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Africa PhilosophyMorality As Custom

The foregoing has been about morality as determined by the golden rule. But there are, as hinted in the opening paragraph, countless behavioral as well as institutional options that are neither prescribed nor proscribed by the golden rule. This brings us to the sphere of custom, broadly conceived. Customs are multifarious, both in nature and origin, in Africa and everywhere else. Some precipitate philosophical questions; others do not. It is in terms of custom that cultures are differentiated. And one of the most important criteria of differentiation lies in the contrast between individualism and communitarianism. It is a contrast that is also, philosophically, quite challenging.

There is a veritable consensus among students of African societies south of the Sahara that traditional African culture is communitarian. A communitarian society is one in which individuality is regarded as a construct out of community, and an individualistic society, one in which community is regarded as a construct out of individuality. The apparent sharpness of the contrast, however, is illusory. It is a matter of degree, for without individuals there is no community, and without a community there are no human individuals. Still, a lively concern in moral philosophy among contemporary African philosophers is to clarify and evaluate the claims of individuality in the context of African communitarianism. Kwame Gyekye, for example, stresses the importance of individuality and entitles his version of communitarianism "moderate communitarianism" (Gyekye 1997, chap. 2). Dismas Masolo (pp. 495f.) also suggests that African communitarianism, properly considered, is hospitable to individuality. The enterprise of reassessment naturally spills over into social and political philosophy (Gyekye 1995, chaps. 8, 10; Masolo).


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Masolo, Dismas. "African Communalism and Western Communitarianism: A Comparison." In A Companion to African Philosophy, edited by Kwasi Wiredu. Malden, U.K.: Blackwell, 2004.

Sumner, Claude. Classical Ethiopian Philosophy. Los Angeles: Adey, 1994.

Wiredu, Kwasi. Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

——. "Moral Foundations of an African Culture." In Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, edited by Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992.

——. "Morality and Religion in Akan Thought." In African-American Humanism: An Anthology, edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Kwasi Wiredu

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthMoral - Africa Philosophy - Morality Based On Religion In African Thought, Morality As Custom, Bibliography