Within communal conceptions of personhood,
can the idea of individual responsibility remain morally relevant?
A central element of African thought is the conception of communal personhood. In this essay, we will examine three such communal conceptions of personhood in light of their interrelation with individual responsibility. First, we will have a closer look on Menkiti’s communal conception of personhood and will argue that his account alone is not able to justify individual moral responsibility, but that it is compatible with Gyekye’s communal conception of personhood that underlines certain mental features that hold communal agents individually responsible for their actions. After having discussed and responded to the problem regarding the extent to which a person’s reasoning and her moral sense is shaped by the communal culture she was socialized in, we will have a look on the third communal conception of personhood that arises in a Yoruba allegory and will discuss its implications for individual responsibility. At first, we extract the preferred Yoruba communal conception of personhood out of the allegory. Then, we apply our finding of ‘self-determined but communal’ action on three possible options of receiving one’s destiny in heaven and clarify for each the realm of individual responsibility.
Menkiti’s conception of personhood is a communal one, because, according to him, personhood is acquired “as one participates in communal life through the discharge of the various obligations defined by one’s stations.” In this context moral functions and responsibilities play a central role: Individuals become, through membership in a community and continuously incorporating a growing number of morally relevant roles, more and more ethically mature and therefore more and more a person. Now one might ask whether in such a communal conception of personhood the idea of individual responsibility can remain morally relevant, or if communal notions of right and wrong, good and evil overtake personal judgments when it comes to decide what one ought to do or not to do. If it is the community that decides whether one fulfills the criteria for a certain degree of moral maturity, it should also be the community that decides upon what is ethically acceptable and what not. Consequently, there would be no room for individual moral responsibility in such a scenario. The persons would unquestioningly follow the moral rules of their community to gain, hold and further develop their personhood. But this scenario oversees one aspect which is crucial for the correct understanding of individual moral responsibility in Menkiti’s communal conception of personhood: Even if, according to Menkiti, personhood has its origin in community, persons can distinguish themselves from community: “He is because we are,” “You are because we are” and accordingly ‘I am because we are’ show that an itself not communally given awareness of self can be derived from awareness of one’s communal membership. Self-awareness alone is still not enough to justify individual responsibility. A moral agent can be completely aware of her actions without being responsible for them if these actions are motivated by communal accounts of morality.
Nevertheless, this self-awareness is closely related to another phenomenon that grants individual responsibility to communal persons: As Gyekye (independently from his criticism of Menkiti’s notion of gradually growing personhood “elderly people who are known to be wicked” ) points out in his conception of communal personhood, “a person is not fully defined by the communal or cultural structure,” but possesses attributes such as rationality, its own moral sense, a capacity for virtue and, hence, making the individual capable of choice and for evaluating and making moral judgments. It are thus these mental capacities that turn a communal person into an individually responsible moral agent. The person’s ability for autonomous reasoning allows her/him to assess multiple options, s/he can agree on the communal moral preferences, but s/he could also have chosen to disagree with the communal moral understanding. This means that, even if the person’s moral preferences are equal to the communal ones, s/he is individually responsible for her/his actions. Even if Menkiti does not write explicitly about the communal persons’ mental features such as rationality and own moral sense mentioned by Gyekye, they can be said to be compatible with his notion of communal personhood, because they are an extension of his notion of a communal person’s self-awareness. In fact, self-awareness is a precondition of moral reasoning. An agent that is not self-aware can’t evaluate his/her options of action or the actions s/he undertook, and therefore cannot be a moral agent.
One problem for individual responsibility in a communal conception of personhood could be the question regarding the extent to which a person’s reasoning and her/his moral sense is shaped by the communal culture s/he was socialized in. In other words: Can a communal person, after his/her assessment of different options of action, ever come up with a moral preference that differs from the prevailing communal norm, or is this impossible, because the socialization in a specific culture impacts the individual’s abilities to think beyond their culture, which means drawing conclusions that differ from conclusions foreseen by the specific culture? Gyekye argues that individuals with communal personhood can re-evaluate and refine existing communal goals, values, and practices, which means that communal persons have not only the ability to come up with own moral preferences that differ from the dominating communal norm, but also can take a critical look at their community’s normative framework. Of course, there may be extreme cases in communities in which through brainwashing and psychological manipulation the communities’ members’ abilities to question the communities’ norms is eradicated. Nevertheless, I think it is intuitively correct to say that Gyekye is here right, because human reasoning is natural and therefore more fundamental than artificially constructed culture. Even in longstanding authoritarian dictatorships, such as in North Korea, in which individuals are already since multiple generations exposed to officially proclaimed communal norms and in which individuals with moral understandings that differ from the mainstream are persecuted, the people still have the ability and the desire to criticize their government and the predominant ethical reasoning, even if they don’t do it publicly. The fact that they don’t do it publicly shows, that the individuals will not necessarily express and act upon their differing moral understandings, if it causes them harm. This raises the question about whether a person can still be held individually responsible for her/his actions, if s/he decides consciously, to avoid personal pain, to act in ways that contradict with her/his moral preferences.
The Yoruba allegory of a person’s choice of destiny is also relevant when assessing whether within communal conceptions of personhood the idea of individual responsibility remains morally relevant. One of the stories of the Odu Corpus, the collection of verses constituting the basis of the Yoruba divination system, is about how an unborn human being chooses/receives its Ori (destiny) in heaven. This story contains several elements that illustrate the Yoruba’s notion of communal personhood and its interrelation with the idea of individual responsibility. The first mention manifests the consequences of different ways of engaging with community in heaven: Three unborn friends were warned by their friends to go directly to the house of Ajala, the place where they would choose/get their Ori. Two of the friends followed the advice of their friends, the third one decided to go see his father before choosing his Ori. The two who went directly to get their Ori received a bad destiny and the third, after having met some divination priests at his father’s place, having followed their advice to perform sacrifices and after having overcome some obstacles, received a good Ori. The friends, the father and the divination priests symbolise the community. Whereas the two friends that unquestioningly follow the community’s advice, are punished, the third friend who both acts autonomously (when rejecting the external communal imperative about what he ought to do) and shows an openness for communal advice (when following the priests’ advice) is rewarded for his behaviour. Letting the question of how unborn beings can be agents aside, this allegory shows that the Yoruba tradition favours a notion of communal personhood that does let room for self-determination (and thereby individual responsibility) over a notion of communal personhood in which the individuals follow blindly communal norms. What characterises this favoured conception of personhood is, that in it self-determination goes in pair with a mature and reflective way of dealing with communal norms and expectations. Both the father and the priests are themselves reasonable and deliberative, and so is interaction with them. The friends, and interaction with them, however, is childish and unreflective. The story of the three friends not only tells us about the generally preferred Yoruba conception of communal personhood, but, on a more immediate level, it simply says that an unborn being in heaven has the possibility of acting in an autonomous way and of deliberating with communal agents before getting its Ori and that if she does both, she receives a better destiny. If we have this immediate reading of the story back in mind, another aspect of the Yoruba allegory, namely the episode in which three different ways of receiving one’s Ori in the house of Ajala are pointed out, also relates to the topic of communal personhood and individual responsibility.
 Ifeanyi A. Menkiti: Person and Community in African Traditional Thought, in: Richard A. Wright [ed]: African Philosophy. An Introduction, 3rd ed., University Press of America 1984, p. 176.
 Ifeanyi A. Menkiti: On the Normative Conception of a Person, in: Kwasi Wiredu [ed]: A Companion to African Philosophy, Blackwell 2006, p. 324.
 Menkiti (2006): p. 324.
 Kwame Gyekye: Person and Community. In Defense of Moderate Communitarianism, in: Kwame Gyekye: Tradition and Modernity. Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience, Oxford Scholarship Online 2011, p. 17.
 Ibid., p. 20.
 Ibid., p. 21.
 Gyekye (2011): p. 21.
 Segun Gbadegesin: Toward a Theory of Destiny, in: Kwasi Wiredu [ed]: A Companion to African Philosophy, Blackwell 2006, p. 313.
 Gbadegesin (2006): p. 313.