Thursday, March 10, 2016

Is there an 'African bioethics'?

Well, is there? There have been a number of published attempts to isolate what is different about African ways of identifying, analyzing and resolving ethical issues related to health and medicine. Usually there is talk of African communitarianism, solidarity and Ubuntu, to be contrasted with the typically ‘Western’ emphasis on personal autonomy. But as time goes on, this whole narrative seems more and more contrived and out of step with reality. We know autonomy has limits, and does not automatically trump other considerations in cases of moral conflict.  The stress on communal life and social harmony in African morality has similarly been oversold: contemporary ‘African life’ is not predominantly lived in villages led by traditional elders where communal problems are resolved by palabre under a baobab tree. That image is becoming increasingly quaint against the influences of colonialism and globalization, increased urbanization, digital communication, and the subsequent fraying of traditional community structures.
A couple of recent articles probe into what an African bioethics might mean. In Developing World Bioethics, Gerald Ssebunnya argues that the pursuit of a distinctly African bioethics is basically a fool’s errand. According to Ssebunnya, the whole idea that an African bioethics exists – or ought to – comes from Africanist philosophy and the desire to distance African philosophical thought from that of their past colonial masters and oppressors. Unfortunately, he writes, that meant falling back on what he calls ‘ethno-philosophy’, which consists of two main activities: (a) unreflectively recycling bits of common morality and (b) polemically talking about the nature and need of African philosophy rather than actually doing it. His remedy for what he calls this ‘sterility’ is for African bioethicists and other African stakeholders to work on the foundational, conceptual underpinnings of bioethics, and thereby contribute African elements to the ongoing global discussion about what makes health-related policies and practices ethical or unethical.
The article by Sirkku Hellsten in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics is about the role of philosophy in global bioethics, but also touches on the notion of regional flavors, like ‘African bioethics’. Using Henry Odera Oruka’s four types of African philosophy, she distinguishes four ways of philosophizing in bioethics worldwide: ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity, ideological philosophy, and professional philosophy. She makes a good attempt at describing the strengths and weaknesses of them all (and has the good grace to keep calling the first three 'philosophy'), but really, only professional philosophy contains something universal: the critical use of reason in examining and developing arguments. That is, and should be, the philosophy behind global bioethics. Hellsten seems undeterred by the fact that this universal method historically originated from the European Enlightenment, or that the method is known to be vulnerable to influence by cultural factors (or as she calls them, ‘biases’).
Where does this leave African bioethics? One option is that Africans keep producing bioethics informed by philosophical approaches Ssebunnya (and probably, in her heart of hearts, Hellsten) considers 'sterile.' Another option is that Africans are paradoxically meant to double-down on their Western philosophy, rather than avoid it, in order for African contributions to global bioethics to be born. Maybe this is where these two authors are going. Apply ‘universal method’ to African circumstances, stir. Will the resulting concoction be, in some way, African? 

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