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Africa PhilosophyMorality Based On Religion In African Thought, Morality As Custom, Bibliography

Morality consists of two parts: first, morality in the strict sense; and second, morality as custom or mores. The defining principle of the first is the golden rule, that of the second, local utility, idiosyncrasy, or even accident. The first is known to be universal to all human cultures. This has to be so of a necessity, in view of what the rule entails. The golden rule, to follow Harry Gensler, enjoins that one ought not to endeavor to do something to somebody without conceding that it would be acceptable for that person to do the same thing to one in an imagined, exactly reversed situation. From this, specific imperatives of honesty, fairness, and respect are derivable without which human community is inconceivable.

To take an example reminiscent of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), suppose a particular individual's project is to make a promise to someone that he or she has not the slightest intention of keeping. If that person pauses for a moment to consider whether he or she is prepared grant that it would be all right for the other person, in an exactly reversed situation, to do the same, the person making the promise will see that this is not possible. Moreover, if one has basic intelligence, one will see that the general avowal among all people of the reverse of the injunction against false promises would bring human community to an end.

The working of the golden rule in the shape of specific rules, such as this last, is manifest in moral conduct and discourse all over the world, irrespective of differences of culture or even of individual thought habits. Thus, for example, if Christians are at least theoretically dedicated to the counsels of the golden rule, so also have Chinese Confucians have also been so since pre-Christian antiquity. Nor, similarly, is it difficult to find formulations of the golden rule in the repertoire of didactic epigrams in the oral traditions of Africa. The Yoruba say, "Whenever a person breaks a stick in the forest, let him consider what it would feel like if it were himself [who was thus broken]" (Idowu, p. 166). And defining the quintessence of moral insensitivity by way of the inverse of the golden rule, the Akans remonstrate, "Sticking into another person's flesh, it might just as well be sticking into a piece of wood" (Wiredu, 1992, p. 198). To be moral, accordingly, is to evince empathetic impartiality in one's actions on the model of the golden rule.

Notwithstanding this universality in the living of the moral life, the theorizing of it, that is, its philosophy, gives rise to great diversities of persuasion not only among cultures but also within them. Famously, Western philosophers, sharing basically the same moral values, have been in earnest conflict about the nature of moral ideas and the ultimate principles of moral judgment. So among other "isms," there are subjectivism and objectivism, on the first front, and consequentialism and de-ontology, on the second. In contemporary African philosophy, too, unanimity does not reign. But the bone of contention lies in the interpretation of the traditional communal philosophy of morals.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck length