Ubuntu Ethics Research Paper

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This is an entry on ubuntu ethics. The idea is to develop an endogenous African conception of ubuntu as an ethical construct. We attempt to use ubuntu to countermand the current dominant social paradigm (DSP) of hatred, intolerance, abuse of human rights, dehumanization, exploitation, authoritarianism, poverty, and oppression that plague the human race at the national and international levels. This work proposes a conception of ubuntu as a value system built upon the application of some key moral and democratic values for liberation and transformation. Specifically, ubuntu ethics is defined as a set of values central among which are reciprocity, common good, peaceful relations, emphasis on human dignity, and the value of human life as well as consensus, tolerance, and mutual respect. These features are to operate at the national level. We also argue for a possibility utilizing ubuntu ethical correlates as materials for establishing stable and viable human relations within the international system or global order. Our aim is to conceptualize ubuntu as an ethical idea and praxis, as well as to situate it as an ethical ideal all with a view to making humans better and thus tackling in a systematic manner, our natural and man-made existential predicaments.


This paper examines the idea of ubuntu and dwells significantly on its ethical dimensions. At one level, ubuntu can be said to be an ideology or a belief about the way the good life should be. The concern about how one ought to live his life in the society remains one of the fundamental topics of philosophical investigation all through human history. Many scholars have offered different responses to this question with varying degrees of success. In this age, the idea of ubuntu has been proposed as a possible response to the same issue of: What rules and norms can help human beings relate properly with others? Ubuntu is in a more important sense, a value system or a way of life that determines human personal and social actions in the cultural, political, and economic domains of life in a society. It can be seen as a principle for guiding human behavior at the national and even possibly the international level.

On a positive note, Mwase (2013) brings to our notice that elements of the ubuntu ideal could be located in the works of scholars of different eras from all around the world. This is an interesting point to note. Such personalities, Mwase says, include John Rawls, Desmond Tutu, Martin Buber, Mohandas Gandhi, and Immanuel Kant, among others. One immediate implication of this is that the primal or primitive elements that comprise ubuntu can be found within and across nations and tribes. More importantly, it is instructive that attempts had been made to highlight these elements comprising ubuntu even though these were not clearly defined and the discourses were not consciously and systematically tailored to having a purposeful study of the concept. This is one major gap that our paper seeks to fill. This work attempts to problematize and interrogate the concept of ubuntu properly and fully dissect its ethical dimension. In order to understand the full meaning of ubuntu, we need to, first of all, do a brief conceptual clarification of some key concepts. The basic question here is: How is ubuntu similar to or different from the following ideas such as communitarianism, community, collectivism, and communalism among others? A discussion of a few related concepts should be enough to illustrate the need for a clarification of related terms.

Conceptual Clarification Of Related Ideas

There are some concepts that appear related to the idea of ubuntu. We need to examine such ideas in order to establish not only their similarities and differences but more importantly the essential logical and empirical features of these concepts. The aim is to ultimately simplify and sharpen our understanding of the discursive categories. Let us start with communalism.


On its part, communalism is essentially the idea that the individual human person in Africa cannot be complete as a social being unless the rest of the society or community participates actively in his life; in fact, the other human beings in the society define or determine the identity of a person or personality of an individual. The others in the society say who an individual is. It means that an African is a total or complete human person only when the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects are combined with his or her social acceptability or communal recognition. Put simply, the individual’s life has meaning only within the context of the meanings of the lives of others in the community. Communalism is a social ethic that is common to most parts of Africa. In communalism, a value system is developed in which an individual is brought up to cultivate an intimate sense of obligation and belonging to quite large groups of people on the basis of kinship affiliations. It means that solidarity or the feeling of belongingness among people as well as a quest for consensus is central to communalism as an ethos. What is essential to communalism is that it is a system of social organization and cultural life, of small tightly knit kinship societies or units of human association such as what we find in Africa. African communities are defined by the fact that “they are knit together by a web of kinship relations and other social structures” (Mbiti 1969, p. 208). Communalism is seen in the customs and practices such as deep feelings and expressions of intimacy as well as joint ownership of land and ideas. In what way if any is communalism different from communism as a related concept? What is communism?


Communism is for some political theorists, such as the Marxians and Marxists, the end of human political history. Communism is the idea that human society arrives at an end point after evolving through so many stages, primitive, feudal, capitalist, and socialist. The end point of the communist vision refers to a classless, egalitarian social system where the privately owned, class bound, and profiteering structures of the existing state system (local and international) that promote oppression, domination, antagonism, and inequality are removed or eliminated. What is essential to communism is that it is a political system of a nation, state or nation-state, or group of countries that stands against competing ideologies of liberalism and capitalism. Communism highlights the evils of capitalism, mainly its tendencies to engage in crass profiteering, discrimination, antagonisms, dehumanization, and exploitation of the human being, his labor, and his production. Communism defends egalitarianism as ideal even if it cannot attain this end in reality and defends a form of humanism. It tries to slow down class distinctions and the teleology of dehumanization and exploitation attending it. Communism is an outcome of the disagreement among social and economic classes. It seeks to build economic structures and policies that seek to counteract massive disparities in ownership and control of wealth and other resources.

According to Marx, the keynote of communism is the abolition of bourgeoisie private property which symbolizes the age long exploitation of the many by the few. The communist social order is the outcome of a unique historical sequence of revolutionary class struggles. These series of class struggles have always pitched two contending groups, the oppressor and oppressed classes against each other. Marx holds that in the past, there were class conflicts among the freemen and slaves, the patricians and plebeians, and the lords and serfs (Marx and Engels 1990, p. 416, 419 & 426). It applies the wealth and resources of the society in a manner of distributive justice so that the human dignity and well-being of all members are properly and equally accommodated. Communism is a way of doing politics that objects to ownership of private property and crass profiteering an anathema.


On its part, communitarianism is something quite different. Kymlicka holds that communitarianism rejects liberalism because the liberal ideology is too individualistic and often ignores the fact that human beings desire and rely on communal relationships. To show that communitarianism is a contested notion, he highlights the fact that scholars have tried to differentiate a backward-looking conception from a forward-looking approach to communitarianism. This point is consequential because communitarianism may not easily be able to provide a definite or single position about how human beings should relate with themselves (Kymlicka 2006, pp. 368–369).

Be that as it may, an essential feature of communitarianism is that though the individual is the basic material of the universe just as individualism or liberalism professes and that everything needs to work to the individual’s benefit, yet in a very important sense, the individual has an obligation to the society. This obligation, in a deep sense, creates a situation where the individual can no longer say categorically that he is more important than the society. This is because without the society, the individual will have no meaning as a social, political, economic, and even ontological being.

The point is that without the society, the individual cannot achieve the fullest potentials of his individuality. This is a delicate issue. So even though the individual exists in a liberal society, the individual needs to play a part in the development of the society. He needs to be socially aware and responsible. He owes the society something in return for society and its other members allowing the individual’s talents and abilities to blossom under a liberal order. A person cannot realize his full potential until he accepts and upholds the values that are uniquely reposed and delivered by society or social living in the community. What is central to communitarianism is that it is a social and ethical principle that tries to define the proper place of the individual as a primary element of the social order. Its acceptance compels the fashioning of a unique set of logic and meanings for related ethical and social concepts such as rights, duties, obligations, benefits, and burdens.


On its part, the idea of community refers to a form of human organization or group of people who share a common belief that gives the members a sense of belonging, a feeling of solidarity, a set of shared values that define them, a sense of harmony or unity, and above all, a common purpose to strive for. A community is different from a state, family, nation, nation-state, society, or association. Dewey argues that the idea of community is the embodiment of a progressive evolution of associated life that is free from restrictions and disturbances (Dewey 1994, p. 156). Community is tied to values such as fraternity, liberty, and equality. Fraternity or a feeling of brotherliness when viewed in the context of communal life is capable of yielding some important social goods if it is based on mutual contribution and the recognition of liberties. For Dewey, liberty implies the secure application and realization of those potentials afforded by fraternal relationship. Equality refers to the recognition of the distinct and unique qualities of human beings irrespective of their different psychological and physical makeup (Dewey 1994, p. 156). Dewey holds that these values are absolutely important for attaining those ends or results that are possible only through feelings of community. Dewey argues further that community cannot be achieved by mere associated activity or aggregated collective action. The mere fact that individuals participate in activities and share in results does not portray the existence of community. Rather, communication is a prerequisite for community. Communication implies a common or mutually understood meaning. It creates new relationships and transforms conjoint activity into a community of interest and endeavor, which can guarantee the existence of social consciousness (Dewey 1994, pp. 156–157).

What is central to a community is that it is a motley group of people or a gathering of human beings, which may be large or small, that are bound together by primitive shared communicable ideas and values bordering on a common focus in religion or a profession or a general calling. For example, we have the Roman Catholic community, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), the US intelligence community, and university community. We even have E-community such as the community of the users or members of the Internet, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Having done this conceptual analysis of the key ideas, the next question to be asked is: What could be the philosophical foundation of the belief in ubuntu? To what extent can we use some philosophical theories to justify the belief in and acceptance of ubuntu? First, let us define or rather explain what ubuntu is.


What is distinctive about the idea or concept of ubuntu? Essentially, ubuntu refers to the interdependency of human beings, the idea that a human being is a complete person to the extent that the society gives him or her recognition as a person and allows him or her to realize the full potentials and benefits of being a human person (Mwase 2013, pp. 1–2). Also ubuntu emphasizes the importance of other people or the society in the life of a human being. It highlights the fact that a person cannot do without others. Our individual lives are intricately and inextricably tied to the lives of others, and we all need to cherish these interrelations and interconnections. Such interconnection should be guided by kindness, openness, accommodation, and willingness to work for others’ interest. The philosophical basis of ubuntu rests on the belief in, and realization of our common humanity, our sense or perception of being part of the whole human family.

Thus the idea of ubuntu retains a cocktail of features or values. Notable among such values or elements are respect for human dignity, the value of the human person, an ethic of care and compassion, as well as a push for key moral and democratic values such as consensus, dialogue, and tolerance among others. What is at the heart of ubuntu is a moral norm, a directing principle for governing human action, a pattern or principle of human relations, and a system of interaction by which human beings can positively develop themselves individually and collectively. More importantly, ubuntu is meant to foster a means of probable escape from or mitigation of certain egoistic, oppressive, denigrating, and conflictive elements inherent in human behavior as a result of his nature or nurture. Put simply, ubuntu promotes the desire to establish an ethical basis for human existence. Human existence may not make much sense unless there is a room for an ethical dimension. What then is ethics? Ethics is the normative science of human behavior. It is the study of the way that human beings ought to behave and conduct their affairs in order to live properly, responsibly, and productively.

Ubuntu And Its Ethical Correlates

A more important question is: Why is ethics needed by human beings? Ethics is one of the social structures for moderating human actions so as to live a meaningful and productive life. Other social instruments for managing human behavior include law and social conventions. In any case, ethics is useful to human beings because it studies the rules and parameters of right, good, and proper conduct in human personal, social, and professional life. Scholars have also constructed some ethical theories to be used for understanding the moral foundations of the human experience. For some Africans, human experience at the social level can be promoted positively through the philosophy and ethics of ubuntu. Now what is ubuntu ethics? Ubuntu could then be conceived as an ethical system or a moral way of life because it seeks to promote the social nature of human beings. Human beings are social because they need to, or desire to, live together. Human beings are also social because they need to cooperate with each other, in order to attain the common good or purpose. Pursuing the common good is a central element of the social, ethical, or moral life. Morality and moral values are necessary for human beings. The ubuntu principle emphasizes some of these elements.

What is morality? Why is it important for human existence? Morality has to do with a set of rules for guiding human behavior and a set of reasons or grounds of moral obligation. Why are we obliged to be moral or behave morally? Morality is needed because it does not only harmonize interests, it also affirms the importance of the human person as an end in himself. To say that man is an end in himself is to say that man is a being who has intrinsic worth or value as an end and, therefore, whose interests have to be given sympathetic consideration. Morality also tries to cultivate in people certain desired traits of character such as honesty, fairness, truth, justice, kindness, compassion, and the respect for human dignity (Ujomu 2001a, pp. 94–105). The feeling of consideration and sympathy for others remains key values of morality. These values explain why the human person as a moral agent ought to be viewed as a being endowed with dignity, freedom, and responsibility.

What is the logical relationship between these under listed allied ubuntu concepts? The ideas include the respect for human dignity, the value of the life of the human person, an ethic of care and compassion, as well as a push for key moral and democratic values such as consensus, dialogue, and tolerance. The unique conception of the human person or being that ubuntu defends rests on the belief that a human being or human person has a worth that is not quantifiable in instrumental or extrinsic terms. The worth of the human being is seen in his self-worth or dignity. This dignity is a priceless item or quality that gives rise to all other claims that we make in regard of being human. Dignity is intrinsic to the human being by virtue of his being human, and dignity requires that human beings be addressed and treated in ways that demonstrate their intrinsic worth, freewill, freedom, and responsibility to themselves and others.

Such qualities are significant and valuable because of the opportunity they provide for human beings to live in a productive, peaceful, and purposeful manner. These qualities compel us to uphold the value of human life as an inalienable right, deserving of respect and protection under the law, morality, and customs. This claim does not detract from the fact that actual human societies have fallen far short of these ideals and values. Such deficits and shortfalls serve as impetus for the principle or values of ubuntu to be proposed as a way out of the human predicament. The value of human life is more appreciated and regarded when human beings show humaneness and compassion to one another as members of a species or man-kind. Compassion is a moral virtue and a moral value. Respect for others and compassion to them combine together to foster consensus. Consensus is important because it fosters interaction and reconciliation.

Consensus is based on recognition, consultation, and agreement. These values emphasize the need to ask and receive the consent of others in decision-making. We get peoples’ consent, not merely out of courtesy but because such consent understood as choice and voice is required for inclusive and socially responsible and responsive decision-making. When we have the urge to seek consensus or mutual accord, then we are more disposed to pursue dialogue construed as conversation, negotiation, or reconciliation. The end result of dialogue is to have an agreement or settlement. As such dialogue presupposes some sort of positive communication, sincerity, openness, and accommodation of others. These values are the bedrock of what is referred to as tolerance. Tolerance is the opportunity we allow for others around us especially those who do not share our beliefs, ancestry, language, and ways of life to thrive and survive without undue obstruction or hindrance from the rest of us. The whole idea is to create a world whereby all parties or members can aspire to attain their fullest personal and social development unfettered by petty prejudices typical of human nature and discrimination occasioned by inimical institutionalized injustices.

Ubuntu And The Search For African Identity Or Personality

At another level, ubuntu is equally an important issue in the discourse on African philosophy. African philosophy means so many things. For our purposes, it is enough to say that it is the critical study or interrogation of the central beliefs, ideas, institutions, and values of the African peoples. Let us have a brief exhibition analysis here of the idea of a belief. A belief, for example, is a supposition, an assumption, or a presupposition. It is a conviction about the nature of a something, some sort of thinking about how something is, a way of looking at things in the world. The important thing about a belief is that it may or may not correspond to something in re or in reality. Indeed, people all over the world and all through human history have been killed, oppressed, and victimized because of their beliefs or what other people felt were those peoples’ beliefs. On its part, a value is something that is important to you. It is something you desire, something you are interested in. Values are standards of behavior or norms of accepted conduct. They represent what people consider important. In pursuing such values, people are usually willing to be guided by accepted rules of conduct to achieve such desires or interests. For instance, we can have political or economic values. In all, issues arise because every culture seems to have certain beliefs, ideas, and values that guide the human behavior and experiences of its members. Sometimes such value may clash, compete, or conflict. The question then could be: What beliefs and values does ubuntu promote?

Defining the features of ubuntu in the context of African philosophy is basically about the quest for a definitive means of culturally expressing what seems primal, unique, useful, and common to the Africans. Put simply, the quest to clarify the key features of ubuntu is to some extent a search for the African self-concept or identity. This is to be done in a way that defines and sustains the ontology and essence of the Africans, as a people who know who or what they are and what they are capable of contributing to the world. Secondly, a search for the values of ubuntu is the pursuit of a new way of doing things: a quest for a new definition of social justice in which all people, particularly the Africans and their beliefs, will be given due recognition and respect in the global order. Thirdly, pursuing the legitimizing of ubuntu is in a way the repudiation of the colonial history of the African continent, the aggressive and relentless pursuit of the decolonization of all African spaces – economic, cultural, political, moral, intellectual, and so on. So in summary, ubuntu is framed philosophically as a platform for liberating the Africans from all manners of peonage, domination, oppression, and exploitation both from within or outside the continent.

Defending ubuntu suggests the establishment and sustenance of a conception of the African personality or what the Africans stand for. This search for an African personality is an intellectual and social project that implies the pursuit of the human values of freedom, human dignity, justice, and responsibility that will ensure the escape from regressive manipulation and exploitation. The aim is to lead the Africans toward exhibiting an identity or personality that can command respect worldwide and promote the key elements of our African cultural systems or ways of life. Features of our African ways of life especially our tradition and practices raise questions about our rationality, ethical or moral behavior, and the foundations of such behavior. It is in this sense that ubuntu can be relevant to African renaissance. Considered analytically, the ubuntu theory allows us to review the rationality question. The rationality issue in African philosophy refers to many things but is primarily a concern about meaning, intelligibility, and transmission of viable and sustainable human conduct or behavior that the Africans have evolved over the ages. Do the Africans have such?

The discourse on ubuntu therefore raises afresh philosophical issues and concerns about the way Africans can attain self-definition and live according to the dictates of the modern scientific experiences without compromising their human dignity and freedom as rational and responsible beings. In other words, in what ways can the Africans decolonize their minds and practices, so as to achieve more humane and stable social order all over the continent? The study of rationality presupposes a study of the dynamics of a logical mind-set of the Africans, their modes of causality and pursuit of ultimate reality. The rationality question points to the interrogation of the African beliefs (opinions, viewpoints, and assumptions), ideas (concepts, constructs, abstractions), and values (desires, interests, goals, and norms). The intention of looking at these elements of rationality is to situate the African traditions, cultures, and belief systems within a critical and analytical lens that defines the ways we develop meanings, learn, and transmit lived experiences as markers of pushing our understanding and knowledge toward improved ways of living.

At the heart of the rationality question or problem for the Africans would be the fundamental enquires concerning: Who are you? What can you do? What can your philosophy, politics, and science do? The rationality debate is partly expressed by the trend or orientation which emerged as a reaction to the contact between the African cultures and the Western cultures. The early European scholars in their studies of Africa portrayed the Africans as primordial. With increased awareness and education among the Africans, there was an attempt to correct the misinformation and misinterpretation presented by the early European writers. The ethno-philosophers sought to correct these errors by presenting a new interpretation of the African traditional thought system. In this category, we have the writings of P. Temples Bantu Philosophy, J.S Mbiti African Religions and Philosophy, Leopold Senghor on Negritude, A. Kagame, and others. These early sociologists, theologians, ethnographers, and anthropologists presented as philosophy the collective worldviews of the African peoples. Their works had a descriptive structure. They seemed to believe that African philosophy was equal to communal thought, and they sought to give it a special emotional appeal, that is, to romanticize it. They presented the myths, proverbs, folklores, and folk wisdom of the Africans as their philosophy.

Ubuntu, African Identity, And The Ethical Foundations Of Cross-Cultural Relations

Whatever constitutes the merit or demerit of the above trend in African philosophy, the point is that there was a central assumption that the Africans were different from other races, that the African ways of life were different from other ways of life, in a way that implied that the Africans were subhuman or inferior. The question is: Is this really true? The theory of ubuntu leverages on a new ethical approach that attempts to tie human beings together rather than divide them and reconciles human beings rather than segregate them physically and intellectually. Granted that cultural universals, such as the ability to learn language, a moral sense, a sense of aesthetic appreciation, and a common biological foundation, exist as the important basis of providing room for objective meanings such as can underwrite human communication (Wiredu 1996, p. 14 & 20, 1998, p. 31 & 32), it is vital to note that human beings still make very conscious and deliberate efforts to interact and communicate effectively and productively with others. This point simply shows that despite the universals of culture, the differences between cultures are real and consequential. If intercultural communication was actually very easy to achieve, why then do we experience so much intolerance, oppression, marginalization, and racism in the different parts of the world today.

Hence, it is clear that cultural particularities cannot be over looked, in the question of human communication, merely on the ground that we all are human beings on the basis of evidence from biology. Cultural particularities are not accidental in nature rather they are products of ages of formation and reformation within the human constitution, as he or she relates to others and the environment. Thus cultural particularities are indeed realities which sometimes can exert the force of life and death on persons and properties, individuals, and societies (Ujomu 2001b, pp. 165–188). This point is especially significant when we examine the conditions of those groups all over the world who are suffering some form of oppression, marginalization, or deprivation. Ubuntu offers a probable sustainable pathway for humans to relate with each other more respectfully and productively.

Recognizing the difference(s) between cultures around the world allows us to seek more viable and enduring ways of establishing and sustaining dialogue between cultures, on a platform of mutual recognition. The idea of dialogue in intellectual and social relations actually suggests the need for conversation, which in this context implies a conscious and systematic effort to foster a dialogue or exchange, leading to a peaceful reconciliation and harmonization of divergent interests (Ujomu 2001b, pp. 165–188). Only the establishment of a social atmosphere of peace, justice, cooperation, and mutual recognition can bring about enduring communication between human beings. Ubuntu reveals its ethical quotient by recommending specific rules and principles that ought to guide human behavior.

Ubuntu As An Alternate System To The Current Deficits In Human Values And Humanism Within The Nation-State

Given that human behavior is critical to the survival of the species or the human race, ubuntu as a cosmology or conception of human society needs to be discussed seriously as an ethical alternative to the status quo due to certain gaps noticed in the modern society as a whole. Such gaps are prevalent in both the developed and developing worlds. The shortfalls can be summarized thus: In most societies in the world today, we currently experience a conflict between the affirmation of formal political freedom and its tolerance of socioeconomic inequalities which breeds alienation and contradicts the human dignity and freedom. This makes us to question the inequality and imposition of selective humanism and exclusion strategies that pervade most parts of the world today. The reality of dehumanization and disempowerment focuses on a dominant value system that pursues exploitation, lack of rule of law, and structural discrimination as core values. These features are easily seen, for instance, in the bad governance of African rulers arising from a political culture of neocolonial state centralism, foreign-imposed top-down social engineering, and other strategies of marginalization. Marginality and marginalization reflect a faulty existential belief in political and economic discrimination that causes problems for the vulnerable peoples.

Marginality is an ideologically false humanism that privileges a few over the many and affirms the domination of superior ability and power that yields immense gains in control and wealth that is disdainful and adverse in its teleology on other human beings. Certain globally pervasive yet problematic ideologies, such as capitalism and colonialism, basically promote marginality due to their established values of alienation, exploitation, repression, dehumanization, and inequality of workers and aborigines. Essentially, inequality and inequity breed a group of aggrieved, frustrated, and vulnerable people who may become a threat to themselves and others. These include rural dwellers, low-income earners, politicians and business people disfavored by the current government in power, medium and low-level government workers, women, pensioners or retired workers, rural peoples, uneducated people, physically challenged persons, destitute children, and the mass of unemployed and underemployed youth largely outside the coverage of social welfare.

Ubuntu As A Value System Or Driver Of Moral And Democratic Values

What sort of ethical correlates or moral values can emerge from the ubuntu principle to mitigate or slow down this surge of discrimination, inequity, and loss of human dignity at the national and international levels? It seems that the ethics or ethos of ubuntu avails us the opportunity to seek life-promoting or life-enhancing values. Values in themselves are things we desire, our choices, and things that are of interest to us. We require moral and democratic values that facilitate the realization of a better quality or standard of life in the society. Certain positive moral and democratic values are aimed at promoting peace, justice, harmony, cooperation, honesty, and transparency among human beings. The three moral values crucial to the establishment of ubuntu in social order are the respect for human dignity, compassion, and justice. Of particular importance is the value of respect for human dignity as a major element of ubuntu ethics. The dignity of the human person is maintained by imposing freedom, choice, and responsibility upon him. Responsibility is assured by the allocation of rights and corresponding duties. Rights and duties are ordained in order to ensure human dignity and respect. Some of the basic rights of man are inalienable such as the right to life and protection of property and the right to be free, self-determining, and responsible. Such rights are more easily defended in some types of society rather than others. For instance, what are the key principles, features, institutions, and values of a democratic society that facilitate ubuntu ethics? The primary democratic values are freedom, equality, and justice. However, we may include tolerance, participation, dialogue, and fair treatment among others. What is the link between ubuntu and such democratic values? The idea is that there are certain ways of doing things that human beings ought to embrace because these promote human wellbeing, peace, stability, security, inclusiveness, actualization of individual human potential, consensus, participation, and prosperity in the social system. Democracy ought to be encouraged due to some reasons outlined below.

Democracy as a political or social system promotes certain values. Some of the key values of democracy affirm the basic fact that, despite the differences in human talents, gifts, strengths, and endowments, the similarities between men are more profound and significant than the differences between them. Such talents and diverse qualities can be used for the benefit of the human person and society. More importantly, every man is recognized as a being that possesses equal moral worth, human dignity, moral responsibility, and freedom, just like any other man (Dewey 1963, p. 475, 1992, pp. 321–322). Some of the equalities which democracy upholds may be social, economic, political, and legal. For instance, politically, a democracy allows each man the right to vote, and be voted for, and the right to engage in other forms of legitimate political association. Also, democracy affirms legal equality of every man before the law and the provision of equal opportunities for all.

Democracy nurtures a sense of participation in social life and ensures that everyone retains a stake in the society and its resources, through socially just policies, opportunities, and actions. In this way, democracy ensures that everyone participates in promoting the social goods he has participated in producing. Democracy, by allowing each person to exercise his intelligence, talents, and creativity, ensures that he is accountable as a stakeholder in the society. The individual can be seen to be valuable. He can add value and make a contribution to the social system. More so, by allowing popular elections; debate on issues of collective concern; freedoms of worship, speech, and association; and equality before the law, democracy offers individuals greater opportunity to realize their human potentials. Ubuntu simply put is that principle that seems to allow the human being to attain his fullest potential in a manner coterminous with other human interests.

The Possibility Of Ubuntu As A Global Ethical Value

One more question or issue to be addressed in this entry is to find out the extent to which ubuntu can apply itself to the global condition. In what way(s) can ubuntu manifest in the context of the problems and prospects of cosmopolitanism and globalization. To start with globalization, it has to do with two related ideas: the interconnectedness of the human beings and locations of the world and the interdependency of human beings on one another due to the almost seamless flow of information via technology, migration, telecommunication, people, products, values, and ideas all around the world. For Kearney, “globalization describes social, economic, cultural and demographic processes that not only take place within nations, but also transcend them. Globalization deals with the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles ways and vice versa” (Kearney 1995, p. 548).

On its part, cosmopolitanism refers to the idea that contemporary trends and processes in the global order are increasingly giving rise to a more physically compact world where human beings share a universal or global membership of the world. This universality and an inherent rejection of any exclusionist tendency are presumed to rest on the idea of our common humanity as a community of mankind and the possibility of a world citizenship or individuals becoming citizens of the world or earth. According to Pogge (2007, p. 312), a person who adopts the cosmopolitan idea can be seen as citizen of the world. The world at large is the focus of cosmopolitanism. A human being may be referred to as cosmopolitan, when he is well traveled, understands and respects other societies and cultures, and interacts and interrelates easily and properly with other races and peoples. A town or group can also be cosmopolitan to the extent that it is inclusive and accommodating of diverse languages, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and lifestyles. Cosmopolitanism refers to a commitment to the above idea and ideal of citizenship of the world.

Ordinarily these two concepts of globalization and cosmopolitanism are sufficiently clear conceptually and well discussed intellectually. Both concepts are consequential for the theory and knowledge of ubuntu because of the current reality of social discrimination and political inequities and economic inequalities in the form and character of our human experiences worldwide. Consequently, such imbalances and turbulence pose a challenge to the positive manifestation of both ideas as directing principles of human interrelations and progress. This simply means that in concrete terms, globalization can be unfair due to power tussles and hegemony, class distinctions, trade and financial imbalances, and social justice deficits across the world, while cosmopolitanism may be hypocritical due to cultural discrimination and racism, tribalism, as well as prejudicial and oppressive immigration laws and practices currently prevalent worldwide. The successful application of these two concepts entails a maturity of mind, civilization, and liberality that is in really short supply around the world today. Hence, there is a need to revisit the prospect of ubuntu with regard to global peace and security.

It is clear therefore from the above analysis that the two concepts of globalization and cosmopolitanism, in fact, problematize rather than serve as a solution to queries about the basis of our common humanity. As such, the idea of ubuntu (re)emerges to define and establish the key concepts required for the effective and responsible operation of values at the international level. The way ubuntu can lend itself to reforming the global order or human behavior at the international level is to transpose the localized values of tolerance, human dignity, consensus, respect for others, compassion, and the pursuit of the common good to the activities of nations within the international system. This is a tall order indeed, not merely in the conceptualization but also in the application of the ubuntu ethic to the international spaces. Our courage or confidence to take on this challenge rests on the possibility that ubuntu offers to have a fresh and innovative look at the global dynamics of human relations.

Another way to understand the discourse is to argue that there is a sense in which the idea of ubuntu foreshadows the notions of globalization and cosmopolitanism. The three concepts are easily linked by their common vision and mission of seeking and explaining the interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings and human creations. The quest for a common fate and unity of humanity is not a negative thing in itself. This is a significant point to note because even though cosmopolitanism and globalization are not originally African concepts or constructs, yet they emerge as a result of the search for strategies to mitigate selective humanism, exclusion, and intolerance among human beings. In fact, globalization and cosmopolitanism have significant impacts on the African world.

When we include the idea of ubuntu as refinement of the vision of global human interdependence, we notice that the three concepts in a sense aspire or end up with the same goal to bring humanity together. Despite the common thrust that the three principles possess, they actually reveal different logical designs and causality. The challenge that they have in common is that agency or human nature plays a role in human institutions in a way that ends up working at cross-purposes from the original aim. Therefore, ubuntu as an African contribution to the quest for our common humanity and the mitigation of the ancestral predicaments of humanity is a continuation of the tendency toward enlightenment or modernity in the way that human beings deal each other. These three ideas reflect overlapping shades on the continuum of humanization and development of our sense of humanity at the local and global levels. From the above, therefore, a second point emerges. This is that in emphasizing these areas of convergence between the three notions, we can then observe the way that ubuntu definitively contributes to the clarification of the quest for a global ethics of change and development. Ubuntu pursues change in human nature by distilling the key values required for personal and social liberation and transformation.

The ethics of ubuntu whether it operates at the local, national, or international levels rests on the following philosophical foundations. We may pose the question of moral obligation afresh: What, if at all, ought to be the ground of moral obligation? Why ought we to embrace the values of ubuntu as ethical imperatives? How do the ethical features of ubuntu accommodate the concerns about moral autonomy of agency? The answer lies in the following argument below: First, let us reframe the above questions more simply and generally as What ought to be the basis of man’s ethical behavior? How does ubuntu qualify in this regard?

Human beings are required to exercise freedom and responsibility as morally sensible and autonomous agents in private and public life. This is the basis of human dignity and moral sense. However, the exercise of freedom and responsibility among humans also depends on man’s activities as a social being who exists within a culture and society. Human beings as social creatures need to live together by having a sense of belonging and working for a common purpose. Peace and cooperation are, or at least, ought to be the two major ends of social life in a human society. Social life is made interesting through the establishment of laws, morality, and conventions that promote the life of individuals and the society. The tussle between life-promoting values and life-threatening values illustrate the dynamics of the contest for dominance between self-regarding values and other regarding values.

Put simply, man survives and thrives because he can separate life-promoting actions from life-threatening actions in terms of their deontology or rules and even more importantly their consequences or teleology. The former, acts that promote life, are approved, desired, and considered desirable. The latter, which are acts that undermine life, are prohibited, punished, and undesirable. The desirable or desired is defended by rules and positive rewards, while the undesirable is deterred by punishment and disapproval. To a large extent, we may ask individuals, groups, nations, and the world at large to behave in a morally and socially responsible and responsive manner due to the fact that it is right to do so also. Put simply, we encourage or promote moral norms and moral values due to reasons behind and consequences of actions. This is the approach or understanding that had been defended by ethical universalism and utilitarianism. We could introduce some extra justification here. Viscount Samuel is correct when he declares that “men’s actions are governed by their ideas: right ideas lead to good actions and good actions bring welfare: wrong ideas lead to bad actions and bad actions bring suffering and disaster” (Samuel 1956, p. 199).

Our point is that ubuntu demands ethically or morally sound behavior due to the fact that human beings are related to each other in time, space, and history, by virtue of their direct interrelations and their common humanity. Human beings are interrelated because of the social necessity of mutual cooperation with the fellow human beings. Mutual cooperation is an imperative due to the presence and reality of forces and elements that are greater than and far beyond human powers and comprehension. Such elements are, for instance, God, nature, providence, destiny, and history. If the above is the case, then individuals can be useful to themselves and to others on the ground that they are provided the right human values as directing principles of human behavior as well as the enabling social opportunities and conditions in order to develop and be productive for the good of the self and of humanity.

Interestingly the deep and foundational consequence of human interaction suggests that people in fact do actually work for themselves when they work for others or they feel that they are working for others. Much of the time, the things you do to or for others have a way of returning to you as positive or negative reward. This is so due to the interrelationship between human beings and societies. Therefore, the reason for adopting the human values of ubuntu rests on the concept of purpose. This is the idea that in applying the ubuntu principles or values to the life of the individual or humanity at large, we are working for a lower and higher purpose or end. Every human being we may argue requires or even deserves this opportunity of the human, humane, and humanistic values of ubuntu, to fulfill himself and benefit the self and the rest of humanity. Thus, the need for humans to be hurtful, hateful, wicked, cruel, and destructive of good and productive things can be viewed or queried as an inimical action that is needless and perhaps ineffectual in the existential scheme of things. Ubuntu in its ethical dimension offers us a prospect for change in human nature as well as social and political life that can be positively consequential for the security, peace, and progress of humanity.

A possible link between ubuntu and bioethics can be formulated in this manner. It should be mentioned that this remains in every sense a largely unexplored area of study. But the basic questions or principles of bioethics such as informed consent especially in the light of decision-making will be relevant here. Who makes fundamental and serious decisions in the context of ubuntu? Ubuntu is suggestive of carrying other people along in various ways during the activities of life. The question is whether such interdependency and interconnectedness can blend in a problem-free manner with the common scenarios encountered in bioethics? For instance, when we have an end of life issue, who is responsible for ultimate or far-reaching decisions? What rules or means can be devised to apply ubuntu to such concerns and situations? It seems the basic elements or principles of ubuntu link up with some of the assumptions of bioethics, for example, the concern and agreement on the value of human life, the dignity and respect for the human person, and the role of consideration and compassion in dealing with others and in arriving at decisions. Even in extreme cases, it does not seem that ubuntu principles would deny any individual the voice and choice in an end of life situation. Rather, it seems that ubuntu principles would at best assist the individual to benefit from the support and guidance of others around.


We argued for ubuntu ethics as an endogenous African idea to countermand the current dominant social paradigm (DSP) of hatred, intolerance, abuse of human rights, dehumanization, exploitation, authoritarianism, poverty, and oppression that had plagued the world and Africa specifically. We proposed a conception of ubuntu as a value system. We conceived ubuntu ethics as a construct that relied on the template of some key moral and democratic values for African liberation and transformation. Ubuntu ethics defined as a set of values provided an opportunity for human beings to live according to certain human and humane principles such as reciprocity, common good, peaceful relations, emphasis on human dignity and the value of human life, as well as consensus, tolerance, and mutual respect. We argued for a possibility of utilizing ubuntu ethical correlates as materials for establishing stable and viable human relations in the international system. Our position remained that ubuntu could be conceptualized as an ethical idea and praxis, in a way that made humans more capable of tackling natural and man-made existential predicaments.

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