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African philosophy and social justice

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JULY 2022

African philosophy and social justice

by Dr Mutshidzi Maraganedzha

MA Philosophy Ph.D. in philosophy


This paper investigates whether African political thought can embody robust theories of social justice. To assess African thought, I consider two influential African theories of social justice: radical and moderate communitarianism. In evaluating these theories, I use the case of people living with serious cognitive disabilities and that of the environment. The underlying assumption is that a robust political theory must include people living with severe mental disabilities and must include the environment in the political community. In the final analysis, I argue that both theories offer a limited place for people living with serious cognitive disabilities, and that the theories do not have a place for the environment in the political community.


Amongst many, one of the central tasks of political philosophy is to construct accounts of a good or just society, or simply put, social justice[1]. These theoretical constructions of social justice have at least two functions. On the one hand, they specify a set of intuitions and values for the ‘just’ in our conceptualising a just society or the ‘good’ in our envisaging a good society. At this level, the debate is both meta-ethical and normative, as it essentially involves deep assumptions about the language and nature of morality and the kinds of prescriptions that flow from such a moral system (Kymlicka, 1990). If, for example, utilitarians do believe that welfare is at the heart of our moral system, then it should follow that we need socio-political systems that would maximise this value (MacNaughton & Rawling, 1992).

On the other hand, these theoretical constructions provide us with a normative standard against which to evaluate our political conditions and realities, to ascertain the extent to which they converge or diverge from the ideal that captures social justice. That is, should our political conditions, if we use welfare as a standard, not be generally characterised by them, then we will be living in a less than just or good society. Much of the philosophical work on social justice has emerged from the global north, where much of what we imagine that counts as just or good in relation to an ideal society is framed in light of what the West imagines it to be.

One of the crucial ways to assess if an account of social justice is plausible, is in terms of the scope of its inclusivity. That is, who it accommodates as entitled to be a member of the political community and to the political goods – whether understood as rights, primary goods, or capabilities – due to them. The concern of inclusivity should make a strong intuitive appeal given a vast lived experience of discrimination in politics, which is the hallmark of what theories of social justice aim to avoid, address or redress.

For example, most leading Western theories of social justice have been criticised for manifesting one form of unjustified discrimination or another. Kant, and Kantian political thought, has been accused of failing to include those living with serious mental disabilities, and animals from the political community. This exclusion means that the interests of such entities do not count when we distribute important goods for survival or a meaningful existence (Carlson, 2009).

John Rawls (1971), famous for his book A Theory of Justice, has been criticised for excluding the disabled from his social contract. His account of a good society excludes those with serious mental disabilities from the political community (Kittay, 2011). Much of Western political thought has also been criticised for failing to include people of colour, women, and the LGBTQ communities in their political models of social justice. Furthermore, many social justice theories have been criticised for failing to include animals and the environment in their scope of whom counts in our political reckoning (Singer, 1978).

This paper emerges for two important reasons. Firstly, to contribute to discourses on politics and social justice in light of African thought. By ‘African thought’, I have in mind the literature on African philosophy, and possibly African studies, as the basis for constructing a philosophical conversation about social justice. The reader would surely appreciate that this is an extensive and complex body of work. To facilitate a meaningful philosophical engagement on social justice, I focus on Ifeanyi Menkiti’s and Kwame Gyekye’s theoretical visions of social justice[2].

The literature in African philosophy describes Menkiti’s approach to social justice in terms of radical communitarianism. The central thesis of this theory is that the state’s and citizens’ primary duty is the promotion of the common good (Famanikwa, 2010; Menkiti, 1984; Ikuenobe, 2017a). Gyekye describes his account of social justice in terms of moderate communitarianism. The central thesis here is that the state (and its citizens) has the duty to respect human rights and promote the common good (Gyekye, 1992; Matolino, 2009). In the global literature on philosophy and political theory, radical and moderate communitarianism are largely underexplored as theoretical constructs to imagine good societies beyond the scope of African philosophy. In my view, these two theories promise to add a mostly uncharted African perspective on considerations relating to social justice.

Secondly, this paper emerges because these two theories have not been directly evaluated in terms of their inclusiveness as models of social justice, at least directly so. The major focus in relation to radical and moderate communitarianism in the literature has been on whether they can deliver a robust African account of human rights. But many philosophers have often concluded that these two theories are poor instances of accounts of human rights (Matolino, 2009; Metz, 2012a; Oyowe, 2014). A theory needs to be a rights-based one for it to be inclusive in terms of whom it accommodates in the political community (Molefe, 2019). Recently, an attempt has been made to construct these as political theories of needs rather than rights, where basic needs are posited as the basis of African political thought in terms of accounting for social justice (Molefe & Allsobrook, 2021; Hamilton, 2021). The problem with this is that a theory might be needs-based but could still fail to embody a sufficiently inclusive political model.

This paper reorients the debate between radical and moderate communitarianism, as accounts of social justice, in the direction of inclusivity. The purpose of the paper is to ascertain if these theories of social justice can shun unjustified discrimination or exclusion of potential members of the political community, particularly those members our intuitions and common sense of justice suggest ought to be included in the political community. For the sake of focus, I use the case of people living with serious mental disabilities and that of the environment as the basis for evaluating the inclusivity of a political theory[3]. The central question that this paper seeks to answer, therefore, is whether radical and moderate communitarianism can accommodate these two cases in its construction of social justice.

To evaluate the inclusiveness of radical and moderate communitarianism as accounts of social justice, this paper proceeds as follows. The paper is divided into four sections. The first section explains radical communitarianism as a theory of social justice. The second section extracts an account of inclusivity that can be associated with radical communitarianism and continues to evaluate the plausibility of this account of inclusivity in light of the case of people living with serious mental disabilities and of the environment. The third explains moderate communitarianism as an account of social justice. The final section extracts an account of inclusivity that can be associated with moderate communitarianism and continues to evaluate the plausibility of this account of inclusivity in light of the case of people living with serious mental disabilities and of the environment.

Radical Communitarianism as a Theory of Social Justice

Radical communitarianism, as a theory of social justice, emerges in the context of giving a proper account of the relationship between the community and the individual in African thought. Menkiti thinks this clarification is important because it gives an African perspective on socio-moral and political imagination.

The basic point of departure for Menkiti, in constructing an African theory, in any context, is the centrality of the community, which he captures in terms of ‘I am because we are’ (Mbiti, 1970). The ‘we’ represents the primacy of the community in cultural, moral, and political thought. For example, Menkiti (1984: 172) explains how personal identity, a function of the individual, is “first knowing this community as a stubborn perduring fact of the psychophysical world that the individual also comes to know himself”. It is in relation to and in the context of a community and its collective social resources that the individual can navigate their personal and social identity.

Menkiti goes further to assert that subjectivity and/or even agency is ultimately possible because the individual is a direct beneficiary of “a community gene pool” that is responsible for them acquiring a language or the mental abilities required for being a part of and participating in the world through culture (ibid). The importance of community is not limited to the cultural matter of social identity.

The importance of the community spans over the moral and political. The moral, according to Menkiti and much of African thought, pivots on the concept of personhood. For Menkiti, it is one thing to be human and quite another to be a person. A human being is required or even expected to be moral, which expectation involves the agent acquiring excellence or virtue – a desirable state of character. Menkiti is unequivocal that personhood is a moral achievement where the agent becomes decorated with moral discernment and wisdom, which works itself out via a consistent display of excellence (Menkiti, 1984: 174). The development of this moral identity of excellence of character and deportment, personhood, is impossible outside and without the assistance of the community. In one place, Menkiti (1984: 172) explains the importance of the community in relation to attaining personhood in this manner:

We must also conceive of this organism as going through a long process of social and ritual transformation until it attains the full complement of excellencies seen as truly definitive of man. And during this long process of attainment, the community plays a vital role as catalyst and as prescriber of norms.

In another essay, Menkiti (2004: 326) captures the same sentiment as follows:

Since triumph and failure have their consequences, and the consequences cut beyond the life cycle of the assignable individual, affecting others in the community as well, it follows that societies, both large and small, are in need of recognising that they are caught up in an inextricable dance with their component individuals. And one of the ways to act on that recognition is to join the task of transforming the individual into a true person, in other words, a moral being or bearer of norms.

Menkiti is very clear that the community plays an important role in ensuring that the individual attains personhood. The community serves as a moral enabler through the provision of moral resources required for the agent to morally succeed. In light of the importance of the community, Menkiti (2004: 324) notes that in African thought “morality demands a point of view best described as one of beingness-with-others”. In the absence of others or positive engagement with others personhood, or moral excellence, is impossible.

The importance of the community also emerges in the political domain, which is the sphere of social justice. In this context, Menkiti observes that African thought has its own distinctive way of conceptualising a robust political community. He comments in this fashion in relation to this conception of a community:

When Mbiti says that the African says to himself, "I am because we are”, the we referred to here is not an additive 'we' but a thoroughly fused collective 'we'. It is possible to distinguish three senses of human grouping, the first of which I shall call collectivities in the truest sense … what I have called ' collectivities in the truest sense' there is assumed to be an organic dimension to the relationship between the component (1984: 179).

The view of a community that Menkiti associates with African thought operates on the assumption that it is natural and necessary for human beings to form and belong to a community. Community is not a mere human convenience or artificial construction that individuals can dispense with as they please, which is consistent with his commitment to communitarianism. Rather, existence essentially requires and is about living in and with others in the community. This appreciation of a community is a deeply ontological one, where a human being is understood essentially in terms of their relationality – I am because we are. This deep relationality is a feature of our human make-up and embodies the political consequences that Menkiti explains in this fashion:

African societies tend to be organised around the requirements of duty, while Western societies tend to be organised around the postulation of individual rights. In the African understanding, priority is given to the duties which individuals owe to the collectivity, and their rights, whatever these may be, are seen as secondary to their exercise of their duties (Menkiti, 1984: 180).

Human beings are understood naturally to require community – culturally, morally, and politically. Culturally, it is impossible to develop as a human being, in terms of socialisation, outside of the human community (Wiredu, 1996). Morally, it is impossible to achieve virtue outside of the community where one learns, acquires, and practices morality. Politically, a social organisation of the state that prioritises the provision of the common good, which goods are crucial for the achievement of personhood, is at the heart of the radical communitarianism conception of social justice. It is not that rights are not important. The idea seems to be that a normative framework associated with the relational features of human nature – such as generosity, altruism, empathy, and so on – provides a framework that renders rights almost unnecessary, all things being equal. In what follows, I articulate radical communitarianism’s vision of inclusion and proceed to evaluate if it is satisfactory.

Evaluation of Radical Communitarianism

Radical communitarianism imagines a political community that operates based on dispensing duties in the context of creating an environment for the possibility of achieving personhood. The question remains, however, who forms part of the political community? To be an object of political duties or a member of the political community, Menkiti’s communitarianism posits personhood as a necessary and sufficient condition. All and only those who can participate in personhood are members of the political community. There are two ways one can participate in personhood: directly or indirectly. Direct participation involves actually possessing the requisite capacity to acquire personhood. Indirect participation involves being able to benefit from virtuous acts.

Being a member of the political community involves receiving political goods, the so-called common goods, which the agent requires to achieve personhood (Wiredu, 1992; Molefe, 2020). A just society is one that provides these goods and an unjust one denies or deprives individuals of these goods. Typically, the common good is understood in terms of basic needs that the agent requires to develop and exercise their agency. Without the development and exercise of agency, the agent cannot participate in personhood. Menkiti is very clear that it is capacities associated with personhood that grounds membership. He captures the criterion for inclusion in the political community in this fashion:

If it is generally conceded, then, that persons are the sort of entities that are owed the duties of justice, it must also be allowed that each time we find an ascription of any of the various rights implied by these duties of justice, the conclusion naturally follows that the possessor of the rights in question cannot be other than a person. That is so because the basis of such rights ascription has now been made dependent on a possession of a capacity for moral sense, a capacity, which though it need not be realised, is nonetheless made most evident by a concrete exercise of duties of justice towards others in the ongoing relationships of everyday life.

Here, Menkiti limits the scope of those we owe justice to, to persons. By ‘persons’, Menkiti is not merely referring to human beings, he is using this notion technically to refer to those individuals that can be objects of justice. These are the kinds of individuals we can think of ourselves as owing rights to, if we were to use the language of rights as Menkiti does. Menkiti is very clear that for one to be a member of the political community one must have the capacity for moral sense. It is the capacity, not its realisation, which is the basis for one to count as a member of the political community.

Why the capacity for moral sense? It is the basis for inclusion because it makes it possible for the agent to pursue the goal prescribed by the African thought of personhood. The idea of the capacity for moral sense refers to all those psychological and agential abilities required and associated with the task of participating or attaining personhood (Ikuenobe, 2017). In this light, we observe that any entity which has the capacity for moral sense is a member of the political community. As members of the political community, we have duties to relate positively with and empower these entities in their journey towards personhood. To further clarify and justify that Menkiti connects the idea of the capacity for moral sense with the acquisition of personhood, notice how he theoretically relates animals with the political community.

After clarifying the basis for political membership in terms of the capacity for moral sense, he makes the following comment: “The foregoing interpretation would incidentally rule out, I believe, some dangerous tendencies currently fashionable in some philosophical circles of ascribing rights to animals” (Menkiti, 1984: 177). Animals are excluded from the moral community because they cannot acquire personhood. Animals cannot acquire personhood because they do not have the capacity for moral sense. Alternatively, as Menkiti explains it, “The danger as I see it is that such an extension of moral language to the domain of animals is bound to undermine, sooner or later, the clearness of our conception of what it means to be a person” (ibid).

Here we are confronted by two senses of personhood, which are intertwined. One sense underlies the capacity for moral sense, which is a criterion for political membership, and the other sense refers to the consequence of the positive use of the capacity for moral sense to achieve virtue. Animals lack both senses of personhood because they do not have the requisite moral capacities and, therefore, cannot develop them to reach desired moral qualities or virtue; hence, they are outside of the political community.

Considering the above, we notice that Menkiti defends a personhood-based account of political membership. Those that cannot participate in personhood are excluded from the political community. One candidate that is excluded from the community is animals. In Menkiti’s view, since animals cannot participate in personhood, they are outside of political concern.

The question that might arise here in relation to animals is whether this means that Menkiti would be comfortable with animal cruelty. It would seem that Menkiti might have the resources to theoretically argue against cruelty towards animals. His defence, I suspect, might revolve around the idea of personhood, which embodies a complex of virtues such as kindness, generosity, love, friendliness, and so on. The idea of personhood surely ought then to be opposed to animal cruelty, as cruelty itself is a vice that is inimical and not compatible with the idea of personhood. Though animals do not directly have membership in the political community, this does make provision for them, in that those in pursuit or possession of personhood may not be cruel towards animals. It is contrary to personhood to exercise the vice of cruelty towards any sentient being and such emotional and moral insensitivity ought to be shunned.

The question that follows might be about the environment in general. Can Menkiti’s theory of social justice consider the environment as part of the political community? It would seem that in Menkiti’s view the environment cannot be a member of the political community, or we cannot conceive of it as an object of justice. Does this mean that radical communitarianism implies that we have no duties to protect and preserve the environment from degradation and unnecessary damage?

Theoretically, radical communitarianism might not have the resources to explain our duties towards the environment. The environment obviously lacks the capacity for moral sense. The environment cannot suffer and, therefore, we cannot speak meaningfully about being cruel towards much of it except, at least, towards animals. At best, the environment can be protected for reasons associated with creating conditions conducive to the possibility of personhood. After reaching that threshold, radical communitarianism might not have a basis to forbid environmental degradation.

What about in the case of those living with serious mental disabilities? Do they have a place in the political community? If personhood is the standard of inclusion, it is difficult to see how Menkiti’s theory might include them. The reason being that individuals with serious mental disabilities often do not have the capacity for moral sense or the capacity for agency, and therefore cannot directly participate in personhood. In view of this, they cannot be considered members of the political community. If this is the case, then it means we do not have duties towards them. Menkiti might want to include them on the basis that we have duties not to be cruel to any sentient being, and on those grounds consider them to be indirect beneficiaries of our political systems – though I am not sure that that is a satisfactory way to accommodate those with serious cognitive disabilities. The next section considers moderate communitarianism.

Moderate Communitarianism as a Theory of Social Justice

Moderate communitarianism emerges as a critical response to the supposed inadequacies associated with radical communitarianism (Gyekye, 1992). The charge against radical communitarianism can be expressed in terms of the place of human rights. An account of communitarianism that fails to appreciate the relevance and primacy of rights is flawed in two important ways.

On the one hand, it operates with the wrong view that the community may not pose a danger or threat to individual autonomy, self-expression, creativity, and difference. In other words, the valorisation of the community, on the part of Gyekye, may imagine a political order compatible with violating human dignity. A plausible conception of communitarianism must reckon with this individualistic aspect of human existence. The individualistic aspect requires us to recognise the individual, the agent, in their own right with all their abilities, uniqueness, creativity, and so on (Gyekye, 1997).

On the other hand, it is flawed as far as it considers rights secondary. A robust political theory, according to Gyekye, ought to reckon with the indispensable and foundational status of human rights. In Gyekye’s view, rights serve as a crucial protective political instrument that any robust political scheme ought to have.

According to Gyekye (1984), radical communitarianism gets it wrong by relying on an erroneous conception of human nature, which portrays the individual as entirely constituted by communal relations. Remember, Menkiti (1984) draws a distinction between a minimalistic and maximalistic conception of human nature, and he prefers the latter. The former focuses on the psychological features of the self as crucial for thinking about personal identity, morality, and politics. It is the mere possession of some psychological property, be it memory, consciousness, or even rationality, as the basis for personal identity, morality, and politics. Whereas the latter requires more than possession; it requires the actual exercise of these properties as the basis for personhood (Ikuenobe, 2017).

The problem with the maximalist approach, according to Gyekye, is that it fails to appreciate the individual and the attributes possessed by individuals, such as autonomy, volition, and so on as the basis for their valuable state, morally speaking. When we reckon with the individualistic features alongside the communal ones, what Gyekye (1992: 127) calls the “dual features” of human nature, we are now approximating a robust political system.

The individualistic features, specifically the human capacity for autonomy, serve as the basis for human dignity (Gyekye, 1997). Human beings are bearers of inherent worth because they possess the capacity for autonomy. This capacity explains why human beings can be unique, assert themselves, set their own ends, be creative, and so on, which abilities and expressions are important for a robust sense of self.

Gyekye also recognises and endorses communalistic features of human existence, though does not want to exaggerate their importance. Gyekye is well aware that individuals require the community in order to develop and use their abilities. Equally, the community requires the autonomy of individuals to amend and revise some of its problematic aspects – it requires the agency and creativity of individuals to continuously create a thriving culture, industries, and generally appreciable conditions of existence. The approach is moderate as it finds a place for individuality through autonomy, and community through membership and sharing in the communal contributions towards the common good.

Moderate communitarianism embodies a dualistic theory of social justice. It is firstly a political theory that appreciates the primacy of human dignity, which human beings possess because they have the capacity for autonomy. It is in virtue of possessing human dignity that individual human beings have human rights. Hence, Gyekye (1992: 121) opines, “A person (human being) … must be held as of intrinsic value, an end in himself, worthy of dignity and respect”. He understands a human being to be a bearer of intrinsic value.

Human rights are essential and indispensable because they are a function of an important feature of human nature: autonomy. Gyekye proposes to ground the “conception of human dignity and, hence, individual rights … on the qualities that will dispose of the human being to function at his best in human society and realise his full potentialities as a person”. The denial or refusal of rights, which are grounded on the human quality for autonomy, thwarts the human individual from realising their full potential in society. These rights, I suspect, serve as a political instrument to protect the individual – their freedom, creativity, and personal goals – from the overreach of the community.

The second aspect of moderate communitarianism revolves around the common good. According to Gyekye (1992: 116), the common good embodies the state’s and citizens’ duty to create “the social conditions which will enable each individual person to function satisfactorily in a human society”. These conditions encompass largely the macro-ethical value of duty and/or responsibility that the state has, to ensure the provision of the minimum conditions of well-being that will enable each agent to live satisfactorily. The common good embodies the requirement for things like public health, subsistence, and education without which individuals would be left in less than decent conditions for a meaningful existence (Chimakonam, 2019). Gyekye (2010) captures the ethical orientation associated with the common good in this fashion:

The ethical values of compassion, solidarity, reciprocity, cooperation, interdependence, and social well-being, which are counted among the principles of the communitarian morality, primarily impose duties on the individual with respect to the community and its members.

He imagines a state whose institutions and citizens operate on these communitarian values, with the goal to create decent conditions for human beings to thrive.

Roughly, we can summarise moderate communitarianism as requiring rights as instruments to ensure that human beings’ inalienable value is protected from harm and interference. Moderate communitarianism also requires the state to ensure the provision of social conditions that are necessary for human beings’ to excel in the cultural and moral domains. A just social order is one that is compatible with human dignity and provides the social conditions for the development and expression of human dignity, whereas an unjust social order is one that undermines human dignity and/or fails to provide a reasonable threshold of social conditions for a satisfactory existence.

Evaluation of Moderate Communitarianism

Considering the above sketch of moderate communitarianism, the question is: Who, according to moderate communitarianism, counts as a member of a political community? It appears that moderate communitarianism comes across as a stubbornly humanistic political theory. A humanistic political theory is one, at least in the context of moderate communitarianism, “that is preoccupied with human welfare” (Gyekye, 2010). Morality and politics, in a humanistic orientation, revolve around the human good, which is measured relative to human dignity and the common good. The conclusion is inescapable; political membership is open only to human beings because they possess dual features, i.e., they have dignity and belong to a community. Only those with these capacities can be included in the political community.

We might start our evaluation by considering what place people living with serious mental disabilities have in the political community. To answer this question, we must ask another: whether people living with serious mental disabilities have the dual features of autonomy and communal abilities. In relation to autonomy, it occurs to me that people living with serious mental disabilities lack the feature that is central to a person organising their entire existence around certain ideals and plans in pursuit of a certain project. In terms of the first component for inclusion, it appears that people with serious mental disabilities do not meet the threshold.

In terms of community, which involves creating conditions for the general welfare of everyone, there might be a basis to include them. Though people with serious mental disabilities in many cases may not be able to contribute to the common good, they can still benefit from it. The mere ability to benefit from general conditions of welfare might be sufficient to include those with serious mental disabilities in the political community. Surely, even though such an inclusion might not have the full-scale benefits of those that possess the dual feature, the partial possession of one of the dual features must count for something, no matter how limited. At the very least, the idea seems to be that we have some duty, although limited, towards those with serious cognitive disabilities.

In relation to the environment, it seems that moderate communitarianism does not consider it to have a place in the political community. In other words, given the humanistic orientation of this political theory, it is difficult to imagine how it can accommodate much of nature in the political community. In fact, so extreme are the implications of this political theory that it seems to entail the exclusion of animals altogether from the moral community. The unmitigated humanism associated with moderate communitarianism explains why it seems to exclude animals and the environment in general from the political community. In other words, moderate communitarianism does not appear to have theoretical resources that might help the world in its quest to address climate and environmental challenges.


The paper explored the question of political inclusion in light of African political thought. The paper looked at people living with serious mental disabilities, and the environment, to evaluate the plausibility of radical and moderate communitarianism. In relation to radical communitarianism, its personhood criterion offers a partial consideration of people living with cognitive disabilities, but it excludes animals and the environment at large from the political community.

Moderate communitarianism appeals to the features of dignity and community as the basis for inclusion. We noticed that it only offers a partial inclusion of people living with serious cognitive disabilities, because these people possess only the feature of the community as far as they can be beneficiaries of it.

The major takeaway from the above analysis of African political theories of justice is that they need to incorporate thought on how values associated with personhood, dignity, and community can be interpreted in ways that imagine inclusive polities, where we can have a stronger basis to protect people living with serious cognitive disabilities and protect the environment, amongst others.


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[1]This paper benefitted from extensive analysis and comments from the editor and an anonymous reviewer. I have to the best of my abilities engaged their suggestions and comments.

[2] I focus on this literature because it is the most influential moral and political debate on social justice, human rights, needs and duties in the tradition of African philosophy. Given this debate’s historical and contemporary influence on African thought, it makes it an obvious choice as the basis for political reflection on the problems associated with discrimination and exclusion.

[3] I use these two cases because they are largely under-theorised in the African context. If there is a growing awareness that we have duties towards people living with serious mental disabilities and towards the environment, then these two cases offer a useful heuristic device to assess political theories.

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