P151 – Concepts of Justice in African Philosophy
8 July, 14:00 – 15:30

Graness Anke / University of Vienna, Dep. of Philosophy
Gutema Bekele / University of Addis Ababa, Dep. of Philosophy


Starting with ancient Greek philosophers the concept of justice has been a central philosophical concept. Presently, the debate on global justice is in full swing and its publications are numerous. However, the debate is largely being conducted by European and American scholars from different disciplines (philosophers, economists, politicians, etc.) without taking into account the views and philosophies of those that are mostly the victims of global injustices. The voice of the Global South is hardly heard in this debate, although a debate on global justice must involve the views of those that are affected by the asymmetrical global relations. It is the purpose of this panel to present theories and debates on global justice from different philosophical and particularly African perspectives (like the lively debate on Ubuntu in Southern Africa or the ancient Egyptian concept of Ma’at) to make the debate on global justice it a truly global discussion.

Des concepts de la justice dans la philosophie africaine
Depuis la philosophie grecque ancienne, le concept de justice a toujours été une notion philosophique centrale. Aujourd’hui les débats ainsi que les publications sur le concept de justice globale sont nombreux. Toutefois, développée en majorité par les chercheurs européens et américains provenant de différentes disciplines (philosophie, économie, politique, etc.), cette réflexion prend très peu en considération les points de vue et les analyses émanant des victimes de l’injustice globale. La voix du Sud global est difficilement écoutée dans ce forum, bien que le débat sur la justice globale doive inclure par défaut les points de vue des victimes des relations globales asymétriques. Ce panel propose de débattre de la justice globale à partir de différentes approches philosophiques. Il entend accorder une attention particulière aux voix venant du Sud, en particulier d’Afrique (par exemple le débat en Afrique du Sud post-apartheid sur la notion d’Ubuntu et ses implications philosophiques ou le concept ancien égyptien de Ma’at), en vue de faire de cette discussion une démarche réellement globale.

Paper 1

Masolo Dismas A. / University of Louisville (USA)

Why Justice Matters

I will argue that the absence of a robust discussion of the idea of justice by African philosophers stems from the theoretical poverty driven by obsession with an instrumentalist view of governance that sees the relation between institutional structures and control of political power on the one hand, and well-being on the other only in terms of facilitation of accumulation at the individual and lineage levels. Consequently, scholarship about society and about political structures particularly, focus on descriptive analysis of state power and policies only in relation to interests that are inimical to general and public well-being. With reference to the works and thought of the renowned East African Swahili poet and philosopher, Shaaban bin Robert, I will propose that Africa is in dire need for a philosophical theorization and discussion that focuses on the idea of the common good and human well-being in general. Only such a debate will encourage and instil awareness of the moral accountability of the state and its instruments to citizens’ expectations and aspirations as well as direct public attention toward core human values and rights.

Paper 2

Metz Thaddeus / University of Johannesburg (South Africa)

An African Theory of Economic Justice

I would consider what prima facie attractive communitarian ethical perspectives salient among indigenous African peoples entail for economic justice within a state, and argue that they support a form of egalitarianism that differs from varieties common in contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy. In particular, the sort of economic egalitarianism I would advance rivals not only luck-oriented variants (e.g., R. Dworkin and G. Cohen), but also more recent ‘social’ or ‘relational’ kinds (e.g., E. Anderson and S. Scheffler). I would aim to establish that these broadly Kantian egalitarianisms are no more prima facie plausible than the Afro-communitarian version.
Libertarianism is of course alien to the African tradition, with many leading political philosophers from it instead having maintained that sub-Saharan communitarian values support some kind of economic egalitarianism. However, these thinkers (which include J. Nyerere, K. Nkrumah, H. Odera Oruka and S. Gbadegesin) have articulated views different from what I would present. First, they have not supported the specific, moderate form of egalitarianism that I contend is best justified by Afro-communitarian values; second, they have not been as systematic as I would be about precisely how egalitarianism follows from them; and, third, they have not compared African egalitarianism with Anglo-American, and especially Kantian, versions so as to facilitate comparison with, and debate between, major philosophical traditions.

Paper 3

Verharen Charles / Howard University (USA)

Justice in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia: Implications for contemporary criminal justice

The contrast between Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian concepts of justice is stark. The Code of Hammurabi notoriously requires a principle of vengeance: ‘an eye for an eye’. Select Ancient Egyptian texts proscribe acts of retribution. The Egyptian principle of maat, translated as harmony, order, justice and the like, prescribes the restoration of harmony when individuals disturb their communities. Select texts treat crime as a disease that must be healed, rather than an act that must be punished. Restoration of harmony includes compensation for victims where that is possible. In extreme cases where the community lacks the capacity to restore criminals to community harmony, exile from the community or in the worst case execution may be in order. However, exile and execution are themselves acts of violence. Communities that exercise those options confess their powerlessness in the face of disharmony. Recent research in the neurosciences may confirm the ancient Egyptian conviction that crime is a disease rather than an act of free will. The conclusion examines the prospects of deploying an Ancient Egyptian concept of justice in the service of reforming contemporary systems of criminal justice.

Paper 4

Lauer Helen / University of Ghana

Treating global justice as essentially contestable: reliance on indigenous African models arbitration and governance

This essay will explore the possibility of creating a forum to develop global justice consensually incrementally, as the ongoing piecemeal outcome of deliberation and compromise through cultural diversity and the lessons carried within post colonial efforts at democratic governance indigenous to West Africa. The concept is suggested by principles of peacekeeping diplomacy, understanding justice as the effort to restore and harmonize by and for a community, and the equation of legitimate governance with effective stewardship, following the principles of indigenous Akan governance and the reconciliation goals of legal arbitration in indigenous communities of South Africa, in Northern Cameroun, and in Igbo culture. In contrast, the current framework of international human rights discourse presupposed in the current global arena is structured and sustained by the very logic of self-interest that justifies the covert authority of an elite neo-liberal minority wholly occupied with mega-capital accumulation. Therefore an African presence is essential in forming any agency to express the contemporary effort to develop distributive and retributive principles of global justice. The reasons are not only historical, practical, and circumstantial, but also conceptual. I will show that a chief obstacle to realising universal norms of good governance is that the political culture dominating the global arena just cannot grasp the basics.

Paper 5

Lanfranchi Benedetta / SOAS, University of London (GB)

Concepts of justice in Acholi traditional justice mechanisms

This paper analyses academic and community discourses surrounding the use of Acholi ‘traditional justice mechanisms’ stipulated in the 2007 Agenda Item Three of the Juba Peace Agreement between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army within a framework of African moral philosophy and African philosophy of law. The sources used consist of selected written texts by contemporary Acholi thinkers and selected oral accounts gathered during my own field research in the Acholi region during 2012-2013. Relations are drawn between concepts of justice and concepts of personhood in Acholi traditions of thought by focusing the analysis on the three moral philosophical “categories” of responsibility, judgment and restoration, which allow for further analysis into the highly contentious points of the wider ‘justice’ debate taking place in Uganda, given the country’s multifarious judicial landscape, such as: the principle of community based collective responsibility and that of individual accountability; the notion of wrongdoing as opposed to that of crime; the question of punishment and prison sentences; the overall final aim of a justice process. While these highly contentious points have been addressed from a largely legalistic and/or political standpoint, the view held in this paper is that these constitute in fact essential philosophical questions that entail nothing less than the definition of justice itself.

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