traditions of the people. This shows that morality is not voluntary, but compulsory and enforced. This is so because the individual is not alone, but is a member of the corporate entity which is the community. The secret societies also have their own ways of operating. They not only issue threats but afflict physical injury on those who do not live in accordance with the norms of the community. Age grade groups are also used in maintaining good moral standard. Each age grade tries to distinguish itself as the reference point for moral excellence. The individual in the African setting has his family, the age grade, the secret societies, the oracles, the entire community, etc as regulators of his behaviour.

Finally, we may want to know how Africans rationalize their moral beliefs? African ethics is not merely experiential but mystical. This means that whatever rationalizations Africans may want to provide for holding to certain moral beliefs will have to be dependent on the experiential and mystical. For example, on the experiential side, if a certain influenza attacks the community and the different oracles are consulted, and they all say the same thing as to the cause of the influenza and prescribe the same sacrifice, and if the sacrifice stops the influenza as pointed out by the oracles, the veracity of the oracles is upheld. And in subsequent problems such oracles will also be consulted. The experiential side here is that members of the community are able to see for themselves the effect of their obedience to the prescription is divinely passed on. The mystical side of this is that it astounds the intellect of the people how the oracle could be in possession of the key to the solution of their problem. This means that the way of the oracle transcends human intelligence.

Moral beliefs are therefore built up on the basis of the stock of experiences, that a given community has. But the truth is that where experience ends, faith, trust, on the potency of oracles based on their previous performances and fear (both imagined and real) come into play when efforts are made to rationalize the belief systems. For example, if the giving of birth to twins is followed by an epidemic, it is likely that the people will reason that twins are the cause of the epidemic because it is regarded as an abomination for a human being to have multiple births as only the lesser animals like (sheep, goat, dog, etc.,) can give birth to twins, triplets or quadruplets or more. One thing that is important is that no belief is held without reason. All taboos and prohibitions have their specific rational bases and these reasons are made public. Ignorance is never entertained. Parents are made aware of the need to bring up their children according to the way of the community(i.e. in line with the custom, norms values, and tradition of the community). Ignorance is not an excuse to evade punishment or reproach against bad conduct because the community is one and through many agencies, it disseminates information. Through a series of social interactions, it makes people aware of what societal expectations are.

It us also held that evil brings death. This means that the upright is bound to enjoy longevity. This at times makes it mandatory to fashion the lives of the young along the lines of the aged in the society, believing that if the young tow the same line, they will have their life span extended. Moral beliefs are therefore rationalized using different reference points or pointers.

4. Conclusion

Having periscoped the foundations of African ethics or theory of morality, it is important to state that traces of these foundations still prevail, but since a people’s philosophy is not static, the philosophy continues to extend its frontiers with new occurrences and novel realities. It is in that respect that another corollary work on “the question of hybrid morality in the contemporary times is different from the ethics that has been delineated in this work. And nothing it can be argued, makes one more African than the other. The history of civilization shows that a lot of cross-cultural borrowings occur, and are still taking place. African ethics therefore cannot be treated from a static point of view. It is progressive, becoming more comprehensive and getting integrative with all “other ethics” with the increasing drawing of all television, telecommunication, etc, man can now reach anywhere or event in a matter of seconds. Through education, men of one culture can now read and practice others’ “neighbouring culture”. What we have discussed is therefore, an important starting point in tracing the legacy of the so-called autonomous African ethics. In so far as we do not have documented materials to show how Africa was influenced by other cultures, i.e. by African of those eras, we cannot reliably accept whatever information that are being offered by people that were themselves not present during that period and who themselves are not Africans. Presently, the accounts are so one sided that only an intelligent person will accept them. The African ethics as we have seen is premised on an impressive pillar of humanism. The welfare of man and community are the main thrust of African ethics-it is therefore both “anthropocentric and sociocentric” in the words of K. C. Anyanwu. In the task of documenting the different stages that Africa has traversed in its search for its destiny, it is important to still retain glimpse of her past which will continue to form part of her identity.


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