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Africa Today 49.3 (2002) 129-131



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Bujo, Bénézet. 2001. Foundations of an African Ethic: Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality. Translated from German by Brian McNeil. New York: Crossroad Pub-lishing. 214 pp.

The question of ethics is often addressed within African research, but almost always in an anthropological manner. In this study, we have an ethical discussion that integrates a theological and philosophical point of view without neglecting the anthropological viewpoint. The book is thus a sort of open discussion between Africa and the rest of the world, and yet its goal is not to promote an African ethics that neglects other viewpoints. Bujo summons within his discussion both Roman Catholic theology and contemporary German philosophy, noting that the question of ethics is still central in the justification of our actions. Philosophers and theologians continue their search for the ultimate foundations of morality. Some believe, as did Kant, that we can deduce moral principles a priori, without taking individual experiences into account. Morality is thus founded on the universality of reason. Other philosophers think, as did Wittgenstein, that the discourse of morality should not be deduced from principles a priori, because all discourse on morality is subject to the language games and life forms of individual peoples. In attempting to examine the foundations on [End Page 129] which the supposed universality of Western morality is founded, Bujo falls within the second tendency. His book is thus both critical and programmatic.

In chapter one, Bujo addresses the fundamental question of African ethics by demonstrating the importance of interaction between the individual and the community in Africa. Western ethics is founded upon the individual, the autonomous and responsible "thinking subject," but African morality relies upon the community. This is not to say that there is no individual viewpoint, that the subject does not exist in Africa, or that the community decides in the name of the subject: it is, rather, a stance that takes the individual as being nothing without the community, and the community as being nothing without the individual. It is in this interactivity that the regulations of morality are often elaborated, and the Roman Catholic Church (in its catechism and influential papal documents, such as Humanae Vitae) can fail if it does not recognize the relationship between the individual and the community in Africa.

In addition to the role of the community, Bujo insists that the role of virtue is necessary for understanding African ethics. For him, fairy tales, proverbs, riddles, and initiations structure morality within African society, and in this he is in agreement with Alasdair MacIntyre, who insists upon the narrative dimension of virtue. One can examine the question of morality in Africa only by including the narrative dimension.

Third, African ethics must take discussion into account. The "ethical communication" of Jürgen Habermas and K. O. Apel insists on the communicative dimension of ethics, but their communicative ethics is based on a Westernized conception of rationale. For example, the communicative ethics of Habermas does not consider the narrative dimension of tales, legends, and proverbs. His ethics mistrusts the community. For Bujo, however, the example of communicative ethics is also found in the palaver, a subject he discusses in citing other African works, including Ndjimbi-Tshiende's Réciprocité-coopération et le système palabrique africain (1992), and Bidi-ma's La Palabre, une juridiction de la parole (1997). Contrary to what one might think, that the palaver is a needless discussion, the palaver is in fact the place where norms that guide society are elaborated. It serves to dispense justice in cases of conflict, to complete matrimonial transactions, and to effect better therapy.

From this practice, we can deduce several important points concerning African ethics. First, the notion of peace is much more important than the notion of equality; second, the integrative aspect is important, with the individual never being excluded from the community, except in rare cases; and finally, consultation and deliberation have primacy before any decision making. From these considerations of palaver, Bujo examines...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1978
Print ISSN
0001-9887
Pages
pp. 129-131
Launched on MUSE
2003-04-18
Open Access
No
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