Team:WITS-South Africa/Philosophy


Revision as of 16:13, 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 ubuntu be seriously considered when making policy?' I wish to answer this question in the affirmative and show that ubuntu 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 whislt preserving the importance of individual ethical conduct.

Sketching my argument briefly - I will be raising some key ehtical concerns that are raised by our team's lactoguard device.I will then present a workable theory of ubuntu and apply it to the concerns raised in order to see if it can address the issues raised. The paper will therefore be a philosophical 'case study' into bio-ethics.

From this I will hope to show that ubuntu can provide ethical 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.

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, ubuntu is a deontologist and consequentialst theory. To put this in perspective - these two schools are traditionally set up in opposition to one another.

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

Deontologists maintain that an action 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. For example, one might refrain from lying because by not lying one tends to promote good consequences. Consequentialism is often expressed by the saying 'the ends justifies the means'.

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.

I will also argue that ubuntu also has an extra component to it. That component is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics 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 thinks, as courses of action are contemplated, without admitting that it will be in terms of duties, or consequences, which thereby regain a certain priority.

I will argue in favour of Metz's conception of ubuntu as I believe it captures the 'Africanness' of ubuntu and is explicit enough to tease out the deontologist, consequentialist and virtue ethical elements of the theory. My contention is that the virtue component of ubuntu is not a distinct object in the ethical framework of the theory in the way that the concept of 'goodness' is considered in classical deontologist and consequentialist theories. Instead I content that ubuntu fosters the development of a sensitivity to ethical situations within the individual in question which can be described as virtue. Ubuntu can therefore be considered to be, at least in part, a character trait.

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

Should we take notice of ubuntu

I think that that we should. 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.