Concept, Principles and Research Methods of African Environmental Ethics.

AuthorIbanga, Diana-Abasi


Researchers have produced a large body of research that has significantly affected our understanding of environmental ethics. The contributions have helped facilitate the evolution of environmental ethics for different contexts. The core objective underpinning these researches in environmental ethics is to help communities solve human needs without risking safety and integrity of the ecosphere, and posterity. However, there is a balance of opinions among ethics researchers that there is pressing need for researchers in environmental ethics to produce researches that are compliant to specific cultural contexts; since the different cultural contexts are not exactly responding to the same ethics (Ibanga, 2017a; Ekwealo, 2017; Ogbonnaya, 2016; Francis, 2016; Mangena, 2015; Ibanga, 2014; Bisong & Sunday, 2014; Tangwa, 2004; Ogungbemi, 1994). Different philosophical places have responded to this call differently, employing different methodologies traditional to their philosophical traditions.

Africa philosophers have also responded to the call; but many have done so without paying attention to the methodologies in African philosophy. The issue is not a lack of relevant methodologies, but the different methodologies have not been shown in how they can contribute to African environmental ethics research. Some African philosophers set out to use scientific methods and Western philosophical methodologies without realizing the negative impact that alien paradigms may have on facilitating environmental ethics research in Africa. This has merely led to a certain fallacy called "descriptive chauvinism", that is, thinking that African and Western concepts, meanings, and methodologies, construct questions and responses in a similar manner (Edet, 2015).

To address the problem, this paper discusses ten traditional and contemporary methodological paradigms in African philosophy and demonstrates how they can effectively be applied to African environmental ethics research, and helps facilitate the discovery of ecological values that are meaningful to African people. It also discusses the concept and principles of African environmental ethics in order to show the conceptual underpinnings of the methodologies, and facilitate an understanding of how the methodologies should be employed in research.

The Concept of African Environmental Ethics

African environmental ethics is still a developing area of African philosophy. Few scholars have written to establish the theoretical basis of the discipline in terms of determining its comprehensive philosophical aspects. Most scholars of African environmental ethics focus on the ethical, axiological, and metaphysical aspects; while neglecting the logical, epistemological, pedagogical, and gender aspects. Meanwhile, Ucheoma Osuji (2012) argues that the metaphysical aspect of African environmental ethics cannot be separated from its epistemological aspect. One may also say that the logical and epistemological aspects of African environmental ethics are not counter-intuitive.

However, Ibanga has attempted to map the logical aspect (see Francis, 2016). Davie Mutasa, Shumirai Nyota, and Jacob Mapara (2008) has attempted to discuss its pedagogical aspects. Also, Ekwealo and Ibanga have attempted to map its political aspects (see Ekwealo, 2017; Ibanga, 2017b).

In all these, the question that would linger is: what is African environmental ethics? So far, three scholars have defined African environmental ethics. First, Chigbo Ekwealo (2017) posits that "African environmental ethics deals with the fundamental principle that govern the relationship between man and the environment based on African worldview [by analyzing] the basic terms like man, environment, spirit, et cetera and examines the approaches by which [they are] known" (p.52). This means environmental ethics focuses on analyzing the basic concepts employed in understanding the environment. Osuji (2012) avers that when the farmer, for example, "understands what water means and its role to its forest habitat" and to the whole economy of life, that he/she would take proactive steps to address unwholesome habits in self, and in the surrounding environment (p.116).

Another definition of African environmental ethics is provided by Ibanga (2017b) "as the fundamental governing principles that defines human-animal-plant-inanimate-posterity nexus based on African worldviews, analyzing the basic concepts such as human and nonhumans, animate and inanimate, and examines the processes by which they (ought to) relate, for the purpose of facilitating an understanding of the ontology of man within the context of an environment it shares with nonhumans" (p.1867). This definition projects African environmental ethics as a set of governing principles, and a philosophical study where the later serve to justify the former. And, Osuji (2012) argues that "African environmental ethics should not only be a way of life but should also show habits of exactness, rigor in thinking and clarity in philosophical analysis" (p.111).

One other definition to consider here is by Osuji (2012) that African environmental ethics refers to prescribed values and critical study grounded in the culture and experiences of Africa. Hence, Osuji (2012) argues that it is the duty of African environmental ethics to re-examine the basis of scientific laws, theorems and principles of the environment. In doing this, African environmental ethics should be "critical and reconstructive" such that it can "distil traditional ideas between those that are anachronistic and those that can allow human flourishing within our African world" (Osuji, 2012, p.111). She further argues that it is the task of African environmental ethics to: (1) carry out a philosophical distillation of the ideas stuck in traditional belief systems; (2) philosophically appraise environmental science based on African ontology, and (3) do conceptual decolonization of African environmental study in order to rid African philosophy of perverse dialogue and provide philosophical analysis for our habits (Osuji, 2012). It is through this that African environmental ethics would provide a rigorous indigenous ethics for positive environmental transformation.

Principles of African Environmental Ethics

Ibanga (2017a, 2017b, 2018a, 2018b) identifies five principles of African environmental ethics drawn from the wide corpus of African environmental ethics. These are precepts or injunctions designed to guide the behaviour of people in the environment. And in this, Ibanga (2018b) states that "the principles call for restraint and circumspection in decision-making and action-taking such that one's lifestyle, behaviour and dealings can lead to avoidance of wastage of resources and minimize injuries caused other beings (humans and nonhumans) and their communities (culture, ecosystem, etc)." In other words, the principles serve as a context to anticipate before acting. In addition, they serve as a guide to researchers when they analyze and interpret data collected in African environmental ethics research. They are:

* Principle of Accommodation: Act in such a way that nonhuman existents and future people are considered and accommodated in your daily decisions and dealings.

* Principle of Gratitude: Act in such a way that reflects your gratitude towards other existents, humans and nonhumans, for contributing to support your beingness or existence.

* Principle of Restoration: Always act to restore to Nature the loss you have caused it. For example, re-planting a tree after felling one.

* Principle of Control: Act in such a way that you control your action from producing too much negative externalities.

* Principle of Necessity: Act only on decisions and actions that are absolutely necessary.

Methods of African Environmental Ethics Research

The core idea underpinning research in African environmental ethics is to help communities solve human needs without risking safety and integrity of the ecosphere, and posterity. The aim is to produce the logic and ethic that help guide policy-making in sustainable ways. Generally, there are a number of core methodologies of African philosophy that can be used to search out answers to research questions in African environmental ethics. Here, I want to focus on ten methodologies, namely: (i) Ethnophilosophy, (ii) Sage Philosophy, (iii) Conversational Philosophy, (iv) Conceptual Mandelanization, (v) Eco-Afrocentricism, (vi) Indigenous Language Analysis, (vii) Eco-Afro-feminism (viii) Conceptual Decolonization (ix) Storytelling Philosophy, and (x) Cultural Adaptionism. These ten methodologies respectively represent the earlier and contemporary methodologies in African philosophy; but the list is by no means exhaustive. Let us look at them briefly, and see how they may contribute to research in African environmental ethics and values.


The concept of ethnophilosophy was first used by Kwame Nkrumah and popularized by Paulin Hountondji, who used it to describe the quality/type of philosophy that early African academic philosophers produced--which were mainly ethnographic representations of worldviews of African communities. Anke Graness (2012) notes, "ethnophilosophy describes African philosophy mainly as traditional communal thinking as it can be found in proverbs, fables, special features of African languages, etc" (p.9). Hence, ethnophilosophical method involves searching for metaphysical, epistemological and ethical material from proverbs, fables, African languages, arts, music, religion, and so on, by analyzing them for the purpose of making philosophical import from them or representing them as philosophies. This method was very popular during its early discourses, and today serves the foundation of African philosophy. Many African philosophers have adopted this method for African environmental ethics research. One of the major merits of this method to African environmental...

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