Omoluabi: Re-thinking the Concept of Virtue in Yoruba Culture and Moral System.

Author:Olanipekun, Olusola Victor


The questions such as; "how should I live?" and "what kind of person should I be?" are essential normative questions for the ethicists as well as social and political philosophers. One fundamental concern in ethics is the issue of the way human beings think or believe they should conduct their lives. Coming from the background that morality is irreducibly social, the question is that, are some ways of life better than others? If yes, on what basis can this be determined? If no, can everybody be correct in the choices of life style? These are questions about one's entire life or the kind of person one ought to be in order to get it right morally all the time.

This is unlike the question such as, "What is the right action?" which is the concern of the consequentialist and the non-consequentialist theories. Scholars at different epochs have attempted to answer the question of "what kind of person should I be?" by appealing to the notion of virtue. Aristotle for instance proposed virtue as central to good living. That is, one ought to be virtuous or live a virtuous life. Lynne McFall also considers virtue (integrity), as important for the modern individual. Aristotle's answer to these questions falls in line with the Yoruba's beliefs about how one should or ought to live and the kind of person one should strive to be. My view is that, Aristotelian treatment of virtue is akin to Yoruba's view that ki eniyan gbe gege bi omoluabi (1) (i.e one should live virtuously). This in Yoruba (2) moral system means one should be an omoluabi (virtuous person). Worthy of note is Aristotle's conception of the study of ethics as a practical endeavour, aimed not at theoretical knowledge, but at improving human lives. In his view, ethics is properly conceived, not as a separate inquiry, but as part of political theory. This work argues that Aristotle's (3) conception of virtue can be treated in the like manner with the Yoruba's conception of omoluabi with slight modification.

The presentation is divided into four main sections. The first section presents a clarification of some ethical concepts in Yoruba moral philosophy. The second section examines the moral decadence in Africa: the trend, the magnitude, and the consequences. The third considers Aristotelian notion of virtue as well as the concept of omoluabi and its relation to the West. Meanwhile, the last section focuses on the place of culture and religion in reviving the omoluabi virtues in contemporary African societies.

Clarifying Some Ethical Concepts in Yoruba Moral Philosophy

In Yoruba language, according to Bewaji, ethical behaviour and morally approved conduct is called, variously, "iwa rere (good character), iwa pele/ iwa tutu(gentleness) and iwa irele/iteriba(respect)" (4). One terminology that captures all these various names is called iwa omoluabi. Also, other attributes or qualities of an omoluabi are: Oro Siso (Spoken word, the Yoruba accord great respect for intelligent and expert use of language); Inu Rere (Goodwill, Having a good mind towards others); Otito (Truth); Iwa (Character/behaviour); Akinkanju (Bravery); Ise (Hardwork); Opolo Pipe (Intelligence); and Iwa Rere (Good character/behaviour).

Meanwhile, unethical behaviours and morally disapproved conducts are iwa buburu, aidaa (evil or lawlessness), and iwa ibaje (bad characters) Imele/ole (laziness), ole jija (act of slealing), iro (lies), ainiteriba (disrespectful attitude) and ojukokoro (covetousness). Arguably, some of the qualities mentioned above could be categorised as either personal virtues or social virtues or both depending on the manner of appraisal.

The Concept of "Omoluabi": What is it?

Yoruba people of Western-Nigeria have a long tradition and a cherished culture that must not be allowed to pass into oblivion. Yoruba consider the issue of ethics or morality as one of the most essential issues of life for any human being on this planet earth. One moral concept that is highly valued is the concept of omoluabi. Conceptually, the concept Omoluabi is a derivative noun which has the words--"Omo + ti + Olu-iwa + bi" as its morphological components. Literally translated and separately, omo means 'child', ti means 'that or which', Olu-iwa means the chief or master of Iwa (character), bi means 'born'. When combined, Omoluabi translates as "the baby begotten by the chief of iwa". Such a child is thought of as a paragon of excellence in character. (5) Who then is an Omoluabi? Generally, an Omoluabi is one who combines all virtues. For Akinyemi, the principles of Yoruba traditional education are based on the concept of Omoluabi translated loosely as an "ideal being". (6) Akanbi and Jekayinfa also held similar view. According to them,

The end of Yoruba traditional education is to make every individual "Omoluabi'. To be "Omoluabi' is to be of good character. That is why the goal of Yoruba traditional education has always been to foster strong character in the individual and to prepare each person to become a useful member of the community. (Jekayinfa, 2016:13) Also for Johnson (1921:101), the concept of 'Omoluabi' is the standard which determines the morality and the immorality of an act in Yoruba society in Africa.

In Yoruba ethics, iwa (character/behaviour) is one thing that should not be underemphasized if we really want to have a well ordered society. Just as we have the moral concepts such as good, bad, right, and wrong in any moral setting or ethical system in the world, so we have iwa rere and iwa buburu (i.e good character and bad character) as well as iwa toto and iwa tikoto (right behaviour and wrong behaviour) in Yoruba ethics or moral system. One of the examples of iwa rere (good character) that was mentioned above is iwa omoluabi (virtuous character). Meanwhile, Omoluabi is a Yoruba word for a virtuous person. Iwa omoluabi (virtuous character) as it is referred is an aspect of behaviour that is considered valuable which is expected to be imbibed or embraced by all. In fact, as far as Abimbola is concerned (1975:401), "iwa rere is the most valuable thing among all other things in Yoruba value system."

In Philosophy and the Africa Prospect: Fadahunsi and Oladipo (2004:23) suggest that the Yoruba term "omoluabi"--very inadequately translated by the English language "gentleman"- is appropriate. Furthermore, Barry Hallen also commented on this issue. Hallen opines, ...but, as often as the case, the original Yoruba term " omoluabi"- is much richer in meaning because it begins from what a person really is like 'inside' when it is associated with 'good character' (iwa rere). (7)

In other words, Hallen's interpretation of omoluabi suggests that it is an internal thing which is reflected in the outside through human character. This I consider to be an appeal to moral psychological explanation. One notable fact about the concept of omoluabi is that being an omoluabi goes beyond oneself but it also speaks volume about your family and the society that you belong to. According to Bewaji (2004:395), Africans believe that "each person is a representative of himself or herself as well as his/her family" and by extension, his/her community. The point Bewaji is making is that, by implication, an individual has to consider not only how a course of action contemplated by him will affect him personally, but also how will affect his family directly or indirectly and community at large.

Moral Decadence in Africa: The Trend and the Consequences

In African society today, low level of governmental legitimacy, voracious poverty, infrastructural decay, electoral crisis, contract killing, political assassination, insecurity and generally, developmental problems are prevalent issues in the society. Even the youths who are supposed to be the bridge between the present and future generation are not exempted. We...

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