Saturday, June 09, 2007

On ethics

The question of whether or not a diasporic Nigerian has ethical obligations towards Nigeria (or whether the carbon guzzling Westerners are obliged to reduce their footprint) is ultimately a question about what it is to actually be ethical. The question of ethics is a deep philosophical issue which can quickly lead to confusion. A failure to think through these issues can often result in a confused relationship to ethics itself.

There are some simple ways into the forest however. One age-old question in ethical philosophy is whether one can derive an ought from an is. That is, can one derive ethical obligations - what one ought to do - from descriptions of the world. A large chunk of Anglo-Saxon philosophy in the past century has argued that you cannot derive oughts from ises. The argument is that ethical propositions are of a different order to descriptive propositions, and that therefore the two should not and cannot be confused.

I fundamentally disagree. If we cannot derive ethical propositions from descriptive ones, where are we to place the origin of ethics? Where does an ethical response come from, if not in relation to the world? Put it like this: someone who believes that ethical propositions must be divorced from descriptions would say that there is no ethical obligation implied by the reality that genocide is taking place in Darfur. Genocide in Darfur is simply a description about the world. Whether one relates ethically to this description is, on this basis, neither here nor there.

In other words, maintaining a strict split between description and obligation leads to absurdities, where what are clear unjust situations cannot be described as such. The basic error is to assume that injustice and unethical behaviour has an origin outside of the world - presumably inside someone's head. Ethics therefore becomes a mental state or intention towards the world. This is confused cart-before-horse thinking which reduces ethics to pyschology and whim.

Ethics, and ethical relations, inhere in the world, prior to anything we might think about them. We face an obligation before we can articulate it in language. Ethics is not about what we think, or about how we might decide to act: the origin of ethics - where the ethical obligation arises - lies in tensions in the world not in ourselves. There are imbalances, forms of injustice, to which we are obliged to respond, if we are to remain human.

Much of the time, we blinker ourselves off from these realities. We deny the ethical relation, explain it away as someone else's problem in a somewhere elsewhere world. We insulate ourselves in worlds of immediate concern, feed ourselves excuses about how busy our lives already are. Most of the time, we fall short of being ethical.

In part, this is why we have laws. If we were ethical all the time in each and every situation, there would be little need for the law. Aside from a structured mechanism for contractual negotiation, the law functions for the most part as the formal mirror of ethical obligation, society's fall-back. The trouble is, the law deals with issues of what should not be done (or should not have been done), rather than with what should or should have been done. The law is to ethics what a fossil is to the flesh and blood of animal life.

So, we can and must derive obligations from descriptions. In fact, one can even say that we are obliged to describe in such a way that we can derive an obligatory response - in other words, we must continually work to refine our ethical sensibilities - complacency is the usual curse. Ethics is a call from the world, for us to wake up to its immiserations.

How we respond ethically is an altogether different question: do we act to create the greatest good for the greatest number (utilitarianism), or do we dedicate ourselves to virtuous behaviour - asking first what the virtues reallly are...

The question of ethical response should be clearly separated from the question of ethical obligation. Only then can we be clear that we continually owe the world a form of response that reduces suffering. It is a test of our humanity, how far we can push ourselves in this direction.

Given that we cannot do everything to reduce suffering and increase happiness everywhere, all at once, it makes sense for us to focus on what little we can do in our spheres of interest and involvement. In which case, Nigerians in the diaspora can be said to face ethical obligations towards Nigeria, whether or not they consider this to be the case.


olodo,  2:35 p.m.  

I think you *want* diasporic Nigerians to be responsible towards Nigeria, and have set up an elaborate system to justify it. All it is, really, is that Nigeria interests *you* and you want it to be true of others.

But if you consider the full implications of your penultimate sentence (a sentence I agree with), you'll see that nationalist loyalties of the "I must serve Nigeria" kind are a weak interpretation of the ethical impulse. Indeed, your entire ethics set-up--deriving ought from is--is an intriguing and persuasive one. But, like one of those television pastors, you follow a series of true statements with a whopping falsehood.

The question could be asked, for example, what you're doing on behalf of poor Northern English whites. Where's your sense of ethical solidarity with the *practical* needs of the inhabitants of Wigan, Manchester, Leeds.

It comes down to this: you have chosen your "spheres of interest and involvement." That is to be respected. It is your right. Now extend that right to others, without seeking to impose ethical imperatives on them. If a Nigerian decides that his ethical responsibility is to Cambodian millworkers in San Francisco, it's frankly none of your business.

This is a really important point, because at the moment, we are facing an unfortunate resurgence in the idea that any eloquent black speaks for all blacks, as if individual choice were the preserve of whitey.

(Think for example of the representative terms in which Chimamanda's Orange win have been framed. It would be unthinkable to speak in such generalities if Anne Tyler had won.)

Fred 3:11 p.m.  


As you sat there, effetely typing this treatise away at your keyboard, did the thought ever occur, "wow, I'm so fucking cool?" Because if it didn't, it should.

Jeremy 6:07 p.m.  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeremy 6:10 p.m.  

Fred - as usual I can scarcely take your comment seriously.

Olodo, in contrast - thanks for that excellent response and challenge to my arguments. Its difficult to cover all the issues involved in a blog - my last paragraph alone really needs at least a few pages. I think this accounts for many aspects of your challenge - ellipses in my argument. That said:

1. Not sure what the 'whopping falsehood' you accuse me of (thanks for the comparison to an evangelical pastor - I guess you knew I'd appreciate that!!)

I think what you finding false in my argument is the ethical imperative I am projecting onto diasporic Nigerians. You want to know as an example why I don't express more ethical solidarity with poor Northern English whites. You want me to be less prescriptive of other people's ethical engagements.

These are all good points. There needs to be a kind of ethical pluralism at work, in order for all imbalances and injustices in the world to be uncovered. There's no reason why ethics has to be always channeled in nationalist terms.

But none of this is an argument against the legitimacy of making specific ethical prescriptions or injunctions. Just as elsewhere, there is a kind of marketplace of ethical ideas, with different causes competing for attention with each other. It behoves each of those espousing an ethical cause to make prescriptions - in the form of appeals - to those who have the ears to listen. And one valid form of 'ethical marketing' is provocation: asking the question - why are you not doing more? We all need this question pushed in our face from time to time.

That said, there are communities of shared concern and involvement which do tend to create frames of reference that are based around and within nation-states - where ethics and community meet. In this context, I am not saying that diasporic Nigerians should necessarily engage ethically with Nigeria as a whole. Ethical solidarity - I like that phrase by the way - is more often more specific and localised than remaining focused on the abstraction that is national identiy. If the UK was going through a tough time, my particular spheres of interest (either as an expat or living back home) may well be more localised than even a region - such as the north of England. I certainly would feel a sense of obligation to do what I could at the level of locality that I would be comfortable defining within the abstraction that is the UK.

In the same way, one excellent way in which Nigeria can develop is if diasporic Nigerians with the same regional/localised affiliation group together on development initiatives. Collaboration is the name of the game - with more long term sustainable outputs than simply sending stop-gap remittances.

There are signs that social development networks are increasing in capacity and effectiveness in the diaspora. Doctors are organising month-long working holidays, entrepreneurs are looking at moving back home and setting up businesses, expat ethnic-groups are clubbing together to send medical supplies back home etc etc. But these actions tend to be uncoordinated, and often quite piecemeal and rarely have sustainable impact, given the low absorbative capacity on the ground.

But at least there are signs of progress from the diaspora on these fronts.

What has not happened yet is any sustained intellectual engagement - Chimamanda is the noteable exception of an intellectual (rather than economic) returnee. A society without an intellectual class (the intelligentsia) is a society prone to be run by brainless thugs. The new administration must embrace new thinking, encourage the setting up of think tanks and research agencies doing fresh contemporary research - instead of relying on the triumph of ego over process. At the same time, work must be done to make the leading universities better candidates for partnership programmes with university departments elsewhere in the world (for two-way research trips, shared resources etc). At the moment, the state of Nigerian universities are such that almost any linkage programme of this kind is inconceivable.

babatunde 1:12 p.m.  

As a techi most of this stuff is way over my head however, I most say I disagree with you over this, IMO false distinction between intellectual and economic returnee's
Human being have emotional as well as economic motivations for all their actions, while the balance differs depending on the situation, you seem to give this impression of some mythical intellectual class that doesn't stoop to economic activities, bottom line is that for people moving back home there are multiple drivers economic intellectual, emotional etc.

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