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Africa PhilosophyMorality Based On Religion In African Thought

By one account, African life and thought is religious through and through, and ethics is only a special case of this orientation: everything in morality, as regards both meaning and principle, comes from God. A most eloquent articulation of this view is found in Bolaji Idowu's Odumare: God in Yoruba Belief. After rejecting any suggestion that morality derives from society's need for self-preservation or that morality is "the product of commonsense" (Idowu, p. 144), he asserts "Our own view is that morality is basically the fruit of religion and that, to begin with, it was dependent upon it. Man's concept of deity has everything to do with what is taken to be the norm of morality" (p. 145). More specifically, "The sense of right and wrong, by the decree of God, has always been part of human nature" (p. 146, italics added). Again, "With the Yoruba, morality is the fruit of religion" (p. 146). See also, in support of this standpoint, M. Akin Makinde's African Philosophy, Culture, and Traditional Medicine (1988).

There is a general objection to a view of this sort that is well known in Western philosophy. If something is good irrespective of its intrinsic character simply because it is decreed by God, then if God were to decree something like slavery, it would have to be accepted it as moral. But surely, one might retort, God would never decree so radical an affront to human dignity as slavery! Exactly this is the point. One is inconsistently proceeding with a criterion of moral goodness that is logically antecedent to God's decrees, on the basis of which one already esteems God as morally good (in the highest). Note further that if moral goodness were defined in terms of the decrees of God, then to say that God is good would amount to just saying that God decrees what he decrees. In African philosophy, however, it is not these objections but rather a consideration linked to a deep feature of African culture that has militated against any kind of divine-decree view of morals.

The feature in question is, actually, the lack of a feature familiar to students of the "world religions." These religions—almost all of them—are dogmatic religions, and the dogma relevant here is that of revelation: God is supposed to reveal directly to a select few what the rules of right conduct are. This is necessary because if right conduct is by definition what is decreed by God, there is an urgent need to know what those decrees are. Obviously this is too important to be left to fallible individual speculation. On the other hand, in African traditional religions, as far as one can see from the literature and from one's experience, direct revelation from God is unheard of. Alleged "specialists" do indeed claim direct knowledge from extrahuman sources, frequently hyperbolically described as "gods." But these are mundane sources, and the information volunteered by them is empirical and open to falsification. In fact, in the traditional scheme of things, repeated falsification of the messages of such "gods" can lead to their demise by reason of the accumulated contempt of their erstwhile devotees.

It is of a piece with these last considerations that there are no prophets of God in African traditional religion and, in particular, none with any pretences to moral or any kind of revelation. J. B. Danquah, speaking of the Akans, has declared with good reason that "Never in the history of the Akan people, so far as we know, have we had what is known as a revealed religion, a revelation to, or by, a prophet, of duty to a Supreme or Lord" (p. 3). Naturally, therefore, the Akans and, it would seem, Africans south of the Sahara generally do not seek the rationale of morality in the decrees of God but in the exigencies of social existence (see Wiredu, 1991). The Akan philosopher Kwame Gyekye has argued to the same conclusion (Gyekye, 1995, chap. 8). Regarding the Yoruba, Segun Gbadegesin also maintains that they "are very pragmatic in their approach to morality, and although religion may serve them as a motivating force, it is not the ultimate appeal in moral matters" (p. 82).

The remaining impediment to a just conception of the African approach to the foundation of morals is the notion that African morality is determined by the decrees of the ancestors. Two things may be meant here. First, the suggestion may be that the conduct of Africans is decisively influenced by considerations as to the likes and dislikes of the ancestors. If so, some validity may be conceded to it. It is true that in "family" (or, more strictly, lineage) matters the ancestors are believed to reward rectitude on the part of the living and punish its opposite in their own extrahuman manner. But the principles supposed to be used in their evaluations are the moral and in some cases customary principles by which the ancestors themselves lived when they were alive in this world, and these, as suggested above, have a this-worldly rationale. Besides, those in African society who are moved to action or forbearance by the thought of ancestral rewards or reprisals are those of a weak moral fiber. Those of a more solid moral aptitude adjust their conduct by a direct cognizance of the principles themselves. The same applies to moral action or inaction enforced by the "fear" of God or motivated by any sort of religious causes. Second, the notion under consideration may mean that for Africans, moral rightness or goodness is defined in terms of the will (or wills?) of the ancestors. If so, the considerations already adduced concerning the relativization of morality to the decrees of God should be more than enough to lay this to rest too.

What then, more specifically, is the foundation of morality in African thought? It is morality in the strict sense that is being considered here, that is, as defined by the golden rule. This rule, indeed, defines morality, but it does not motivate it. Why is this rule needed at all? It is because of the following. Human individuals have their own interests that they pursue or desire to pursue. But they live in society, and in that setting, the efforts of individuals in pursuit of their interests not infrequently threaten to conflict or actually conflict with varying degrees of severity, not excluding the deadly. Only the most basic ability to reflect is needed to see that in this situation it is in the interests of all concerned that a way be found for harmonizing those interests. Any principle for pursuing such a harmony of interests will inevitably involve the occasional pruning down of the interests of an individual in deference to the interests of others. But this restraint must apply to individuals impartially. The golden rule is exactly that principle.

These thoughts on the rationale of morality, strictly so called, are encapsulated in an Akan art motif depicting a freak crocodile with one stomach and two heads locked up in a fight over food. The profundity of this art construct is typical of the way in which art is used in Africa to express ethical and more generally philosophical conceptions. Its meaning will not be exhausted here, but it is crucial to note that the two heads symbolize the reality and diversity of the interests of individuals, while the common stomach represents the common interests of all and sundry. The teaching is that the conflict can be resolved only by the realization of this second-order commonality of interests. And the resolution will have to be one in which the targeted resource is shared in a manner impartially sensitive to the original interests of all the parties, that is, in accordance with the golden rule. This reflection also suggests a succinct characterization of the rationale or foundation of morals as the evenhanded pursuit of human interests, where the evenhandedness is thanks to the golden rule. The reader might like to note the rational bent of this conception of morality.

The golden rule had a similar centrality in the moral system of the seventeenth-century Ethiopian philosopher Zara Yacob (1592–1692). He was a contemporary of René Descartes who, independently of Descartes, developed a rationalistic philosophy that was if anything more radical in its insistence on reason than that of Descartes (see Sumner, p. 224 ff.). Although he laid much stress on the will of God, he self-consciously construed it as that which is in conformity with reason: "God does not order absurdities" (Sumner, 1994, p. 238).

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