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Ubuntu and the State

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Ubuntu and the State

by Dr Motsamai Molefe [MA (Developmental Studies), Phd (Philosophy)]


This article explores the question of what constitutes a good society in light of African thought. Two important considerations relate to my raising and framing the question of a what constitutes a good society. Firstly, when I talk of a good society, I imagine the question to be relevant within the context of normative political philosophy, or simply put, political theory. In this light, this talk of a good society is not an empirical one, where I look into this or that society as a basis for determining what counts as a good or a bad one. Rather, I will be creating a theoretical construction or exposition of a good society, which can then be used to evaluate our various political realities concerning the state or status of our societies in terms of whether they are good or bad. Secondly, by talk of a good society, my focus is on our collective lives as regulated by the state and its subsidiaries (social institutions) through which it effects its policies and goals. In other words, when I talk of a good society I am, in this instance, limiting my focus to the state and its duties towards its citizens. Since the focus is on the construction of a good society I will then need to specify the axiological basis of determining a good state and its role.

In this article, I will invoke or deploy ubuntu ethics as the axiological basis for judging what counts as a good society (qua evaluating the state and its duties towards its citizens). Ubuntu ethics is a salient African axiological system that has for centuries informed African thought and practice. Ubuntu ethics, as a moral system, is captured by the aphorism ‘A person is a person through other persons’. Though this terse expression does have metaphysical implications about personal or social identity – that it is possible only in social relationships with others - it is its normative package that will be useful in grounding an account of a good society (Ramose, 1999; Metz, 2007). One of the important dimensions of ubuntu that I will rely on to account for a good society is its under-explored aspect of the dignity of human beings.

My exposition of ubuntu as a moral-political system will reveal that it embodies ethics of dignity, where it imagines a good society as one that respects the dignity of its citizens. The respect associated with human dignity requires that a society ought to have three features, namely, it should regard citizens (1) as inviolable; (2) empower them and (3) create equal conditions of social, political and economic existence for them.

Three considerations motivate this exposition of ubuntu ethics to account for a good society. Firstly, empirical conditions in many parts of Africa suggest that we are still far from having what we might consider to be good societies. Social, political and economic conditions in many parts of Africa do not even begin to approximate a plausible vision of a good society. This article emerges to offer a theoretical lens to evaluate the empirical conditions of Africa. What is interesting about this article is that the lens it offers us is an African one.

Secondly, related to the above, the literature in general that has reflected on the condition of African societies has tended to rely on foreign theoretical frameworks and concepts to reflect and evaluate social conditions in Africa. For example, post-independence leaders were fixated on Marxism or socialism as the proper theoretical and practical remedy for the ills of our societies, and they believed that it offered plausible accounts of a good society (Nkrumah, 1967; Gyekye, 1997). Recently, scholars of African thought have been fixated on the concept and theory of human rights as necessary and satisfactory to conceptualize a good society (Gyekye, 1997; Metz, 2011; Oyowe, 2014; Matolino, 2014). I am not convinced that socialism can offer us a satisfactory account of a good society or that it is most compatible with African ideals as some of its proponents tend to believe (see Gyekye, 1995). In my published work, I have offered arguments as to why rights are not only foreign to African ethical thought, but I have also suggested reasons why we should not take them seriously (Molefe, 2019).

The third consideration revolves around my dissatisfaction with the literature that has attempted to deploy ubuntu to construct a good society. In relation to the above, some scholars have sought to interpret Ubuntu as a rights-based ethical and political system (Metz, 2011; Matolino, 2014; Oyowe, 2014). I find rights-based approaches to be at odds with the kind of philosophical anthropology and moral psychology characteristic of ubuntu ethics. Whereas rights tend to construe the agent and her relation to society in ways that take ontological and moral individualism as a point of departure, ubuntu ethics tends to imagine an agent as already and always connected and implicated with others in social and political issues, where they ought to understand themselves as sharing a common destiny – I am because we are (Menkiti, 1984). Ubuntu ethics tend to imagine an agent not as a maker of claims against others in society, rather it imagines him to be operating on the logic of other -or in terms ofrelational duties that create a positive and productive community of sharing and participating in life (Fineberg, 1970; Tutu, 1999).

Here, I will propose my own moral-political interpretation of ubuntu ethics, which does appeal to human rights, [S1] [MM2] although it is considers human dignity to be a foundational category in African thought.

I must be the first to admit that the above outline of issues in African political thought is very rough. However, I believe it is sufficient to justify a sketch of an alternative ubuntu-based account of a good society. To pursue this end, I will structure this article as follows. I will divide it into two major sections, the first of which focuses on moral theory. In this section, I will elaborate on ubuntu as a moral philosophy. I will highlight its three crucial features, namely ethical humanism, human dignity, and the telos or goal of morality that involves that acquisition of virtue or excellence[S3] [MM4] . The second section focuses on political theory. Here, I will appeal to the concept of human dignity as a macro-ethical concept that specifies three crucial duties of a state in creating a good society, namely the creation of non-humiliation, empowerment and equalizing conditions for citizens.

In what follows, I offer an exposition of ubuntu as an ethical theory.

Ubuntu ethics

It is my view that ubuntu is characterized by four features (here, I will only focus on three). These features can be extracted or read from the aphorism definitive of it – ‘A person is a person through other persons’. This phrase has three segments that revolve around the concept of a person.

Notice that the concept of a person occurs three times in the saying: (1) a person, (2) is a person and (3) through other persons. These three instances of the word person involve different concepts of aperson which, when carefully analyzed, are ethically informative. The first instance of the word ‘person’ is a reference to the ontological notion of a person, which merely refers to a human being – you and I. .

The starting point and building block of ubuntu ethics is the fact that there are beings like you and I. This ontological notion of a human being grounds two ethical insights of ubuntu ethics, namely: (a) ethical humanism and (b) human dignity. The second instance of the concept of a person refers to the final good prescribed by ubuntu ethics, which requires the agent to achieve (c) personhood, which is a status term that denotes virtue or moral excellence. The last instance of the concept of a person, in the phrase ‘through other persons’ signals the importance of robust and productive (d) social relationships as an indispensable feature of moral growth and perfection.

In what follows next, I offer an exposition of ethical humanism associated with ubuntu ethics.

Ethical humanism

The concept of a person in African thought, or, at least, its first instance in the aphorism of ubuntu ethics, refers to the fact of being human. It occurs, first, precisely because it serves as the moral foundation of ubuntu ethics. In other words, ubuntu ethics takes ethical naturalism as a point of departure. In other words, it grounds the entire enterprise of morality in some facts of nature. The kind of moral foundationalism associated with ubuntu ethics may be construed in terms of ethical humanism because it accounts for the essence of morality by appealing to some aspect of human nature (be it human needs, interests, dignity and so on). This should not come as a surprise given that the dominant metaphysical picture of African cosmology places human beings at a central spot in the hierarchy of being (Mbiti, 1971).

In this metaphysical scheme, human beings are below God and other supersensible beings (ancestors) but they are above the animal and vegetable kingdoms (see Magesa, 1997; Shutte, 2001). The theatre of morality plays itself out largely in the human, natural and social sphere (Magesa, 1997). This is the case because it is human agents that ultimately have the duty to connect the spiritual, human and environmental communities (Imafidon, 2013). It is in this light that this comment by Steve Biko (1978) is informative about ethical humanism as a characteristic of ubuntu ethics –

One of the most fundamental aspects of our culture is the importance we attach to (hu)man beings. Ours has always been a (hu)man-centred society. We believe in the inherent goodness of (hu)man(ity). We enjoy (hu)man for himself … Hence in all we do we always place (hu)man first.” (Biko, 1978).

For another, consider this comment by Kwasi Wiredu, one of the leading African philosophers, where he states that “… the first axiom of all Akan axiological thinking is that man or woman is the measure of all value” (Wiredu, 1996: 65).

The idea that emerges here is that ubuntu ethics understand human beings to be the very defining standard or measure of morality. In other words, the insight that emerges is that morality is intrinsically connected with the reality and presence of human beings. The importance attached to human beings, in this instance, relates directly to the claim that to engage on morality is to be engaged in relation to n a human affair, which has as its essence, human interests and issues. The implication of this view is that African moral thought is opposed to ethical supernaturalism – the claim that morality derives from some spiritual or divine feature[S5] [MM6] . I am aware that some might object to ethical humanism for its failure to include animals in the moral community. The essence of the objection against ethical humanism is that it is anthropocentric. I have elsewhere proposed that the kind of anthropocentrism associated with ubuntu ethics is a robust one insofar as it is a weak kind of it rather than the strong one (Molefe, 2020).

Now that we have a sense that some aspect of human nature grounds the entire project of morality, we ought to inquire about this feature and its nature. The feature that does the best job in explaining the central place that human beings occupy in the African metaphysical system is human dignity.

Human dignity

Note that above Biko makes three claims about the status of human beings in African cultures. He notes that we attach importance to them; human beings are believed to be inherently good; and that human beings come first. Why do human beings come first? Why believe that they are inherently good? And, why attach importance to them? The reason for this is not hard to find. It is encapsulated by the notion that human beings are understood to be bearers of dignity. The notion of dignity is used in moral philosophy to capture the moral preciousness or worth of human beings (Donnelly, 2015). This moral worth captured by the concept of human dignity is understood to be inherent or intrinsic insofar as it is a function of our human nature, or of our metaphysical make-up. That is, the view that there is a distinctive aspect of our nature, which makes us intrinsically valuable (Rosen, 2012).

I think Biko has the idea of human dignity in mind when he attaches inherent goodness to human beings. I say so because the inherent goodness in question is not one that involves our actions and characters, it is one that considers our status as human beings as one that is naturally attended by inherent goodness – the kind that we do not achieve or cannot lose.

The idea that human beings have dignity is pervasive in African thought. Gyekye (1992) grounds his political theory of moderate communitarianism by appealing to the idea of human dignity. Jack Donnely (1982), though he argues that the idea of human rights is absent - at least historically - in African institutions, goes on to observe that the notion of human dignity is present and central in their institutions. Scholars that take human rights seriously in African thought tend to take the idea of human dignity to be present and important in African thought (Metz, 2011; Oyowe, 2014). Mogobe Ramose (2010: 302), a leading scholar of ubuntu ethics, explains the importance of human dignity in this fashion –

The practice of feta kgomo o tsware motho … requires moral education based upon the principles of sharing, concern for another and the subordination of wealth to the dignity of the human person as motho.

The saying fetamotho o tsware motho, roughly interpreted, attaches the status of dignity to motho (a human being or a person) relative to a cow (which in this instance represents both nature and economic value). In other words, in all of the natural sphere and all economic standards, the value of a human being is incomparable and superlative.

The question still stands, however, concerning what, according to ubuntu ethics, accounts for the intrinsic value of human beings. The answer that emerges in the literature finds expression in the writings of Ifeanyi Menkiti (1982) and Kwame Gyekye (1982). Both these thinkers express the idea that human beings are intrinsically valuable because they possess the capacity to pursue personhood or virtue (or, ubuntu). They talk of “the capacity for moral sense” or even “the innate capacity for virtue” (Menkiti, 1984: 177; Gyekye, 1992: 111). It is this capacity that explains the inherent goodness of human beings – their intrinsic worth. It also explains why human beings can be held morally responsible because they are essentially defined by the capacity to participate and grow morally. In short, human beings, according to ubuntu ethics, have dignity because they possess the capacity for virtue. It is only human beings that have this capacity, or that at least have to the extent that they do.

In what follows, I turn to the third aspect ubuntu ethics.

The Final good

Ubuntu ethics prescribes the achievement of ubuntu as the chief goal of our moral existence. Here, I draw a distinction between ubuntu ethics, as a moral system, from ubuntu as the goal that the agent ought to achieve. The reader will notice that sometimes to have ubuntu is just the same as being called a person, in the normative sense. Notice, for example, Tutu (1999: 35) speaks in this fashion regarding what it means to have ubuntu –

When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up in yours.”

Notice that the possession or achievement of personhood, which signals the status of excellence, is attended by more or less similar virtues –

…norms, ideals, and moral virtues can be said to include generosity, kindness, compassion, benevolence, respect, and concern for others; in fine, any action or behaviour that conduces to the promotion of the welfare of others (Gyekye, 1992: 113).

To achieve personhood or ubuntu is a function of nurturing a good character. That is, a character that is exuberant with virtues or excellences. It is important to notice that the virtues associated with ubuntu are relational ones. That is, these are the kinds of virtues that require and emerge in social relationships. You cannot have these virtues all by yourself. Or, to use the language employed by Gyekye, these are virtues premised in the human ability to demonstrate concern for others. Hence, another way to make sense of the virtues that are characteristic of ubuntu ethics is that they are generally other-regarding. In other words, I will achieve ubuntu to the extent that I relate positively and productively with others by way of learning and expressing other-regarding duties. Hence, the expression ‘I am because we are’ captures African moral thought appositely. It is a moral system that essentially imagines agents in terms of their connectedness and their flourishing as individuals requires this connectedness.

One might here object to ubuntu ethics for its failure to accommodate self-regarding duties. This objection arises because ubuntu ethics places emphasis on social relationships and other-regarding duties. In my view, a careful reading of ubuntu ethics will show that it can be understood in terms of the analogy of the two sides of the coin. The one side of the moral coin of ubuntu ethics captures self-regarding duties and the other one concerns other-regarding duties. These are two sides of the same coin. It is by positively relating with others (other-regarding duties) that I realize or nurture my own character (self-regarding). My good as an agent is not divorced or opposed to social relationships and my other-regarding duties (see Lutz, 2009).

We can now summarize ubuntu ethics. Ubuntu ethics is grounded on the ontological status of our humanity. Ubuntu is grounded in humanity because human beings, metaphyiscally speaking, occupy a central position in the hierarchy of being, and, morally speaking, human beings are the standard of all moral values. The value associated with human beings is explained[S7] [MM8] in terms of human dignity, which captures the intrinsic and superlative status of human beings. We theoretically explained the intrinsic worth associated with human beings with reference to their capacity for virtue. It is this capacity that explains why we expect human beings to be morally responsible and that accounts for the general expectation that human beings ought to pursue personhood or ubuntu. Finally, we explained the moral goal of agents in ubuntu ethics as the pursuit and acquisition of ubuntu (virtue). The virtues characteristic of an agent that has ubuntu tend to be other-regarding ones.

With this sketch of ubuntu as a moral theory, we can turn to the question of what is to count as a good society.

Ubuntu, Human Dignity and the State

Above, we explained that ubuntu ethics is both an ethics of dignity and of virtue. The ethics of dignity is primary and explains why we expect human beings to be able to pursue and achieve virtue. It is because human beings have the capacity for virtue that we consider them to have intrinsic worth and it is because of the self-same capacity that we do expect them to be able to achieve virtue. It is this aspect of ubuntu ethics as an ethics of dignity that grounds our attempt to construct an ubuntu-inspired conception of a good society. To articulate such an ubuntu-based account of a good society, I will use the idea of human dignity as a macro-ethical concept. ‘Macro-ethical concepts’ are those that deal with[S9] [MM10] social institutions, or, in our case, the entire arrangement of society. This is contrasted with ‘Micro-ethical concepts’, which are those ethical concepts that regulate moral relationships in a private or personal and/or small-scale interpersonal relationships among individuals.

I am appealing to the idea of human dignity as a macro-ethical concept because we have seen the tendency in the literature and practice to use it as such. One prominent example where this is the case is in relation to the discourse and practice of human rights. In this literature, the concept of human dignity is deployed, at least in the dominant interpretation, as a grounding or foundational term (Harbemas, 2010; Hughes, 2011). It serves as the normative basis for imagining a good society. A good society is one that is organized around the recognition of the human dignity of individuals. The device or instrument of human rights emerges precisely in the recognition, protection and promotion of human dignity (Donnelly, 2009). The state, through Constitutions and their Bill of Rights, aim to respect and protect human dignity. In this light, the idea of human dignity is the concept that normatively informs the character of our modern civilization.

The same ought to be the case in relation to ubuntu ethics. I say so precisely because ubuntu is premised on the inherent goodness of human beings and their moral priority status in the natural world over other naturally existing things. In ubuntu ethics, a good society is one whose social institutions (in terms of their rules, policies and as agents) act from the position of being cognizant of the dignity of human agents. The aim of the state, according to ubuntu ethics, is to be responsive to the moral preciousness of human beings. But what does it mean to claim that a good society is one where the state, in terms of its rules, policies and conduct towards its citizens, is regulated by the grounding value of human dignity?

The literature in moral-political philosophy associates the notion of human dignity with three functions. It is these functions that we can rightly ascribe to the state. Some scholars associate the notion of human dignity, as a micro-and-macro-ethical concept, with constraints and empowerment (Beyleveld and Brownsword, 2001). Other scholars associate it with stringent constraints, strong duties to aid others and equality (Jaworska & Tannenbaum, 2013). I will deal with the three functions associated with human dignity as the basis to outline the role of the state, starting with constraints or agent-centred-restriction (Hurley, 2005).

Constraints and the Role of the State

The idea of constraints denotes deontological restrictions. By ‘deontological restrictions’ I mean the imposition of limits over means we could employ to achieve important social goals. At the heart of the idea of constraints is the idea that certain ways of treating human beings are wrong, wronging (harming) and are almost absolutely forbidden (Kittay, 2005). A common example of how this idea of constraints work is by refusing to kill one healthy person for the sake of saving five other sick people – it is anti-maximizing[S11] [MM12] , all things being equal (Metz, 2007). It is wrong to kill an innocent and healthy person for the sake of helping other sick and dying persons – no human being ought to be used as a means to an end. The basic idea is that the idea of human dignity sets a very high protective parameter around beings of dignity (Toscano, 2011). It regards their status of dignity as both inalienable and inviolable. In other words, because human beings have dignity, we have a duty to treat them with the utmost respect. Part of what is involved in treating persons with utmost respect involves not violating them. The insight that emerges here is that the idea of human dignity captures the universal negative duties we have not to harm other beings of dignity.

In this light, we can note that according to ubuntu ethics the state has a duty to recognize and protect human inviolability. The kind of violation we have in mind is deeper than a mere offence (that one might take when someone says you are ugly). It is the kind that undermines one in terms of their status as a person – it causes injury to one’s sense of self-respect as a human being. It is a radical or fundamental kind of harm that goes to the extent of stripping one of their humanity (Kaufmann et al, 2010). Personal and social practices like those of racism, xenophobia, sexism and chauvinism are injuring in this fundamental sense. They dehumanize people on the basis of arbitrary or biological features and strip them of their humanity..

Colonization, slavery and apartheid are all perfect instances of states organized on the basis of the violation and dehumanization of human beings. They were premised, in their nature and function, precisely on denuding fellow human beings of their dignity and sense of self-respect as human beings. The positive role of the state as imagined in ubuntu ethics involves the removal of dehumanizing human conditions. Things like the social evil of white supremacy and racism, tribalism and xenophobia, gender-based violence and femicide, genocides and so on. The state, on this moral-political view, has a duty to create conditions that recognize and respect the inviolability of human beings and create social conditions that ensure its protection. The state also has a duty to advance the interests of the vulnerable in society like children, minority groups, disabled individuals, women, foreigners and so on.

In this light, the very first role of the state, according to ubuntu ethics, is the removal of conditions that undermine the human beings’ status as persons. The state is also required to create conditions conducive for human flourishing. This leads us to the aspect of empowerment.

Empowerment and the Role of the State

The idea of empowerment refers to the creation of personal and social conditions that enables the development and expression of human capabilities. According to ubuntu ethics, the most important capacity to be developed is the capacity for virtue. It is not enough that we have removed social conditions that harm our humanity. More is required. The state has a duty to create social conditions that enable human beings to flourish. This is where the state ought to set up proper, sustainable public goods for human functioning and flourishing. By ‘public goods’ I have in mind things such as access to efficient and effective public health, the availability of decent and meaningful public education, access to decent conditions of existence in terms of human settlement, with sanitation, roads and important amenities like gyms, shops, safety; the availability of economic opportunities, be it in terms of entrepreneurship or employment.

In this light, the state has a duty to develop policies and their accompanying social institutions that will enable human flourishing. It is said, both in public discourse and even in literature that ubuntu no longer exists in our societies. Such claims, though they have rhetorical push, fail to properly understand the issue, at least this is my view. The issue, in many societies, is not the death of ubuntu per se. What is actually happening is that we have not removed conditions that dehumanize human beings and we have not further created socio-conditions that enables the human person to develop their capacity for virtue.

Ubuntu will remain, or seem, to be dead when we do not have a state that creatively creates conditions that will enable its emergence in our midst as a reality. This duty rests with the state - to create public conditions that enable individuals to flourish. We cannot and should not expect much - in terms of ubuntu - from human agents when we have left them in conditions of squalor, marginality, exclusion and penury.

In this light, the state has a duty to create and expand social opportunity structures for all human beings in society. In ubuntu ethics, the creation and expansion of these structures, is captured in terms of the idea of the common good (see Wiredu, 1992). By the ‘common good’, scholars of African thought have in mind the meeting of basic human needs so that each and every human being may lead a satisfactory human existence. Henry Odera Oruka (1989) conceptualizes these basic needs in terms of what he calls the human minimum, which he understands to involve the state proving subsistence, public health and proper education (Oruka, 1991). It is the provision of these basic three public goods that enables the development of robust agents that can live full and fulfilling lives.

These goods must be made available to every person. Why each person?

Equality and Role of the State

The answer to the above question is encapsulated by the idea of equality – the basic claim that each person counts and counts equally. How do we account for the equality of human beings? We account for it by refencing the notion of human dignity. One of the fundamental functions associated with the modern notion of human dignity is that it is characterized by social egalitarianism (Rosen, 2012). The basic idea is that if all human beings have dignity, none have it more than others, and, therefore, we owe them equal moral regard. Our dignity, remember, is a function of us merely possessing the capacity for virtue. Anyone that possesses this capacity, all things being equal, is equal to every other person with the same capacity. If this claim of social egalitarianism is true, it follows that the state has a duty to equally protect all its citizens from harm and to create empowering conditions for all of them. In this light, ubuntu ethics recognizes all human beings as equal and deserving of our utmost moral regard.

We must therefore come to the conclusion that the role of the state, in light of ubuntu ethics, is to create a society that pivots on the recognition of the human dignity of all human beings. This status of human dignity associated with human beings creates three duties for the state. The state must create non-humiliating human conditions, to enable conditions for the development of the capacities and talents of individuals, and to do so in a social context characterized by egalitarianism.


This article explored the question of a good society in light of ubuntu ethics. It construed ubuntu ethics in terms of ethical humanism, the primacy of human dignity and the agent’s chief goal of moral excellence. It deployed the primacy of human dignity as the basis for imagining a good society. It associated the idea of human dignity with three crucial functions – non-humiliation, empowerment and egalitarianism. It conceptualized the role of the state in light of ubuntu ethics as one that systematically extirpates humiliating conditions, creates empowering conditions, and constructs a society where all human beings are equal and are so treated. The aim of this article was to give the reader a rough sense of the role that ubuntu ethics attaches to the state.

I am aware that this article leaves many important questions hanging. There is the question of why we must accept the account of dignity in terms of the capacity for virtue. Or, even if we accept the view that human dignity is a function of the capacity for virtue, what is the nature of this capacity, how does it differ from other accounts of human dignity, and why must we take it seriously? We can also ask questions about the kind of state characteristic of ubuntu – is it a perfect or imperfect state. These are the questions I will turn to in future research. It suffices, for now, to merely give a sketch of an account of ubuntu and the roles it attaches to the state in accounting for a good society.


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This article has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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