Living well by ubuntu

10 January 2014

Philosophy Professor Thaddeus Metz explores how the ubuntu tradition views 'the good life', and how this compares to a traditional Western view of how to live well.

In 2007 Metz attended an ubuntu imbizo, in which an elderly woman remarked that "the problem for me with being poor is that I don't have any money to give away".

These words capture the crux of Metz's argument: that the tradition of ubuntu has an important role to play in understanding the importance of human relationships to living a good life.

In describing salient Western ideas of what it means to live a good life, Metz speaks both of philosophical approaches to well-being (such as hedonism) and psychological approaches to mental health (such as being free of suffering, being able to apprehend and cope with reality, or living autonomously). In his view, both are characteristically individualist, making no essential reference to others.

"The problem with individualism is that it fails to explain why things like autism, narcissism or ADHD (among many other forms of mental ill health) are bad," explains Metz. "On the other hand the tradition of ubuntu, which is often described as the idea that a person is a person through other persons [or in Metz's definition, the tradition of honouring friendly relationships – see diagram below] is inherently relational."

Through an understanding of ubuntu, these states of mental ill-health identified can be seen as being facets of an undesirable life, because – in Metz's words – they "inhibit communal or loving relationships with other persons; or worse, are examples of unfriendly ones".

"I don't make any claim that ubuntu is sufficient as a way to explain how to live a good life," says Metz, "but I am arguing that ubuntu is necessary to such an understanding. Overall, I think the best approach is to combine the rationality of the Western tradition of individualism with the relationality of the Southern African tradition of ubuntu."

Read more in Metz's book Meaning in Life.

Story by Ambre Nicolson. Graphic by Banzi Damba.

This lecture was given as part of a symposium sponsored by UCT's Brain and Behaviour Initiative. Read more about what psychiatrist Dr Kerry Louw, philosopher Dr Tom Angier and classics scholar Professor Clive Chandler had to say about happiness and well-being.

Read more:

A four-part drug to secure happiness
Is happiness good for you?
Happiness and virtue theory

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Monday Monthly

Volume 33 Edition 09

20 Oct 2014

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