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Human dignity in African communitarianism.


This study examines the extent to which African communitarian thought succeeds in the promotion of human dignity without having to call upon human rights. As well as being considered as a central value within social and political philosophy, human dignity is also critical to policy formulations within spheres is has tremendous influence such as bioethics, medicine, politics, and law. Generally, the promotion of human dignity has been conceived from the liberal point of view, and specifically through human rights and their institutions. Ontologically, liberalism prioritises the individual and her rights over her community. Respect for one’s dignity is in this regard synonymous with respect for individual rights. This conception excludes the non-liberal thought systems which are regarded as inimical to the human dignity project on the basis that they do not prioritise individual rights and freedoms. On this basis, the non-liberal thought systems have been perceived as anachronistic and authoritarian, and therefore considered as dissing human dignity. However, since human dignity is generally regarded as a concept more fundamental than human rights, it cannot be reduced to a single value system at the exclusion of others. Thus, through human rights, liberalism presents a particular vision of individual-community relationships in which the individual is primary. Subsequently, this relationship points to a particular way of understanding human dignity. As different societies live by different value systems, there exist corresponding ways through which such societies express and enhance human dignity. It is in this regard that the study attempts to demonstrate the extent to which African communitarianism, one of the non-liberal intellectual traditions and considered as a dominant conceptual theme in African thought, is capable of securing human dignity. Specifically, the study examines certain values that are central to the African communitarian thought system for their consistency with the dignity of human persons in its broader sense. Within African communitarianism, the individual-community relationship prioritises the reality of the community over and above that of the individual. This can be seen by emphasis laid on such values as interdependence, consensus and the common good. Normatively, they all point to the centrality of the community and one’s duty towards its flourishing. Thus, the sort of dignity that can be derived from the African communitarian thought goes beyond the bounds of individual persons exercising their freedom as emphasised within the liberal tradition. Dignity in this regard concerns the flourishing of persons not as individuals, but as members of the community. Thus, contrary to the criticism by proponents of the liberal value systems, the non-liberal thought systems can be shown to be capable of securing human dignity to the extent that dignity is conceived from a holistic point of view. Since the basic aim of every community is to serve people who are its members, respect to community and its values is an indication of respect for human dignity. In this way, the African communitarian thought offers a competitive alternative to the liberal conception of human dignity. In this regard it would be wrong to make judgements about the African communitarian thought system by employing a conception of dignity that is inconsistent with the African value systems themselves.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.