Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 387–402 | Cite as

An African Theory of Moral Status: A Relational Alternative to Individualism and Holism

  • Thaddeus Metz


The dominant conceptions of moral status in the English-speaking literature are either holist or individualist, neither of which accounts well for widespread judgments that: animals and humans both have moral status that is of the same kind but different in degree; even a severely mentally incapacitated human being has a greater moral status than an animal with identical internal properties; and a newborn infant has a greater moral status than a mid-to-late stage foetus. Holists accord no moral status to any of these beings, assigning it only to groups to which they belong, while individualists such as welfarists grant an equal moral status to humans and many animals, and Kantians accord no moral status either to animals or severely mentally incapacitated humans. I argue that an underexplored, modal-relational perspective does a better job of accounting for degrees of moral status. According to modal-relationalism, something has moral status insofar as it capable of having a certain causal or intensional connection with another being. I articulate a novel instance of modal-relationalism grounded in salient sub-Saharan moral views, roughly according to which the greater a being's capacity to be part of a communal relationship with us, the greater its moral status. I then demonstrate that this new, African-based theory entails and plausibly explains the above judgments, among others, in a unified way.


African ethics Communitarianism Holism Individualism Moral considerability Moral status Rationality Relationality Sub-Saharan morality Welfarism 



For helpful comments on a prior draft of this article, I thank Kevin Behrens, Kai Horsthemke, Neil Van Leeuwen and two very thoughtful and helpful anonymous referees for this journal. I have also benefited from audience feedback at: the 2008 Annual Conference of the Philosophical Society of Southern Africa held at Monash University; a Philosophy Department Seminar at the University of Johannesburg; the 15th Annual Conference of the International Society for African Philosophy and Studies held at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop; and a Symposium on Nonhuman Animals organized by the Hunterstoun Centre at the University of Fort Hare.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Philosophy Department, B-603University of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa

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