How communitarianism clashes with individual’s right and freedoms. African communitarianism

Essay, 2019
12 Pages, Grade: B+

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Aim and scope of the essay

The aim of this essay is to examine how communitarianism clashes with individual’s right and freedoms. The essay is divided into four sections. The first section provides the definition of the keywords; communitarianism, right and freedom. The second section discusses the feature of African communitarianism. The third section discusses African communitarianism from the perspectives of the Radicals and Moderates school of thought with evaluate their views if African communitarianism clashes with individual’s rights and freedoms. The thesis of this essay is that communitarianism as a philosophical view in as much as it aims to cater for communal good have a potency of conflicting with individual’s rights and freedoms.

Introduction: Definition of key terms; communitarianism, rights, freedoms

The term communitarianism is derived from the word ‘community’ and it refers to any philosophical standpoint that defines a person in the context of social bonds and cultural traditions rather than through individual traits (Daly 1994). The term communitarian was coined in 1841 by John Goodwyn Barmby, a leader of the British Chartist movement, who used it to refer to utopian socialists and others who experimented with unusual communal lifestyles (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2011). From the Institute of Communication Studies (2000) communitarianism is a social and political philosophy that emphasizes the importance of community in the functioning of political life, in the analysis and evaluation of political institutions and in understanding human dignity and wellbeing. According to Ifeanyi (1984) communitarianism emphasizes the ontological primacy of the community over the reality of the individual. He says it is the community which defines the individual as a person, not some remote and inert quality of reason. According to Tendai (2014:434) this view of communitarianism assumes that the norms, standards and goals of the community are absolute and the determinants for morality and social justice. One does not focus on oneself as a discrete being but in relation to others. If one does not dedicate oneself to the well-being of the community, one purposely causes harm to oneself. Human right are rights that one has simply as a human being irrespective of one’s membership or place in society. Garret (2004) defines right as an entitlement or justified claim to a certain kind of positive and or negative treatment from others, to assistance from others or non-interference from others.

According to Hellsten (2004:62) one’s rights and duties cannot be fully, or fundamentally, defined by one’s place in society, whether that place is defined by birth, age, occupation, achievement, or class. Each person, regardless of status or past actions, has certain fundamental human rights that ordinarily take priority over other moral and political claims and obligations. From the International Humanistic and Ethical Union Journal (2008) concerns about human rights presently fall into two schools: liberal and communitarian. Liberals give primary moral value to individual human beings and believe that the individual has autonomy and dignity and therefore should be free to express his or her unique qualities and dispositions and that these should be respected by the community and the state. Liberals base the notion of human rights on the democratic basis of basic civil and political rights of all citizens as individuals and insist that since the individual’s interests can easily be threatened, all citizens should be protected against the oppression of the state and against collective authoritarianism.

African context and communitarianism

African community is an ongoing dynamic association of men and women, who have a special commitment to one another and have developed a distinct sense of their common life. In this connection, African communitarianism which is thought to mirror the communal orientation of African traditional societies takes centre stage. In this context, the history of a person’s life is the story of his or her transactions with the community’s material and moral worlds, which, in effect, is the story of his or her relations with particular sets of social goods (Mabovula, 2011:38). This idea of communitarianism is ostensibly unique to African culture. However, the doctrine of communitarianism is formulated under a number of metaphysical presuppositions that have not been thoroughly analyzed. The initial social stratum is constructed first of all into families and kinship, associations like clans, and then into clubs, neighbourhoods, communities, congregations, and more extended social hierarchies. This is the central notion of a community where people work together to create peace and love. At the basis of African communitarianism is communalism. Gyekye (1987) defines African communalism as a kinship-oriented social order, which is informed by an ethic of reciprocity. In a communal social order, one is brought up with a sense of solidarity with large groups of people. In African community, people view themselves and what they do as equally good to others as to themselves. The African view of the person can be summed up in the statement “I am because we are and since we are therefore I am.” (Mbiti, 1969 in Verhoef and Michel, 1997:17). According to Rutoro and Tendai (2014:434) the moral responsibilities and obligations every individual owes towards one's family and society, the State and other legally recognized communities and the international community is enshrined in the Chapter two of the African Charter Article 27 (1989). They added that the Charter reiterates that the rights and freedoms of each individual shall be exercised with due regard to the rights of others, collective security, morality and common interest.

The argument of African communitarianism and individual rights: Radical vs Moderate communitarian

There are two schools of thought in relation to African communitarianism. The Radical and the Moderate school of thought. The Radical school of communitarianism is be traced to Placide Tempels, Ifeanyi Menkiti, John Mbiti while Kwame Gyekye is the key proponent of the Moderate Communitarianism. The argument in this essay will centre on Ifeanyi Menkiti as a radical communitarian and Kwame Gyekye as the moderate communitarian.

The Radical perspective

Menkiti give a restricted meaning to the issue of personhood. The main idea that underpins the realization of personhood, as conceived by Menkiti, is that of the primordiality of community rights over the individual rights. Menkiti follows an extreme form of communitarianism, asserting the ontological primacy of the community over the reality of the individual’s life and rights. He maintains it is:

The community which defines the person as person, not some isolated static quality of rationality, will, or memory in the African understanding, human community plays a crucial role in the individual’s acquisition of full personhood (Menkiti 1984:172 & 179).

According to Menkiti, individual values and interests are de-emphasized. An individual does not play any role towards the realization of his or her personhood. Instead, personhood is wholly defined by a cultural community (Mwimnobi, 2003:41). Menkiti supports Mbiti’s view that freedoms and rights wholly derive from the ‘structural rights’ of a community. Menkiti and Mbiti’s views on personhood do not take into consideration individual freedom to make choices .In this case, he or she may find it difficult to transfer his or her loyalty from an ethno-cultural group to a nation-state. Menkiti shares Mbiti’s view that the individual wholly depends on the community for his or her existence. Menkiti (1984:171) holds that as far as Africans are concerned, the reality of the communal world takes precedence over the reality of individual life histories. Menkiti, in his view on personhood, considers an individual as a communal being only. For him, an individual is not defined by personal characteristics, which are unique to him or her. He claims that the idea of individual rights and the recognition of personal characteristics are foreign to Africa (Mwimnobi, 2003b).

This communitarian view, however, proceeds from the assumption that the welfare, values and goals of the community are supreme and the overriding consideration for morality and social justice. This implies that the individual is submerged in a community and that community interests and its continued existence take preference above the will and interests of the individual. From the logic of Menkiti’s argument about the ‘ontological primacy’ of the community, it follows that community values are not contingent but a necessary condition for personhood. This means that the individual must of necessity be subject to the normative power of the community and is thus not seen as the primary reference point for moral actions. Rather, his or her moral status is linked to the fact that the cultural community is the primary context or social space within which he or she is regarded as a moral agent. In other words, the importance of individual human rights is denied in terms of the priority of group rights. Gyekye objects to the idea that the notion of individual rights is foreign to cultural communities in Africa. However, Menkiti’s assertion about the ontological primacy of the community over the individual is based on an idealized view and inflation of the importance of collectivity (IHEU, 2006).

Although, I agree that we cannot do without communities, that people are largely interdependent and that the moral self develops within a social context where culture and history play vital roles, The above discussion points to Menkiti’s view that in the ‘African worldview’, a community enjoys ontological primacy over the individual. Accordingly, individual’s rights and freedoms are fully defined by the cultural structure of a community. Menkiti’s view on the realization of personhood is to be understood in terms of the idea of ‘role-structural rights’.

According to Gyekye (1993:103) the idea central to Menkiti’s analysis is a metaphysical one. The metaphysical idea under consideration is the idea that a community takes priority over an individual. Gyekye’s position is that such a rendering of personhood is ‘radical’ and it may yield either ‘radical or moderate socio-political consequence.

It is crucial to note that Menkiti’s metaphysical notion does not identify any capacities that constitute a human being, but rather it is an account that emphasizes the community as a crucial frame of reference in the humanization and formation of personal rights and freedoms. In short, the idea of personhood entails a dialogical morality where our chief moral goal is self-realization but this goal can only be achieved by us fulfilling our other-regarding duties.

Gyekye’s concept of moderate communitarianism

In contrast to the extreme communitarian framework which Menkiti, Mbiti and others defend, Kwame Gyekye develops a refined principle out of the radical/ classical communitarianism which is known as Moderate Communitarianism in his work, Person and Community in African thought (2003). Gyekye (1997:42) argues that communitarianism sees the individual as an inherently communal being, embedded in a context of social relationships and interdependence. Furthermore, he argues that a person also possesses some inherent characteristics, such as freedom. It strikes a balance between individual rights and the rights of a community. Gyekye argues that equal moral standing must be given to both the community and the individual. Accordingly, he proposes the principle of equiprimordiality (Mwimnobi, 2003 & Watadza, 2016). The community needs the individual for its development and at the same time, the individual needs the community to achieve his or her goals.

The underlying principles of Gyekye’s idea of moderate communitarianism are his notions of the common good and the principle of individualism. Gyekye holds that intrinsically connected with the notion of the community is the notion of the common good. For him, the common good means “a good that is common to individual human beings - at least those embraced within a community, a good that can be said to be commonly and 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” (1997:45). This means, a good that is needed by all members of a multicultural community, irrespective of their different ethnic affiliations (Mwimnobi, 2013:10, Watadza, 2016: 33).

Kwame Gyekye, however, believes that communitarianism is not necessarily tantamount to a negation of individual rights. He is an advocate of moderate communitarianism and differs from the viewpoint of Menkiti and other radical communitarians, such as Anikpo, Okoye and Osita Eze who consider personal rights for individuals redundant. In an attempt to show that communalism (in this case moderate communalism) does not negate individual rights Gyekye (1992:114) maintains:

The respect for human dignity, a natural or fundamental attribute of the person which cannot, as such, be set at nought by the communal structure, generates regard for personal rights. The reason is that the natural membership of the individual person in a community cannot rob him of his dignity or worth, a fundamental and inalienable attribute he possesses as a person.

The difference between Gyekye’s idea of personhood and the views of Menkiti and Mbiti becomes clearer when comparing their views on the notion of “rights” Rights are only considered as the rights of a community because individual rights are not accepted. Gyekye argues that:

Since respect for human dignity is a fundamental attribute of all persons, individual rights cannot be negated. He develops this argument as follows: The respect for human dignity, however the conception is derived, whether from theistic considerations or through purely rational reflection on human nature, is linked with, and in fact compels, the recognition of rights (Gyekye 1992:115).

Gyekye (1995:158) bases his notion of human dignity on the African humanist conception of humankind where the well-being and interests of each member of the community are assured. Thus, according to Gyekye the recognition of individual rights, which includes the exercise of the unique qualities and dispositions of individuals by a communitarian political morality is a conceptual requirement. Failure to recognise this can lead to exaggerating the normative status and power of the community in relation to those of the person, and in its turn, this can lead to ‘complicating our understanding of the real nature of the person’ (Gyekye 1992:106).

A community, in the context of communitarianism, is seen as 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. Gyekye holds that the interpersonal bonds that exist among individuals need not be biological for a community to be formed. Thus, Gyekye argues for the recognition of both communal and individual rights. There are basic rights which compel members of a multicultural community, irrespective of their ethno-cultural groups of origin, to coexist and work together in such a community. These basic rights should be exercised by members of a community without exception. They include: respect, dignity, equality of opportunity, equality before the law, freedom of association and freedom of choice. I maintain that the recognition of these basic individual rights will make it possible for individual members of various cultural backgrounds to co-exist as members of one nation-state.

According to IHEU (2008) Gyekye’s argument, is not very convincing. He fails to see that there is no necessary (inevitable) link between respect for human dignity and the recognition of individual rights, because a conception of human dignity does not guarantee (nor ‘generate’) regard for personal rights or liberties, especially not for the rights of women.

In addition, Gyekye did not demonstrate how and why this idea of community taking priority over an individual is related to the whole enterprise of rights, but simply assumes it does. This claim, as I have stated above, is a metaphysical one that merely gives us an account of personal identity. It is not clear in Menkiti’s analysis that primacy of the community is related to individuals rights and freedoms. Gyekye’s moderate communitarianism fails because of the clashing axiological means employed by a system of rights and one of duties to secure a life of dignity. In a system of rights, it is left largely in individual’s shoulders to settle issues of her own well-being; and, in a communitarian setting, it is a function of our communion as human beings to assist each other as a moral requirement.

To reinstate if communitarianism clashes with individual’s rights and freedom, can briefly be explained that there is a relationship between the community and the individual. The individual and the community are not radically opposed in the sense of priority but engaged in a contemporaneous formation. I concur with Mbiti to the extent that an individual’s subjectivity is dependent upon a discursive formation. However, I differ to the extent that ‘the community must therefore make, create, or produce the individual’. I agree with Kwame Gyekye that the individual and the community are mutually interrelated but to give priority to the individual rights and freedoms ahead of the community should not the order of the day since the individual is a being in a social context. In my view, rights and freedoms of the individual and the community are mutually constitutive and hence none is supreme. As an Igbo proverb goes, ‘when the mouth cries, the mouth and the nose follows’; a view which reflects the idea that the good of the community and that of the individual are intricately interwoven (Onyebuchi, 2008:387). The contemporaneity of the individual and the community gives justification to the claim that in our traditional value system, the community is not prior to the individual and the individual is not prior to the community. The individual is imbued with self-determination and remains the highest value in the community.


This essay has discussed the concept of communitarianism within African context. In doing the discussion, the essay examined the perspective of the two schools of thought on African communitarianism; Radical and Moderate communitarianism with particular reference to Menkiti and Gyekye. Though Menkiti do not categorically make claim for individual rights and freedoms, it cannot be ignored that since rights and freedoms are determinant of nature, the community cannot deny the individual of his rights or freedoms. Gyekye simply assumes that rights are crucial in an African tradition but he does not make a case for the ontology and relevance of rights in African tradition. The duty for one to realise their true humanity takes central stage in African moral thought and this duty is essentially connected to promotion of the well-being of other human beings. For Gyekye, the political consequences of Menkiti’s position is a failure to recognise the autonomous nature of a human being that accounts for human dignity and this failure further engenders a lack of recognition for rights that naturally belong to individuals. Whereas Menkiti’s account presents a normative view of social duties as having priority over individual rights, Gyekye defends a view that conceives of a self as constituted by autonomy and sociality


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