At this week’s Humanist Small Group meeting, we discussed the South African ethical concept of ubuntu, that a person becomes a person through a relationship with other people.

We had three tables full of people discussing this concept, so I can only report what was discussed at my table. I think most of us were sympathetic to the concept, but there was concern that the concept might tend to exclude people who are non-joiners by nature or have some aspect of Asperger’s Syndrome. I think we pretty much agreed that Humanism is pro-social and we encourage people to interrelate with one another, but we’re not pushing for anything to be compulsory. If a person shares Humanist values but doesn’t want to participate in a Humanist community, that is their right to do so.

While some of our discussion was about the personal nature of relating to one another, there was also discussion of the political aspects of community. I expressed my own feeling after the political events of this week that secularists need to start organizing communities to provide mutual support and social service to others rather than focusing on getting the government to pass social legislation. The prospect for progressive social legislation is growing increasingly dim; rather than wait for government to solve social problems, we need to work on these problems directly–as some religious denominations already do.

Please comment on this or any other aspects of todays discussion, or anything related to the concept of ubuntu.


5 Responses to “Ubuntu”

  1. 1 A.J.
    January 24, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    I thought the discussions today were great. I rotated around the three groups so I’ll just add a few interesting points that I remember:

    – Is ubuntu the same as the golden rule? I think the consensus was that it is similar but that there are differences. In the idea of “a person is a person through other people” the idea of others and the individual are inseparable, whereas in the golden rule, the existence of an individual, completely independent of individuals is not ruled out, and perhaps even assumed.

    – Is ubuntu at odds with capitalism? An interesting point was made that in the business school community and academic circles, there is a new push for businesses to behave in a more collaborative way, with other businesses, communities, governments, etc.

    • 2 David Kimball
      January 25, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      This is not only in the business school community and academic circles. More and more corporations are realizing that the principles of Sustainability and Triple Bottom Line Accountability make business sense. (TBL = accountability for finance, environment and Corporat Social Responsibility – CSR, or sometimes known as profit, plant, and people.) One doesn’t have to be a tree-hugger to realize that a corporation needs to conserve energy and consider alternate energy options or else they will not be sustainable 25 years from now given the price of energy in its current incline. Also, for an company to be the Employer of Choice, it has to recognize its responsibilities to its internal stakeholders as much as it does to its external stakeholders.

      This is much more a part of the culture in Europe where in several countries companies have to publish their Social Responsibility reports before they are allowed to be on the stock exchanges. Many of the US top 100 Corporations are publishing their Sustainability reports (with both Environmental and CSR impacts).

      This movement just hasn’t hit the Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs) yet nor the general culture of society. But it will. And probably shortly.

  2. 3 A.J.
    January 24, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Sorry to double post but something came to mind. One of the things discussed at at least two of the groups was, what does this mean in terms of our own daily practice? If I walk around Boston saying hello to everyone, I might not get a very positive reaction in all settings. The way I’ve tried to approach it as a I readjust to American life is to tone it down a little. Acknowledgment is something as simple as eye-contact, and if returned a smile or a nod. I think a little of this will go a long way. In fact, just tonight, I had an interesting experience in the practice of this. I was taking the Red line downtown from Harvard Sq. I was contemplating the dilemma of the subway. You don’t want to be sketchy and look at people, but it also seems unhuman to ignore everyone. At Kendall an older man boarded the car. He was walking with a cane and obviously had some knee problems. All the handicapped seats were occupied. The occupants were all able bodied people but they were too absorbed in their ipods, books, or generally so zoned out that they were not even aware of this mans presence. I was sitting towards the middle of the car but clearly was the closest seated passenger that could see this man’s distress as he tried to balance standing up. We made eye contact and he made his way over and I gave him my seat. Rather than stopping with the simple “thank you” though, the man then struck up a conversation and we chatted until he got to his destination. I had one of the my most pleasant T rides in a while all because I tried to be a little bit more aware of my fellow passengers.

    When it comes down to the bare bones, even past the idea of community and social theory, I think ubuntu is about an acknowledgment and awareness of other people. I think this part of ubuntu is something common to many people and not some foreign concept that needs to be imported.

  3. January 25, 2010 at 10:01 am

    I say hello, or nod, to people on my block, whether I know them or not. I do know some but not all of my neighbors, so event he people I don’t recognize might be neighbors. Conversations most often bloom when someone is walking a dog, since that provides an obvious starting point.

    Interestingly, according to this


    public dog-walking has been banned in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh, as it promotes social interaction between the sexes.

  4. 5 David Kimball
    January 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I think that there can be a recognition of one relating to others around them without having to be a joiner. Even a non-joiner has to relate to others whether it is at a job, or school, or store, or family or whatever. We live in a web of interconnectedness. The intersections on this web may be individual strands or they may be clusters. But we need to know how to handle those relations best. If we do not releate well, we do violence to ourselves. It is not for the “other” that we need to relate well, it is for ourselves.

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