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Communitarianism in African Thought

Gyekye On Moderate Communitarianism

Gyekye has argued that Menkiti overstated claims and that his views are misleading. Other factors, such as rationality, virtue, evaluation of moral judgments, and choice are important in determining personhood in Africa. People are born into community and have an orientation toward others. The Akan proverb, "A person is not a palm tree to survive alone," summarizes human interdependence. Individual capacities, talents, dispositions, goals, and needs are met in interaction with others in society. Gyekye has also argued that it is a mistake to conclude that there are no individual dimensions to personhood in Africa. He cites another Akan proverb in which the view that individuals exist prior to community is implicit: "One tree does not make a forest." "Community existentially derives from the individual and the relationships that would exist between them" (Gyekye, p. 38). Thus the reality of the community is derivative, not primary, and individuals choose whether they want to belong to a community or not. The community allows an individual to actualize his or her potential and develop personality in the social world without destroying his or her own will.

Gyekye quoted another Akan proverb to support his views of individuality. "A clan is like a cluster of trees which, when seen from afar, appear huddled together, but which would seem to stand individually when closely approached." Two other Akan proverbs underscore individuality: "One does not fan [the hot food] that another may eat," and "The lizard does not eat pepper for the frog to sweat." Individuals have particular attributes, which they often exercise in contrast to the community. In opposition to Menkiti's position that one earns personhood, Gyekye has argued that the term person is ambiguous. For example, what is implied in the expression onye onipa—"He is not a person"—is that the person does not display the norms of human behavior such as kindness, generosity, compassion, benevolence, and respect for other people. The Akan also say of someone, "He is a person," meaning the person fulfills his or her obligations. Personhood also involves responsible action that leads to success.

Exercising one's potential cannot be seen as the process of becoming a person in the sense in which Menkiti describes it. Individuals have a rational, moral sense and a capacity for virtue and judgment that the community nurtures. Individuals can also question what they do not agree with. Individuals are self-directing and self-determining and for that reason possess autonomy. Individual autonomy should not be equated with morality; instead, a moral agent must have the capacity to distinguish between good and evil. Although there is no conceptual link between autonomy and morality, there is a link between autonomy and freedom. Actions that result from a person's vision (visionary acts) concretize individuality because visionaries are always ahead of the public. Individuals who have visions can come up with innovative things to do even though such innovation might draw from the past history and narrative of the community.

Gyekye also has advocated moderate communitarianism because communities are more than associations of individuals; communities share values and obligations, and members of the community often express a desire to promote communal interests. Thus members of the community often invest intellectual, ideological, and emotional attachment to the community and engage in reciprocal social relations within the family, clan, village, ethnic group, neighborhood, city, and nation. Community, in this sense, refers to a cultural community, one that shares values and practices, not simply to a language group. The idea of community implies a common good, which is not merely the combination of individual interests but shared values, working together to meet the necessities of life and a common humanity, and not merely a surrogate of total individual goods. Thus "the common good" refers to all the values a community shares: peace, freedom, respect, dignity, security, and satisfaction.

Gyekye has argued that Western communitarians like Alas-dair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel, who argue that individuals are only part of a community because they inherit their narratives from the community in which they are embedded, have overstated their case. One may indeed start from a certain narrative, but the fact that one can also reject sections of the narrative or practice one finds immoral is an indication that an individual person is not entirely constituted by the social. Radical communitarians thus exaggerate the impact of history and communal structures on individual autonomy. Furthermore, communitarians have rejected the construction of political thought solely from a foundation of individual rights. According to MacIntyre, "the truth is plain: there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with the belief in witches and in unicorns" (1984, p. 69). Communitarians would want to replace the politics of right with the idea of common good. By contrast, Gyekye has argued that rights are indispensable to self-assertion and the evaluative process. The idea of rights strengthens human dignity. Advocates of rights anchor their beliefs in the theistic perspective that human beings have intrinsic value because God created them.

Finally, rights can also be derived from nature because an individual has a rational faculty that allows him or her to strive to be the best he or she can be. Therefore a community cannot disregard individual rights. Moderate communitarianism, however, is not obsessed with rights alone but also emphasizes, according to Gyekye, social values such as peace, harmony, stability, solidarity, mutuality, and reciprocity. Individual rights should be matched with responsibility. A sense of responsibility implies that supererogation is not necessary to morality, but that morality should be open, with no limits placed on individual self-sacrifice.

This view of personhood allows for consideration of, among other things, human rights in the African context. Postcolonial leaders stressed communitarian views, assuming that this kind of communal spirit would easily translate into the more complex needs of a nation-state. Politicians were eager to champion socialism and communal essentialism, and their preference for a communitarian ethos has compromised the debate on human rights in Africa. The human rights question suggests and implies that individuals have certain rights and should therefore possess self-determination. Strengthening individuality cannot be seen then as a concession to Western values because the Western tradition also supports communitarian perspectives. Moderate communitarianism is appealing because a radical communal thesis paints only a partial portrait of the dialectic between individualism and communitarianism.


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Elias K. Bongmba

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to ConcupiscenceCommunitarianism in African Thought - Menkiti On Communitarianism, Gyekye On Moderate Communitarianism, Bibliography