Ethnicity, Colonialism, and Democracy as an Agent of Globalization
Paper presented at the Fourth Annual Kent State University Symposium on Democracy
One feature of globalization is the efforts by the West to prescribe or, in some cases, impose liberal democracy on developing countries. Liberal democracy has thus become a powerful agent of globalization for two related reasons. The first is economic and is partly self-serving for Western states. As capitalist and technologically advanced economies, they want cheap labor, markets, and sources of raw materials for their products. The hope is that liberal democracy will lead to free-market economies in, and trade with, these developing countries, which will enable Western states and their multinational corporations to expand commercial activities for profits. It is also hoped that the full ramifications and consequences of liberal democracy will enable people in these countries to create peaceful societies and lead good lives. The other reason, which is moral or philosophical, is that liberal democracy is deemed by many to be the most morally justifiable system of government. Such a justification derives from its principles and values of neutrality, tolerance, individual rights, and freedom, which are seen as intrinsic human values as well as instrumental values, in the sense of providing the basis for one’s ability to make choices. Such choices allow people to live the good life in order to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness. These two reasons are related: a peaceful society, good political system, and freedom to lead one’s life the way one chooses imply freedom to engage in economic and commercial activities, which will lead to free markets. The principles of liberal democracy are now the ethical criteria and motivation for globalization: that is, the process of (1) recognizing developing societies as civilized or modern, and accepting them as legitimate members of the global society, and (2) “homogenizing” peoples all over the world into a global community in which various cultures and ethnicity can coexist harmoniously in spite of their differences.
This paper critically examines the plausibility of using liberal democratic principles as an ethical foundation for globalization in solving the problems of state formation, ethnic and cultural differences, and national integration in developing countries. For the purpose of this paper, I focus on the moral or philosophical reason that underpins democracy as an ethical foundation for globalization, insofar as it is coextensive with the economic reason. The problems of state formation and national integration confronting many African countries that are trying to adopt liberal democracy raise the issue of whether liberal democracy is an adequate basis or framework for harmonizing and homogenizing different cultures and ethnicity and creating acceptable micro (domestic) societies and a macro (global) society. I examine the theoretical nature of these problems and argue that liberal democracy cannot adequately address them. Liberal democracy assumes the principles of neutrality, abstract individualism, and subjectivity of value, which are alien to, or inconsistent with, traditional African communal ethos. I examine the nature of African communal ethos and the social structures of modern African states that have been stripped of their traditional ethos by colonialism. These modern social structures lack the appropriate and authentic traditional institutions and values that could have helped—perhaps, with some modifications—to sustain liberal democratic principles. I argue that these social structures cannot sustain liberal democracy because they are anomalous hybrid structures and enigmas that are not understood and cannot adequately be utilized to solve the problems of cultural and ethnic differences and national integration.
The Nature, Principles, and Assumptions of Liberal Democracy
In order to critically examine whether liberal democracy can be an effective set of ethical principles for globalization, it is pertinent to examine its nature and its underlying principles and assumptions. Liberal democracy has its foundation in the ethical principle of individual autonomy: the idea that there is intrinsic value in an individual’s ability to make free choices and to be a self-governing individual. This is the basis for the other principles of liberal democracy, such as voting, representation, and participation; abstract individualism, rights, and freedom; fallibilism, skepticism, and subjectivism regarding values; tolerance and neutrality. As a political theory, liberal democracy is an account of the nature of (1) individual rights and freedoms, and (2) the relationships among individuals and between individuals and the state. It is a view about how to limit state’s powers over individuals, to protect their rights and liberties, and their ability to be self-governing individuals. Such protection is couched in terms of tolerance, neutrality, and equal consideration of an individual’s freedom or autonomy to choose rational life plans, values, and beliefs, in that the state must treat everyone fairly and equally by being neutral and tolerant of every conception of the good and values.1 Tolerance of differences in values, cultures, and ethnicity, and the state’s neutrality enhance people’s freedom and ability to choose their values and to pursue their conceptions of the good.
The ideas of tolerance and neutrality are based on fallibilism and skepticism about values: the idea that since no one knows the true value and conception of the good, we must tolerate everyone’s values as a viable hypothesis, in that any value could turn out to be the right one, thus, the state cannot impose any value or belief. This implies that the state is founded on a moral, value, or normative vacuum, and it maintains such a perspective in its dealings with people as a basis for protecting their rights and freedoms. Liberal democracy may be seen as acceptable principles about: (1) political procedures, (2) outcomes, and (3) both procedures and outcomes. Thus, W. Connolly argues, “Current liberalism cannot be defined merely through its commitment to freedom, rights, dissent, and justice. It must be understood, as well, through the institutional arrangements it endorses.”2 As a theory about acceptable procedures, liberal democracy may be seen as a deontological ethical stance that emphasizes the right over the good. Liberal democracy may also be seen as a teleological ethical theory about the good outcomes of freedom, justice, equality, and the end of safeguarding individual rights and freedom. As an outcome theory, it does not place emphasis on how an outcome is achieved insofar as it is in fact achieved. A reasonable view of liberal democracy is that it is both an outcome and a procedural theory: it seeks to achieve good outcomes, including the protection of individual freedom and rights; it also provides a framework specifying the adequate procedures for achieving these outcomes. These procedures may not guarantee the achievement of the requisite outcomes, but they make such achievement more likely, in that there are built-in procedures to internally rectify the process if the outcomes are not achieved.
Liberal democracy may also be seen as a “mixed-deontological” ethical view that “recognizes the principle of utility as a valid one, but insists that another principle is required as well. This theory instructs us to determine what is right or wrong in particular situations, normally at least, by consulting rules such as we usually associate with morality; but it goes on to say that the way to tell what rules we should live by is to see which rules best fulfill the joint requirements of utility and justice.”3 Liberal democratic principles are underpinned by the ontological assumption that individual persons are the only concrete entities that have publicly recognized valid right-claims; only individual persons are capable of actions and choices regarding the achievement of their interests. Therefore, they are the only entities whose ability to make choices and act in relation to those interests ought to be protected. Rawls makes this point by arguing that only individual human beings or persons can be considered as “self-originating sources of valid claims.”4 This implies that there are no group, communal, ethnic, or cultural rights, insofar as groups are abstract entities that are instantiated by concrete persons. Individual persons have the freedom to choose to belong to any group, and if the need arises, to “revise” their choices. Only individual persons can be substantively identified; ethnic and cultural groups cannot be identified by any determinate set of features, and as such, they cannot make valid right-claims. Members of any group can be identified via different and varied sets of features; thus, individual persons are seen as having logical and moral priority over the abstract groups to which they belong.
Liberalism is characterized by abstract individualism or atomism: the person who is the ultimate unit to which moral value and moral worth can be ascribed is an atomic fact that is abstracted from his cultural and social circumstance. The ontological assumption that only individual persons have rights that can be defended is bolstered by its egalitarian import: the idea that every person has equal moral worth and value, which derives from the moral worth of their dignity, freedom, and autonomy to make their own choices. This implies that the government, from a stance of liberal neutrality, has the duty to treat everyone and everyone’s interest or their conception of the good equally without preference.5 A related essential element of liberal democracy is the distinction between the private and public realms, and the view that the issue of a person’s membership in a culture or ethnic group should be a private matter involving a person’s free choice, to which the government is neutral and has no legitimate jurisdiction. By abstracting individual persons and their rights from their social, ethnic, and cultural contexts, and by focusing excessively on individual persons as abstract and atomic entities, devoid of their cultural and social trappings, liberal democracy romanticizes the value of individualism and autonomy and, thus, ignores the value of group identities, cultures, and ethnicity and the role they play in shaping and circumscribing individuals’ rational choices and conception of the good. I will not rehash these criticisms, but their force is particularly glaring with respect to the adequacy of using liberal democratic principles as an ethics of globalization.6
These criticisms are bolstered by Charles Taylor’s social thesis, which indicates that liberalism exaggerates people’s ability to make decisions solely and independently of their collective identities and cultural values.7 People’s values and choices are not solely subjective; they are usually shared with others in that they have their foundations and meaning in cultures and ethnicity. Cultures and ethnicity are a fundamental element of the ethos that deeply shapes people’s values, which are expected to operate both in the public and private realms. Theories of liberal democracy are ambivalent regarding the important role of cultures in shaping individual values and choices. The liberal democratic assumptions regarding abstract individualism, neutrality, and the distinction between the private and public realms may explain this ambivalence. Rawls underscores this point by recognizing the strong bond and attachment that people have in relation to their cultures, which reflect their common good and collective interests: “The attachments formed to persons and places, to associations and communities, as well as cultural ties, are normally too strong to be given up.”8 He recognizes the value of language as an element of culture and the role it plays in people’s lives: we use the language of cultures “in speech and thought to express and understand ourselves, our aims, goals, and values . . . we depend on [it] to find our place in the social world.”9 He also accepts that calculations regarding individual interests and values, which may derive from cultures and groups, are strong in our choices and conception of the good.
Yet, Rawls insists that these “calculations that typically influence agreements within society have no place in the original position.”10 He argues that the normative structure of society, of which culture is part, is “a scheme into which people are born and are expected to lead a complete life.”11 He expects everyone in a just society to be born into the same cultural scheme and does not consider culture as an essential element in how people choose principles of justice as norms of a good society. He indicates that self-respect, which is essential to one’s autonomy, values, conception of good, and choice of a rational life plan, is secured in a just society by recognizing individual persons as free and equal, in that they are unencumbered by any social or cultural values and interests. Rawls does not think that self-respect ought derive, in part, from individual persons’ cultural membership or their collective identity. To allow self-respect to derive from cultural membership is to allow the choice of the principles of justice to be subjected to the dictates and biases of special and social interests. Rawls’ account of the original position avoids such biases, in that the choice of the principles of justice is under the veil of ignorance: people are not aware of their cultural membership, collective identities, and related interests. So, Rawls’ view of justice as an ethical basis for liberal democracy ignores the role and value of culture as part of the natural human and social condition, and how culture may shape the choice and application of the principles of justice.
Apart from individualism, neutrality, and subjectivity of values, there is another assumption that may explain why theories of liberal democracy ignore the value and role of cultural and ethnic groups. Many theories assume that liberal democratic states must be nation-states: states with one nationality or a homogeneous culture, which provides the basis and socially accepted norms for the legal and political institutions, principles, policies, unity, and solidarity in a state. John Stuart Mill argues, for instance, that liberal democracy cannot succeed in a multinational, multicultural, or multiethnic state; it can only succeed where commonality, such as nationality, ethnicity, or culture exist as a basis for the normative or moral basis for the social and political unity, solidarity, and fraternity in a state. Joseph Raz argues that liberal policies, which ought to be perfectionist, must be supported by a culture, social institutions, and values that enjoy consensus or general support and acceptance.12 Mill argues that the feeling of national identity and social unity may derive from the possession of national history or a community’s recollection of their values and collective pride.13 Hobhouse argues that the kind of national or common sentiment necessary for social unity may be manifested in “a composite effect of language, tradition, values, religion, and manners which makes certain people feel themselves at one with each other and apart from the rest of the world.”14 Hence, liberal democracy advocates tolerance as one approach to the issue of multiethnicity, multiculturalism, and the problems that may arise from them because it is easier than otherwise to tolerate differences within a homogenous culture or normative order that provides the basis for specifying the scope of what can be tolerated. Reconciling differences in values is more difficult in situations in which there is no one dominant moral order to use as a standard. The other approach requires that minority cultures be assimilated into the dominant culture of the ethnic majority. And if they refuse to be assimilated, they should be allowed to secede to form another state.15
argues, for instance, that his plausible view of liberalism “suggests that
people are justified in taking action to assimilate the minority group.”16
Some liberal theorists argue, however, that the process of assimilation need
not be total and complete, in that people are allowed to maintain some
elements of their cultural identities but not others. People can maintain their
cultural identities with respect to private issues but not with respect to
public or social values such as language because they are essential for
maintaining social unity, hence they are a basis for
democratic citizenship. For instance, Dworkin argues
The dominant ethos and values, as part of the legal system and political practice, determine what is “normal”; what is not “normal,” according to this ethos, is deemed illegal, intolerable, and unacceptable.19 In other words, what the dominant culture or group considers normal determines what the state can and cannot be neutral about. The liberal democratic idea of neutrality seems to inhibit diversity and plurality of culture and ethnicity, and the value of individual persons’ cultural membership, partly because it assumes that there is only one culture or ethnicity, or that the culture and ethos of the majority should be dominant as the basis for the political values and principles of the state. Individual persons have freedom to make their choices only within the scope of this framework. As such, liberal democracy does not think that there could be serious and fundamental conflicts based on culture and ethnicity, given the normative scope of the tolerable that is provided by the state and its laws. If there are minimal conflicts, which are rare, they can be addressed by adopting the attitude of tolerance and neutrality. As an ethical principle for uniting different peoples into global and local communities in a way that preserves their cultural and ethnic distinctness, liberal democracy suggests that only individual persons have rights and freedom that ought to be protected. We should simply ignore cultural or ethnic differences and aim at cultural homogeneity via the assimilation of minority cultures into the dominant culture. Theorists suggest that liberal democracy can address the problem of multiculturalism and multiethnicity by adopting the approach regarding the issue of freedom of religion, which involves state neutrality and the separation of church (private) and state (public). This implies that issues relating to culture, similar to those relating to the church, are private and excluded from the public realm; and the state is neutral toward them.
A theory that ignores an important social condition of persons such as culture, which according to Kymlicka is essential for full autonomy and rational life,20 cannot address the problem of differences in people’s conception of the good deriving from the social conditions of culture, ethnicity, and collective identities. Thus, it is doubtful whether such a view can provide an ethical basis for harmonizing and homogenizing people into a global community in a way that allows them to maintain their ethnic and cultural identities. Kymlicka argues that one’s rights and freedoms are meaningless independent of one’s membership in a culture. Cultural structures provide and circumscribe life-plan options and the ability to reflect on and make sense of them; they give people their sense of value, in virtue of which their options and choices make sense. For Kymlicka, “Cultures are valuable, not in and of themselves, but because it is only through having access to a societal culture that people have access to a range of meaningful options.”21 He considers language and religion essential features of cultural groups, practices, and values, which are essential to one’s identity, and in virtue of which one is able to live a meaningful life. The legal or political recognition of cultures gives individual persons freedom of cultural expression and the ability to preserve their cultural values and identities, which are elements of primary goods. Kymlicka extends Rawls’ view to show that culture is a primary good, and it is an essential aspect of, or a precondition for, self-respect, which is a necessary basis for (1) one’s ability to see one’s rational life plan and interest as valuable and worth pursuing and (2) one’s ability to have confidence in oneself to be able to pursue such a plan.22
If people’s fundamental values, which are the basis for their rational life plan and are shaped by their cultures and ethnicity, are deeply conflicted or in opposition, then it is impracticable or impossible for a state to be neutral because such conflicts may threaten peace and security. These fundamental conflicts will prevent the possibility of social unity and solidarity or what Rawls calls overlapping consensus, which for him derives from public reason. He argues that such public reason, which is devoid of cultural values and interests, is the basis for a liberal democracy.23 In other words, he fails to appreciate how culture may in fact shape the idea of public reason and overlapping consensus. The fundamental problem that confronts many African states is that they are constituted by many different cultures and ethnicity, which have created conflicts and made the achievement of some overlapping consensus impossible; thus, national integration, social unity, and solidarity, which are necessary for state formation and liberal democracy, have been made impossible. Current theories fail to see that liberal democracy has peculiar assumptions, such as individualism and approximate homogeneity of cultures and ethnicity, which are not only alien to other cultures but may also obviate the possibility or effectiveness of using the principles of liberal democracy as an ethics of globalization in homogenizing people into a global community.
Many African states do not have the assumed homogeneity of cultures and ethnicity as a basis for creating a moral order in the state. The ethnic conflicts that have posed problems for national integration and unity have arisen from the lack of a moral order and the attempts by some ethnic groups to dominate or assimilate the others. The model of one major culture dominating other cultures or their assimilation into the dominant one is suggested by liberal democratic theories. This highlights a conceptual problem with liberal democracy as an ethical basis for globalization in that it sends incoherent messages that have made their adaptation to other cultures difficult or impossible. It assumes the ideas of neutrality, fallibilism, and skepticism about value, and denies the existence of any absolute values, thus suggesting a normative vacuum. Yet, theories and Western practice of liberal democracy presuppose Western norms and moral order—as opposed to a vacuum—that are lacking in other cultures. Liberal democracy also implies that individual persons have the freedom to make subjective choices regarding which values they want to adopt as a way of life, and these values include the choice of a governmental system and state structure. But the idea of using liberal democracy as the ethics of globalization, whether in terms of Western imposition or a prescription for developing states, seems to assume the absoluteness of these Western values, which have unique and distinct cultural peculiarities. The process of globalization has not allowed persons, states, and cultures—given their own context—to choose and adopt their own values and conceptions of the good in relation to the structure of the government and state. This raises the issue of whether liberal democracy can be made theoretically and practically sensitive to the African situation.
Communalism, Colonialism, and Traditional African Ethos
It is pertinent to
understand the relevant African situation and social structures in order to
appreciate why it is theoretically difficult for liberal democracy to adapt
them. One can conceptually understand the structures of African states and
societies in two different ways. One is the traditional communalistic social
structures, values, and ethos that existed before colonialism. The second is
the colonial social structures, that is, the values, cultures, and principles
that emerged from Africa’s colonial experience.24 Modern African
states are artificially created structures of
An examination of the nature of traditional African communal ethos may illuminate (1) why the principles of liberal democracy may not be able to provide an adequate ethical basis for organizing modern African states and societies and (2) why, because of (1), achieving true globalization based on liberal democratic principles may be difficult. Traditional African ethos and values can be understood via their conceptions of a person (individual) and a community (group). These ethos and values, which are communalistic as opposed to being individualistic, may be understood as addressing the issues: “what we should do and how we should lead our lives as a community” as opposed to “what I should do and how I should lead my life as an individual.” This idea is illuminated by Ifeanyi A. Menkiti’s contrast:
Whereas most Western views of man abstract this or that feature of the lone individual and then proceed to make it the defining or essential characteristic which entities aspiring to the description “man” must have, the African view of man denies that persons can be defined by focusing on this or that physical or psychological characteristic of the lone individual. Rather, man is defined by reference to the environing community. As John Mbiti notes, the African view of the person can be summed up in this statement: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”25
The conclusion Menkiti draws from this is that the needs, values, reality, and existence of the community take precedence over similar concerns of the individual person. The attitudes, sentiments, motives, intentions, and moral dispositions of an individual person are defined, shaped, or determined by his or her membership in a community. The issue of individual freedom and autonomy is not logically prior to, or mutually exclusive of, the communal needs and values. There could not be an individual if there is no community. The needs, values, and choices of individual persons are only meaningful within the context of their community, its needs, interests, values, and ways of life. So, “the sense of self-identity which the individual comes to possess cannot be made sense of except by reference to these collective facts.”26 In the African view, just as the community helps define the individual as a person rather than as “some isolated static quality or rationality, will, or memory,” the moral person is defined by the moral principles of the community.27
According to Menkiti, the idea of a person who is not shaped by the community or its ethos, but who is seen as an abstract dangling personality, does not make sense in African cultures. He argues that “we” in African thought is not the aggregated sum of abstract persons comprising a community; it is used to refer to “a thoroughly fused collective ‘we.’”28 It refers to a community that is based on a moral tradition and value system. Such tradition and values are part of the elements that fuse the people together as a group. Hord and Lee make a similar point by arguing that the African tradition is seen in “the flowering of a humanism that places the community rather than the individual at the center.”29 People form a community based on an enduring moral tradition, and “the identity of the individual is never separable from the sociocultural environment. Identity is not some Cartesian abstraction grounded in a solipsistic self-consciousness; rather, it is constructed in and at least partially by a set of shared beliefs, patterns of behavior, and expectations.”30 The community is an enduring group of people. The process of integrating individual persons into the community is subtle and gradual: this involves acquiring communal values that shape one’s values, choices, and individuality. Every adult in the community makes a conscious attempt to educate people informally about moral principles and communal obligations. The actions of elders and the communal ways of life practically demonstrate the values that the youth should model their conduct after. Community elders act as the repositories of such tradition, beliefs, and values, which contribute to the stability and cohesion of the community. Thus, Wiredu argues: “The integration of individuality into community in African traditional society is so thoroughgoing that, as is too rarely noted, the very concept of a person has a normative layer of meaning. A person is not just an individual of human parentage, but also one evincing in his or her projects and achievements an adequate sense of social responsibility.”31
A social responsibility of adults includes informally educating children about different aspects of communal life and helping them grow into autonomous and rational adults. Thus the sayings: it takes a whole community or village to raise a morally good child; the morally good child is the reflection and pride of the community; one who has lost touch with one’s community is a lost individual; if we do not know where we are coming from (your community), then we cannot know where we are going (how to lead a moral life). Moral virtues and principles are consistently reinforced by everyone in the community and by its social institutions. There are no mixed or contradictory messages from neighbors, teachers, and parents because they agree on the prescribed norms and lines of action, which have their foundations in the values and interests of people and community. Education and inculcation of values involve learning prescribed actions and principles that enhance or are consistent with the communal ethos by which the community practically ensures its own social and moral equilibrium. In people’s thinking and rational choices, we can see the individual person as an organism, a personality being trained by the community to develop into a moral, autonomous, and rational person. According to Menkiti: “We must also conceive of this organism as going through a long process of social and ritual transformation until it attains the full complement of excellencies seen as truly definitive of man. And during this long process of attainment, the community plays a vital role as a catalyst and as prescriber of norms.”32 A moral, autonomous, and rational person is one who has been sufficiently trained in the community’s ethos, is educated in a broad sense, and socialized in the prescribed adequate ways of behaving toward others. In this sense, the liberal democratic ideas of abstract individualism and value-subjectivism do not make sense.
The logic of moral reasoning and rational choices in the traditional communalistic African cultures is significantly different from the individualistic moral reasoning in Western liberal democratic tradition. In African cultures, moral reasoning and rational choices involve communal processes and principles, which involve reliance on tradition and seeing oneself as part of a community. There is strong emphasis on personal obligation to the community. The adequacy of a communal principle or value is determined, in part, by the practical adequacy of the actions it specifies. The adequacy of such actions is determined by their consequences for the community. Moral reasoning in African cultures assumes the idea of human autonomy, in addition to the idea that one’s rationality can be shaped, cultivated, and nurtured by the community in which one is raised. This idea presupposes that everyone, even mature adults, may not necessarily have the requisite abilities at all times and with respect to all matters, to be able to use their reason solely and independently to make adequate rational and moral decisions. Morally mature adults must take an active part in improving themselves and helping to develop the reasoning faculties of the maturing person. It is assumed that moral maturity, which is relative, cannot be attained in a vacuum. The kind of education that contributes to one’s maturity is a never-ending process; hence, adults are never fully morally matured. They are involved in a never-ending process of maturing and they need the facilities of their community. This view is different from the logic of moral reasoning or rational choices in Western liberal tradition, which according to Haste involves “reasoning and judgment carried out by individuals, autonomous beings who deliberately free themselves from social processes.”33
Individual reasoning processes involve balancing the inherent goodness of an action and the calculation of its probable consequences. Moral principles in traditional cultures, which are predicated on the existence and survival of the community, are not simply a set of abstract justificatory principles, but a set of practical principles for communal living; they specify a way of life and a guide for conduct in every facet of life. Traditional African values are a set of means-ends principles; they require, according to Wiredu, “the harmonization of interests as the means, and the securing of human well-being as the end of all moral endeavor.”34 Moral values are defined in terms of how much individuals are able to harmonize their interests to meet those of the community as opposed to the harmonization of the interests of the society to meet those of the individual.35 Moral values, as means-end schemes, are humanistic because they are tied to the welfare of individual human beings as members of a community. In this sense, Diop argues: “The individual is subordinated to the collectivity, . . . it is on the public welfare that the individual welfare depends: thus private right is subordinated to public right.”36 He calls this way of life a social collectivism or communalism that exhibits the ideal of peace, justice, goodness, and optimism. This does not involve the liberal democratic idea of a clear-cut distinction between the private and public realms because the private is dependent on the public and vice versa.
Moral reasoning involves the rational process of justifying our moral actions and principles by harmonizing people’s individual interests with those of their community. This is the underlying logic behind the social structures, individual reasoning, rational choices, and ways of life in traditional African cultures. By demanding that people be sympathetic to other people’s interests and welfare, moral principles have the utility of enhancing people’s lives by virtue of encouraging them to live harmoniously in a community. The notion of utility indicates that individual persons must reasonably consider, in their reasoning and choices, the probable consequences of their actions for the communal human needs and interests. If there were no such human interests and needs to be met, which in part have necessitated human communities in which people can depend on others, the notion of morality would be unnecessary and superfluous. Conversely, the absence of communal interests, values, and morality that take precedence over those of individual persons would lead to the decay and collapse of human society. The normative conceptions of a person, human needs, and community imply that values in African cultures are essentially communal, which are different from the liberal democratic principles of value-skepticism, subjectivism, individualism, and neutrality.
In contrasting Western liberal individualism with traditional African communalism, Menkiti argues: “it becomes quite clear why African societies tend to be organized around the requirements of duty while Western societies tend to be organized around the postulation of individual rights. In the African understanding, priority is given to the duties which individuals owe to the collectivity, and their rights, whatever these may be, are seen as secondary to their exercise of their duties.”37 This suggests that one cannot completely mold one’s own moral character and reasoning, solely and independently, by one’s own rational choices and subjective values. The idea that people can mold their moral character by their own choices and values alone, Menkiti argues, “cannot but encourage eccentricity and individualism—traits which run counter to African ideal of what the human person is all about.”38 People are molded by and dependent on their community. Theories of liberal democracy criticize this communalistic view of values and obligation as implying that individual persons are not allowed to rationally engage in moral reasoning, in terms of determining on their own how they should behave. That is, communalism implies a sense of social determinism and totalitarianism in that it imposes communal values on individual persons, vitiates freedom and autonomy, and removes justification, choices, reasoning, and perhaps motivation from the rational realm of the persons. People are presented as semblances of robots who are conditioned or forced by their community to act in particular ways, such that they cannot reason or make decisions freely on their own.
Communalism is criticized from the perspective of liberal democracy as implying the notion of a group mind and group rationality; this is inconsistent with the Western logic and model, which is deemed to be the only valid model.39 This Western model, which has the problematic elements of egoism, solipsism, and selfishness, involves the idea that one has the absolute ability, freedom, and autonomy to think for oneself and to make choices or judgments regarding what is beneficial or good to believe. The logic of reasoning in communalism is not inconsistent with the idea of an individual’s autonomy or ability to think, choose, or make judgment for oneself; and autonomy does not necessarily imply egoism, abstract individualism, solipsism, or atomism. This criticism of African communalism is invalid because its moral rules allow persons to think for themselves but with guidance from communal specifications regarding their duty. This idea avoids the problems of abstract individualism, solipsism, and egoism, but indicates that the community has to help persons develop their abilities to think and make judgment for themselves. Even adult moral persons may not, on their own alone, be able to understand the full details of all moral rules and may not be motivated to act according to these rules without help (training, prodding, and chiding) from the community. With communal help, people are able and motivated to act properly by using their rationality to make the appropriate connections among principles, actions, and circumstances, and they can question the validity of moral principles. To expect everyone as abstract and atomic persons to have appropriate autonomy and rationality, and to be able to use them for individual moral reasoning, is foolhardy.
The solipsistic, absolutist, egoistic, atomistic, and abstract individualistic notion of autonomy that is devoid of communal and social trappings seems wrongheaded. It assumes that people are, on their own alone, always in the best epistemic position and well motivated—without communal help, prodding, chiding, guidance, or moral education—to act properly in seeing all alternatives and choosing what is best for them. It also assumes that having the opportunity to make individual free choices and the idea of learning from our own mistakes alone without communal guidance are the best ways to develop our moral character and rational abilities. These assumptions are false, and traditional African cultures appreciate this. If these assumptions were true, then we would not need to go to, say, a doctor to recommend prescription drugs for us. We would be able to know by ourselves alone, without knowledge and training, the best prescription drugs (among all the alternatives) to take for our illnesses. We would not have justifications for paternalistic laws that require the use of crash helmets, seat belts, or prohibit the use of illicit drugs. The point here is to show that, as a result of limitations in human abilities, people are not always, solely and independently, in the best rational position to know or to be motivated to do what is best for them in every circumstance. We are as ignorant about the proper medicine for our illnesses without a doctor’s guidance, training, or books as we are in knowing the best choice and line of action in some situations without moral guidance. Physicians rely on the medical community to keep up with advances in order to make the best judgments. Similarly, African thought insists that morally matured adults have to rely on moral guidance from occasional chiding and prodding by the community. The fact that people take illicit drugs or smoke cigarettes prior to addiction, or engage in obviously dangerous behaviors, even when they know there is conclusive evidence that it is not good for them, is plausible evidence that people are not always rational or motivated to choose what is good for them.
Traditional African values and ethos place significant emphasis on communal obligations, which are based on appreciating cultures and ethnicity for individual identity and rational choices. Such emphasis is ignored by liberal democracy because of its ontological assumptions; hence, there are fundamental differences and conflicts between the African ways of life and the principles of liberal democracy. These differences indicate that we cannot resolve ethnic conflicts by focusing on persons and adopting the perspective of neutrality and tolerance toward ethnic and cultural differences, especially if these differences and conflicts have a bearing on public choices regarding which values should underpin the state, public policies, government, and system of laws. So the problem of adopting liberal democracy in modern African states is twofold: (1) the individualistic values of liberal democracy are incoherent and also inconsistent with the communal values; and (2) whatever is left of the traditional political structures and communalistic values—assuming they could have been adapted to liberal democratic structures and values—do not currently exist in their authentic and robust forms because they have been destroyed or transformed by colonialism. What we have in modern African states are enigmatic and anomalous hybrid social structures and values that emerged out of colonialism. In order to see this, we must understand colonialism as an epochal event, which has created enduring social structures and a system of values and norms, powerful, influential, and pervasive enough to determine people’s actions, reasoning, and ways of life. The pertinent point that people have not fully appreciated is the enduring nature of the relics of the epochal event of colonialism in the social structures and values it created.
Colonial Social Structures, Liberal Democracy, and Globalization
Peter P. Ekeh argues that colonialism must be analyzed in terms of
“the relationships between the colonizers and the colonized, between the
elements of European culture and of indigenous culture.”40 It should
be studied as “a social movement of epochal dimensions whose enduring
significance, beyond the life-span of the colonial situation, lies in the social
formations of supra-individual entities and constructs. These
supra-individual formations developed from the volcano-sized social changes
provoked into existence by the confrontations, contradictions, and
incompatibilities in the colonial situation.”41 As a social
movement, colonialism created many social structures that are enduring and are
still very active today many years after colonialism apparently disappeared.
The unhealthy mix between the incompatible individualistic European and
communalistic African cultures has created an enigmatic and anomalous hybrid
culture that is still pervasive today. This hybrid culture has created a
normative vacuum, in that people do not understand what its incoherent norms
and values truly mean, and how they ought to be applied to substantive
political problems. Thus, Ekeh has questioned the
conceptual adequacy of the notions “decolonization,” “independence,” and
According to Ekeh,
colonialism brought forth three social structures: (1) transformed social
structures, (2) migrated social structures, and (3) emergent social structures.
The transformed social structures are the indigenous precolonial
institutions that were transformed to operate within the context of the new
meanings and symbols of
The migrated social structures
are those structures that were brought wholesale in their original forms from
imperial Europe to the colonized countries of
For instance, liberal democracy
theoretically suggests the idea of a moral or normative vacuum, in the sense
that it assumes neutrality and subjectivism regarding values, tolerance, and
individualism. This suggestion is, in theory and practice, false because many
theories of liberal democracy and Western liberal democracies assume and
operate in a nation-state with a foundational moral order that derives from one
dominant culture. The foundational moral order of many Western liberal
democracies derives from the traditions of modern
According to Ekeh,
because an adequate normative order is not available to sustain the migrated
social structures, there has been an organizational immobility of these
structures. They have been fixated and have not adapted to the African
situation to suit people’s needs and purposes. Such immobility is “largely
because the morality and ethics that provide the stimulus for homegrown
The civic public is seen as amoral in two different ways: (1) the relevant social structures lack the moral order and value system of the West from which they migrated and they are not grafted to any moral order or the moral order of African cultures because the two moral orders are inconsistent; (2) the ideas of individualism, neutrality, and subjectivity of values are understood as implying a moral vacuum, in that because there is no state-supported moral order, any values, no matter how unreasonable, will suffice. Ekeh indicates that this moral absence “is particularly pronounced in the various apparatuses of the state and in the conduct of those aspects of public life associated with the migrated social structures.”46 As a result of this problem, migrated social structures have resulted in bad governments, massive corruption, nepotism, and the inability to articulate adequate ethos and good public policies that can resolve ethnic conflicts and achieve national integration. In the primordial public, the actions of political and governmental officials are guided by the traditional African ethos and the values of communalism. Officials appear to be completely moral in the realm of primordial public with respect to their actions and obligations or in their dealings with their own communities and ethnic groups. They seem not to apply the same standard of morality to their actions in the civic public regarding public policies. The differences in the morality of their actions within their schizophrenic moral views of the civic public and primordial public are problematic. For instance, in many cases, officials have made public policies such as locating an industry in their hometown or appointed someone from their ethnic group to a position based on nepotism.
Such policies may be appropriate in
the officials’ minds because they reflect the communal ethos, their obligation
to their community and ethnic group. However, such policies may be unreasonable
in the context of the state and government for someone who is not operating
within the African context because they do not lead to development, but
instead, create or accentuate ethnic conflicts, tensions, and vitiate national
integration. Such policies are so pervasive because they are engendered by the
colonial structures that have created a moral vacuum. This is more problematic
because such policies and the amoral principles underlying them have been
institutionalized and have now become a new ethos, a guide for conduct, and a
set of normative expectations for how people ought to act in government. Due to
these expectations, anyone who goes into government and tries to act
“differently” in ways that may benefit the country, bring about development,
address cultural and ethnic conflicts, or lead to national integration, is
shunned by his people and ethnic group. As result of the entrenchment of this
ethos, people see political power as an opportunity not only to enrich
themselves because they think that this realm is amoral with a moral vacuum but
also to help their relations, friends, ethnic kinsfolk, or their ethnic group
or community. This view or ethos has led to the struggle for political power
among ethnic groups; every ethnic group wants representatives in government who
can make policies or appoint people to make nepotic
policies that favor them. African leaders explain or rationalize in their minds
what appear to be unreasonable policies by appealing to two set of inconsistent
principles that have formed an anomalous set of hybrid principles as the basis
for the state. Thus, the colonial social structures and liberal democracy have
been ineffective in addressing the fundamental problems in
The liberal democratic
prescriptions for the problem of ethnic difference, which include integration
or assimilation, secession, neutrality, and tolerance, are not feasible because
of the colonial structures. Many ethnic groups cannot form a state because,
among other things, they are not economically viable. As such, it has not been
feasible for African states to disintegrate by allowing different ethnic groups
to secede and form their own states. Moreover, it has not been possible for one
ethnic group to assimilate or dominate the others. The idea of mutual
integration is elusive because of the unique conflicts of cultures and
ethnicity in African states, which is the result of the witches’ brew created
This kind of conflict in values is problematic for state formation and national integration because people have refused to accept public values that conflict with their culturally shaped individual values. The ideas of making and appealing to the distinction between the private and public realms, and adopting the view of neutrality and tolerance, which have been suggested by theories of liberal democracy, cannot solve the problem. So, if African states are to be able to adopt liberal democracy as a means of accepting them into the global community, the liberal democracy must be theoretically modified and made adaptable or sensitive to their unique problems and situations, which include social structures and value systems that are different from those of the West. The practice and principles of liberal tolerance and neutrality are not applicable because African states have a moral vacuum in that they lack a moral order that provides a normative basis for the state and determines the limits of what can and cannot be tolerated. According to Ernesto Garzon Valdes, the idea of tolerance implies the existence of two normative systems: (1) the basic normative system, which specifies what may be morally disapproved of and what is acceptable, and (2) the justifying normative system, which specifies the justification for moral restraint, that is, for not repressing what one disapproves of.48 The basic normative system represents a moral order that reflects the ethos of the dominant cultural majority or ethnic group, on the basis of which the state determines the limits and scope of what is acceptable, what it can or cannot be neutral about.
As Valdes indicates, “Toleration conceptually presupposes the existence of an underlying, basic normative system in which the act to be tolerated is prohibited; if there is no such system, it does not make sense to speak of toleration.”49 Toleration is the idea that X (the tolerator) finds Y (the tolerated) or Y’s actions or ideas or values about a significant issue to be deeply objectionable; X has the power or authority to repress Y’s actions or ideas or values, but refrains from doing so; instead X “puts up with” Y or Y’s action or ideas or values. Tolerance is “the combination of a negative attitude toward something with the restraint from acting in accordance with that attitude.”50 It involves a vertical asymmetrical relationship between the tolerated and the tolerator, such that the values of the tolerator, which reflect the acceptable moral norms in the states, are given logical and moral priority over those of the tolerated. This priority implies the existence of a basic normative system, which reflects the value of the tolerator and provides the moral foundation for the state, its laws, and policies; it is also the moral basis for X’s disapproval of Y’s values although X is willing to put up with it. The notion of neutrality, which is seen as coextensive with the notion of tolerance, implies that the state cannot favor, accept, or impose any values; thus, it implies a normative vacuum. Yet, the concept of tolerance implies that there cannot be a moral vacuum because a moral order must exist, which is the basis for disapproving of another value and limiting or circumscribing the scope of what can be tolerated and what cannot. Hence, for Newey, the notion of tolerance implies that there cannot be a normative vacuum because: “Since toleration requires that the tolerator have reasons [based on accepted values] for disapproving of the practice, and must nonetheless have reasons for regarding non-intervention as good, the normative vacuum is filled, and neutrality disappears.”51
It appears that neutrality and tolerance are inconsistent, and that both cannot coexist as principles of liberal democracy. The idea of a basic normative system for tolerance is inconsistent with the ideas value-subjectivity and neutrality, which imply a moral vacuum. The fact that a normative system must be assumed in order for tolerance to make sense implies that a liberal democratic state cannot be neutral in that its unity, political structures, practices, and institutions are founded on the ethos, values, and culture of the majority, the tolerator. Moreover, the idea of tolerance is not necessarily a good approach to the issue of ethnic or cultural conflicts because the mere fact that one is tolerant does not annul the force of the values underlying one’s reasons for disapproval—a value that may be wrong. So, the idea of liberal tolerance may not be helpful in the African context because the idea of morally disapproving of another’s belief or value because of the assumed validity of the moral value of the tolerator—in spite of the tolerator’s willingness to put up with it within certain tolerable limits based on this assumed value—does not imply neutrality or equality and the right, freedom, and autonomy to have one’s values. Instead, it implies moral asymmetry between the tolerator and tolerated because it is the tolerator who decides and imposes on the tolerated the limits of what can be tolerated and what cannot based on the accepted values.
It is obvious that a moral order is necessary for a state and liberal democratic principles. Such an order does not exist in many African states; so, the problem confronting them is that of forging one out of the many different cultural and ethnic values. This has been difficult, if not impossible, because everyone wants to assume and adopt his or her own ethnic and cultural values that conflict with those of others, instead of working to arrive at commonly shared values that could be used to forge a moral order for the state and national integration. African states cannot achieve national integration or forge a moral order based on the idea of tolerance because it implies moral asymmetry, which accentuates cultural and ethnic tensions or conflicts. Galeotti has argued that when tolerance is applied as a political principle, it could undermine the idea of reciprocity and mutuality: the one who is tolerated is morally, politically, and legally undermined and marginalized.52 What African states need are reciprocity and mutuality as opposed to the marginalization or domination of one ethnic by another. Since they do not have a moral order, it is difficult to place limits on what can be tolerated and what cannot and to justify such limits. Any justification must presuppose a value system that others may find objectionable. So, the liberal democratic idea of tolerating values or cultures is not necessarily an adequate moral basis for globalization because it assumes values in a state, which may not necessarily be good as a basis for placing limits on what can be tolerated.
The assumed values may not necessarily be good because by assuming neutrality and subjectivity of values, the liberal democratic idea of tolerance does not place any moral or validity constraints or strictures on the values of the tolerator or the moral order of the state on the basis of which other values are disapproved of and tolerated. As a result, the dominant majority in a state may falsely assume the validity of their values as a basis for disapproving other values, cultures, and ethnicity, and tolerating them within the specified limits, when the proper attitude ought to be rational engagement. Such rational engagement will force the dominant majority to critically examine their own values, to make valid and adequate rational moral commitments, which may lead to respect and recognition of other values and a consequent acceptance if they turn out to be valid. This process may be more valuable for forging an acceptable normative basis for the state in order to avoid or resolve ethnic conflicts and achieve national integration.53 So, the fact that intolerance is considered to be bad does not necessarily make tolerance good or acceptable. In fact, intolerance may be good in some situations if the value that is disapproved of is clearly evil. To tolerate clearly bad values such as racism is to perpetuate evil. Both tolerance and intolerance may be unacceptable in some situations involving ethnic or cultural differences, in that other options besides tolerance and intolerance, such as respect, recognition, and acceptance, exist. One cannot use the standard liberal democratic argument that intolerance is bad to justify tolerance, because the argument involves the false assumption and dichotomy that tolerance is the opposite or the only alternative of intolerance and vice versa.
democratic principles of individualism, subjectivity of values, the protection
of individual rights and freedom, neutrality, and tolerance are, in general,
wanting as ethical principles of globalization. In particular, the idea of
tolerance cannot address the problem of national integration, the forging of a
moral order for a state, and resolving conflicts of values that may derive from
ethnic and cultural differences. I indicate that the notions of rational engagement,
recognition, respect, and acceptance are more relevant and valuable as a basis
for harmonizing different cultures and ethnicity, in their unique distinctness,
into a global community. The problem of using liberal democratic principles as
a harmonizing principle for different cultures and ethnicity in African states
is indicated and accentuated by the structural problems arising from the
destruction of their traditional norms and institutions, the imposition of
colonial structures, and the unhealthy mix between these two. The colonial
social structures constitute an anomalous hybrid that is enigmatic. As such,
African leaders have not been able to use these structures as a foundation for
a workable liberal democratic government. In order to make liberal democracy
relevant to different cultural contexts such as
1. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C. B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1980); John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Hammondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1982); John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), and “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 515–72; and Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), and “In Defense of Equality,” Social Philosophy and Policy 1 (1983): 24–40.
2. William Connolly, “The Dilemma of Legitimacy,” in Legitimacy and the State, ed. William Connolly (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1984), 233.
3. William K. Frankena, Ethics (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963), 4, 35.
4. Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” 543.
5. Dworkin, “In Defense of Equality,” 24; Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 511.
6. See, among others, Alison Jagger, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Allenheld, 1983), and Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Duckworth, 1981).
7. Charles Taylor, Philosophical
Papers, vol. 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences (Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), and “Alternative Futures: Legitimacy, Identity,
and Alienation in Late-Twentieth Century
8. Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 277.
9. Ibid., 222.
10. Ibid., 277.
12. Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1986), 161.
13. John Stuart
14. L. T. Hobhouse, Social Evolution and Political Theory (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1928), 146.
15. John Stuart Mill, Consideration on Representative Government in Utilitarianism, Liberty, Representative Government, ed. H. Acton (London: Dent, 1972), 230<n>33.
16. Raz, Morality of Freedom, 424.
17. Ronald Dworkin,
18. Raz has argued in his defense of perfectionist liberalism in The Morality of Freedom that it is neither possible nor desirable for state to be neutral, see especially 117–24.
19. See Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, “Contemporary Pluralism and Toleration,” Ratio Juris 10, no. 2 (June 1997), 231, for a discussion of how the liberal neutralist view does not appreciate this distinction between social and cultural “difference” and “normality.” An example of this is the laws against bigamy in the United States that prevent Muslims who wish to from practicing polygamy. These laws presuppose the values and ethos of modern European culture and the Judeo-Christian tradition, which represent the culture of the dominant majority. A similar argument is made by Raz, The Morality of Freedom, 161–62.
20. Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community, and Culture (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1989), 162–66.
21. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon, 1995), 83.
22. Ibid., chap. 8.
23. Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” in Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), 573–615.
24. Peter P. Ekeh,
“Colonialism and the Two Publics in
25. Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought,” in African Philosophy: An Introduction, ed. Richard A. Wright (New York: Univ. Press of America, 1984), 171.
26. Ibid., 172.
28. Ibid., 179.
29. Fred Lee Hord
and Jonathan Scott Lee, I Am Because We Are:
30. Ibid., 7–8.
Wiredu, “Morality and Custom: A Comparative Analysis
of Some African and Western Conceptions of Morals,” in African Philosophy:
32. Menkiti, “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought,” 172.
33. Helen Haste, “Communitarianism and the Social Construction of Morality,” Journal of Moral Education 25, no. 1 (1996): 49.
34. Wiredu, “Morality and Custom,” 393.
35. Ibid., 400.
Anta Diop, The
Cultural Unity of Black
37. Menkiti, “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought,” 180.
38. Ibid., 178.
39. See P. O. Bodunrin, “The Question of African Philosophy,” Philosophy 56 (1981): 161–79; rpt. in African Philosophy: An Introduction, ed. Richard A. Wright (New York: Univ. Press of America, 1984), 1–24.
40. Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, 4.
41. Ibid., 5.
43. Ibid., 17.
44. Examples of this can be found
in the specification of English language as a requirement for citizenship in
45. Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure, 18.
46. Ibid., 22.
47. The debate in
48. Ernesto Garzon Valdes, “Some Remarks on the Concept of Toleration,” Ratio Juris 10, no. 2 (June 1997): 130.
49. Ibid., 133.
50. Nick Fotion and Gerard Elfstrom, Toleration (Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1992), 10.
51. Glen Newey, “Is Democratic Toleration a Rubber Duck?” Res Publica 7 (2001): 326.
52. Anna Elisabetta Galeotti, “Do We Need Toleration as a Moral Virtue?” Res Publica 7 (2001): 290.
53. For a detailed argument regarding why liberal tolerance may be an adequate way of forging democratic pluralism and national integration, see Polycarp Ikuenobe, “A Natural Law Critique of Liberal Approaches to a Multicultural Consequence of Globalism,” Vera Lex 3, nos. 1 and 2 (2002): 1–37.