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 Philosophy Project Topic: Kant’s Ethics Vis-À-Vis Human Rights and Widowhood Practices in Igbo Land



1.1       Background Study

A primary trait in man’s nature that distinguishes man from other created beings is the fact that man is a rational being. This is due to the fact that man is the only creature with a spiritual capacity; capacity to reflect and make choices, be imaginative and creative, be an originating source of action. As such, it can be argued that that man’s rationality is intertwined with man’s morality. As Omoregbe opined, “…to be a rational being is to be subject to the moral law. It means that to be obliged by the moral law is part of what it means to be a human being, for it is part of man’s rationality.”[1] In the same vein, Kant argues that rationality has a lot to do with morality, because actions follow from being. In his words, “…the pre-eminent good which is called moral can consist in nothing but the representation of the law in itself, and such a representation can admittedly be found only in a rational being in so far as this representation, and not some expected effect, is the determining ground of the will.”[2] As have been seen above, that the moral nature of man flows from his rational character so also, the idea of his dignity and rights follow from his moral nature, which is linked to human nature. Human rights are not ‘needed’ primarily for the preservation of life, but for a life of dignity; hence the violations of one’s rights is to deny one’s dignity. In other words, the violations of one’s rights entail denial of dignity, a life worthy of a human being. This accounts for the universal norm and appeal for the respect of the dignity of persons. This respect for human dignity has influenced the global norms relating to societal laws in general and the African charter on human rights in particular. Although the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and other such documents do not explicitly define human dignity, rather, the appeal to dignity reflects a real concern about the need to promote respect for the intrinsic worth of human beings and for the integrity of the human species. This is shown in the preamble of the UDHR:

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world….

And the Article 1:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

However, dignity alone cannot solve the dilemma posed by societal laws. This is why the UDHR and other such human rights declarations combine on one hand, the appeal to human dignity as a predominant principle with the recourse to human rights to provide an effective and practical way forward in social legislation. Two main problems are always encountered whenever the issue of human rights is discussed. The first, is the issue of Pluralism, and secondly, the problem of the individual and the State (conflict between rights and duties). The first, Pluralism, is a problem of worldviews. The human rights advocates, for instance the United Nations Human Rights Commission, in framing the UDHR, coalesced disparate and very conflicting philosophies of different nations and civilizations. In other words, these coalesced groups did not hold a great deal of commonality in theory or philosophy. The question that arises is: how is it possible to circumvent this stumbling block to create a single document that eliminates this incongruence? Also, the second problem is a case of priority of interest between the individual and the state. The individual has the right to a life of dignity; that is: his humanity, his interest is to be respected. This is the duty the State owes the individual. Contrarily, the State has the right to have the obligations binding on the individual kept by the individual. This is the duty the individual owes the State. The questions are: what happens when these rights and duties conflict? How can these two concepts be reconciled? A critical survey through Africa in general and Igbo land in particular, will show that, it is a society characterized by a life of communion among its members (the creed: I am because others are, or I am because you are). In other words, the ‘person’ of the individual, in the Traditional Igbo society, is realized in the community; the community gives the individual his ‘being’. This is articulated in the ‘egalitarian’ idea of Nkrumah, the ‘hospitality’ of Uzukwu, the ‘ujamaa’ of Nyerere, the ‘negritude’ of Senghor and so on. Hence, the problem associated with rights presented above is also inherent in the Igbo society. Thus, Njoku presents issues that hinder the development of the Philosophy of Rights in Africa:

… in search of the foundation of an African Philosophy of right some negative sides present themselves, namely: ambiguity of emphasis in determining at times whether the individual or community is prior; the problem of the super-structure created by the elite and priest-craft,… exclusivist male-dominated nature of most African cultures and values. There is the problem of ancestor model of authority.[3]

Hence, the African conception of right is community-sanctioned.

1.2       Historical Development of Human Rights

The history of the concept of human rights has been given both a Judeo-Christian and a Greco-Roman origin. The theological anthropology of the Old Testament (OT) is marked by the idea of man created in the image of God (Gen.1:24), God’s covenant with humankind, and the special protection given not only to the widows, orphans and the weak, but also to strangers (Ex.23:9, Lev.19:34) from despotism of the powerful establishes the dignity of the human creature in a fashionable way. Also, the loving devotion of God to man, which culminates in the redemptive death of Christ, and the moral imperative on man to pass on this love, also substantiates the dignity of humanity compared to other creatures. Also, this concept of human rights is traceable to the Stoic of the Greco-Roman tradition, who held that a universal force pervades all creation and that human conduct should therefore be judged according to the law of nature and in the ius gentium (law of nations) in which, certain universal rights were extended beyond the rights of Roman citizenship.[4] From the beginning of the Renaissance (known as Rebirth), people started showing great interest in human rights, claiming that human beings are endowed with some rights that are inalienable. The view was strengthened by writings of some authors as well as various human rights pronouncements. These include: the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius, the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights (1628), the English Bill of Rights and so on.[5] The Modern era was characterized by the conception of natural law as natural rights by 17th and 18th century writers like: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza and Francis Bacon. Worthy of note particularly are the writings of John Locke, who was perhaps the most important natural law theorist of Modern times. Also included are writers like Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau. However, this idea of natural law as the foundation of natural rights came under attack by such writers as: Edmund Burke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Sir Henry Maine, John Austin and Karl Von Savigny. Nevertheless, the struggle to assert and protect the rights of humanity multiplied in various means as: Universal Suffrage, abolition of slavery, labour laws, popular education and trade unionism during the 19th century. But it was not until the rise and fall of Nazi Germany that the idea of human rights truly came into its own. The last half of the 20th century may fairly be said to mark the birth of the international as well as the universal recognition of human rights 

1.3       Statement of problem

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Topic: Kant’s Ethics Vis-À-Vis Human Rights and Widowhood Practices in Igbo Land

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More Philosophy and Religion Project Topics and Materials

Philosophy Project Topics and Materials

The Concept of God in Igbo Traditional Religion

Happiness as the End of Man in The Philosophy of Aristotle

Plato’s Notion of Justice Vis-À-Vis the Realisation of Our Societal Human Potentials

[1] Joseph Omoregbe, Ethics: A systematic and historical study, Ikeja: Joja Educational and Publishers Limited, 1993, p.25.

[2] Kant, I., Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1993, p.13.

[3] Francis Njoku, “An African philosophy of right: basis for leadership and governance”, in Philosophy, Democracy and Responsible Governance in Africa, J. Obi Oguejiofor(ed.), Enugu: Delta Publications Limited, 2004, p65.

[4] “Human Rights.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, document.write(new Date().getFullYear()); 2009.

[5] Ibid.


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