Team:WITS-South Africa/Philosophy


Revision as of 09:38, 19 October 2010 by Liam Wilson (Talk | contribs)

Ethics is perhaps one of the liveliest subjects within the branches of philosophy. Ethical debate is very energetic.

As the first South African IGEM team, it seems fitting to add to this debate by introducing the theory of ubuntu to help further ethical debate.

I feel that ubuntu is ideal for providing guidance for scientists within the field of synthetic biology.

Sketching my argument briefly - I will first explicate the a workable theory of ubuntu. It is normative ethical theory that has emerged in the ethical discourse very recently and is therefore relatively unknown. I will argue that the theory features a strong virtue ethic component (I will explain this in more detail later). Therefore I will argue ubuntu is ideally placed to provide moral guidance for synthetic biology - as it provides both 'internal' and 'expernal' moral motivations for ethical conduct. From this I hope to convince people that 5 tenents of ubuntu can serve as good 'rules of thumb' for ethical conduct within the field. They are:

• Informal relations are important and have a role in our decision making.

• Community members should show special ‘family-like’ concern for one another and that one’s actions reflect on the community as well as the individual.

• Every member of that community has a personal stake in its endeavours and should bear some of the responsibility for the community but also share in the fruits of its endeavours

• An individual’s contribution to the community does not have to be equal to the benefits that they receive the community. Some members may be more reliant on the community that others and some may be expected to contribute more.

• Members of the community have access to the resources of that community and can make use of them in so far as they contribute to the community and are involved with it. They can also profit of the communities resources provided that the profit generated goes into supporting the community.

Metz (2007) describes ubuntu in terms of harmonious relations: An action is right just insofar as it produces harmony and reduces discord; an act is wrong to the extent that it fails to develop community

I will argue in favour of this version of ubuntu as I believe it captures the 'Africanness' of ubuntu and is explicit enough to tease out both the perscriptive and character-building elements of the theory. This will take some doing - I will need to show that in order to conduct oneself in a morally appropriate manner one requires more than just a set of normative rules but also a worldview that allows one to 'interalise' these rules in the right sort of way.I will provide an illustration of this as presenting a solution to the problem of fitch's paradox of knowability.

This solution stems from the epistemic commitments embedded in ubuntu ( and other virtue ethical standpoints) which requires (very roughly) to be in a position to know that P is true (in an appropriate manner).

I will not fully argue for everything here - one will need to read my full paper for a proper length explaination of everything I have brought up here. But I will not leave you in the dark - here are some bite sized definitions and explainations so you can get an idea of what I am talking about and where my arguments will go. I will also provide some links to external sites that might be of some help:


As mentioned above ubuntu is a new field of study for in analytical philosophy. I wager this is because of the cultural isolation of the Apartheid years and the general turmoil on the African continent post-colonialisation. Anyway, on to the positive matter - how do we define ubuntu. Metz definition means very little unless we compare it firstly to how Africans use the term and to other more 'western' schools of ethical thought.

Basically, ubuntu can be seen as a theory of right action - that is it tells us what to do to act in a morally good manner. Interestingly enough, ubuntu is also a deontologist and consequentialst theory. To put this in perspective - these two schools are traditionally set up in opposition to one another.

Deontologists maintain that an actio is right if it is in accordance with some duty or moral rules, such it is wrong to murder. consequentialists see the moral weight, that is if the action is good or not, as resting in the consequences of an action, so for example an action would be right if it produced good consequences

By Metz's definition we can see that actions can be considered good because of both the duties that harmonious relations have attached to them - such as a duty not to lie or cheat. And they can also be considered good because of the consequences that it produces - such as reconcilling with a person who has wronged you in order to promote harmony in your community.

Virtue ethics

This is the oldest form of ethical debate in the 'western' tradition. It's roots are found in the dialgoues and ethical theories of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. the Oxford dictionary of Philosophy has this to say about it:

The theory of ethics that takes the notion of virtue as primary, rather than a view either of the 'good', for the sake of which we act, or of duty, law, or reason thought as providing rules of action.

The entry goes further to note that: the main problem for the approach is to account for how the virtous agent thnks, as courses of action are contemplated, without admitting that it will be in terms of duties, or consequences, which thereby regain a certain priority.

The problem I face therefore is that I need am seeking to unite a theory of right action that is both deontologist and consequentialist with a theory that argues that moral actions should not be seen in those terms. I will argue that this is a narrow interpretation of ubuntu and does not do it justice. One should see ethical conduct in a context of not only what an agent believes but how an agent believes them - an agent may believe something and perform an action but if he does not believe it in the right way he is simply going through the motions and is as such a moral robot.

This seems to me to defeat the point of living a morally good life - being moral is part and parcile with wanting to be a good person - so simply running of a moral script does not fully encompass this aspect of morality. Believing in the 'right' way I will argue means developing a sensitivity to moral situations - which is what virtue is 9or so I shall argue). I contend that getting a person to believe in the 'right' way is an intergral part of ubuntu.Therefore ubuntu can be seen as type of virtue ethics.

The wikipedia entry on ubuntu alludes to this connection that I am trying to establish.

Fitch's paradox

Fitch’s paradox can be spelt out very briefly. The paradox aims to challenge the ‘knowability thesis’ by showing that it essentially implies the omniscience principle. Therefore we should reject knowability in order to discard omniscience. The knowability thesis states that any truth is, in principle knowable. The omniscience principle states that any truth is known

Let p be a sentence which contains an unknown truth, i.e let be stand for ‘it is not known that p’. Suppose also that p is true. Let K stand for ‘known’ and L for ‘possible. The proof will also require 4 modal rules: i) Kp → p [knowledge implies truth, this rule will be discussed in greater detail later in the paper] ii) K(p & q) → (Kp & Kq) [knowing a conjunction implies knowing each conjunct] iii) p→LKp [all truths are knowable – i.e the knowability thesis] iv) from –p conclude –Lp [The converse of the law of necessitation. The law states that if p can be proven without any assumption then p is necessarily true] The paradox aims to prove p→Kp as a theorm. That is based on no assumptions. The proof is as follows:

1 (1) K(p & -Kp) A

1 (2) Kp & K-Kp 1, by rule ii)

1 (3) Kp 2 &e

1 (4) K-Kp 2 &e

1 (5) –Kp 4, by rule i)

1 (6) Kp & -Kp 3,5 &i

 (7) –K(p & -Kp)            3,5 RAA
 (8) –LK(p & -Kp)            7, by rule iv)

9 (9) p & -Kp A

9 (10) LK(p & -Kp) 8, by rule iii)

9 (11) –LK(p & -Kp) & LK(p & -Kp) 8,10 &i

 (12) –(p & -Kp)             9,11 RAA
 (13) p→Kp                 12 by classical tautology

Clearly we do not want to accept the conclusion of this arguement - there are truths in the world that we do not know. Therefore we need to navigate out of the problem. My solution to this unsettling conclusion is based on work by prof. Bernhard Weiss.