Indigenous Ethical Perspectives Research Paper

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This text brings information from different ways of living from indigenous people and their projects of the future which are based in ethical positions constructed from their practical experiences in community life. In order to allow a wider and more diversified approach, examples from people found in the African, Asian, and American continents were selected. The ethical contents from these experiences have in common values such as collectivity, hospitality, reciprocity, and both goods and power sharing. Among the many ethical contributions of the indigenous people to humanity, the fields of practical ethics and environmental ethics are highlighted, and the paradigm of Good Living in the field of philosophic ethics, an ethic-critical view from the Amerindian


Every human group, regardless of geographical position, forms of social organization, degree of relationships with different cultures, and its insertion in the world’s globalization process, has its own ways of life management which guide people in the adopted posture for a good interpersonal and collective coexistence. For this reason, in every single indigenous community, there can be identified uses, customs, and traditions which constitute moral values. In this way the collective identity of the group is assured, and the ways of relationship are thus defined, the relationship between themselves and between them and other existing species in the planet.

However, the existence of moral values does not automatically ensure the production of ethics. Ethics can only exist from the moment in which a reflection on the morally accepted customs is promoted. It is for this reason that, historically, the origin of ethics in the Western world is attributed to Socrates, an ancient Greek philosopher who, according to Plato and Aristotle, used to promote dialogues in the squares of Athens, above all with young people. The philosopher used to question them about the meaning of Athenian society values, and to each answer he would add another question in an exciting dialogue practice which aimed to deepen the understanding of the subjects related to values. Therefore, it can be stated that ethics is the reflected moral (Ferrer and Álvarez 2005). The emergence of indigenous ethics is directly related to the possibility of ensuring the necessary natural goods to life maintenance which, according to Levi Strauss (1982), are not obtained through an abstract society, but through solid and specific cultural realities instead.

Among the indigenous people, there is an ethical plurality or various indigenous ethical perspectives in the same proportion of a planetary ethic-cultural diversity. Even among people classified as having no written code, the production of different ethics occurs and is maintained via oral tradition. According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2010), the indigenous population is about 370 million people, corresponding to approximately 5 % of the world’s population. They are people with a wide ethnic diversity represented by five thousand different cultures, speaking different languages.

Beyond being the carrier of a rich cultural diversity, these people live distinct levels of relationship with the so-called Western civilization and possess a huge population variation, even though they may cohabit the territory of a single state. In some countries, like Greenland, the indigenous population belongs to a single ethnic group (Inuit) that represents 88 % of that country’s population, whereas in Russia the 41 legally recognized indigenous people account for less than 2 %. In Brazil, where there are more than 300 indigenous groups, they only total 0.4 % of the country’s population, although this is one of the biggest ethnic-cultural diversities in the world.

A very peculiar situation regards the so-called isolated people as those who refuse to make contact with the Western civilization and opt for voluntary isolation. The expression “voluntary isolation” must be understood with a broad meaning, including as an escape or a survival strategy, since these people have been persecuted and forced to relocate to further regions in order to avoid being massacred. Found in the most far-flung places, in autonomous ways, they are able to satisfy their material, spiritual, and symbolic needs. As a consequence to such survival capability, nowadays there is knowledge about their existence in many countries, such as Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The UN recognizes their right to self-determination and advises member states not to force contact with them.

The Indigenous Ethnicities

The philosopher Enrique Dussel (2002, p. 19) defines ethicality as the “concrete totality of the world, of the cultural horizon”; thus, each person constructs inside its history its own specific and differentiated ethicality. In this way, the totality will never be understood based on a synthetic organic unit in which society is seen as a whole and is articulated in a single logic, but as in the notion of totality presented by the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano. He understands it as a heterogeneous articulation of subtotalities, which are themselves heterogeneous, in which there are no unique and transformable totalizing principles, but heterogeneous parts and parts in conflict instead.

From this understanding, it can be stated that among the indigenous people, there is a multiplicity of ethnicities and ethos. Through an analytical effort, it is then possible to identify some contents in common among them. Since it is not achievable to treat them in an individualized manner, the reflections formulated here will have as reference some philosophical principles likely to be identified in many indigenous cultures. A relevant aspect which must be considered in its studies about its ethos is its dual dimension, which expresses itself in the masculine and feminine form, sky and earth, night and day, etc.

It is because of this dual vision of the world that in many indigenous cosmologies there is the existence of mythological twins. Such duality reflects the dialectic dynamism of its ethics and shows how relevant complementarity is, which means to say that nothing (and nobody) exists separately (alone), for all is relational.

One of the ways of accessing the content of indigenous ethics is the ethnographic production. Anthropology stands out as one of the areas of study which has been contributing immensely to the process of knowledge from these ethics. Ethnographic research performed in the most diverse regions of the world makes the rich cosmologic narratives accessible subjects.

In Mesoamerica, which currently corresponds to part of Mexico, El Salvador, and Belize and also part of the territories of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica, the indigenous people, prior to the Spanish conquest, produced many codices, mainly between the third and eight centuries AD, a time which was called by historians “the classical Mesoamerican period.” In spite of many of these literatures being destroyed by the colonizers, as they saw them as the “works of the devil,” the indigenous wise men continued writing them after the Spanish invaders’ arrival, although suffering some influence inside that new context. Five hundred distinct copies were conserved, but only from the latter period. The indigenous codices became important research sources through which the access to a set of ethical arguments conformed to the life ideals from those societies.

Historical documents and contemporary studies indicate that for the indigenous people hospitality provided is an indispensable value to guarantee social life viability. Due to its level of importance, hospitality is converted into an ideal of behavior that generosity and sharing are intrinsically associated. Knowing how to share material goods is a demonstration of the capability of each member a society has in order to achieve that ideal behavior. Whoever is able to achieve it receives, then, the recognition from part of that group. This principle must be observed in every level of established social relations. For this reason, it is thus applied within members from the same family, in the relationships of gender and intergenerational, between the different clans of the same people, between different peoples, and between humans and nonhumans. This quality is an important reference to self-identification from the respective social groups, who define themselves as nonaggressive and nonviolent, making a point to differentiate themselves from other people, indigenous or not, who are not holders of such qualities.

The San indigenous people, originated from the African continent, whose territories are spread among Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, make use of the expression zhu twa si (inoffensive people) when referring to themselves. The San people are the holders of a rich mythological repertoire in which many narratives portray moral teachings which do not admit accumulation – not even from food, albeit such could be justified due to possible food scarcity– and recommend a nonaggressive, hospitable, and reciprocal behavior, another frequently found subject in indigenous ethnicities. The high reciprocity level among the San people allows for an egalitarian practice of huge proportion that is reflected in the distribution of goods like food and in the exercise of political power. With the intent to avoid power accumulation, they turn to communal life management. Conflicts are resolved communally, always in due time, avoiding in this way anything that may affect their group’s harmony. Individuals are imbued with a strong sense of responsibility, and arrogance and vanity are seen as serious flaws that are tackled with myths and rituals. In situations where the hunter obtains excellent results, he himself behaves in a way to relativize his deeds and, even then, is still a reason for jokes by part of the group. Mechanisms as such avoid the creation of prestige positions and self-notability. Although the customs tend to change as a consequence of the sedentarization process and organization in small farm communities, the San cosmology reflects ethical values historically constructed (Leakey 1981, pp. 107–108).

In other regions of the world, historical experiences of indigenous ethicalities very distinct from the ones experienced by the San people can be found. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the major part of the San population were nomads and were organized in groups of hunters and gatherers, usually determined by kinship degree, favoring in this way governability. However, in more complex realities, where the indigenous people experience a long period of sedentarization and coexistence with different ethnicities, the need to create governing models that contemplate individual and collective interests arises, in which the ethno-cultural specificities are respected, such as in the Adat case. Coming from their colonial interests, Dutch researchers were pioneers in Adat’s studies, a system of traditional norms from Indonesian-originated people. In today’s world, 39 indigenous people were found in the state of Sabah, in Malaysia, keeping alive such indigenous justice systems based on the different worldviews, represented by a set of uses, customs, and traditions, some already written in a legislative norm manner and others transmitted and guarded through oral traditions. The Adat people are legally recognized by the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, although the state has difficulties in accepting them.

In a simplified way, the Adat can be understood as “the way of living” of the indigenous people from that region. At a young age, the child is educated to be a ki-adat, which in the Kadazan language means knower of Adat (Lasimbang 2010). In these communities, there is the figure of a local leader that has as its main attribution the guidance of people to respect each other and the teachings of Adat. What calls attention in these two realities presented is the fact that, independently from the complexity level, the ethical ideal is determined by hospitality and reciprocity. And by all indications, these two elements are present in the ethics of many people originating from all continents. If we make a brisk geographical displacement, starting from Africa and Asia directly to South America, it can be observed that some ethical arguments from the latter are very similar to those used by African and Asian people.

The Guarani people, today occupying small strips of land between Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, make use of the word Teko in order to translate their “way of living.” The Guarani ethic is guided by a deeply religious sense in which the aim is the search for the land without evil. For the Guarani people, the land is a sacred place instituted by divinity as a place to practice a good life. The traditional Guarani territory is named Teko’ha, an expression which derives from the conjunction of Teko (way of being and living) and Ha (place, cause, purpose). Teko’ha encompasses a place where customs are lived, a place to live accordingly to the Guarani ways. In its cosmology, land can never be seen as commodity; it will always be seen as a place for living. It is a life-generating space, since it ensures physical and cultural reproduction from the people, a reason for which it could never be commercialized.

The anthropologist Bartomé Meliá, who for many decades has been conducting research alongside the Guarani people in Paraguay, claims that the Guarani economy is symbolically represented by the word Jopói, which can be translated as “reciprocity,” also meaning “reciprocal open hands.” This imposes an ethics requiring that nothing can be sold, not even exchanged, everything must be made available for others, and in other words, every good must be shared. This is the logic of the reciprocity economy. This relation of reciprocity must be observed not only between humans but also with the other species. This is the reason nature deserves care and attention by the humans who freely receive everything from it, with the duty to give back with the same intensity.

Indigenous Environmental Ethics Or Ethno-Bioethics?

In his classical work “An essay on the Gift” (1923–1924), Marcel Mauss had already referred to the “giving economy,” a theoretical construction produced from research performed alongside indigenous peoples from Polynesia, Melanesia, and the USA, in which he analyzed the flux of objects, as well as the rituals, names, and other important elements, to those cultures. Five decades later, in his “Stone Age Economy” (1972), Marshall Sahlins used the category “reciprocity” and promoted a reflection on “giving economy” with base in peculiar characteristics from the so-called “archaic societies.” What surprises in today’s society is the capability of resistance from these ethno-economies which, regardless of the overwhelming predatory action suffered from capitalism, and even though many of them are found today in a situation of complete systemic domination, submerged in the global capitalist macro-economy, are still able to mobilize important contributions to create an ethical proposal which points in the opposite direction of the excluding, concentrating capitalist ethics.

The Western ethics are, in general, reproducers of the domination paradigm and human species power over others, in such a way that the Western environmental ethics possesses a strong speciesist bias in which the environmental preservation is justified in relation to the survival of the human species. Hence the highly required responsibilities with future generations. In its turn, indigenous ethics reproduce the logic of reciprocity and interdependence among species relationship. In this perspective, the interests of humans and nonhumans are considered. Perhaps for this reason, the expression environmental ethics is not suitable for the indigenous ethics realities. Once their ethics contemplate every life form, one could refer to it as “indigenous bioethics” or “ethnobioethics,” ensuring in this manner a better translation to its singular meaning.

In many ethnographic forms, there can be found registers of rituals for tree removal, for planting and hunting, and for alimentation ends. In some situations, the owner of the plantation establishes a dialogue with the tree. In his speech, he tries to justify the reason for its removal. There are descriptions that trees are caressed before receiving a blow. In some instances, this ritual is repeated in the intervals of one ax blow and another. There are practices of people, the hunters, who after slaughtering the animal take their cubs back to the village where they become part of the hunter’s family. There they are fed and caressed and at some instances drink the same milk from an indigenous woman that is given to her own children. In an extreme gesture of generosity, the human breasts are exposed to suction by the small mammals, and from that moment they will not be used for food.

It is not for any reason that several studies show that regions of better environmental preservation on the planet correspond to areas of lands occupied by indigenous people. Every study indicates that the level of deforestation in territories occupied by such indigenous population is inferior to the deforestation figures seen inside environmental reserves, even if the latter is not inhabited and kept in constant surveillance by state agents. Such results can be revealing of the reciprocity degree existent in those people and the nature around them.

Indigenous Ethical Perspectives research paper tab 1Table 1. An adaptation of the table elaborated by Bamba (2010, p. 31)

Based on the information presented up to this point and taking into consideration the serious environmental crisis affecting the whole planet, it can be preliminarily stated that one of the ethical contributions of the indigenous people to humanity can be mainly seen in practical ethics, more precisely the environmental ethics. Among the indigenous people, there is a certain awareness of the relevant role they can exercise in this area, as, for example, the seven philosophical principles developed by the Dayak people, originating from the Asian continent (Borneo). These principles are suggested as an alternative to the globalizing development (Table 1).

The Buen Vivir (Good Living) Paradigm

In the previous section, it was stated that oral traditions are one of the main means of maintenance and reproduction of the knowledge of indigenous ethics, which means to say that orality has achieved the important task of enabling the transmission of the indigenous world vision from generation to generation. In Latin America this reality is easily identified. Even though on behalf of the conquerors/colonizers there has been a systematic attempt to erase the historical memory from the conquered peoples, they undertook a silent and clandestine epistemic resistance for more than five centuries, which has enabled them to promote, today, an updated reconstruction of those worldviews for the current historical context. During the Incan period, in the whole Andean region, there were three ethical imperatives which were imposed in the form of a universal moral: “Ama Llulla; Ama Kella; Ama Sua (thou shall not lie; thou shall not stop working; thou shall not steal)” (Dussel 2002, p. 31). Such teachings can still be heard in informal conversations between the inhabitants of indigenous and farming communities in the regions that once were part of the vast Incan territory.

The Good Living is the most significant political and ideological result from the epistemic resistance movement from the people who originated from Latin America or Abya Yala, as they call themselves. Even though the term Good Living may be a term easily found in other indigenous languages from the American continent, as well as in other continents, its usage as a philosophical category is very recent and must be understood as part of a long process of regional indigenous struggles. From 1970 to 1990, the indigenous movements from Latin American countries underwent a similar history from social movements found in the countryside and the city, in which large confrontations took place in the defense of social, cultural, and political rights. In this context, the struggles for their ancestors’ land and for the end of paternalist tutelage by the state became a flagship to the indigenous movements.

After having achieved important victories, above all those referring to the recognition of their cultural and land rights by the national states, part of the regional indigenous movement added to their political agenda a new banner: the fight for the epistemic rights, which has mainly mobilized indigenous people from Ecuador and Bolivia. Such renewal before indigenous articulation and mobilization had started in 1990 and meant the end of the epistemic illegality, when they started to claim their right to think, formulate, and propose epistemology-based theories, aiming at the rupture of “knowledge coloniality,” an epistemic domination way resulting from the European colonization. At that moment, the philosophical category of the Good Living emerged, which in Ecuador became known as Sumak Kwasay, in Quechua language, and in Bolivia as Suma Qamaña, in Aymara language.

The Good Living represents an ethical reconstruction movement of the lives of those people that had suffered a process of persecution, repression, and destruction of their way of living. It does not represent a way back to the past, but a projection into the future instead; a future not only for the indigenous people but also for the whole of humanity which, due to a violent colonial imposition, finds itself today subjected to a globalization process; and a reality that the indigenous people propose to transform, presenting as such the model of the Good Living as an alternative model.

As described by François Houtart (2011), this proposal represents a new life model that confronts the model built and imposed by the West. It is based on a cosmic ethics, which in the words of the Ecuadorian economist Pablo Dávalos (2008) promotes a reintegration of nature in history, inherent to the social being. David Choquehuanca, one of the main scholars and defenders of the Good Living in Bolivia, elaborated a catalogue of 25 postulates to understand its meaning. One of them enunciates that in the Suma Qamaña conception, the cosmic rights are above the human ones. Based on such a statement is the ethic-philosophic argument that nature is the source of life (including human), humans being the thinking part of the reality found in nature, which could not exist without it. Such rights do not depend on human mediation, given that the human genre is not nature’s owner.

In the Good Living economy, the value of use is above the value of exchange, inverting the capitalist logic that justifies accumulation. In a relation of power, obediently warranty must be observed, meaning that those who exercise any kind of giving orders must learn how to “obey orders,” which in practice means to listen to the governed and respect their opinions, different from the control model exercised by councils, which in practice do not produce the expected effectiveness. Added to these are many other propositions, for more and different areas of life.

From these innovative theoretical formulations, the Amerindian people started to exercise strong influence in the areas of legislating and elaborating governmental policies. As concrete results, the Ecuadorian (2008) and the Bolivian (2009) Constitutions have incorporated the Good Living concept, and as a practical consequence, the character of their respective states has also changed, ceasing to be “nationals” and becoming, then, “plurinationals,” given that the nation-state’s uninational and monocultural characteristics are unable to comport a national, cultural, judicial, economic (etc.) plurality, which is inherent to the Good Living model. The Ecuadorian Constitution was innovated when recognizing nature as a subject of rights, institutionalizing in this manner the cosmic right category (2009). Based on such understandings, Ecuador elaborated their national plan of Good Living (2009–2013), which is grounded on the idea that the logic of reproduction of a full life must replace the notion that human beings must always be at the center, the reason for the capitalist logic of accumulation. Nature is not seen as a breadbasket of natural resources but, instead, as a space where life takes place, the reason requiring respect for nature’s integrity and vital regeneration cycles (art. 71).

Even though the Good Living has a symbolic meaning and cultural particularities, as a consequence of being a proposal originating from traditional Amerindian communities, its proposal presupposes a global dimension of ethics. For this reason, it is being considered the creation of a new way of life based on a critical inter culturality that is achievable for all human societies, taking into consideration its cultural specificities and historical processes.


In September 2014, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released the Annual Greenhouse Gas Report, where the data reveals that the concentration of gases in the atmosphere has reached a new record. In 2013, the carbon monoxide (CO2) level reached 396 parts per million (ppm), almost 3 ppm more than the previous year, representing the highest annual growth in the last 30 years. In comparison with the year 1750, a period prior to the Industrial Revolution, researchers noted a level of 142 % more CO2 and 253 % more methane gas.

The United Nations General Assembly for the 2008–2009 period presented the notion “Common Good of Humanity” as a necessary concept to tackle the environmental crisis in the planet. Still in 2009, the United Nations (UN) managed to promote the agreement among world leaders in order to reduce gas emissions; on the other hand, the study from WMO revealed that the record increase in 2013 has as causes not only gas emissions but also the reduction in the absorbing level from those gases by the biosphere, which may be a worrying indicator that the biosphere has reached the limit of its absorbing capacity.

These facts recall that the mechanisms constructed in the last decades with the intent to solve the successive crises that impact the planet are not effective. Despite the UN’s several attempts, like Rio de Janeiro’s World Environment Conference in 1992, the approval of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Conference Rio + 20 in 2012, the capitalist world system keeps acting in the logic of sacking and looting from nature, even though it admits the necessity to lessen its predatory actions’ impact. In contrast to this logic, indigenous logic can be found, inspired by their own ethics which teaches another form of relationship between human beings and nature.

Taking as reference the different life experiences from indigenous people that have been shown throughout this text, it can be stated that there is a substantial difference between capitalist environmental ethics and the indigenous environmental ethics. While the former are guided by an anthropocentric perspective, the latter are bio-centric. Consequently, the former aims at development (progress) and tries to reduce its impact, while the goal of the latter is involvement (care) and proposes reciprocity between human beings and nature. Therefore, it can be concluded that indigenous ethics represent a call to humanity to reestablish a link with the cosmos, a link which has been fractured by Western rationality, but a link that must be restored for the common good of nature and humankind.

Bibliography :

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