Sunday, October 6, 2013
Idle Thoughts -- Africans, Amerinds, and Socrates
Africans in their tribal ethics, tend to deny the existence of a person as a separate unique identity. This is contrary to the Western concept that a person is an individual simply by the nature of his existence. In many African systems, a person becomes a person when they are integrated into their culture, their society. A person then is perceived as such because he is part of the broader community. Being a person becomes a relationship issue rather than an inherent issue. An individual was not been initiated or otherwise taken into a tribe is not fully a person.
Because poverty and hunger are such critical issues for survival in many parts of Africa, there is much more emphasis upon these as rights rather than on political rights. The American Bill of Rights would make little sense in this African concept. After all, what is the value of freedom of speech, or freedom of religion when people are struggling simply to gain enough food to survive until the next day?
Further, the well-being of the individual is considered only in the context of the well-being of the community. The American attitude that the individual's prosperity will be reflected in the community's prosperity is not shared in traditional African views. Instead, they take the opposite view. If the community prospers, then the individual will also prosper.
African ethics generally regard a person who fails to behave in a moral or ethical manner as lacking character. Since they also believe that a person's character depends upon the habits that he himself has formed, each individual is responsible for his own character or lack of character. So, if a person wishes to have a good character, he must make a conscious effort to act in a good way. Over time, this will become habitual and thus give him a good character.
An individual who lacks this character is often referred to, even in different African languages, as not a person. He is still regarded as a human being, but not a person. The two are different concepts in this way of thinking. Remember that being a person means being a part of your community or society. So a human being who is not actively a good and beneficial part of this society may be human, but he is not a person.
In the western mind personhood and being a human being are considered much the same thing. This is not true in African thought. In Western thought humanity and personhood are inherent traits which must be respected and honored. In African society being human is inherent trait but even so it must not necessarily be respected. Only a good human, a human with good character, can be regarded as a person. To us it is automatic. To them it is a state that must be earned.
In the African system, children are certainly human beings. They are certainly prized and precious members of the community. However, because they are not get old enough to make moral judgments they are not yet considered to be persons.
In a similar manner, many American Indian citizens of ethics regard the individual not in the Western sense as a single unit, but rather as part of a larger group. There are several groups to which an individual would belong. His own tribe. Other living things, as he is related to plants and animals around him. And also the ecosystem, the system of the air, water, and all of the natural processes that sustain life in general. This is not to say the Indians did not change the natural world around them. They did. However, they felt they had to do in a responsible manner. Thus the Indians honored, celebrated and in some cases even worshiped the very animals they killed for their survival. Westerners see man as the dominator or even conquer of nature, American Indians, very like Africans, saw humans as a part of the system.
Socrates agreed to an extent with both of these positions. He believed that virtue is something that can be taught. He believed that people only did wrong out of ignorance. He thought people are naturally good and if they only know about themselves effectively, then they will behave properly. He thought this was so because doing good things will always benefit you. Whereas doing bad things would always hurt you. Many today regard this is a very simplistic view of reality.
His focus, then, is on self-knowledge. People need to study themselves, learn about themselves, and then they will know right from wrong and will naturally perform good acts. He does believe that each individual is responsible for his own state of affairs. The person was not taken time to know himself and to learn about himself is responsible for that lack of effort.
He sees the individual, however, as important in and of himself. Neither African or Indian ethics see a person as a separate entity. They insist the person is part of a whole. Socrates does not completely reject this, but sees the individual as complete unto himself. His relationship to society is important, but does not define him as a person, unlike the definitions of the American Indian and African systems.
So he emphasizes self-knowledge and believes that people are inherently good although they are responsible for examining themselves to gain the knowledge which allows them to be good. He also sees the individual as important simply because he is an individual. This differs from the other two systems in that they feel that a person can become good, as Socrates does, but they feel the person becomes good not through self-knowledge, but through the very act of being good. In other words, it isn't about knowledge of oneself, it's about making a habit of doing the right thing.