Kwame Gyekye, Legon (Ghana)
in African Political and Moral Thought
An Akan Perspective
in African Political and Moral Thought
An Akan Perspective
In exploring the notion of Sensus communis - which I take to mean a common (human) understanding - we would be examining such questions as the following: on what grounds can members of a cultural community with their individual conceptions of the good and life plans and peculiar ways of perceiving things and interpreting experiences come to agree and have common (or shared) understanding on various matters affecting life in a human society? What underlies or underpins the generally functioning harmony of a politically organized human community? Is it not the case that the creation or emergence of human culture itself presupposes some common human understanding of, and agreement on, certain forms of life inspired by such concepts as common good, common interest, general will and related concepts? Don’t such concepts make sense and can therefore be said to be important concepts for a human society? Can we possibly deny the reality of cross-cultural or inter-cultural understanding of issues or matters of general human concern? If we cannot, on what grounds? Does such a concept as ‘world community’ or ‘international community’ have any significance? If it does, on what basis? It is this cluster of questions that I intend to examine in exploring the notion of sensus communis as it features and is understood in African political, social, and moral thought and practice with specific reference to Akan culture and philosophy. But the study will, if only for reasons of comparison, make reference also to views of some Western thinkers.
Communal society: group and individual
It is a matter of common knowledge that the African society is a communal society, even though, as I have explained in previous publications,1 communal life does not necessarily obliterate individuality, i.e., individual identity, initiative, and responsibility, as is often asserted by some individualist (or, liberal) thinkers of the West. The African society is a community society, a société communautaire, as Senghor puts it 2. In African socio-political thought and life there is a great emphasis on community life, on the need for the individual member of society to cultivate a sense of community. This preoccupation with the need to cultivate a sense of community, according to Kwesi Dickson, is a characteristic of African life to which attention has been drawn again and again by both African and non-African writers on Africa. Indeed, to many this characteristic defines Africanness.3 On the same phenomenon, John Mbiti writes that in African societies, whatever happens to the individual, happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group, happens to the individual. The individual can only say: “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. 4 And Senghor writes: ‘A Negro-African society puts more stress on the group than on the individual, more on solidarity than on the activity and needs of the individual, more on the communion of persons than on their autonomy. Ours is a community society.’5 There are several African maxims or proverbs that express the importance of, and need for, the community and its values, such as solidarity, collective action, cooperation, mutual helpfulness, interdependence, and reciprocal obligations.6
Now, the persistent communal (or communitarian) feature of the African society, or rather the emphasis on the community, is itself inspired surely by a sensus communis - a common understanding - that derives from a deep appreciation of the need for a social context that alone makes posible the realization of an individual’s potential, and that means the creation and development of a person’s identity. A person comes to know who she is in the context of relationships with others, not as an isolated lonely star in a social galaxy. Such a social context is the community, which is held in Akan socio-political philosophy as natural to the human person. This view of the natural sociality of a person is expressed in the Akan maxim:
‘When a person descends from heaven, s/he descends into a human town’ [or, human community].
In other words, a person is communal by nature, for she is born into an existing human society and immediately becomes - or ought to become - a participant in a community life. Community life is thus not optional for a human being: a human being does not choose to belong to a human society, according to Akan (and generally African) thought, just as she does not choose to become rational.
Sensus communis as creating values and institutions
But what I have just said regarding the natural sociality of the human being raises a very important question, which is this: If community life is natural to a human being - not optional for her, if entering the community is therefore not the result of human judgment or agreement, would sensus communis - a common human understanding or agreement - be of any relevance or consequence at all in the creation of a shared life of a community?
The answer to this question is no. For, if human beings, by reason of their having been born into a community, are natural participants in a community life, then they would not need to have any common understanding on the creation of a shared, communal life or a sense of community. Sensus communis will thus be inconsequential. It must be noted, however, that natural sociality, or being born into a shared, communal life, is one thing; creating values and institutions to serve the purposes of life in a community is quite another. The latter is certainly a function of a sensus communis: that is, it derives from the general agreement of the members of the community to see the need to create or establish values and institutions that would constitute the social framework within which they would like to function as moral and rational human beings. On this showing, then, the specific features of a shared, communal life must be a function of sensus communis.
The existence of at least some shared understanding of, and (tacit) agreement on, the values, goals, and institutions of an ongoing and functioning community must be presupposed. Let me elaborate on this. A community is a group of persons linked by interpersonal bonds - which are not necessarily biological - who consider themselves primarily as members of a group and who share common goals, values, and interests. The notion of shared life - of sharing an overall way of life - is most crucial to an adequate conception of community. In the social context of the community, each member acknowledges the existence of common values, obligations, and meanings or understandings, and recognizes a loyalty and commitment to the community that is expressed through the desire and willingness to advance its interests and ends. Members of a community society are expected to show concern for the well-being of one another, to do what they can to advance the common good, and generally to participate in the community life. They have intellectual and ideological as well as emotional attachments to their shared values and ends, and, as long as they cherish them, they are prepared to pursue and defend them.
This is not to say, however, that all the values, practices, and institutions of a community are necessarily satisfactory from the moral point of view. For there may be practices and institutions that can surely be said to be positively harmful to the individual’s development and interests; for instance, relationships that are built on slavery, domination, discrimination, or humiliation. This category of social relationships, however, represents the weaknesses and imperfections of human creation and the defects in the human moral character. And human aspirations and struggles have, it can be said, been aimed at the eradication of such inhuman social relationships or practices.
This leads me on to assert that, in ultimate terms, the community is essentially a normative - a moral - concept, not spatial (or geographic) - confined to villages or small towns; nor is it demographic -confined to small populations. It is important to bear this in mind because most people tend to think of the community in terms of the village or neighbourhood or of some small geographic space that is thinly populated.
Community, I would want to maintain, is a concept that can be applied to all human societies, irrespective of their sizes. Its application presupposes (or, should presuppose) the existence of social relationships that are based on, or underpinned by, moral sensibilities or positive moral responses, mutual sympathies, shared understanding of common interests and goals, and so on.
The common good: a ‘siamese’ crocodile
Now, a philosophy that appreciates and espouses the value of the community will ipso facto appreciate and endorse the notion of the common good. In other words, intrinsically connected with the notion of a community is that of the common good. The latter notion - the notion of the common good - is clearly expressed in Akan social and moral philosophy by an art motif of the ‘siamese’ crocodile, a crocodile with two heads but a single, that is, a common, stomach. The common stomach can be interpreted as expressing or symbolizing the common good, that is, the good of all the individuals embraced within a society.7 Akan socio-ethical philosophy appreciates and pursues the notion of the common good. But the notion of the common good itself and the desire of the members of a community to pursue it must derive from - must be a creation of - sensus communis.
The notion of the common good is, however, repudiated by liberal (or, individualist) thinkers in the West. These thinkers maintain that the pursuit of a common good will do violence to the autonomy and freedom of the individual and restrict or hinder her ability to choose her own good and life plans. But not only that: for they would say that the pursuit of the common good will result in intolerance of other conceptions of the good and inappropriate use of political power to realize the common good. Thus, Norman P. Barry writes: ‘The concept of the public interest can be interpreted not too inaccurately as a sophisticated version of those “aggregative” concepts, such as the “common good” and the “general will”, which are found in traditional political thought. These concepts are now to some extent discredited, mainly because they elevate aggregates such as the “group”, the “community” and “society” to a position where they stand for “higher” values than those of the individuals... Many writers have claimed that the influence of these notions has been responsible for the oppression of individuals and minorities by collective organizations in the twentieth century.”8
Much of the Western liberal thinkers’ fear or suspicion of the notion of the common good stems, I think, from their own conception or interpretation of the common good as the aggregate of the particular goods of individual persons which, like individual rights, ought to be respected. Thus, the nineteenth century British liberal thinker, Jeremy Bentham, identifies the common good with the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it (i.e., the community).9 And a contemporary liberal thinker, Will Kymlicka, also observes that in a liberal society, the common good is the result of combining preferences, all of which are counted equally.10 The aggregative conception of the common good is, I believe, mistaken; it derives from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the notion. That misunderstanding results in denigrating or disregarding the idea of sensus communis that clearly underlies the possibility of a human society and culture.
But to understand these liberal or individualist thinkers, one must understand the normative or ideological impulse to their position: liberal thinkers start out by considering the individual to be prior to the community and equipped with conceptions of the good which are perhaps totally different from the purposes of the community, individual conceptions of the good erroneously assumed to be wholly and always arrived at independently of the system of values available in a community. They seem to deny that, because human beings are individuals, there can be a common understanding or agreement on a conception of the good; human goods, they would say, are in principle not commensurable. Yet, the common good, properly understood, is not reducible to an artificial combination of individual interests or preferences. Moreover, the individual, naturally embedded in an ongoing social context, is exposed to, or presented with, a whole gamut of values. Even though she may reject some of these, she would accept others.
The common good11 literally and seriously means a good that is common to individual human beings, a good that can be said to be commonly, universally, shared by all human individuals, a good the possession of which is essential for the ordinary or basic functioning of the individual in a human society. It is, in my view, linked not only to the concept of our common humanity but also to the concept of human society and, so, cannot consist of, or be derived from, the goods or preferences of particular individuals. For these reasons, the common good cannot be held as a surrogate for the sum of the different individual goods. If, in fact, the common good were the aggregate of individual goods, it would only be contingently common and might, on that score, not be appreciated, or might only be partially appreciated, by the individual members whose recognition of common purposes and aspirations explains the possibility of a functioning human society. If there is an ongoing and functioning human society, then there must be at least a tacit or implicit or unexpressed agreement on the reality and importance of the notion of the common good. This notion, like Rousseau’s idea of the ‘general will’, is a notion of that set of goods that is essentially good for human beings as such; it may, in fact, be characterized as human good and must derive from a common human understanding - a sensus communis.
There is no human being who does not desire peace, freedom, respect, dignity, security, and satisfaction: human goods are thus not incommensurable. It is such a political or moral notion - not an exotic or weird notion - embracive of fundamental or essential goods, to which all human beings desire to have access, that is referred to as the common good. The common good, then, is identical with human good. The insistent advocacy and pursuit of such concepts as sympathy, compassion, concern for others, social justice, and respect of persons makes sense because of beliefs in the common good. The pursuit of social justice is intended to bring about certain basic goods that every individual needs if he is to function satisfactorily as a human being.
The common humanity
It can be said that the concept of the (civil) society implies the recognition and existence of a substrate of commonly shared values and self-understandings. It is this substrate that underpins the thoughts and activities of people who live together in an organized human society. Otherwise, what would be the point in the search for, and the establishment of, moral, legal, economic, political, and other institutions? Isn’t the establishment of such institutions inspired and guided by a system of shared values - a common good that itself is structured on a common understanding, a common understanding of the interests, needs, goals, and aspirations of the members of a society? Aren’t these institutions set up to achieve certain commonly shared values and goals? Aren’t these values and goals the kinds of desirable and cherished things that the community would like to make available to all of its members? The institution, for instance, of a government or legal system is surely based on a common understanding of the importance of social order and social peace.
So that, if there is a human society, if human beings can live together in some form of politically organized settings despite their individuality - despite, that is, their individual conceptions of the good life, individual ways of doings things, and so on - then the existence of a common understanding of what is fundamentally good for its members must be held as the underlying presupposition. A sensus communis can thefore be regarded as that which inspires the creation of a moral, social, or political system aimed at enhancing the well-being of people in a community generally. I think that the differences in individual conceptions of the good are often exaggerated by Western liberal thinkers; such an exaggeration, however, is at variance with the implications of the generally accepted notion of common human purposes, a notion that must be related to our common humanity.
The concept of our common humanity to which, as I said, the notion of the common good or common human purposes is intrinsically linked, is unmistakably expresed in the thought of the traditional Akan thinkers and is encapsulated in several proverbs. One most notable proverbs is:
‘All human beings are children of God; no one is a child of the earth.’
The proverb expresses the idea that humanity - the entire humanity - is a creation of God. It consequently adumbrates a view of our common humanity, implying , not that we are bound to think and act alike in all respects - given our individual idiosyncracies, but that there are certain basic desires, yearnings, hopes and fears, and dispositions intrinsic to our common human nature that we, that is, all humans, would share and that would constitute the basis of a fair amount of agreement and mutual understanding of the purposes of human society. There is an Akan epigram that teaches:
‘All belong to one family, though they are separate stalks.’
Even though, according to the two sayings, human beings are constituted into one universal family of humankind, yet the fragmentation of this family into a multiplicity of peoples (I say ‘cultures’ where others would say ‘races’) and cultures would result in different experiences and perceptions of the world, different social and value systems. But, even so, there is - and must be - a common ground of shared human experiences that would give rise to some basic questions relating to their existence on this planet that may commonly be asked by them, questions that are bound to exercise their minds as humans. Such questions, I believe, are necessary and universal, transcending cultural and historical borders. Sensus communis - some common way of perceiving things or interpreting our experiences - is always at the background of the impulse to raise such basic and necessary questions by individuals from most cultures. There may be agreements in the responses to those questions, even though there may be disagreements as well.
The idea of our common humanity - of the universal family of humankind - is expressed also in the Akan proverb:
‘Humanity has no boundary.’
The meaning of this proverb is that, while there is a limit - a boundary - to the area of cultivation of land, there is no such limit in the cultivation of humanity - in the cultivation of the friendship and fellowship of human beings; the boundaries of that form of cultivation are limitless. For humanity is of one kind; all humankind is one species.
Universalism: essential and contingent
In this connection, I have made a distinction between two kinds of universalism: essential (or constitutive) and contingent (or functional).11 By essential universalism, I am referring to certain basic values and attributes, so intrinsic to the nature and life of the human being that they can be considered common to all human beings. It cannot seriously be denied that there are values that human beings, irrespective of their societies or cultures, hold and cherish, values whose violation by, or in, some societies will provoke utter outrage and scandal in other societies. Friendship, knowledge, happiness, respect for life, the avoidance of pain and suffering would be among such values. Any human society that fails, for example, to pursue the ethic of respect for human life cannot survive as a human society for any length of time. It is the existence of, and belief in, such commonly - universally - held values that grounds the legitimacy and justifiability of criticisms of societies or nations that violate them: otherwise, what moral justification would one human society or group of people have to condemn violations of such values by another? Essential universalism thus appeals to certain fundamental values of humanity. And a philosophical inquiry into such human values should be of interest to all people irrespective of their culture.
By contingent universalism, I have in mind the notion of a philosophical idea or a cultural value, practice, or institution becoming so attractive and influential as to be embraced in the course of time by practically the rest of the peoples and cultures of the world. Such an idea or value or institution attains the status of universality in time as peoples outside the cultural origin of the idea or value become increasingly attracted to it because of their appreciation or recognition of its historic significance or relevance or power of conviction or some such quality and so accept, appropriate, and exploit it for their own purposes. The notion of the contingent universal is the justification or explanation for the dominance of the ideas, values, and institutions fashioned by some particular peoples, cultures, or times of history. Sensus communis is the lever of both species of universalism. It must be noted, however, that philosophical or cultural particularity would not be eliminated by the distinction between essential and contingent universalism.
Now, as I come to the end of my paper, I wish to say a few things about the concept of human rights, a concept that must immediately be perceived as allied to essential universalism. The concept of human rights, I believe, directly takes its rise from - is essentially linked with - the two fundamental and important, but related, notions of common good and our common humanity. The reference to our common humanity is in a sense a reference to human nature. The concept of human nature, as we know, has been maligned by some thinkers in the West, especially Sartrean existentialists. But the concept of human rights and its realization are fundamental to the functioning and flourishing of the human being as a human being in a human society.
The Akan proverb: ‘All human beings are children of God; no one is a child of the earth’, referred to above, has significance for the concept of human rights. There is an insistent claim here that every human being is a child of God, a claim that undoubtedly suggests the conviction that there must be something intrinsically valuable in God. Human beings, as children of God, ought also to be held as of intrinsic value, as ends in themselves, worthy of respect. A concept of human dignity can be linked with, or derived from, the concepts of intrinsic value and respect. Also implicit in the proverb is the equality of the moral worth of all humans - of all the children of God. Concepts of human dignity, intrinsic value, and equal moral worth generate a notion of moral rights which, as deriving ultimately from God or as belonging fundamentally to every human being as a creature of God, could be linked with the notion of natural rights. That is to say, a human rights concept can certainly be said to be already involved in conceptions of human dignity; or, put differently, the conception of human dignity compels the recognition of rights - some fundamental rights - which are claims that human beings are entitled to make by reason of their being human.
It can in fact be said that the reason for advancing human rights, in ultimate terms, is not so much to protect people against the state or other groups as to promote human dignity, which ought to be regarded by all cultures as of fundamental value. In this connection, by the ‘state’ in the sense of the government and its organs, the whole matter of the protection of human rights is reduced to a legalistic endeavour. Yet, the real success of the endeavour to protect human rights ultimately does not depend those who enforce the law. The promotion and protection of human rights, then, is ultimately the function of the moral values and practices of a society as well as the moral integrity of its members. The ordering of the human society requires, and presupposes, that there be moral as well as legal principles, moral principles being, in my opinion, more fundamental and ultimate. In a well ordered society, there must be a large measure of agreement or convergence on at least a fundamental core of moral values or principles.
The last statement will immediately be countered by those philosophers who defend the relativity or subjectivity of values. But the position of the relativist surely stands seriously and irredeemably undermined by the sheer possibility of human society, for that possibility is grounded on the reality of a notion of a fundamental core of human values, values that are shared by members of a society, values the observance of which makes for the smooth functioning of the society. It cannot be seriously denied that, for instance, there are certain things that all members of a society want as rational and moral beings. Our common human purposes and aspirations as well as fundamental human desires should, despite cultural differences, dispose us toward agreeing on judgments regarding the kinds of things that make for a satisfactory or flourishing human life.
In what may be considered private aspects of culture, namely, styles of dress, tastes of food, and forms of dance and music, however, sensus communis would not reach that far, even within the same culture. This is because social stratification, occupational differences, and differences in individual talents, endowments, desires, and aesthetic perceptions insistently constrain the homogenization of particular aesthetic or artistic forms of cultural life even in the same cultural environment.
I conclude: Sensus communis - interpreted as commonly shared human understanding and appreciation - in fundamental matters especially of morality, politics, and social ordering, is a viable concept. It is, indeed, at the very base of an organized and functioning human society and culture. Sensus communis may occasionally be expressed or highlighted by political leaders, ideologues, intellectuals, and artists of a community or nation, with a view to drawing attention to, as well as exploring, the common sentiments of a people.
Generally, however, sensus communis is not formally expressed; it is most often rather presupposed in the values, beliefs, aspirations, activities, and behaviour-patterns of the members of a community. It may be said in fact that sensus communis underlies and explains the emergence or development of the culture or cultural tradition of a people; thus, we might create the slogan: No sensus communis, no culture. Without culture, there would be no organized social life for a people. For culture, remember, is an enactment of a society - of a group of people - not of an individual as such. The entire way of life of a people - that is, culture - is fashioned, maintained, and fostered through a common understanding (sensus communis) of the members of a cultural community, despite criticisms of certain aspects of the culture often made by some members of that cultural community, criticisms that are mostly aimed at pruning and refining the culture.
1. K. Gyekye: An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Rev. ed. Philadelphia 1995, Chap.10; Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience. New York 1997, Chap. 2.
2. See L.S. Senghor: On African Socialism, transl. M. Cook. New York 1964, p. 93-94.
3. K.A. Dickson: Aspects of Religion and Life in Africa.. Accra 1977, p. 4.
4. J.S. Mbiti: African Religions and Philosophy. New York 1970, p. 141; emphasis mine.
5. Senghor, loc. cit. (note 2).
6. See Gyekye: An Essay on African Philosophical Thought, loc. cit. (note 1), p.155-156; African Cultural Values. An Introduction. Philadelphia/Accra 1996, pp. 35-47.
7. See Gyekye: An Essay on African Philosophical Thought, loc.cit. (note 1), Chap. 10.
8. N.P. Barry: An Introduction to Modern Political Theory. London 1981, p. 200.
9. J. Bentham: An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, (1823). Oxford 1948, p. 126.
10. W. Kymlicka: Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford 1990, p. 206.
11. On this distinction, I am here drawing heavily on what I say in my book: Tradition and Modernity, loc. cit. (note 1), p. 27-33.
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