‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’.

A person only becomes human by other people. This is the translation of the title above. It summarizes the ubuntu philosophy, that is the dominating cultural orientation in Africa below the Sahara. In the West our orientation is based on Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum”, I think so I am. In ubuntu philosophy one could say: I am because we are. This is a completely different orientation. I’d like to illustrate this by the concepts of responsibility in both cultures.

In the West responsibility means that we are responsible for our own thoughts, feelings and acts. We are responsible for how we respond on things that are happening to us. If someone is insulting us, we can choose how to react: with anger, sadness, indifference or leave at with the other person. That is why we cannot be responsible for the thoughts, feelings or actions of another person. Responsibility thus conceptualized is the reverse side of the Enlightenment value of freedom. In extreme form it may lead to a very individualistic orientation.

Af few examples. If  unintentionally, unfortunately I am offending someone, the first thing I have to do is scrutinize my own intentions: was my intention pure; did I really not (unconsciously) have the intention to insult? If after this self investigation I come to the conclusion that, as far as I can see, my intention was pure indeed, then I am not responsible for the reactions of the offended person. Het or she can feel insulted or violated, but he/she could also choose to let it go. An interesting question is if  in this case I should offer an apology. I personally intend not to.

In my opinion this freedom to respond is also valid when someone is hurt very much by a serious crime, like burglary, violence or even rape or murder of a beloved. Even then there is always a choice for the victim: staying stuck in grief, rage, hate, resentment or revenge, or, after much inner work, feeling compassion for the offender or forgiveness (which, I am sure, in the end will give more peace of mind). In that case an apology might be offered by the offender, that is meaningless however when there is no honest regret or remorse.

But now another case. Just by accident, by an unfortunate movement with my umbrella, I hurt another person, maybe seriously in the eye. I could say: this indeed was completely unintentionally as well, but is was certainly careless. Anyway, in this case I feel at least co-responsible, and an apology is in place. So it is not so easy to draw the lines between ones own and another person’s responsibility.

In ubuntu philosophy, on the other hand, we are always responsible for the wellbeing of the other being. If that person stumbles on a crooked paving stone, for instance, and is hurting himself, I am responsible and should say sorry, even if I just witness it and have nothing to do with it. In the West individual worth is determined by the individual qualities of a person. In ubuntu the worth of a person is determined by this/her significance for other persons. In ubuntu the individual is not seen as separate but as embedded in his community and in the larger whole.

On first sight ubuntu philosophy seems more beneficial for our society than the Western individualistic one. That may be too hasty a conclusion however. Importing ubuntu philosophy in the western culture may result in support out of duty instead of compassion.  It may even result in disempowering a person, who could be in charge of him- or herself very well. Furthermore the Western concept of responsibility  implies that one can hold another person fully accountable for his responses. Responsibilty then becomes response-ability. It makes honest, nonjudgmental feedback possible, and therefore may contribute to personal development and individual consciousness, and thus indirecty to the improvement of society as well. On the other hand again: so may ubuntu. Food for thought.


(I apologize for mistakes in my English. Blogs are cursory – not stuff for correction by a native speaker).


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