* BA (St Joseph), BA (Hons) MA (KwaZulu-Natal); firstname.lastname@example.org
Respect for basic human rights is a very important feature of the modern world. This is in part due to the fact that they are politically salient and there are pragmatic reasons why people deeply care about them. A moral theory that fails to adequately capture the importance we attach to these rights would be considered by many as inadequate. Communitarian moral theories are often seen as exemplifying this theoretical deficiency. Consequently, proponents of variants of the theory have been burdened with the responsibility of accounting for the importance we attach to basic human rights and thus resisting the charge of collectivism – the accusation that such theories cannot sufficiently account for individual rights and liberties –
Metz’s recent contribution to the debate strikes me as one such attempt.2He insists that, although other available alternatives of African ubuntu moral theory are susceptible to the charge of
collectivism, his preferred version can do the trick.
Notwithstanding my frivolous analogy, I believe that reading Metz’s article is worthwhile and repays close philosophical attention. It represents one person’s search for a distinctively African communitarian approach to morality that is suitable for public policy formulations on matters that are pertinent to South Africa, and perhaps Africa as a whole. Yet, disagreements there are bound to be when a moral theory is advertised in the public space as a panacea to conflicts and problems of monumental proportions. This article is an attempt to articulate some of my disagreements with Metz’s attempt to ‘construct an ethical principle that not only grows out of indigenous understandings of ubuntu’, but also ‘clearly accounts for the importance of individual liberty’ and ‘serves as a promising
it means for a theory to be truly communitarian and then express
1 See, eg, Gyekye’s defence of moderate communitarianism as better equipped in adequately accounting for individual freedom and rights than its rival, extreme communitarianism, in K Gyekye Traditionandmodernity:Philosophicalreflectionson theAfrican experience (1997); see also JO Famakinwa ‘The moderate communitarian individual and the primacy of duties’ (2010) 76 Theoria152-166 for an insightful criticism of Gyekye’s view.
2 T Metz ‘Ubuntuas a moral theory and human rights in South Africa’ (2011) 11
3 Metz (n 2 above) 534.
some doubts about whether Metz’s theory counts as one. In the second section, I argue that Metz has not successfully shown that individual freedom is compatible with an ubuntuethic. My strategy is to explore three options available to Metz for establishing the compatibility of the two and argue that each one presents new problems for his ubuntumoral theory. In the final section, I cast doubts on the initial appeal of Metz’s account of human rights. My contention is that Metz’s account controversially proposes that rights are represented as duties.
2 The communitarian status of Metz’s ubuntu moral theory
In its simple form, Metz’s variant of the moral theory of ubuntuis unquestionably communitarian. But Metz has not offered us a simple theory; there are several layers of intuitions that have shaped the
theory in its current expression still retains its communitarian pedigree.5I think that we have reason to suspect that it does not. In particular, I argue that a moral theory is sufficiently communitarian if
it adequately captures the basic tenets of communitarianism. One such core aspect of communitarianism is its construction of the individual moral agent as necessarily embedded in a network of relationships. I take this to be the foundational claim about the causal dependence of the individual on the community. Alternatively, a communitarian theory should fully capture the value of community as a non-instrumental good. Implicit in this claim is the view that, in any hierarchical ordering of values, community should rank higher than
4 See T Metz ‘Toward an African moral theory’ (2007) 15 Journal of Political Philosophy321-341 for the original expression of Metz’s ubuntumoral theory. Since then, the theory has been developed and sometimes modified to include, eg, an account of human dignity, human rights, etc. The following publications represent the development in Metz’s and modification of his original intuitions about a distinctive African moral theory: T Metz ‘Human dignity, capital punishment, and an African moral theory’ (2010) 9 JournalofHumanRights
81-99; T Metz ‘African conceptions of human dignity: Vitality and community as the ground of human rights’ (2012) 13 Human Rights Review19-37; T Metz
‘Developing African political philosophy: Moral-theoretic strategies’ (2012) 14
PhilosophiaAfricana 61-83;T Metz ‘African values, human rightsandgrouprights:
5 Compare Ramose’s criticism of the African status of Metz’s ubuntumoral theory in MB Ramose ‘But Hans Kelsen was not born in Africa: A reply to Thaddeus Metz’ (2007) 26 SouthAfricanJournalofPhilosophy347.
6 In characterising the core commitments of communitarianism, I rely on Bell’s threefold distinction of communitarianism as expressing a metaphysical claim regarding the communal nature of the self, normative claim about community as
core aspects of communitarianism, Metz’s favoured ubuntutheory is to be found wanting; indeed, it seems to veer dangerously in the direction of the liberal tradition.
Metz’s project on ubuntu begins with a critical survey of the available literature with the aim of articulating not the prevailing view of morality among Africans, but instead a justified moral principle that is faithful to values found in sub-Saharan Africa. In order to do this, he explores the term ubuntuand the associated maxim ‘a person is a person through other persons’. And having considered and rejected a variety of expressions of this maxim as an ethical principle, Metz settles for one according to which ‘an action is right just insofar as it produces harmony and reduces discord; an act is wrong to the extent