Personhood, Morality and Dignity in African Philosophy

  • Motsamai MolefeEmail author


In this chapter, Molefe articulates a personhood-based account of African ethics. He elaborates on the two facets of personhood as a moral theory—the agent-centred and patient-centred theories of value. In the first part of the chapter, he discusses the agent-centred theory of value. He accounts for it in terms of moral perfection, where the chief moral goal of the agent is to perfect her own humanity. He further unfolds the moral egoism, moral individualism and importance of social relationships associated with this moral system. The second part of the chapter focuses on the patient-centred facet of value—moral status or dignity. He begins by repudiating Polycarp Ikuenobe’s personhood-based view of dignity. Molefe proceeds to derive and construct a personhood-based account of dignity in the works of Ifeanyi Menkiti and Kwame Gyekye. Ultimately, he accounts for dignity in terms of the capacity for sympathy.


Agent-centred theory Animals Capacity for moral sense Dignity Patient-centred theory Personhood Sympathy The young 


  1. Agada, A. (2018). Language, Thought, and Interpersonal Communication: A Cross-Cultural Conversation on the Question of Individuality and Community. Filosofia Theoretica, 7, 141–162.Google Scholar
  2. Alison, H. (2010). The Beloved Self: Morality and the Challenge from Egoism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Annas, J. (1992). Ancient Ethics and Modern Morality. Philosophical Perspectives, 6, 119–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Behrens, K. (2010). Exploring African Holism with Respect to the Environment. Environmental Values, 9, 465–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Behrens, K. (2011). African Philosophy, Thought and Practice and Their Contribution to Environmental Ethics. Doctoral Dissertation. Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg.Google Scholar
  6. Behrens, K. (2013). Two ‘Normative’ Conceptions of Personhood. Quest, 25, 103–119.Google Scholar
  7. Brennan, A., & Lo, Y. (2007). Two Conceptions of Human Dignity: Honour and Self-Determination. In J. Malpas & N. Lickiss (Eds.), Perspectives on Human Dignity: A Conversation. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.Google Scholar
  8. Bujo, B. (2001). Foundations of an African Ethic: Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  9. Chemhuru, M. (2016). The Import of African Ontology for Environmental Ethics. Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg.Google Scholar
  10. Darwall, S. (1977). Two Kinds of Respect. Ethics, 80, 36–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. DeGrazia, D. (2008). Moral Status as a Matter of Degree? Southern Journal Philosophy, 46, 181–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. DeGrazia, D. (2013). Equal Consideration and Unequal Moral Status. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 31, 17–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Donnelly, J. (2009). Human Dignity and Human Rights. Denver: Josef Korbel School of International Studies.Google Scholar
  14. Etieyibo, E. (2017). Anthropocentrism, African Metaphysical Worldview, and Animal Practices: A Reply to Kai Horsthemke. Journal of Animal Ethics, 7, 145–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eze, O. (2005). Ubuntu: A Communitarian Response to Liberal Individualism. Masters Dissertation. Pretoria: University of Pretoria.Google Scholar
  16. Eze, M. (2018). Menkiti, Gyekye, and Beyond: Towards a Decolonisation of African Political Philosophy. Filosofia Theoretica, 7, 1–17.Google Scholar
  17. Gbadegesin, S. (1991). African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities. New York, NY: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  18. Gyekye, K. (1992). Person and Community in African Thought. In Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, 1 (pp. 101–122). Washington, DC: Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.Google Scholar
  19. Gyekye, K. (1995). An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Gyekye, K. (1997). Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. New York: Oxford UP.Google Scholar
  21. Gyekye, K. (2010). African Ethics. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from
  22. Horsthemke, K. (2015). Animals and African Ethics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Horsthemke, K. (2018). African Communalism, Persons, and Animals. Filosofia Theoretica, 7, 60–79.Google Scholar
  24. Hughes, G. (2011). The Concept of Dignity in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Journal of Religious Ethics, 39, 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hurley, P. (1995). Getting Our Options Clear: A Closer Look at Agent-Centered Options. Philosophical Studies, 78, 163–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ikuenobe, P. (2006). Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  27. Ikuenobe, P. (2015). Relational Autonomy, Personhood, and African Traditions. Philosophy East and West, 65, 1005–1029.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Ikuenobe, P. (2017). The Communal Basis for Moral Dignity: An African Perspective. Philosophical Papers, 45, 437–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Ikuenobe, P. (2018). Human Rights, Personhood, Dignity, and African Communalism. Journal of Human Rights, 17, 589–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jaworska, A., & Tannenbaum, J. (2018). The Grounds of Moral Status. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from
  31. Kant, E. (1785). Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten. Riga: Johann Frederich Hartknoch. English edition: Kant, E. (1998). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (M. Gregor, Trans.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Kaphagawani, D. (2004). African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey. In K. Wiredu (Ed.), A Companion to African Philosophy (pp. 332–442). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  33. Kauppinen, A. (2018). Moral Sentimentalism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 27, 2019, from
  34. Kymlicka, W. (1990). Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  35. Loschke, J. (2018). Relationships as Indirect Intensifiers: Solving the Puzzle of Partiality. European Journal of Philosophy, 26, 390–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Louw, D. (2004). Ubuntu and the Challenges of Multiculturalism in post-Apartheid South Africa. Utrecht: Centre for Southern Africa.Google Scholar
  37. Lutz, D. (2009). African Ubuntu Philosophy and Global Management. Journal of Business Ethics, 84, 313–328.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Masolo, D. (2004). Western and African Communitarianism: In K. Wiredu (Ed.), A Comparison. Companion to African Philosophy. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford, 483–498.Google Scholar
  39. Masolo, D. (2010). Self and Community in a Changing World. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  40. May, T. (2014). Moral Individualism, Moral Relationalism and Obligations to Non-human Animals. Journal of Applied Ethics, 31, 155–168.Google Scholar
  41. Mbigi, L. (2005). The Spirit of African Leadership. Randburg: Knowers.Google Scholar
  42. Mbiti, J. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. New York, NY: Doubleday.Google Scholar
  43. McNaughton, D., & Rawling, P. (2006). Deontology. In D. Copp (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory (pp. 425–458). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Menkiti, I. (1984). Person and Community in African Traditional Thought. In R. A. Wright (Ed.), African Philosophy: An Introduction (pp. 171–181). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  45. Menkiti, I. (2004). On the Normative Conception of a Person. In K. Wiredu (Ed.), A Companion to African Philosophy (pp. 324–331). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  46. Menkiti, I. (2017). Africa and Global Justice. Philosophical Papers, 46, 13–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Menkiti, I. (2018). Person and Community—A Retrospective Statement. Filosofia Theoretica, 7, 162–167.Google Scholar
  48. Metz, T. (2007). Toward an African Moral Theory. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 15, 321–341.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Metz, T. (2010). Human Dignity, Capital Punishment and an African Moral Theory: Toward a New Philosophy of Human Rights. Journal of Human Rights, 9, 81–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Metz, T. (2011). Ubuntu as a Moral Theory and Human Rights in South Africa. African Human Rights Law Journal, 11, 532–559.Google Scholar
  51. Metz, T. (2012a). Ethics in Aristotle and in Africa: Some Points of Contrast. Phronimon, 13, 99–117.Google Scholar
  52. Metz, T. (2012b). An African Theory of Moral Status: A Relational Alternative to Individualism and Holism. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice: An International Forum, 14, 387–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Metz, T. (2013). Introduction: Engaging with the Philosophy of D.A. Masolo. Quest, 25, 7–17.Google Scholar
  54. Michael, L. (2014). Defining Dignity and Its Place in Human Rights. The New Bioethics, 20, 12–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Miller, S. (2017). Reconsidering Dignity Relationally. Ethics and Social Welfare, 2, 108–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Mokgoro, Y. (1998). Ubuntu and the Law in South Africa. Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal, 1, 1–11.Google Scholar
  57. Molefe, M. (2015). A Rejection of Humanism in the African Moral Tradition. Theoria, 143, 59–77.Google Scholar
  58. Molefe, M. (2016). Revisiting the Debate Between Gyekye-Menkiti: Who Is a Radical Communitarian? Theoria, 63, 37–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Molefe, M. (2017a). Individualism in African Moral Cultures. Cultura: International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, 14, 49–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Molefe, M. (2017b). A Critique of Thad Metz’s African Theory of Moral Status. South African Journal of Philosophy, 36(2), 195–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Molefe, M. (2017c). Relational Ethics and Partiality: A Critique of Thad Metz’s ‘Towards an African Moral Theory’. Theoria, 64, 43–61.Google Scholar
  62. Molefe, M. (2018a). Personhood and (Rectification) Justice in African Thought. Politikon, 45, 352–367.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Molefe, M. (2018b). Personhood and Rights in an African Tradition. Politikon, 45, 217–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Molefe, M. (2019a). An African Philosophy of Personhood, Morality and Politics. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Molefe, M. (2019b) Ubuntu and Development: An African Conception of Development. Africa Today 66: 96–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Molefe, M. (2019c). Solving the Conundrum of African Philosophy Through. Personhood: The Individual or Community. Scholar
  67. Molefe, M. (2020). African Personhood and Applied Ethics. Grahamstown: NISC [Pty].Ltd.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Munyaka, M. & Motlhabi, M. (2009). Ubuntu and Its Socio-Moral Significance. In F. M. Murove (Ed.), African Ethics: An Anthology of Comparative and Applied Ethics (pp. 324–331). Pietermaritzburg: University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Press.Google Scholar
  69. Norton, B. (1984). Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism. Environmental Ethics, 6, 131–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Nussbaum, M. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. O’Neil, O. (1997). Environmental Values, Anthropocentrism and Speciesism. Environmental Values, 6, 127–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Oyowe, A. (2014). Fiction, Culture and the Concept of a Person. Research in African Literatures, 45, 42–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Oyowe, A. (2018). Personhood and Strong Normative Constraints. Philosophy East and West, 34, 783–801.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Pannenberg, W. (1991). Systematic Theology (Vol. 2). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans.Google Scholar
  75. Paris, P. (1995). The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.Google Scholar
  76. Pojman, L. (2002). What is Ethics? In L. Pojman (Ed.), Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (pp. 1–7). London: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  77. Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2015). The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  78. Ramose, M. (1999). African Philosophy through Ubuntu. Harare: Mond Books.Google Scholar
  79. Ramose, M. (2003). The Ethics of Ubuntu. In P. Coetzee & A. Roux (Eds.), The African Philosophy Reader (pp. 324–331). New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  80. Rosen, M. (2012). Dignity: Its History and Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Sebidi, J. (1988). Towards the Definition of Ubuntu as African Humanism. Private Collection: Paper.Google Scholar
  82. Shutte, A. (2001). Ubuntu: An Ethic for a New South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: Cluster Publications.Google Scholar
  83. Slote, M. (2010). Moral Sentimentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  84. Toscano, M. (2011). Human Dignity as High Moral Status. The Ethics Forum, 6(2), 4–25.Google Scholar
  85. Tshivhase, M. (2013). Personhood: Social Approval or a Unique Identity? Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy, 25, 119–140.Google Scholar
  86. Tutu, D. (1999). No Future Without Forgiveness. New York, NY: Random House.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Van Niekerk, J. (2007). In Defence of an Autocentric Account of Ubuntu. South African Journal of Philosophy, 26, 364–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Van Niekerk, J. (2013). Ubuntu and Moral Theory. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.Google Scholar
  89. Waldron, J. (2012). Dignity, Rank and Rights. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Wingo, A. (2006). Akan Philosophy of the Person. In E.N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from
  91. Wiredu, K. (1980). Philosophy and an African Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Wiredu, K. (1992). Moral Foundations of an African Culture. In K. Wiredu & K. Gyekye (Eds.), Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, 1 (pp. 192–206). Washington, DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy.Google Scholar
  93. Wiredu, K. (1996). Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  94. Wiredu, K. (2004). Introduction: African Philosophy in Our Time. In Companion to African Philosophy (pp. 1–27). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  95. Wiredu, K. (2008). Social Philosophy in Postcolonial Africa: Some Preliminaries Concerning Communalism and Communitarianism. South African Journal of Philosophy, 27, 332–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Wiredu, K. (2009). An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality. Research in African Literatures, 40, 8–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Wood, A. (2007). Cross-Cultural Moral Philosophy: Reflections on Thaddeus Metz: ‘Toward an African Moral Theory’. South African Journal of Philosophy, 26, 337–348.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Fort HareEast LondonSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations