Participants in the Harvard Safra Center for Ethics’ annual Berggruen Workshop arrived in mid-March in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, to a tense political atmosphere. Heavy police presence set the tone at protests against the jailing of Maurice Kamto, the opposition leader who last year ran for President against Paul Biya, the world’s second longest-serving head of state.
The grim mood on the streets contrasted with the tone of optimism at the “Colloque International” being held at the philosophy faculty of the Central African University, to celebrate the launch of the “EthicsLab,” a project spearheaded by Thierry Ngosso, currently a Berggruen Fellow at the Safra Center. Scores of scholars from around the world participated in the four-day Colloque, of which the two-day Berggruen Workshop was a centerpiece.
The EthicsLab will be the first ethics research center in central Africa. As Ngosso explained in his opening keynote address, the goal of the center is to create a uniquely African platform for thinking about ethics. The EthicsLab will support fundamental and applied research in philosophy, with an initial focus on the political ethics of public health. It plans to take on topics like access to health care, the relative responsibilities of local governments versus transnational entities in providing support for public health, demographic issues as it relates to health care and education, and so on.
The Berggruen Workshop featured a keynote address from Matias Risse, a professor of philosophy and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Director of the Safra Center’s Graduate Fellowship Program, with comments from Berggruen Institute Vice President Nils Gilman and Ndidi Nwaneri, a recent Loyola University PhD in philosophy and now the executive director of the Association for Research on Civil Society in Africa. It was followed by presentations by the three Safra Center Berggruen Fellows, including Ngosso on what African societies owe their own citizens in terms of health care, Brian Berkey on the positive duties that multinational corporations owe to the global poor, and Sungho Kimlee on the ethics of self-cultivation in Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Each talk featured African as well as Western respondents.
Ngosso has ambitious plans for the EthicsLab. In addition to promoting research on ethical issues of pressing regional concern, the EthicsLab will feature an annual conference that will join African and western scholars in the cross-cultural dialogue. Long term, the goal is to build a network of such ethics centers across Africa, each of which will focus on ethical and public policy issues of special interest to Africa. As Safra Center Director Danielle Allen explained in her keynote address, ethics centers have a particularly crucial role to play in helping to create public dialogue about how best to promote human flourishing. The launch of EthicsLab, in partnership with Harvard and the Berggruen Institute, ensures that African voices will be at the center of these discussions.
In considering the launch of an African ethics center, it is difficult not to begin with the question of what sorts of duties are owed between Global North and Global South? Specifically, how can we have an ethical interaction between two such entities that are vastly separated not only in terms of contemporary power, but who also have an inherited history of the abuse of that power gradient?
One thing that was striking about the conference was that the African scholars present did not believe that what the North owes the South is direct transfers, whether in the form of aid, much less in reparations. Scholars like Thierry Ngosso himself, as well as Ajume Wingo, a prince of the Nso tribe from NW Cameroon, now a political theorist at the University of Colorado, made it clear that unless African political and social institutions are reformed by Africans themselves, such transfers will have little effect (other than, perhaps, to assuage the guilt of the transferring parties of the North, and to line the pockets of various elites in the South). These positions echo those articulated by 21st Century Council member Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid. None of this is to suggest that Africa and the Global North come to the table of ethical reasoning as equals.
So what then are the duties are owed from North to South? First, as Risse suggested, there is the duty of respect. As suggested by several scholars, one mark of that respect is not to assume that either the problems of the South are simply analogs to ones that have long been theorized in the North, and that the theories that have been developed there can answer all ethical challenges that are faced in the Global South. For example, as LSE philosopher Katrin Flickshuh noted, the idea of the high functioning state is so central to political theory in the North that it becomes hard for people in that traditional to look at the challenges of the South and not think simply that they must, first of all, be addressed by building a welfare state that is more or less modeled after the ones they are familiar with in the north – welfare states which are none too healthy themselves these days, it is worth noting.
But a more subtle and profound sort of respect is also to realize that the ethical and institutional ideas that must be developed to address the challenges found in countries like those found in central Africa will not simply be parochial ideas, applicable in their region and not without. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the ideas developed in the South to think about the ethical and governance challenges found there may be just as “universal” as the ideas developed in the North. In other words, one mark of respect is to stop thinking of the “North Atlantic sequence” of ideas developed from the Enlightenment onward as “universal,” in contrast to ideas from elsewhere as being either derivative of those “core” ideas or as “peripheral” curiosities. Instead, we need to learn to treat both African problems and African (as well as other non-Western) traditions of thought them as exciting sites for potential new universal forms of ethical reasoning.
This is ultimately why a series of ethics centers across Africa holds such exciting intellectual promise: not simply because it offers an opportunity for close-at-hand engagement with empirical problems that are specific to the region, but also because it creates a space where radical new ideas may emerge that can potentially enliven a series of debates about economic, social, political ethics in the North (and globally) that are at this point more than a little threadbare. The purpose of such a network of ethics centers, in short, is not so Africa can learn from the North, but rather to create a venue where ideas can be generated so that the world can learn from Africa.
Africa contains multitudes of traditions and models for thinking about identity, reciprocality, obligation, ownership, and distribution – all areas where the North is in desperate need to renewed intellectual and political vigor. In a venue such as a Cameroon-based ethics center, focused on Africa-specific problems, populated with scholars versed in both European and African intellectual traditions, we should see exciting new hybrid ideas emerge, ones that will bear not just on the local, but on the universal. The Berggruen Institute is proud to be collaborating with the Harvard Safra Center and the Central African University of in promoting this wider “global turn” in ethical reasoning.