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African Ethics
The Ethiopian Enlightenment
Zera Yacob
• Zera Yacob (1599-1692) argues that
reason, applied to the available
evidence, supports the conclusion that
the world, God’s creation, is essentially
• Because creation is essentially good,
enjoying it is also good
• Zera Yacob calls reason
the “light of the heart.”
• He uses it to criticize the
ethical prescriptions of
various religions, which
imply that the order of
nature itself is wrong
• Rules that restrain our natural dispositions
may be acceptable
• But those that contradict them cannot be
Ethical Test
• Reason thus serves as a foundation for
morality and as a test for religious
• Any view that teaches that some part of
the natural order, or some natural
disposition, is wrong cannot be correct
Ethics and Religion
• Divine command theorists take God’s
will as itself making some acts right and
others wrong
• Many other religious thinkers have
believed that God reveals moral truth
and that we can know that truth only
because God reveals it to us
• Defenders of each religion claim that
they know the only true way
• Obviously, not all can be right
• How can we decide who is right?
• How can we judge which alleged
revelations really come from God?
• The only way to tell true revelations
from pretenders is
– using reason to discover moral truth and
– judging the claims of those religions by the
light of reason
• Ethics must precede religion
• It doesn’t depend on it
Communitarian Consequentialism
• Kwame Gyekye, of the Akan tribe, has
written about the Akan view of causality,
metaphysics, religion, and ethics
Communitarian Consequentialism
• Consequentialism: the view that all
moral value depends solely on the
consequences of actions
• Good acts are those that bring about
the well-being of society; bad actions
work against it
Communitarian Consequentialism
• Western consequentialists, who treat
the good of a community as the sum of
the goods of its members
• The Akan maintain that the good of the
community cannot be reduced to
individual goods
• According to communitarian
• Good acts promote the well-being of
• Social well-being: social welfare,
solidarity, harmony, and other features
of the social order itself
• People are essentially social
• One can speak of the good of an individual
only in terms of the good of the society he or
she inhabits
• It Takes a Village: People cannot achieve the
good on their own; they must rely upon others
• Consequently, individual good depends on
the good of the community
Ordinary and Extraordinary Evils
• Extraordinary evils bring suffering to the whole
community, not just to individual members of it
• Theft, adultery, lying, and backbiting are ordinary
evils; they harm specific people, but do little to
affect people not immediately connected to the act
• Murder, rape, incest, cursing the chief, etc., affect
the entire community, undermining a people’s
sense of community
East African Islamic Ethics
• Islam + traditional African beliefs
East African Islamic Ethics
• The key concept is utu, humanity or
• Like the English word humanity, utu has
descriptive and normative dimensions
– Descriptively, it refers to the essence of
human beings—what makes us human
– Normatively, it refers to what makes us
“A Human Being is Utu”
• Descriptively: tautology—“a human
being is human.”
• Normatively: we are essentially moral
“Utu is Action”
• Humanity and morality are
expressed in what we do
• That we are essentially
rational and therefore moral
beings implies that we
deserve moral respect,
“A Human Being is Not a Thing.”
• Utu contrasts with kitu (thing)
• People must not be used, but must be
respected as moral agents