Personhood: Akan and West African Thought

A problem with animal rights comes from the terminology. Rights has been a human focused word, and carries with it baggage that may not be able to be applied to other animals.


What is a person and what privileges do they receive as one? This blog is about my search to find a new definition of a human person through looking at our relationship with the other, primarily living creatures. This first post is a general overview of the inherent problems of animal rights views through West African paradigms.

What in the Western world has been defined as a human, has been under question. Western society’s relationship to its environment has reached a point of self-reflection due to the destructive damages humans cause to their surroundings. The feminists have separated the meanings of sex and gender, placing each under new scrutiny. The proponents of animal rights, like this, look to change the meaning of human and person as a way  they see as an improvement to our relationship to the living world.

Across the sea, in Africa, the definition of personhood is also under scrutiny.  Africa, a continent living in post-colonialism, has a different problem. The artificiality and damage of the imperialist forces tarnishes their own cultures, but they cannot go back living to where they once were. In a post-colonial age Africa must seek its own identity. Philosophers have risen to find truths in their own culture, and in their colonial experience, to try to form a philosophical identity their own people can stand on.

A few of these examples have arisen along the southern portion of West African countries of Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Kwame Gyekye, Kwasi Wiredu, and Ifeanyi Menkiti try to look at their cultures’ past beliefs of personhood, and define it for today’s Africa.

The Akan are the majority of peoples of Ghana and Ivory Coast. In this collectivist society, the individual has a duty to the group first and foremost. The question of individual liberty and rights is second to this. The group forms the person, and the person must give back to the group as repayment.

[The subject of collectivism vs individualism and how it affects social views is important. What each views as a problem can be different and sometimes opposing. A individualist society may raise someone more on ideas within Nineteen Eighty-Four(Orwell, 1949), where the group is shown to be frightening and controlling. Whereas a collectivist society may raise someone on ideas like those in The Face of Another(Teshigahara, 1966), where too much individualism leads to immoral, self serving behavior. Both of course can be right, but one tends to lean toward that which confirms their world view more than the other. A societal confirmation bias. That’s why in critical self-reflection it’s important to look at ways other different societies view things to expand ones thoughts.]

The basic thing a human holds is the Okra. The Okra grants a basic dignity and morality in treatment within the culture. It is very similar to the soul. On top of this Okra and separate to the definition of human, is personhood.
This is where view points tend to diverge. Gyekye believes that all humans inherently have personhood. Wiredu and Menkiti are of the belief that personhood is something of merit.
Personhood is a social reward system. The more responsible a member of society is to their people, the greater degree of personhood their people grant them.
Wiredu views people who are more economically and materially successful as signs of a greater person. Gyekye objects to the role of social status as an indicator. That we are all innately equal under common humanity. That we are all human persons before persons.

Menkiti of Nigeria argues it through age. A newborn is not granted personhood. He provides an argument using language on gender for the young. With newborns we have a choice to refer to them as its as in example given “We rushed the child to the hospital but before we arrived It was dead .” Personhood is something gained, as one would gain a name and identity.

As people interact within the community and give back, they are looked at more fully as persons. The responsible and dutiful are considered greater persons, and therefore deserving of more respect. Those who are older but do not participate within society enough are deemed do-nothings and lesser. It is continuous. One gains and loses personhood depending on their actions within the community. Socially industrious elders are given highest respect. The dead are given a similar share to the newborn. When one dies they are still viewed as living. Not physically with a body, but rather within the minds of a community. Their contributions to society are remembered, then someday forgotten. That is when one truly dies and becomes one of the “nameless dead.”

There is a lot to these beliefs I do not know and one can keep going on about, but I think this is enough to give perspective. This philosophy, although unique to their culture, does describe general behaviors of human societies we can all relate to. How we grant more “personhood” to those we deem important. In society class, gender, race, achievements, positions and much more can decide if one is a greater person or not within the communal context.
The most fascinating part of this all is the idea proposed by Mentiki as to why one grants personhood rather than it being inherent. Personhood is reciprocal. A moral agent, an agent of justice, can only perform morality with another moral agent. Morality is created by the group, not the individual, and this reflects it. A sociopath would not be deemed a person, because of their inability to practice morality, to reciprocate to the communal duty. A child similarly is looked at as one of lesser personhood because of their undeveloped moral compass. The Okra gives everyone basic protections, but why should we give respect to those who do not respect back?

This frames morality in a different way than that typically thought of by an average western person. I will call this the Wiredu vs. Gyekye issue. Gyekye’s view is more similar to ours in which personhood is inherent. Someone should not be looked at as lesser because we are all human. Differing more so, the individualist western view is that the individual is pit against the group. The individual must be protected from the inherently controlling nature of the group. We cannot conditionally give personhood because it would be used as an abuse of the collective to hurt the individuals who do not conform.
The Wiredu view is different. We inherently reward those within the group so desirable behavior that helps the whole is more common. We should accept this and fix any problems along the way with society, something both Wiredu and Gyekye agree on(there have been plenty cases of individuals within the Akan standing up against the community and reforming it).

The communal and individual aspect of personhood are both important to look at. One cannot live without the other or the definition is faulty. From this perspective animal rights has plenty of issues. We often think in the Gyekye view, but with the individualist slant. Just as someone is oppressed and harmed by the greater human group, we harm other animals. The animal rights activist argues they are our equal wholly or in some ways. The issue is this does not take into acount the Wiredu view.
If we inherently reward personhood, and it’s achieved through reciprocating in society, then what place does the non-human have?
There are certainly animals which contribute to human society. Dogs and farm animals are good examples. Do they have greater personhood because they give back for our inclusion of them? Do they deserve rights for this? Not just a concept that they have a soul and should be treated with a basic respect, but a more nuanced social respect? This can seem in favor of giving the non-human animals rights.

This also brings up the problems of wild animals. If moral treatment is filtered through human groups, then those outside of the domestic will not be people. If morality is decided by individual biological function, why should a wolf not be given similar moral treatment as a dog? Wouldn’t this be the same problem as above, where the communal aspect is integral to the concept of rights.

That brings in the issue of moral agents. Within human thinking we form moral beliefs. Our thinking is limited to our perspective. When we come to a moral system, we do it through agreeing with other moral agents. It doesn’t take much thought to come to the conclusion of how important group think and biological similarity is important here. Humans, who can be almost exactly the same, can go to wars over the most arbitrary of differences and worldviews.
How can this be applied to the other animals? Interspecies relationships are rife with an inability for each party to perceive communication, let alone judge properly from it. The social contract can sparsely be formed because neither does not fully understand the others terms. Power most often becomes the deciding factor of whose world view is chosen. We have inherent differences from other animals in which we cannot view them as equal or similar moral agents. They, like the child and sociopath, represent real, non-arbitrary differences that present perplexing and possibly unsolvable problems.

“I take it that an important implication of this claim is that if an individual comes to deserve the duties of justice (and the confirmation therein implied of the individual ‘s worth as a person) only through possession of a capacity for moral personality, then morality ought to be considered as essential to our sense of ourselves as persons . And indeed Rawls has argued in another context that a Kantian interpretation is possible in which the transgression of accepted moral rules gives rise not just to a feeling of guilt but to a feeling of shame–the point being that once morality is conceived as a fundamental part of what it means to be a person, then an agent is bound to feel himself incomplete in violating its rules, thus provoking in himself the feeling properly describable as shame, with its usual intimation of deformity and unwholeness .”(Menkiti)
This issue to me seems to be the equivalency of animals rights and human rights. All minority rights groups are ran by those same minorities, and they have presented historical problems where this is required for the group to meet its goals. Feminists and anti-racists often purport that they need to be right there in the front or the dominant group will talk over them and define things for them that damages their equality. If ethics are to be redefined between humans and other living organisms, then even the terms we use will need to be looked at critically.

If you have any thoughts, discussions, or answers having to do with this, please leave a comment below.

1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Akan Philosophy of the Person. Published Dec. 27 2006.
2. Person and Community in African Traditional Thought by Ifeayni Menkiti.
3. Wikipedia for general facts like akan population.

Edited for more clarity and content.

[Side note: Menkiti shortly mentions animal rights in the essay.

“The foregoing interpretation would incidentally rule out , I believe, some dangerous tendencies currently fashionable in some philosophical circles of ascribing rights to animals .’ The danger as I see it is that such an extension of moral language to the domain of animals is bound to undermine, sooner or later, the clearness of our conception of what it means to be a person. The practical consequences are also something for us to worry about. For if there is legitimacy in ascribing rights to animals then human beings could come to be compelled to share resources with them . In such a situation, for instance, the various governmental programs designed to eradicate poverty in the inner cities of the United States could conceivably come under fire from the United Animal Lovers of America, or some other such group, with the claim seriously being lodged that everything was being done for the poor, but not enough for the equally deserving cats and dogs. Minority persons might then find themselves the victims of a peculiar philosophy in which the constitutive elements in the definition of human personhood have become blurred through unwarranted extensions to non-human entities.”

This brings up fears of racism and classicism around animal rights, a legitimate fear given human histories of proclaiming other humans as animals and equivocal treatment. The logic of it is questionable, though. Humans already share resources with other animals. For example, the scientific theory that dogs came from wolves following around humans and eating their thrown out food. Dogs then have had practical purposes, like hunting, herding, and ‘pest’ control. They also can provide emotional support for humans and other less practical things.

Government programs are placed to make up for lack of resources that go around without them in place. They are simply a reflection of what society values. This means there are government programs for things much smaller than basic rights, and you can argue any of those take away from rights. There’s nothing particular against animal rights argued within his paragraph that is unique to animal rights itself.

The argument from classism can be applied to other human rights programs. Poor inner city Americans can get aid taken away and have that be given to other things like helping the handicapped or battered women. ]

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