An African Theory of Dignity and a Relational Conception of Poverty

In John de Gruchy (ed.), The Humanist Imperative in South Africa. African Sun Media 233--242 (2011)
I have two major aims in this chapter, which is philosophical in nature. One is to draw upon values that are salient in the southern African region in order to construct a novel and attractive conception of human dignity. Specifically, I articulate the idea that human beings have a dignity in virtue of their communal nature, or their capacity for what I call ‘identity’ and ‘solidarity’, which contrasts the most influential conception in the West, according to which our dignity inheres in our rationality or autonomy. The second aim is to invoke this Afro-communitarian conception of human dignity in order to advance a new conception of why poverty is morally problematic and of what people, particularly states, are ethically required to do with regard to it. Common conceptions of poverty focus on it in terms of people lacking income, preference satisfaction (‘utility’) or general-purpose means (‘social primary goods’ in the Rawlsian jargon). In contrast, if what is special about human beings is our ability to commune with one another in a certain way, then the respects in which poverty can be an injustice and the ways that it must be fought must be understood in more communitarian or relational terms, which I both specify with several concrete examples in a South African context and contrast with the more dominant approaches.
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