African human rights law journal



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that it fails to develop community.7

Along the way to arriving at this favoured principle, Metz explicitly claims that the aim of morality is not individual well-being or self- realisation. On his account, the fundamental moral value that a moral agent ought to promote inheres in certain kinds of relationships rather

than in anything internal to the individual.8 However, since

promoting certain kinds of relationships, in particular friendly ones,

may sometimes justify sacrificing individual freedom and other basic

human rights, Metz introduces a deontological constraint to the

theory. ‘A moral theory that focuses exclusively on promoting good

outcomes however one can’, Metz cautions, ‘has notorious difficulty

in accounting for an individual right to life, among other human rights.’9 Consequently, he suggests an alternative way of responding to value that requires moral agents to ‘prize’ and ‘honour’ harmonious

relationships as opposed to promoting these values as much as they can. Yet, while integrating a deontological constraint may be an attractive feature of the theory, it is worth noting how an original intuition has been modified.

In this connection, there are three important points I wish to make. First, it is worth pointing out that in the original statement of the ethical principle it seems that the moral agent is obliged to do the good – that is, promote harmonious relationships – everywhere. Now, it appears that sometimes the good is not worth doing. More importantly, the moral agent within the ubuntu moral system has moral reasons to refrain from doing the good, and these reasons derive not necessarily from her valuation of community, but from facts about some inherent value in the individual – that is, specific entitlements the protection of which assures the individual’s well-

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the fundamental value and methodological claim about the importance of communal context in moral and political reasoning – the last of which is omitted since it is less relevant for my present aims. See D Bell Communitarianism and its critics (1993).



7 Metz (n 2 above) 334.

8 Metz (n 2 above) 334; T Metz ‘Ubuntu as a moral theory: Reply to four critics’ (2007) 26 South African Journal of Philosophy 369.

9 Metz (n 2 above) 540.

being. So, although the theory still retains its commitment to the view that morality is other-regarding, it seems to imply that there is some non-instrumental value inherent in individuals rather than



relationships, and this value is worth pursuing for its own sake.10

Second, and relatedly, it appears that there are now two, rather than one, non-instrumental values in Metz’s ubuntu theory. Alternatively, it is not entirely clear that we should still regard friendly relationships as the sole fundamental moral value a moral agent ought to promote. If the view that harmonious relationships are constitutive of the good and the claim that basic individual rights ought to be respected are accurate, then it seems that there are two normative aims worth pursuing. Further, it does not seem entirely true that the morally-right action is one that promotes harmonious relationships as per Metz’s statement of the original ubuntu ethical principle. To adequately reflect the recent modifications of the theory, it appears that Metz’s preferred version of an African ethical principle should be modified such that the morally-right action is the one that produces harmony and/or exhibits respect for human rights. But Metz has not done so – which may suggest that he still regards harmony in relationships as the sole fundamental moral value, in which case it is unclear how his theory can fully account for individual freedom and other basic liberties.

Third, and further, not only does the theory in its more recent appearance equally prize two distinct moral values, but it also prizes two competing – insofar as they are potentially conflicting – non- instrumental values. Although it is maybe the case that these aims sometimes coincide, it is nevertheless true that they do diverge. In fact, the need for Metz to incorporate a deontological constraint in this ubuntu moral theory is born out of the recognition that the goal of achieving harmony may sometimes be at variance with the aim of

upholding individual freedom and other human rights.11 If I am right,

then it follows that Metz has now fragmented the fundamental moral

aim in a way that gravely undermines the original statement of the

favoured principle. Yet, his theoretic romance with human rights does

not end there.

Having integrated the deontological constraint, Metz could not miss the theory’s potential to ground human rights in spite of its communitarian leanings – something he pursues in a roundabout way by first providing an account of human dignity. In his view, the available ubuntu conceptions of human dignity in Southern African thought are inadequate. More specifically, a view of human dignity grounded in relationships or in communal belonging is inadequate

10 See Metz (n 8 above) 383 for the claim that the basic moral reasons for acting are extrinsic rather than intrinsic. For a defence of a version of ubuntu that holds that the basic moral reasons for acting are intrinsic and thus advocates individual well- being as the fundamental moral aim, see J van Niekerk ‘In defence of an autocentric account of ubuntu’ (2007) 26 South African Journal of Philosophy 364.

11 I return to these issues later.

because if dignity inhered in relationships or ‘were a function of actually being in community’, then a person in solitary confinement

would counter-intuitively lack a dignity’.12 For a more promising

conception, Metz proposes that13


one is to develop one’s humanness by communing with those who have a dignity in virtue of their capacity for communing.14 That is, individuals have a dignity insofar as they have a communal nature, that is, the

inherent capacity to exhibit identity and solidarity with others … it is not the exercise of the capacity that matters for dignity, but rather the capacity itself.


I want to draw attention to something rather odd in the preceding passage that further deepens my suspicion that more recent expressions of the ubuntu theory under consideration reflect a radical shift from the original simple statement of the ethical principle. It is odd that a theory that originally locates the fundamental moral value in certain kinds of relationships would opt against the conception of dignity as inhering in such relationships. The reason why I consider this odd is that, since dignity is non-instrumentally valuable, grounding dignity in something besides what the theory says is constitutive of the good immediately identifies two potentially- conflicting non-instrumental values – one that is extrinsic (that is, inheres in relationships) and another that is intrinsic. This reiterates my earlier point that Metz’s ubuntu theory in its fully-fledged version seems to incorporate two distinct and conflicting moral values. But there is a further source of worry.

In the first instance, my misgiving about the communitarian status of the theory relates to how the view that human dignity resides in an individual’s unexercised capacity for community theoretically represents the moral agent. It seems to me that grounding dignity in a yet-to-be-realised capacity for community represents the individual as existing in principle outside the network of relationships that constitutes community. The mere possession of that capacity sets the individual apart from the community, insofar as having that capacity expresses the promise of the individual’s subsequent entry into


12 Metz (n 2 above) 543. It is not entirely clear, and Metz does not say, why a proponent of that view cannot happily bite the bullet and admit that dignity cannot be had outside of the network of relationships that constitute a person’s identity, since whatever individual attributes a person may have are dependent on facts about the community. However, for a more appropriate response, see, eg, A MacIntyre After virtue (1984) 173, who argues that communal roles remain even in isolation, and C Taylor The ethics of authenticity (1991) 33, who contends that even in such isolated states, ‘dialogue continues within us’.

13 Metz (n 2 above) 544. I shall suggest shortly that merely having such a capacity does not by itself suggest that an individual has a communal nature.

14 I should point out that the suggestion here that ‘one is to develop one’s humanness by communing’ strikes me as odd for a theory that emerged out of a careful review and denouncement of ubuntu moral theories that hold individual wellbeing and self-development as the fundamental value. Metz seems to have, without any warning and argument, reverted to the view that the aim of morality is self-development.

community. In resisting the view that dignity is a matter of ‘actually being in community’, Metz implicitly represents the individual as necessarily occupying a place outside of those relationships that constitute community. This view of dignity thus produces a subject who in principle is able to impinge his will on the community from without. Not surprisingly, then, Metz is keen to emphasise the role individual choice plays in the eventual exercise of that capacity. Here is Metz, ‘part of what is valuable about friendship or communal relationships is that people come together, and stay together, of their

own accord’.15 The image, then, is of autonomous individuals who,

through practical reasoning in something akin to a Rawlsian original

situation, have chosen of their own accord to live with others in

community.

But why is such a representation of the individual moral agent problematic? In order to fully answer the question, we must first recognise that Metz’s reason for claiming that what is special and valuable about a human being is the capacity for community is primarily to capture the communal nature of the self. That is to say, he seems to recognise that for his moral theory to be genuinely ubuntu or communitarian, he must integrate the metaphysical claim about the causal dependence of the individual on the community. What has emerged, however, is the complete opposite: that is, that the distinctive capacity that gives humans dignity cannot be causally dependent on the community since any actual community must presuppose it. By offering an account of dignity that is independent of communal belonging or relationships, it appears then that Metz not only cannot account for the communitarian belief that the individual is causally dependent on the community, but also, he rather ingenuously shows support for the view that the community is causally dependent on the individual – in particular, it is merely the



outcome of individual choice.16

But that is not all. With the Kantian capacity for individual choice an essential part of the definition of the individual, it is not entirely clear that it is the capacity for community that is doing the important work in grounding human dignity, even on Metz’s account. Indeed, it

15 Metz (n 2 above) 584.

16 It is worth pointing out how this feature of his theory sets Metz apart from African and Western communitarians, even though his theory is supposed to be communitarian. Eg, Menkiti maintains that individual facts, like dignity, are dependent on communal ones when he explicitly claims that in the African communitarian normative system ‘the reality of the communal world takes precedence over the reality of the individual life histories, whatever these may be’ (IA Menkiti ‘Person and community in African traditional thought’ in RA Wright (ed) African philosophy: An introduction (1984) 171). See also J Kenyatta Facing Mount Kenya (1965) 180; and LS Senghor On African socialism (1964) 49 93-94. Among Western communitarians, similar views are held. Eg, Taylor contests the idea of the individual as independent of society in C Taylor ‘Atomism’ Philosophy and the human sciences: Philosophical papers (1985) 2. On his part, MacIntyre (n 12 above) 250 is opposed to the idea of individuals voluntarily entering into community with already established interests.

is worth pointing out that Metz seems to rather disturbingly construe the capacity for freedom as playing a fundamental role in grounding human dignity. And he construes the capacity for community as essentially including the freedom to exercise it as one deems fit. He thus insists on ‘one’s ability to decide for oneself with whom to commune and how’ and is keen to emphasise that that capacity for

freedom ought not to be restricted.17 One way to see this is to

recognise how the capacity for freedom underlies the capacity for

community, in the sense that whether or not the latter capacity is

exercised is ultimately a function of the former capacity. Metz anticipates this criticism and writes:18


Although a person does need a Kantian ability to make voluntary decisions in order to engage in communal relationships, they are not one and the same thing; for one could make deliberative choices that have nothing to do with one’s identity and solidarity with others.
However, this response fails to convince since it sidesteps the real issue. The real issue is not whether the capacity for freedom (that is, making individual choices) and the capacity for community are one and the same thing. Instead, it is about which one is more fundamental for dignity – in explaining what is special about humans

and distinguishing them from non-human animals.19 And Metz’s



answer is not the simple one that it is the capacity for community, but

rather it is that capacity constituted by the capacity for voluntary

decisions. So what makes us special and gives us dignity is not merely

our capacity for community. Instead, it is the capacity for a freely-



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