YOURBA AND WESTERN ETHICS
There are many actions which we will condemn as morally wrong and
ought not to be done by anybody, for example, stealing, murder, bribery
aimed robbery and corruption e.t.c there are also certain actions which
everybody considers as morally good e.g kindness, honesty, respect for
elders, hospitality e.t.c. Now, why do we say that certain actions are
good or right and we see others as bad or wrong? How do we determine
the badness or wrongness and goodness or rightness of certain actions?.
To answer these questions and the likes, we need a science, which
deals with human conduct. The science which deals with human conduct is
regarded as ethics1. Ethics is therefore a yardstick used for measuring
the goodness or rightness and wrongness or badness of certain actions or
1.2. ETHICAL UNIVERSALISM
Ethical universalism states that ethical judgment no matter the
degree ought to be universalisable. Thus ethical universalism states
that one single ethical standard of judgment ought to be held throughout
With ethical Universalist, all actions are to be taken as
common to all. This theory or concept claims that for example, an action
which is judged “right” or “wrong” “good” or “bad”, “praise worthy” or
“blame worthy” in Western countries, ought to be able to accept the same
claim among the Yoruba people here in Nigeria.
1.3 ETHICAL RELATIVISIM
“ Ethical relativism shows diversity or variation of a group
or an individual morality. Judgment on mortality in this case depends on
individual human conduct”2. However, it is important to know that
ethical relativism is contingent on some other basic factors. These
include cultural historical and class distinction of an individual or a
society. Ethical universalism claims that one single ethical or moral
standard of judgment ought to be upheld throughout the universe, while
ethical relativism claims, that on the other hand, that whatever action
is judged to be praise worthy or blame worthy is relative to individual
or a society in a period of time or circumstance.
1.4 CULTURAL UNIVERSALISM.
The term cultural has been defined in various ways, for example,
culture has been defined as; ‘’Every broad general principle of
selectivity and ordering --- “highest common factor” ---- in terms of
patterns of and for and about behaviour in every various areas of
culture content are reducible to parsimonious generalization’’3.
From the above definition, its quiet clear that culture can emerge
not only from tradition and customs of a given society. It could also be
acquired and incorporated into ones existing culture in many other
different ways. These other ways include the process by which a person
acquires from or a group of persons acquire from contact with other
person or group of persons. Like ethical universalism, this theory says
that all cultures must be universalizable. What cultural universalism
emphasizes is, that if a country ‘’A’’ claims that it is justified to
practice culture ‘’Y’. Then if country ‘’A’’s or society ‘’A’’s claim
were consistent, it must be agreed upon that other societies or
countries ‘’A1’, ‘’A2’’, ‘’A3’’, ----, ‘’An; would be similarly
justified to practice culture ‘’Y’’ in situation ‘’R’’. To do otherwise,
would be to make an odd claim.
1.5 CULTURAL RELATIVISM
Cultural relativism affirms that all values are a functions or
product of their culture and reflect the interest of their society and
culture. It is a fact of human experience as conditioned by culture.
When we study society that is different from one another. For
example, in some of the Eskimos group, they think that it is better to
take their aged people to waste lands to be left to die rather than
keeping them alive in their old age to suffer.
This is parricide, others are abortion, euthanasia, human –sacrifice
and cannibalism. These examples so given shows that, the rightness or
wrongness of human actions means different things to different societies
or even between individuals. That is, there can be no set of moral
codes or ethical codes. Everyone ought to accept as universally valid or
1.6 A BRIEF GENEOLOGY OF THE YORUBAS
The Yoruba society or kingdom covers the present day Oyo, Ondo,
Ekiti, Osun, Ogun and some other parts of kwara – state and Lagos- state
and also extends to the present day republic of Benin. Yoruba society
is usually taken together as one entity because of the homogenous traces
in their language. Despite it’s many dialects, this language provides
the main evidence of a common origin and cultural heritage.
A second point to a common origin of the Yoruba society is the
existence over the whole country of a cycle of myths and its people and
the foundations at ‘’Ile-Ife, the worlds center of the first kingdom.
1.7 THE YORUBA POLITICAL CULTURE.
The key political unit on which government was based in all Yoruba
kingdoms was the ‘’Town’’, ‘’Ilu’’ Each kingdom is consisted of many
towns, but that did not mean that there were many independent
governments in each town or kingdom’’4. The government of the capital
served as the central government of the kingdoms, while those of the
subordinate towns served as the local government units. Both at the
central or local levels, the system of government were monarchical,
that, it was headed by an Oba (king) who was entitled to wear a crown.
The Oba was divined and was the political and religious head of his
town. As head of the government, the Oba was regarded as a divine king,
and in theory he had absolute powers of life and death over his people.
His attribute was ‘’Oba, alase, ekeji Orisa’’ --- king the ruler and
companion of the gods. He was also addressed as ‘’kabiyesi’’ an
expression which is said to be contracted from of the sentence
‘’ki-a-bi-o-ko-si’’. That is, there is no question of anyone challenging
or querying your authority.
In a nutshell, the Oba, in theory, had the power of life and death
over his subjects and was as, a divine king not accountable to them for
any of his deeds.
When the Westerners came, the whole old Yoruba political ethics
changed and was viewed in different was. Some people believed that the
powers of these divine kings were withdrawn bit by bit under the
pretence of indifferent rule system, and that the king’s powers were
eroded completely after the western Europeans granted the Yoruba people
independence by the politicians who took over the chair of leadership
The former role of Obas and chiefs were alternated and decline
loyalty of all sorts. The moral or ethical implication of this was
obvious and still felt in the present political rulers and Obas
relationship among the contemporary Yoruba society. Other observers saw
these changes not as obstructive or a complete distortion in the old
system but as a sort of political re-organization which still revered
the old system and placed the Obas in post which they, by tradition
ought to occupy.
After all, they said, Obas throughout the Yoruba land are still
recognized as the chief priest in all religious and ritual ceremonies.
1.8 RELIGIOUS CULTURE
The western missionaries did not bring the idea of God to
Yoruba people. They believed in the existence of one ‘’Great God’’ as an
integral member of the society as distinct from the western Christian
conception of God staying a loof in heaven, in the community of good
The Yoruba people believed in the existence and power of Deities
(spirit) headed by an omnipotent God. Where ever you find a Yoruba man,
there also is his religion. Although Yoruba religion is not written
down like the sacred’’ Bible’’ of the western Christians, yet all the
chapter of the Yoruba religions are written everywhere in the life of
the Yoruba people. Among the Yoruba, there are no irreligious people.
According to professor John Mbiti, for a Yoruba man to be without
religion or not to live a religious life amounts to a self-communication
from the entire life of the societ,’’5 and Yoruba people do not know
how to exist without religion.’ to the Yoruba’s, man’s character is of
supreme importance vand it is this which Oludumare (God) judges.6n,
Man’s well-being here on earth depends upon his character, so also his
place in the afterlife is determined by Oludumare. The ethics of the
Yoruba’s is a transcendental ethics. This is so because it is ultimately
but on an objective transcendental moral order. Order which is beyond
man and is not within his power to alter
Although, Yoruba religion is not written down like the sacred
‘’Bible’’, yet unlike the westerners, Yoruba peoples belief is that, it
is not enough to embrace a faith which is confined to church building
which is locked up six days and opened only once or twice a week.
Through education the western missionaries were able to
produce catechists, pastors, teachers, priests, church- wardens and
converts. As a result, Yoruba traditional religion was particularly
looked up with disfavour as the missionaries associated it with
‘’idol’’-worship and considered it as hindrance to Christian evangelism
and conversion without any consideration for moral values the people
attached to it.
This is according to some Yoruba people was the beginning of
moral laxity among the contemporary Yoruba’s. Yet others give western
religion a positive took, as the big hammer that destroyed immoral
practices like human sacrifices killing of twins, euthanasia,
cannibalism e.t.c which culminated Yoruba traditional religion and
ethics without or with little consideration for ethical relativism.
Furthermore, some see western religion as a tool used to
re-integrate the Yoruba youths, which fell prey to social
destabilization and eventually became socially designated as a result of
rural-urban flux. Finally, the universal moral attitude of western
religion has so much transcendental moral or ethical values over and
above the Yoruba tradition in such a way that it creates and maintains
social solidarity among the Yoruba’s.