Team:WITS-South Africa/Philosophy


Revision as of 13:31, 26 October 2010 by Liam Wilson (Talk | contribs)

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 around synthetic biology

Ubuntu 904.jpg I am not talking about this - though the penguin is very cute

I hope to answer the question 'Should the Synthetic Biologists pay take seriously ubuntu when making policy?' I wish to answer this question in the affirmative and show that ubunutu would provide good policy on both a macro and a micro level. On a micro level, I believe adhering to ubunutu would make scientists and researchers more ethically sensitive. On a macro level I think that ubuntu can maintain sound policy that preserves the imporatnce of the individual

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.

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. This is meant to provide 'internal' reasons for supporting ubuntu.

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

Aristotle-plato.jpg Two of the Fathers of Virtue ethics - Plato and Aristotle

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.

Here is Desmond Tutu (who is perhaps one of the best exponents of ubuntu) describing ubuntu

In this section I wish to show that ubuntu provides an 'internal' reson for its adoption as it fosters character development and the growth of virtue within the individual.

Should Scientists take notice

On the grounds of both the 'internal' and 'external' reasons for ubuntu it seems that ubuntu could be considered as plausible ethical outlook. It might be good to use at an individual level, but will it be able to provide any guidance at a policy level?

I think that it will. The use of ubuntu is not entirely unprecidented at a policy level. The philosphy of ubuntu has provided a guiding influence in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where the focus was not on punishing those responsible (on both sides) for the hideous crimes committed during the struggle against Apartheid. Instead the focus was on communal harmony and reconcilliation.

Desmond Tutu describes his view of restoritive justice:

Here he is again talking about forgiveness:

How then would polciy be informed? They could result in these policies:

• Informal relations should play an important role in governing the industry. A person's work should be srutinized by his peer's in an informal setting and those recognised as leaders of the field should assume responsibility for guiding and assisting those within the community to the best of their abilities. Research and commercialization of products and knowledge should be subject to the informal appoval of peers.

• Members of the synthetic biology community should show a special concern for one another.This concern extends past the professional relationships. All participants in the research, development, distribution and consumption of goods developed by synthetic biology should be considered part of the synthetic biological community. Also all members of the community should bear in mind that their actions reflect on the community as well as themselves.

• Every member of the community has a personal stake in the community and should bear some responsibility for the flourishing of the community.Every member of the community should also share in the fruits of the community. An individual should bear responsibilty for the community to the extent that he or she is involved in the community.

• 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. This can be in the form of goods and resources not necesarily linked to synthetic biological work. For example some members may rely on the community to provide them with housing or food etc.

• Members of the community have access to the resources and infomationof the community to the extent that they contribute towards the community. Ethically sensitive materials and infomation that the community possesses may be withheld from those outside the community and from those who do not contribute adequately. members of the community may also generate a profit by utilising the resources and knowledge of the community - provided that the profit is, in part, goes into supporting the community.

Therefore I will conclude that ubuntu not only ideally suited for providing sound moral guidance on an individual level, but also on a policy making level.