Ethics (African)

Ofo seen here is a symbol of authority standing for truthfulness, justice and sincerity. Photo: Vanguard NG

Ethics is a human science. But it is not just about deducing abstract moral principles in a philosophical manner. It is about the task of decision for a living person confronted with situations and challenges. Thus, the ultimate purpose or essence of ethics is to guide human beings in their daily interaction with their fellowmen in a social environment; which is full of complications, contradictions and challenges. Construed in this fashion and in this context, ethics means the moral thinking which guides human actions, interactions and in relationships, to result in a cohesive social bonding and a well rounded life moderated by reason. Ethics is ultimately about moderated and guided human actions. It is about voluntary decisions, choices and actions that we take and how these make or mar our interaction with other people. Consequently, it is important for our own sake and the sake of future people that these decisions, choices and actions be well informed and guided by ideals and values that have weathered the test, the vagaries, the changing fortunes, of time.



The Purpose of Ethics

In clarifying the ultimate purpose or essence of ethics, we should first of all take a quick glance at how it has been characterized or the meaning assigned to it by professional philosophers, since it is a core discipline of Philosophy. Ethics is simply described as moral philosophy. It is that branch of philosophy concerned with articulating, proposing, clarifying and prescribing concepts and standards of human conduct. Ethics is the professional philosophical study of morality; for morality can indeed be studied in a non philosophical manner. Thus, when morality is studied philosophically, it becomes ethics. But ethics, like philosophy, has many subdivisions.

When it prescribes the standards to which human actions should conform or rather when it proposes the yardsticks with which to evaluate the rightness or wrongness of human behavior;  what is right to do and what is wrong to do, and the consequences of our actions as a people, it becomes prescriptive in character and normative ethics would emerge. Normative ethics may stipulate the right conduct to adopt at all times or as circumstances dictate; and may catalogue a hybrid criteria such as utility and the joy of the quantity of persons concerned, self interest, social custom, the decree of God, right reason, et cetera as standards for measuring the rightness or wrongness of human actions. But when the concern is about the ultimate source of moral authority, the meaning of the sentences of a moralizer—whether or not they are objective or whether indeed they are expressions of private personal preferences; then moral philosophy becomes classified as meta-ethics. And then we have applied and professional ethics which investigate specific controversial issues of moral nature such as abortion; euthanasia; same sex interaction and marriages; the production of consumable but obviously harmful articles; capital punishment and environmental pollution and degradation; and the code of conduct in specific departments of human activities such as education, medicine, law, architecture and business concerns, respectively[i].

African Moral System

Reflections on ethical matters in many African societies have generally placed some emphasis on the theory of forces in their hierarchical order of placement, in their interdependence and their interfusion with one another. What affects one life force affects the other(s). Ethnographical surveys also confirm that this theory of interdependence and interpenetration of forces in their ontological hierarchy is the basis of social action in all African communities[ii]. Amongst the Bantu, for instance, human actions are judged to be good or bad, right or wrong depending on whether or not the acts promote or diminish vital force or life force. As with the Bantu, a lucid expression of African ethics is articulated in Yoruba World View.

Oluwole explains that Yoruba ethics, a variant of African ethics, is founded on the golden rule and the principle of utility. In other words, the moral standard for the Yoruba is the principle which states that one should always act towards others the way he would want others to act towards him. Invariably, with the golden rule principle, the individual makes himself the standard of morality[iii]. This rule is a summon of and a command to the individual to do well always and avoid evil and injury to others. It is a categorical imperative, Kantian style, for the individual to abhor evil, abhor corruption and adopt modest and honest living. The point of interest here is that the essence of Yoruba ethics is goodness of character which consists in doing good to others, in having others in mind and in showing consideration for our fellowmen. It is a general belief in the Yoruba society that respect is equivalent to good behaviour, and vice versa. This brings us to the ethical concepts of Iwa (Character) and Omoluabi (Good Character). The Yoruba holds in high esteem Iwarere (Good Character) as the source of beingness. This is affirmed to by Bolaji Idowu[iv] citing a verse from Ifa corpus thus: Character is all that is, character is all that is requisite, there is no destiny to be called unhappy in the city of Ife, character is all that is requisite. Imperatively, this common saying by the Yoruba complements the ethical position thus: character is the King of Solicitude. Iwa (Character) in this context could be associated with personality building and could also be influenced by other concepts such as destiny and conscience. A man of good character and good conscience is the one who is able to contribute positively to societal growth and ensues harmonious living, who ensures not only his own happiness but the happiness of the society as a whole. Correspondingly, in Igbo ethical thinking, the Ofor title holder (Onyejide Ofor) is a man of moral high ground, a man of clean hands, a man of justice, a man of fair play, one who dispenses equity. Onyejide Ofor signifies a custodian of justice, the symbol of upright living. Such a person radiates his moral character on the whole community[v].

Also in Ika moral thinking, a corrupt or immoral action upsets the equilibrium of forces in their ontological hierarchy and generates tension in the community. When there is an infringement of a taboo, the perpetrator is not the only one to suffer. Everybody is affected. So everybody suffers; hence the Ika saying that even when a finger brings oil, it soils the others. Immoral and criminal acts weaken the vital force and the spiritual potency of the clan. That is why the way people conduct themselves is the concern of everyone. Evil deeds not only impact negatively on the doer and his victim, such deeds put the entire community at risk. What one does with his life is not just about his life alone; it is about interacting, intermingling and interpenetrating vital forces. It is because of this that elders and heads of families in a typical Ika community take steps to interfere with the activities of the individual. If such interference does not happen, if the excesses of the individual are not checked, the existential harmony of the group would be severely threatened.

The moral exemplar, the man of moral high ground in Ika ethics is called Onye obi ocha, literally, “a person of white mind,” and one with purity of soul. His conduct, comportment and general carriage overflow the community and equilibrate vital forces. One man’s conduct, therefore, if he is an ethicalall rounder, can illuminate and vitalize the entire community. Ika ethics emphasizes the quality and character of the human person. This has a potential for increasing the happiness and wellbeing of the community. It is at this point that African ethics becomes utilitarian in character[vi].

The gist of utilitarian ethics, even as it is presented in Western Philosophy, is that emphasis is put on the effect which the action will produce. Thus, when presented in utilitarian terms, African ethics entails the proposition that “if an action produces excess of beneficial effects over harmful ones then it is right otherwise it is not.” The official doctrine of utilitarianism as articulated by Jeremy Bentham is to the effect that an action is right if it promotes the greatest happiness of the largest number. In a similar vein, African ethics accepts the maxim of the greatest happiness of the people or the sustenance of joy, peace and equilibrium in the entire community as the foundation of morality. This is so, because the ontological basis of African communal system is anchored on the thesis that the wellbeing of men and their happiness must be the standard for evaluating human conduct[vii].

[i] See Jim I. Unah, Emotivism: A Critical Account of Ayer’s and Stevenson’s Views on Ethical Philosophy, The Nigerian Journal of Philosophy, 10.1& 2 (1990).

[ii] See J. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, London: Heinmann Educational Books Ltd, 1967; J. Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1961; P. Tempels, Bantu Philosophy, Paris: Presence Africaine, 1959.

[iii] See Sophia Oluwole, Witchcraft, Reincarnation and the God-head: Issues in African  Philosophy (Lagos: Excel, 1992),

[iv] See E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religions: A Definition (London: SMC Press Ltd, [1993).

[v] E. A. Ruch, and K. C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy: An Inroduction to the Main [8n6] Philosophical Trends in Contemporary Africa, Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1981, pp.139–144

[vi] Jim I. Unah, Ika Philosophy: What is it? 6th Ikakanma Annual Lecture August 20, 2005

[vii] J. I. Omoregbe, Ethics: A Systematic and Historical Study, Lagos: Joja Educational Research and Publishers Ltd, 1993, pp.135–141

Profession: Researchers