Friday, June 6, 2008

Moral Thinking in Traditional African Society: A Reconstructive Interpretation

Pubished in Prajna Vihara: Journal of Philosphy and Religion (Assumption University, Thailand). Vol. 8, No. 1, January-June 2007


A debate concerning the nature of moral thinking in traditional societies has long dominated the scholarship of ethical thinkers and social anthropologists alike. Western scholars and intellectuals had justified colonialism as a “civilizing mission” meant to rescue African “savages” whose only mode of regulating conduct was through religion and magical sanctions. According to these scholars, in traditional cultures, there are no behavioural patterns, which can be properly referred to, as ‘moral’. The argument here is that behavioural patterns of the purely secular kind, which exist in more complex societies, were completely absent in traditional African societies, such that relationships between individuals in society only had a religious undertone. This paper critiques the foregoing arguments and sees them as dubious and intellectually askew. The paper provides intellectually convincing arguments to show that ethical thinking is universal to all societies – whether the so-called primitive ones or those said to be dominated by “rational, critical effort”. The paper also takes a swipe at African intellectual elites who by their type of scholarship have given vent to the biased ideas expressed by the ill-informed European social anthropologists. African scholars have remained limited in their understanding of the African social predicament. Their emphasis has been restricted, largely, to matters that border on governance and the crisis of political legitimacy in Africa, etc. Ethical issues have in the main, been neglected by African intellectual elites. Part of the concern of this paper is to call attention to this neglect with a view to correcting it.


What was the nature of moral thinking in the traditional African society before the Europeans arrived on the shores of the Black Continent in the 15th century? Was there anything resembling a moral order or an ethical system in traditional Africa similar to what existed in Europe, Asia or the Americas, at that period in the history of the world? Or was it the case, as Thomas Hobbes and other imperial scholars were wont to argue, that Africa had “no art, letters or social organization, but instead, only fear and violent death”?1 The German philosopher, Fredrich Hegel (1770-1831), was even more poignant than Hobbes in his devalorization of African culture. Like most European scholars of the colonial era, Hegel wrote in support of “a physiological lobotomy of the African Negro” (to use a phrase we have appropriated from Frantz Fanon) 2 by positing the following argument: Africa is an ahistoric continent even though it has a geographical location. The people live in a condition of mindlessness barbering without laws and morality. 3 Hegel and Hobbes were not alone in the vilification or denigration of the black race. Most European scholars, dating back to the period of slave trade, have had some slide thing or the other to say about the Negroid race. Renowned thinkers such as J. J. Rousseau, David Hume and Immanuel Kant all had uncomplimentary things to say about the black person. It is either the black man has a “subcritical” or “prelogical” mentality; or as Rudyard Kipling would argue, he is “half devil and half child,” and needs the anodyne of brutality or physical violence to make him truly human! 4 Even the great Karl Marx, the illimitable revolutionist and bitter enemy of bourgeois capitalism, when it came to the issue of European domination of non-European territories, knuckled under the racial weight. While acknowledging the monstrosity of European rule over colonized peoples, Marx was however tepid and tendentious in his assessment of the colonial situation. In his view, the brutality and violence meted out to subjugated people could be exculpated on the grounds that it made possible a “fundamental revolution in the social state” of such people.5 But the logic of this argument is obverted by the very fact that it is a non-sequitur. It is like saying that the white settlers in Zimbabwe and South Africa were justified in dispossessing the black majority of their farm lands because it helped expose the natives to modern methods of farming! Or that Hitler was right in eliminating millions of Jews because it helped liberate the Jews from the haughtiness of racial superiority or exclusivism! To argue that way is to be engaged in bad logic or mere intellectual shenaniganism.
Bigotry, hatred as well as racial prejudice are age-old problems that devalue our world and make light all human achievements. In particular, the peculiar problem known as negrophobia (i.e., the dislike for Negroes) has remained the black man’s burden all through the ages. And though it is now a clichéd issue to keep harping on the old argument that colonialism is responsible for the woes of the African continent, it is however a big surprise to discover that by some twist of logic, those same imperial scholars who provided the intellectual justification for colonial domination are usually the ones celebrated as intellectual gurus in African intellectual circles!
The issues adumbrated above have been of a general nature. However, the paper has a specific focus, which is to examine the claim by European anthropologists and colonial historians that Africa lacked an ethical (or, moral) system before its contact with Western civilization! The crucial issue in this discourse is to consider whether or not this claim is true; and whether there are historical or ethnological evidence to back up such a claim. We shall also consider whether this opinion put forward by the colonial historians is not in fact a harebrained assertion by some arm-chair scholars who lacked the basic knowledge of how traditional cultures operated. But before we get into the discussion proper, we need to make a few general remarks on the meaning of morality and some other related concepts.


Moral thinking is concerned with the issue of good conduct among those who make up the human community. It is also concerned with the creation of a humane social environment without which those who live in society would hardly realize their goals and aspirations in life. It is for this reason that people are constantly exhorted to lead morally emulous lives because, as the argument goes, it is in living virtuously that human beings can give meaning to their social life and existence. With particular reference to traditional African life, it was the opinion that a life of rectitude help build up society and guaranteed the individual a good place in the preternatural or chthonic world. The logic of the belief in the existence of an extra-terrestrial world notwithstanding, the important issue that bears relevance to the present discussion is that the human community can only function properly if it is built on a good moral foundation. But then, what exactly do we have in mind when we talk about morals? And in relation to African life, what was the nature of moral thinking among traditional Africans in the pre-European African world? These are some of the issues we shall address here. But first, we need to make the following explanation.

In philosophy, the terms ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ are often taken to be identical, and have as their cognate the word ‘morality’. Etymologically, ‘moral’ is derived from the Latin word mores, meaning that which concerns character, behaviour, or actions, considered or judged as being good or evil, right or wrong, etc. Broadly construed, however, morals refer to the models and standards of conduct people adhere to. As a concept, it reflects the actual behaviour of members of big or small social groups as well as what the members of these groups allow or prohibit themselves to do. Morals, says Kwasi Wiredu, “covers ethical rules proper as well as customs and taboos.”6 In other words, morals taken as a whole bear on the morality of a social community. It entails human principles of right and wrong, and deals with how people treat themselves in order to promote mutual welfare, progress, creativity and meaning in a striving for what is right over what is wrong, and what is good over what is bad.

In our day-to-day interactions as human beings, we expect people to conduct themselves in a morally good way. Similarly, we also expect a person to do that which is ethically propitious or good while avoiding that which is evil. When, for instance, we judge the actions and characters of people to be right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc., we have an idea of the best way we think they can live. While we may define moral behaviour as behaviour in accordance with the recommended patterns of a community, the morality of a community on the other hand consists of those ways of behaviour which each member of the community is taught, bidden and encouraged to adopt by other members.

Having made the foregoing remarks, in the discussion that follows in the paper, we shall dwell in particular, on the nature of moral or ethical thinking in the traditional African society, that is, the African society before Christianity, Islam or European colonization. But before proceeding in the discussion proper, it is important to clarify the sense in which we are employing the term “society” in this essay. In the present context, we are using the word, “society” as a collective noun to represent the different cultural groups that make up the African continent. In saying this, however, we are aware that certain differences may exist in cultural emphasis of the diverse groups that make up the African world. The other side of the argument is to state that there are certain elements of culture, known as cultural constants, or what John Bowker identifies as the “recurring elements in human behaviour,” which arise from the fact that human beings are all conceived and born in, broadly speaking, the same way.7 It is these cultural constants or elements that establish the universal brotherhood and kinship among all races. However, if as the argument goes, human beings are the same or similar in certain respects, from whence came the problem of racial hate and prejudice among people? The answer to the question is simply, bigotry and blind ignorance!

What is shown by the above is that the theory of cultural autarky among the different African groups is neither supported by experience nor historical evidence. This is perhaps what J. A. Omoyajowo tries to explain when he says that, “man everywhere is man;” and that the tribal societies that flourished in primeval times were “relatively undifferentiated and homogenous” in outlook.8 If this statement is accepted as a truism, it therefore follows that we can confidently make some generalization about the nature of African culture and belief system. Hence, in our discussion of moral thinking in the primeval African world, we shall feel free to adopt any given African culture of our choice to fecundate and to represent how in traditional Africa as a whole, the people grappled with moral matters. Our choice of a cultural guide in this regard will be the Igbo culture. But this choice is not informed by a supposed superiority of Igbo culture over other African cultures but for mere convenience, and because the author is familiar with the Igbo culture itself and the language with which it is conveyed. Put differently, traditional Igbo ethical thinking will merely as an example or gauge for traditional African cultures a whole.


Africa is distinguished by its close-knit society. Traditions, customs and rules for regulating conduct and interpersonal relationships are varied and diverse. As with other societies of the world, in Africa, the rules are not always obeyed nor expectations all the time fulfilled. As a result, some sanctions are usually put in place to prevent social disorder and anarchy. In every African community, an elaborate system of guides and sanctions exist. These range from legal sanctions, social customs to moral rules. It is often said that moral and ethical considerations in traditional African societies are communitarian in nature, meaning that it is in submitting his or herself to the will of the community that the individual finds social security and peace. J.O. Awolalu argues, for example, that the basic moral values of which the elders are the guardians have to be maintained. According to Awolalu, it is the responsibility of the elders to see that all the social norms and ethics relating to the well-being of the community are maintained. The argument here is that the elders “are aware that they owe their positions to the author of these moral values and to the ancestors who are ever present and ever watching to see that a high moral standard is maintained.” 9 Based on this idea of communitarianism, some scholars have argued that African traditional value systems lacked, in several respects, the characteristic feature of a true moral system. According to these scholars, moral institutions in pre-literate societies were mere devices through which men sought to establish a flourishing society. They were at best studied in functional terms, with the individual’s moral behaviour adjusted to meet society’s need and expectations. Among early anthropologists the view was commonly held that in traditional cultures there were no such behavioural patterns which can be properly referred to as ‘moral’. The claim here is that behavioural patterns of the purely secular kind which exist in more complex societies are completely absent from traditional societies, such that the relationship between individuals and, the individual and all forms of social interactions were seen in religious perspectives only. To justify the foregoing assertions two types of arguments are usually proffered. The first is the claim that a truly moral system must be universalizable, and since African traditional codes of conduct discriminate between insiders and outsiders, they are said to have restricted applicability. The second argument claims that a truly moral system is typically characterized by critical reflections, with reason as a crucial tool for differentiating between right and wrong. Traditional African value systems, it is argued, are not only dogmatic but have as their sources of reference authority of one kind or another.10

A number of early social anthropologists and social scientists had also argued that life in traditional African societies was full of a superabundance of the emotional as against the rational. The worldview of such societies, we are told, “is dominated by images which have their origins almost solely in man’s uncharted sensations and are coloured more by mystical awe than by the confidence of reason.”11 Long ago, Lucien Levy-Bruhl held that the ‘primitives’ or the so-called savages had a prelogical mentality, that their mind is incapable of rational, critical effort. Levy-Bruhl compares the Western and the so-called savage mind and argues that the latter is:
not constrained above all else, as ours is, to avoid contradictions. The same logical exigencies are not in its case always present. What to our eyes is impossible or absurd, it sometimes will admit without seeing any difficulty.12

Many Western scholars and social anthropologists are wont to argue that moral conduct in traditional African societies is bound by the sanctions of dogma, religion and authority. One such scholar, E.W. Smith depicts African morality as ‘taboo morality’. The African, he argues, is taught to revere custom and resent change. Smith lists three types of sanctions, which according to him, explain African customs and behavioural patterns. These include religious, traditional and magical sanctions. The magical sanction, Smith says, is the oldest and strongest of the three, and exercises the greatest influence on African behavioural patterns.13

The opinions above need reviewing, as there may not be scientific evidence to support them. With particular reference to Levy-Bruhl, we need not bother refuting what he has to say since his were the views of an armchair scholar which lacked any scientific or empirical support. With Smith, however, we have to concede that in Africa, customs are highly revered and even cherished. But this is also true of every human society anywhere in the world- be it Europe, America or Asia. In other words, it is not only in Africa that culture is hallowed or cherished. What is true about Africa in this regard is also true of every other society in the world. But the other opinion which has it that Africans resent change is the one that is rather bizarre and awry. The truth of the matter is that Africans, more than any other group or race, have proved to be highly receptive to change and new ideas. A few examples would help to lend weight to what we have said here. Africans have not only accepted Christianity and Islam which are foreign religions but even to the point of killing one another in a bid to win adherents to their faiths. Nigeria is a good example where religious violence and mayhem is a normal and common occurrence! And almost all the religious wars fought in the country are between devotees to Islam and Christianity. Africans have embraced Western education, democracy, and technology; they have even adopted foreign modes of dressing and mannerisms. These can hardly be said to be the characteristics of a people who are so enamored with their custom that they resent change.

By ‘traditional sanctions’ what the writers have in mind is that when questioned regarding why he acts the way he does the African would reply that his parents acted that way and bade him to act likewise. M.J. McVeigh avers, for example, that “by the mere fact that they are passed on from generation to generation, customs tend to be hallowed by time. They may have at one time rested on religious sanctions, but these have been lost or forgotten; so that today the only answer given to the question is that this is the way it has always been.”14 The argument that African value codes have a restricted applicability needs some qualifications. All moral thinkers agree that moral codes or what are commonly known as the fundamental principles of the moral law admit of exceptions. We could take as an example, the moral principle, “Thou shall not kill.” Ordinarily, the killing of a human being is prohibited (under normal circumstances); but since circumstances are not always normal, situations may arise where the killing of a human being becomes morally justified. This could be in a situation of self-defense (when the only way to save one’s life from an unjust aggressor is to kill him), in a situation of war, or as an act of capital punishment, etc. These are all cases of restrictability in the application of the moral principle which prohibits the killing of a human being. However, they are not peculiar to Africa but to all human societies as a whole.

Admittedly though, a kind of discrimination exists between the way an insider is treated and the way an outsider is treated in the so-called traditional societies. But this fact (if it is a fact) is not peculiar to African societies but is universal to all human cultures and societies. For example, the European colonial authorities discriminated between their fellow Europeans and the citizens of the subjugated territories. In the same way, the fugitive occupationists in Australia and New England (now America) discriminated between those of their own stock and the original owners of these territories. Therefore, the argument that African value systems lack the characteristic feature of a true moral system simply because they are said to discriminate between insiders and outsiders is non sequitur. Besides, the argument is untoward and lacks merit. The truth of the matter is that morality is a universal feature of all human societies; and to be moral presupposes rationality. By simple or elementary logic or parity of reasoning, since Africans are rational beings, it follows as a matter of logic, that their traditional value systems had a moral status. To allude to a point we have made already, morality entails human principles of right and wrong. It deals with how humans treat themselves in order to promote mutual welfare and self-fulfillment in society. Keith Davis captures this point in a picturesque manner when he argues to the effect that morality: is reflected in the conscience of humankind confirmed by the experience of people in all ages. It has to do with the consequences of our acts to ourselves and to others. It recognizes that life has an overall purpose and accepts the inner integrity of each individual.15


The Igbo form one of the three major ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. The other two are the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani. The Igbo had many of its able-bodied youths exported to Europe and the Americas through the Trans Saharan trade in slaves. Through British colonialism, the people also had an early contact with Christianity and Western education. However, our reference to Igbo past here is merely incidental and perfunctory, as this is not meant to be a treatise on Igbo history or colonial experience. The Igbo experience with colonialism is well documented in the literature that it needs no repeating in the present essay. Our choice of the Igbo culture here is, as we said earlier, to serve as an example or metaphor for our discussion on the nature of moral thinking in the traditional African society.

A debate concerning the nature of moral thinking in traditional societies has long dominated the scholarship of ethical thinkers and social anthropologists alike. And as we have indicated above, there are moral thinkers who deny that traditional societies had value systems that could truly be characterized as ‘moral’. But as we have also pointed out already, this type of argument is vitiated by the fact that morality is a universal feature of all human societies. Besides, the argument itself cannot be sustained by evidence or by any rational proof.
Among the traditional Igbo, for example, the level of moral thinking was very high. The Igbo language contains a variety of words to express approval and disapproval, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and so on. All embody moral connotations. Take, for instance, the words, ‘aru’ (pollution) and ‘nma’ (good); to commit ‘aru’ (ime aru, in the Igbo language) is to do that which is evil while to do ‘nma’( ime nma, also in Igbo) is to conduct oneself in a morally worthy manner. A person is described as ‘onye aru-rala’, literally ‘one who pollutes or abominates the land’, if his or her ethical conduct is contrary to ethically approved behaviour. ‘Ajo mmadu’ is a phrase used to describe a bad man (or woman), where the ‘ajo’ means bad, i.e., the opposite of good. Furthermore, when a thing or an act is spoken of in terms of ‘iru-ala’ (desecration of the land), ‘ime-aru’ or ‘ime nso-ala’ (doing that which is abominable or acting in pollution of the earth), all these are seen as morally bad actions. Among the Igbo, ‘ala’ (that is, the land or earth) is believed to possess some form of divine sanctity or sacrality such that one can either please or offend the preternatural forces that indwell it. The close link the Igbo have to their land is largely due to the belief that it is the abode of the departed ancestors. Similarly, the fertility of the soil, the progress of human life as well as the health of the animals is only assured as long as the earth is not desecrated and the ancestors are duly honoured.

The Igbo word ‘nma’, as we have said earlier, conveys the idea of goodness or the idea of acting in an ethically appropriate way. In all things, the Igbo expect that individuals will act and conducting themselves in morally good ways while avoiding that which is evil and obnoxious. In this way, social harmony is ensured. The good life for the Igbo is known as ‘ezi-ndu’ (i.e., the virtuous life), the life of rectitude and approbation. But the question may be asked, what is it that makes some actions good and others bad? Put differently, what is the standard of judgment among the traditional Igbo? C.C. Okorocha answers that traditional Igbo moral code is based on the concept of ‘omenala’ or social custom. ‘Omenala’ derives from three Igbo words, namely, ‘ome’ (that which obtains); ‘na’ (in); ‘ala’ (land or society). In the words of Okorocha, “the moral code of Iboland commonly spoken of as ‘omenala’ defines the various aspects of behaviour and social activities that are approved while at the same time indicating those aspects that are prohibited.”16

Generally, in Africa, the norm of right or wrong is said to be social custom. As with most other societies of the world, in Africa, the good is usually that which receives the community’s approval while the bad is that which the community prohibits or frowns at. While the good actions build up society, the bad ones tear it down. One is social, the other anti-social. With the Igbo in particular, ‘omenala’ or social custom is the means by which society enforces conformity to its rules. ‘Omenala’ then, is the means by which “the social ethos is measured, and the values of the society... controlled from one generation to another and the processes of socialization through which the education of the young ones are facilitated.”17

Traditional Igbo morality, like those of other African societies, was communalistic in nature. In communalistic societies, virtue and goodness are often seen as a means of realizing the social harmony of the group. They function to promote order, peace and a camaraderie feeling among the individuals who make up society. It for the reason of this type of opinion that some writers claim that group-related morality detracts from the ‘essential’ nature of morality. Group-related morality, we are told, removes from the moral life the joy of its inner motivation which, it is argued, results from choice, personal decision and responsibility. This is the type of argument, which Paul Roubiczek makes in his book, Ethical Values in the Age of Science. In the book, Roubiczek argues that “to subordinate the good to another purpose, such as usefulness for society, falsifies its nature and thus falsifies morality.”18

However, there is no good reason to suppose that Roubiczek’s opinion is necessarily correct. For as Gerhart Piers and M.B. Singer have suggested, there is no scientifically demonstrable reason why in group-related morality, “heavily influenced by the community’s rigorous enforcement mechanism including shame and taunting improvised songs, members of such group could not develop inner remorse or guilt.”19 Some elements in traditional Igbo cultural practice could be a helpful illustration in this regard. They will also help lend support to opinion expressed above by Piers and Singer. It was (and still is) the practice among the Igbo that when a man and a woman were caught in any uncomely relationship like adultery, they were made to go round the village half naked, with children singing taunting songs on their heels. If any member of the community committed a heinous crime or sacrilege, he was made to suffer public shame or dishonour. Such taunting songs, like the ones by the children, apart from bringing the offenders to public opprobrium, were also meant to deter others from committing the same type of offence in the future. Such immoral acts as adultery and incest were described as ‘nso ala’ (i.e., pollutions against ‘Ala’, the earth goddess). ‘Ala’, the goddess of the land and custodian of Igbo morality, imposed numerous laws and taboos which were meant to guide conduct between the individual and his neighbours, the individual and the forces of nature and, the individual and ‘Ala’ itself. In the words of A.E. Afigbo:

the transgression of any of these rules known as ‘omenala’ (conduct sanctioned by ‘Ala’) was promptly punished. In this way ‘omenala’ came to mean the highest law. It was distinguished from, and superior to ‘iwu’ which is any enactment made by man, the transgression of which would not involve offence to ‘Ala’ and the ancestors, and did not imply moral lapse. ‘Ala’ was the guardian of Igbo morality.20

In concluding the discussion in this paper, what remains to be said is that contrary to the trite opinion that traditional Africa lacked a moral system, Africans are social beings like other peoples of the world; and as social beings, Africans are not only rational but are also imbued with a sense of rectitude and propriety. To backtrack on a point made earlier in the paper, morality is basically concerned with society and with the relations between men and their fellow men. It is also concerned with general rules governing relations between men and the rules of society they ought to adopt. And as Thomas Hobbes himself would later argue, “the province of morality is limited to those qualities of mankind that concern their living in peace and unity.”21 In other words, no society can subsist or continue to flourish without a solid ethical or moral foundation. Societies that encourage good ethical conduct are the ones that have the capacity to survive whereas the ones that encourage moral laxity or rapaciousness are likely to founder or kaput like was the case with ancient Sparta.

As we bring this discussion to a culmination, there are two final remarks that should be made, and which bear a close relevance to what we have said in the paper already. One is that good moral conduct redounds or conduces to the good of society as a whole. The other is that among Africans in particular, apart from the healthy social role which morality promotes, the pursuance of moral rectitude is also seen as a precondition for attaining a beneficent place in the ancestral mode of being. Generally, Africans regard the ancestors as organic members of the community of the living and as links between the living and the preternatural forces that inhabit the unseen world. The ancestors wield tremendous power over the living. Among the Igbo, for example, they are seen as the custodians of the social norms of the community, through whom “the moral code is passed on to the living members of their lineage.”22

Perhaps this explains why Africans set much store by on people living virtuously in the society. Similarly, Africans believe in the transiliency of the human existent from the mundane to the divine essence. And sure enough, the belief in an after life of some sort, and the hope of attaining to the enviable status of a departed ancestor could be for people an incentive to live morally worthy lives in the community. The important thing here is not the logic of the belief in an afterlife or of the existence of ancestral beings that inhabit the after world but the fact that such beliefs served as an aid for traditional Africans to live morally worthy lives in the human community.


1. Noxious or denigrating ideas such as the one here were employed by imperial scholars to justify and support colonial rule or the subjugation of foreign territories by European colonizers. For example, Thomas Hobbes, the famous English philosopher of the 17th century, described Africa as “a timeless place,” where the people lived in primitive barbarism and the fear of violent death. For more on this, see S. B. Oluwole’s paper titled “African Philosophy in Yoruba Language,” excerpted in New African(London), October 2006, No. 455, pp. 10- 11.
2. Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture,” in E. C. Eze (ed.), African Philosophy: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1998), p. 305.
3. I am indebted to Professor S. B. Oluwole for this quotation from Hegel. For more on how the colonial scholars depicted the African world during the colonial era, see S. B. Oluwole, op. cit., p. 10.
4. T. S Eliot, A Choice of Kipling’s Verse (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), p.143.
5. Karl Marx, “British Rule in India,” in Karl Marx and F. Engels, On Colonialism (New York: International Publishers, 1972), p. 41.
6. Kwasi Wiredu, “Death and the Afterlife in African Culture,” in Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, I, Cultural and Contemporary Change, Series II, vol. 1, 1992, p. 143.
7. John Bowker, The Meaning of Death (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 18.
8. J. A. Omoyajowo, “The Concept of Man in Africa,” in Orita: Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, vol. IX/1(June 1975), p. 37. 69.
9. J.O. Awolalu, “The African Traditional View of Man,” in Orita: Ibadan Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 1/2, December 1972, p. 133.
10. For a criticism of this type of argument, see G.S. Sogolo, Foundations of African Philosophy (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1993), pp. 120-125.
1[1]. See I. Okpewho, “Myth and Rationality,” in Ibadan Journal of Humanistic Studies, no. 1, April 1984, p. 28.
12. L. Levy-Bruhl (1931), La Mentalite Primitive. Quoted by S. Lukes, in Rationality, edited by B.R. Wilson (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970).
13. This classificatory scheme done by Smith is not supported by history or ethnographical evidence. Besides, the classification is misleading and unscientific. There is nothing to suggest that African behavioural patterns are simply classifiable into the traditional, the religious or even the magical mode as Smith suggests. Smith and other writers like him downplay the fact that in traditional Africa there were also behavioural patterns of the ethical or moral type.
14. M.J. McVeigh, God in Africa (Massachusetts: Claude Stark Inc., 1974), p. 85.
15. Keith Davis, Human Behaviour at Work (New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill Publishing Co., Ltd., 1982), p. 13.
16. Cf., C.C. Okorocha, The Meaning of Religious Conversion in Africa (Brookfield, U.S.A.: Avebury, 1987), pp. 101-102 and, E. Ilogu, Christianity and Ibo Culture (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1974), p. 124.
17. Ibid.
18. Paul Roubiczek, Ethical Values in the Age of Science (Cambridge: The University Press, 1969), p. 57.
19. G. Piers and M.B. Singer, Shame and Guilt: A Psycho-analytic and Cultural Study (New York: W.H. Norton and Co., 1971), p. 99.
20. A.E. Afigbo, “Prolegomena to the Study of the Cultural History of Igbo-speaking Peoples of Nigeria,” in F.C. Ogbalu and E.N. Emenanjo (ed.), Igbo Language and Culture (Ibadan: O.U.P., 1975), pp. 42-43.
21. For this quotation by Thomas Hobbes, see G.H. Sabine, A History of Political Philosophy (London: Union Books, 1969), p. 428.
22. J. C. U. Aguwa, “Patterns of Religious Influence in Igbo Traditional Politics,” in U. D. Anyanwu and J. C. U. Aguwa(ed.), The Igbo and the Tradition of Politics (Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishing Co. Ltd., 1993), p. 92.



The discussions in this paper revolve around the following question: “If you were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the town’s medical officer (i. e., a civil servant), what would you do and, why?” A proper response to the question would require an analysis of the key issues in Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People. It will also require a consideration of the factors that could warrant a public officer to go outside of his or her organizational structure to make public a perceived wrong doing in the organization- which is exactly what Dr. Stockmann did. The easy response to the question would be to say that if I were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the chief medical officer of the town, I will adhere to protocol by first reporting my findings to the authorities before contemplating the public option. In other words, it is only when the problem is not resolved internally that I will consider the possibility of alerting the public. But as straight forward as this answer may sound, it however, does not address the core issues in the case. This type of response to the question is merely a pat answer to an important question regarding how a public official should act when confronted with a moral or ethical dilemma of an official nature. But this apart, there is the other issue of providing justification why one would act differently from the way Dr. Stockmann acted. These are the issues this paper sets out to address; the paper seeks, among other things, to adduce reasons why we think Dr. Stockmann’s action was procedurally wrong and why we would have adopted a different approach in dealing with the dilemma that presents itself in the conduct of our official duties. But before we get into the discussion proper, it will be necessary to first undertake a critical analysis of the play itself with a view to clarifying the actions of Dr. Stockmann, the chief protagonist in the play. In doing this, we hope to show whether or not Dr. Stockmann acted in an ethically reasonable way by revealing to the press and the general public his discovery concerning the pollution of the Baths.

Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, is set in a small coastal town, South of Norway. Dr. Stockmann, the tragic hero and chief protagonist of the play, has just returned home after many years of practicing medicine outside of his home town. Through the influence of his brother, he got appointed as the chief medical officer of the Baths, an idea which originated from him but which his brother (the Mayor of the town acted upon and brought to fruition). The Baths turns out to be the resource centre for the town, that is, the mainstay of the town’s economy, and major source of income. Dr. Stockmann is happy with his job and his service to his people whom he loves with great passion and zeal. Through his knowledge of science, Dr. Stockmann carries out an independent investigation on the health situation of the waters of the Baths. He had taken water samples and had the sample analyzed in a laboratory, only to discover that the Baths had been contaminated by bacteria and germs. It is important to mention here that this investigation was carried out neither with the knowledge of the Mayor who is also Chairman of the Governing Body of the Baths nor other members of the committee. In other words, the medical officer acted outside of official or legal backing. The question would be to ask if the medical officer, as a civil servant, acted in a procedurally appropriate way by conducting the test without authorization. The answer to this question will undoubtedly be divisive. Some are likely to argue that this was an inappropriate way to act; others might argue on the other hand that as the chief medical officer of the town it lied within his fort to do what he did. But we need not dwell much on this issue for now. We shall come back to it later on in the discussion. But perhaps, the real crucial issue is with the way Dr. Stockmann handled the result of the investigation he conducted. The result of the analysis showed, according to Dr. Stockmann, that the Baths was contaminated; that the waters were infected with germs and bacteria. As a civil servant, how should Dr. Stockmann handle this piece of crucial or information at his disposal? Should he first tell the authorities and Committee in charge of the Baths? Or should he alert the public to warn them of the health danger they were exposed to? These are the two crucial questions that underlie the play.

Dr. Stockmann chooses the second option above second option; that is, he elects to make known to the public and the media, the result of findings before discussing it with the authorities and Management of the Baths Committee! This then is the crucial issue for our discussion. Dr. Stockmann’s not obtaining official permission for his investigation might be pardoned if he handled the result in an ethically balanced way. By not carrying his superior officers along in his actions, and by breaking the official protocol for handling organizational problems, seem to have erred on the wrong side of the law. And by parity of reasoning too, he seem to have set himself in an unnecessary head on collision with officialdom by taking organizational matters into the public domain without having exhausted the internal mechanism of dispute resolution. Dr. Stockmann’s action will surely generate a plethora of questions. Was he naïve in doing what he did, or was he motivated by ambition and a vindictive attitude in alerting the public about his findings before making a formal report to the Baths committee? In administrative ethics what Dr. Stockmann did is what is known as “whistle blowing.” Before we go further in the discussion, it is important to ask what the proper procedural channels are for public servants to resolve organizational conflicts before contemplating the whistle blowing option. Before seeking answers to these questions, it will be appropriate to make a few general remarks about the idea of “whistle blowing.”

Whistle blowing refers to the act of reporting wrong doing in the organization. James Svara makes a distinction between the internal mechanism of dealing with a perceived wrongdoing on the part of a public official(s) and sounding an alarm publicly. According to him, “when a staff member becomes aware of a problem within a public organization, the active responses are to raise the matter internally or to alert someone outside the organization” (2007:115). Technically speaking, the former method is merely the method of internal complaint; only the latter is the act of whistle blowing proper. To blow the whistle is the same thing as making disclosures or “going public” with a complaint about perceived wrongdoings in the organization. According to Burke (1994), such disclosures aim at revealing “malfeasance in office and thwart unethical and illegal activities that detract from the pursuit of proper public purpose.” The crucial in this distinction is that the official who is taking the action to report on a wrong doing has the choice of either adopting the internal procedure for dealing with organizational problems or following the “deviant” route of going public. We are not using the word “deviant” in a pejorative sense; rather, bearing in mind the type of complications involved in the issue of externalizing organizational misdemeanors, and following Svara (2007: 115), the act of whistle blowing refers to “the classic act of deviance for an administrator.”

Dr. Stockmann’s action, which we have described above, can yield to various types of interpretation. In one breath, his action portrays him as a naïve idealist who is at once impetuous and flippant. In another breath, he comes across as an enthusiastic fellow who loves his town and his fellow humans with a never-dying love. His love for his people motivates him to serve and warn them of the danger posed by the waters of the Baths. But the problem is that he was not circumspect enough in the way he went about his perceived duty to his native land. He had a too high opinion of the ordinary people- the hoi polloi - to use the language of politics. He assured himself that he had the backing of the so-called “compact majority,” as Aslaksen, the chairman of the Householder’s Association calls the ordinary people in the community. But as he was to discover later, the common people, or the majority are often ignorant and can be easily manipulated by cunning and self-serving politicians. The people, like a wild mob, are often guided by their whimsies rather than reason or any informed idea about reality or truth. Dr. Stockmann discovered these truths a little too late! There is also a revolutionary fervor in Dr. Stockmann’s actions as he also aimed at reforming the community by seeking to mobilize the people against the perceived corrupt leaders of the community.

But whichever way we choose to view Dr. Stockmann’s actions, there are some important elements, which according to Stone (2005), are crucial to an understanding of not only his actions but of the key issues in the play, An Enemy of the People. These elements can be captured under the following broad headings: (i) Truth versus loyalty and obedience to authority, (ii) Individualism versus conformity, and (iii) the morality of whistle blowing. A fourth element which is equally significant is the idea of “public interest.” These four elements are crucial to our understanding of this political/ethical play under purview in this paper. Hence, in adopting them, we shall use them as a foil in giving perspective to the discussion that follows in the paper. Our analysis should yield an answer or justification for the choice we make in the paper as well. Our choice can be summarized in the following ways: one is that if we were in Dr. Stockmann’s position as the town’s medical officer, we would seek official permission to carry out the type of investigation which he did on the waters of the Baths, and second is that we will first discuss with the legal political authorities in charge of the Baths before considering other measures that present themselves for our consideration. In other words, we will exhaust the internal mechanisms for resolving conflicts in the organization before contemplating external routes to conflict management.

i. Truth versus Loyalty and Obedience to Authority

As we have mentioned already, Dr. Stockmann’s knowledge of science helped him to discover that the Baths had been contaminated. He was then faced with the problem of the next course of action to take. Here is a good example of a civil servant being confronted with an ethical problem requiring solution. What is the appropriate thing to do if we are confronted with a problem such as this? Is having knowledge of the “truth” about a moral situation sufficient on its own? Can the “truth” alone by itself set free in this regard? To begin with, was it right for the medical officer to have carried out the investigation without authorization? And when he eventually made the discovery that the Baths was poisoned through bacterial infection, should he not have first reported the matter to the authorities before ever thinking of telling the public? Svara (2007: 105-108), lists some methods that can help guide or improve the quality of ethical problem solving or decision making. Svara tells us that ethical problem solving requires action and analysis. The rational approach model he proposes is divided into three major stages as follows: description, analysis, and decision. What these approaches simply suggest is that we must not only identify the facts of the situation at hand, we must also examine the situation from different perspectives in order to identify the different options open to us, our obligations and responsibilities to ourselves, to our superiors as well as our position and professional role. “The final stage in the model is to make an informed ethical choice and to be able to explain and justify it” (Svara, 2007: 109).

The importance of analysis in ethical decision making cannot be overemphasized. But this alone is not sufficient to resolve ethical dilemmas or problems; rather, analysis must be accompanied by other crucial elements if we are to act appropriately and arrive at reasoned outcome. For Rest et al. (1999: 100-101), there are four psychological components or processes which affect ethical decision making and behaviour. These are: (i) moral sensitivity, (ii) moral judgment, (iii) moral motivation, and (iv) moral character. The first component has to do with being aware of the existence of an ethical problem as well as being sensitive to the consequences that different courses of action could have on all persons involved in the situation; the second involves weighing standards of behaviour as well as choosing the appropriate moral options. The third component reflects the inclination to choose the ethically appropriate alternative while the last component which deals with character and virtue is needed to convert judgment into action in the face of pressure and opposition. Svara (2007: 105) summarizes these ideals graphically this way: “to act ethically, one must be aware of an ethical problem, judge which course of action is most appropriate, be inclined to accept this alternative, and be able to act on the choice and stick with it.” To summarize what we have just described above, in seeking to deal with a problem or dilemma, we need to consider the consequences of our action on ourselves, our colleagues and the organization as a whole. The tendency to act on impulse or on the spur of the moment is always there. But acting rashly may result in loss to us and negative outcome to our organization. As a civil servant and chief medical officer of my town, I would first have counted the cost of my action before thinking of going public- if at all I will go public!
Svara lists some major responsibilities of administrators (whether those in government or nonprofit organization) - responsibilities he says are foundational to identifying the nature of duty of administrators. These responsibilities are relevant to the present discussion. These include their responsibility to (1) serve individuals, (2) be accountable to ‘people’ and promote the public interest, (3) serve their organization, and (4) their political superiors as well as to uphold the law and established policy (Svara, 2007: 4). Dr. Stockmann seems to have been concerned only with that part of the responsibility that requires duty to the people. We shall return to this issue later on when we discuss the idea of public interest. Suffice it to say that Dr. Stockmann allowed emotion rather than “practical considerations, and consequences for self and other stakeholders” in the Baths committee to guide his action (Walker et al., 1995: 403). Applying the rational approach to decision making, or the methodologies that Svara and others scholars have suggested above, is a sure check to the impulse (“gut reaction,” as Svara calls it) to act precipitously (Svara, 2007: 107). A person like Dr. Stockmann may not have been trained to recognize such approaches discussed above. And herein lies the value of ethical training that the scholars emphasize in the literature. Competence in our narrow disciplines or professions does not always translate to competence about administrative requirements or knowledge on how to act with regards to ethical decision making. Perhaps this explains why organizations (both public and private), often organize what is called “refresher courses” for their staff members. Whether or not such courses achieve their set goals is a different matter entirely. But the idea is that civil servants or staff members need an updating of their knowledge on how modern organizations operate or are run. Perhaps such a training or course would have been helpful to someone like Dr. Stockmann who it appears had no formal training on the demands of public office! Without doubt, Dr. Stockmann comes across as a man who is sincere at heart. But he was naïve in placing too much trust in the media and in the common people of the town. He failed in heeding or realizing a truth that is as old as the world itself, which is that the common people- the masses as they are sometimes called- are often credulous, ignorant and given to change. Not only that, they are also subject to all kinds of foibles and can be easily manipulated by wily and crafty political demagogues. The doctor was to discover this truth a little too late when the same people - the “compact majority”- as he called them, declared him a public enemy! Human history has shown that the majority is not always right. On the contrary, the majority people, that is, the masses, can sometimes be gullible, ignorant and easily deceived. One would expect a man of Dr. Stockmann’s intellectual standing to have known this crucial truth! This point to a fundamental weakness often observed in many intellectuals: they are so often too ensconced in the narrowness of their small fields or professions that are oblivious about the fact of Real Politick.

A counterpoise to the above argument is Dr. Stockmann’s failure to recognize or yield to legally constituted authority. Quinlan (1993: 538) reminds us that the ethic of civil servants requires that they “operate in loyalty to and under any instructions of ministers” under whom they serve. The idea here is that whatever detracts from this type of absolute submission by civil servants to constituted authority has the potential to damage the proper ability the public servant has to give service within the accepted system in which he or she operates. Svara makes the same point when he states that public administrators are no “sole practitioners” who set up or have charge of their own practice. Rather, they are people who operate within what he calls “an authority structure.” In other words, public (or civil) servants are not only to work with others to advance institutional goals but also have a responsibility “to make the organization as strong, effective, and ethical as possible” (Svara, 2007: 5). In sum, what these ideas express is the claim that a civil servant is expected to be loyal to constituted authority and to obey the rules governing the civil service structure. Agreed that there is merit in what Applbaum (1993: 555) says, that “the legitimacy of a rule does not, by itself, create a moral obligation to comply with it;” agreed also that the public servant need not sacrifice the totality of his or her freedom to the organization, the fact still remains that there are procedural ways to approach issues of conflict in any organization. Peter Stockmann makes this point when he insists that as the Chairman of the governing body of the Baths he should have been duly informed on issues concerning the state of the Baths. At the beginning of the altercation he had with his brother, he demurs in the following way: “I am entitled to request most emphatically that all arrangements shall be made in businesslike manner, through the proper channels, and shall be dealt with by the legally constituted authorities. I can allow no going behind by any roundabout means.” What the Mayor is saying in effect here is that it was procedurally wrong for the medical officer to have carried out his investigation behind his (the Mayor’s) back and without official authorization. The following conversation between the two brothers will help clarify the issue a little more clearly:

Dr. Stockmann. Have I ever at any time tried to go behind your backs?

Peter Stockmann. You have an ingrained tendency to take your own way, at all events; and, that is almost equally inadmissible in a well ordered community. The individual ought undoubtedly to acquiesce in subordinating himself to the community—or, to speak more accurately, to the authorities who have the care of the community’s welfare.

The argument in the quotation above is very important: it emphasizes the crucial issue of loyalty of public servants to their superior officers and to legally constituted authority. Obedience to the legally constituted authority is a highly cherished value not only in the civil service but in any organization that it based on a hierarchical structural order of ranking- what V. A. Thompson calls “status rank.” This refers to organizations where highly positioned individuals are not only respected but “acquire personal power… that arise from status rank” (Thompson, 1975: 12). Notwithstanding what the truth of his findings is, by not recognizing the role of authority, Dr. Stockmann broke a fundamental civil service ethic. If I were in his position as a civil servant, I would elect to act within the framework of the law. In our thinking, to act within the bounds of the law, is to act ethically.

ii. Individualism versus conformity

Another issue which is important to the present discussion is that of the role of the individual in an organization, a bureaucracy, or even a community. To what extent can a civil servant maintain individual autonomy or shed the toga of subservience that is characteristic of civil service work? In the opinion of Miles (1970: 620), the era when the civil servant “meekly” submitted to the will of his superior is gone. According to this argument, a career civil servant who finds himself in a conflict situation with his superiors does not meekly submit, but “argues as effectively as he knows for his conviction.” Though the civil servant may lose out in the argument, it is however, in Miles’ words, “an absolute obligation on his part to present his point of view with clarity and vigor” (Miles, 1970). Dobel (1999) also makes the same point when he argues that administrators may “defer to, but not surrender to, authority.” What the foregoing arguments imply is need for administrators to be morally responsible for their actions. However, a mere cursory reading of these arguments may tempt us to want to justify acts of non-conformity to constituted authority by public officials or civil servants. Without doubt, conditions may arise that may make it ineluctable for a civil servant to refuse to acquiesce or conform to institutional order or authority. A civil servant may refuse to submit to the demands of authority on the ground of conscience if told to lie or to cover up a wrong doing in the organization. The administrator may also be tempted to act independently of authority by seeking to promote the “public interest.” Dr. Stockmann believed he was acting for “the good of the community” in revealing the report about the state of the Baths to the public. In his remark to Hovstad, the editor of the People’s Messenger and some other fellows, he enthused, saying: “it is a splendid thing for a man to be able to feel that he has done a service to his native town and to his fellow-citizens” (see Ibsen, 2000). But to the Mayor, the doctor was only being rash and impetuous. The Mayor interpreted his brother’s refusal to submit to constituted authority as an action motivated by restlessness, pugnacity and a “rebellious disposition.” While it is true that the civil servant does not in the name of duty lose all his freedom and moral autonomy, Miles, however, adds an important caveat to the idea of the public servants freedom that complicates the whole matter. He tells us that the civil servant can argue out his case with his superiors in some situations, but if, and when he is overruled, he must of necessity carry out “his superior’s instructions to the full extent of his ability” (Miles, 1970)! In other words, the idea of a non-subservient civil servant, while a lofty ideal, is in practice, very difficult to realize.

Michael Quinlan makes the same argument as the above when he says that the civil servant may have various types of duties in his or her capacity as a professional, such as “duties of care about facts and proper process, duties of balance in argument, duties of frankness in advice… and warning” etc. However, if on a particular issue of policy the government (or, organization, as the case may be) has “a settled view,” the civil servant, Quinlan (1993: 541-542) avers, has no choice but to acquiesce. He also argues further that:

It would be theoretically unsound and practically dangerous… for civil servants to suppose, or for critics or commentators to encourage them to suppose, that they had some duty or entitlement of private unelected judgment of the public’s desires or interests over or around the views of the government’s duly elected leaders (Quinlan, 1993:542).

There are those will regard the fore going opinion as too restrictive or even too constrictive of personal freedom. Others will argue that an ideal of service that denies the idea of human volition is dictatorial and undemocratic in nature, and therefore, ought to be rejected. For example, in his response to Quinlan’s idea here, Applbaum argues that some form of “civil disobedience” is sometimes necessary as a way of protesting some clear case of an “unjust role requirement” from superior officers in the organization. According to this opinion, if “the authority of an elected official carries moral weight, no matter how badly the will or interests of the electorate is served, then the formal authority of the senior civil servant has moral weight, no matter how badly the will or interests of the elected official is served” (Applbaum, 1993). The idea here is that the civil servant cannot be expected to conform or submit to the demands of authority in the face of injustice and unjust demands from political superiors. The only problem with this type of opinion is how to determine what an unjust demand is; the other is to ask who determines this. With regards to the matter at hand, Dr. Stockmann believed that as a “man of science,” he was at liberty to choose how to act with regards to his professional calling. But his brother was of the view that in matters of policy, officialdom rather than personal opinion should always prevail. The Mayor tells his brother that as an officer under the Baths Committee, “you have no right to any individual opinion.” Dr. Stockmann counters, asserting his right and freedom to “express my opinion on any subject under the sun.” Here then lies the crux of the matter: a conflict between individual autonomy and conformity with bureaucratic expectation. In a situation of conflict such as the one we have described in the foregoing, what is the appropriate way to resolve the conflict? We have suggested some answers above. But there some other way that some people think is ethically sound in dealing with disagreement in the organization: whistle blowing. This is what we shall be concerned with in the next section that follows below. But before we get into that discussion, it should be remarked that much as we are ready to acknowledge the fact of the public servant’s the right of “dissent” (in some situations), it would however, amount to an exaggeration of his or her role, to suppose that the civil servant possesses an unlimited liberty to engage in acts of “civil disobedience” in the face of what may be perceived as “unjust” demands from superior officers (Applbaum, 1993: 556). It is sufficient to counsel that while in the path of duty, the civil servant should always be guided by adherence to the law in whatever he or she days. This admonition becomes all the more necessary, for as the old age tells us: “The spirit of the law lies in its procedure”!

iii. On the morality of whistle blowing

Blowing the whistle because of a perceived wrongdoing in the organization, is one of the most difficult, controversial and risky actions a career officer or civil servant can ever undertake. Whistle-blowing, as we have mentioned already, has to do with the idea of alerting someone outside the organization of a problem or perceived wrongdoing within the organization. We have already noted the distinction between internal mechanism of resolving organizational conflicts, and the much more complex issue of transferring, as it were, organizational problems the public domain for resolution. In ordinary parlance, whistle-blowing could be explained with metaphor of washing the dirty linens of the organization in the public! Svara (2007) argues that while in some situations, the action of whistle blowing could be regarded as a “heroic” or “noble gesture,” taken in the public interest, and at great personal risk to the whistle-blower; it is, however, not always the ethically appropriate action to take. The reason for this conclusion is according to Svara, that the practice of externalizing organizational problems has the potential to hurt not only the whistle-blower, but also the very people the organization is supposed to serve. In alerting the press and the public about the supposed pollution of the Baths, Dr. Stockmann’s action was a clear case of whistle-blowing. Whatever may be the merit of his “discovery,” in our thinking, Dr. Stockmann erred in not first discussing the problem with his employer- the authorities of the Baths committee- before making the matter public. It may be objected to, that we are not sure if the authorities would have acted appropriately to remedy the bad situation! But this is mere speculation as they were not given the opportunity to act one way or the other, good or bad. It is true that the Mayor and Dr. Stockmann’s father-in-law, who was big share holders in the Baths, tried talking him into tinkering or altering the result of his findings, but the fact remains these pressures were exerted after the matter had already been made public. One way to interpret the action of the Mayor in particular is to say that he trying to prevent the breakdown of the public order. It could as well be that he was merely trying to protect his personal interest: but we are not in a position to judge such matters after the issue was already public knowledge. If even if the Mayor were to be a self-seeking, crude and devious politician, Dr. Stockmann carelessly played into his waiting hands!

To reiterate a point made earlier in the paper, were we to be in Dr. Stockmann’s position, we would first seek to exhaust the internal mechanism of dealing with the problem at hand before thinking of venturing to the public with an official problem. The public option, if we ever think it necessary at all, will be a last resort. The reason in this particular matter is that since one is merely working with others to achieve institutional goals, problems that arise in our process of working together should also be treated as a corporate problem. One other reason would be, as Svara points, and as Quinlan concurs, staff members who work in an organization, “owe loyalty to their organization” (Svara, 2007; Quinlan, 1993). Much as we will not totally agree with Quinlan’s characterization of whistle blowing as “a euphemism for behavior that more often deserves contempt than commendation” (Quinlan, 1993), it is, however, the truth that it is not an action to be undertaken rashly or on the spur of the moment. As a matter of fact, a civil servant who is inclined to blowing the whistle, for whatever reason, must first count the cost before embarking on this type of action. James Svara outlines for us, some conditions that a person should think of meeting before thinking of blowing the whistle on his or her organization. First is that the whistle blower must be certain that there is a serious problem warranting the action he or wants to take. Second is to ensure that the facts are solid and not merely based on rumours. Third is that the whistle blower should focus on the issue at stake and not on personalities. The fourth condition is something we have emphasized already in the paper already; which is that before thinking of the public option, the potential whistle blower should first exhaust the internal mechanism of resolving organizational problems (Svara, 2007). In failing to meet the conditions listed above, Dr. Stockmann could be made to face disciplinary measures for acting the way he did. And perhaps because the Mayor was his brother, he didn’t know where to draw the line between official and filial ties! Or could it be a case of familiarity breeding contempt?

Concerning the conditions suggested by James Svara above, Dr. Stockmann had not even provided enough evidence or convincing evidence for people to believe that the Baths was indeed contaminated or infested with germs and bacteria. As Aslaksen, the Chairman of the Householders’ Association was to allege later, the doctor’s allegations could well be an “imaginary grievance” that lacked any proof! A point the Mayor quickly concurred to. True enough, the Mayor had earlier made the ominous remark to Dr. Stockmann that the matter of the Baths welfare was not simply a scientific one, but also a “complicated” matter; having as well, “its economic as well as its technical side.” Here, the man of science faced a dilemma that is often very difficult to resolve- which is how to manage the facts of science with practical life situations! Dr. Stockmann’s discovery was made at period in history when most people lacked real knowledge about the existence of microscopic bacteria. In the matter of the infection of the Baths, the burden of proof was Dr. Stockmann to convince the people that the Baths was indeed a “pest-house,” and that the whole thing was not merely a product of his “imagination.” Another problem he had to contend with was the general perception that his findings going to have a negative impact on economy of the town and the welfare of the common people in particular. Dr. Stockmann should have been cautious or more politically circumspect in his approach to handling a matter of a general interest such as the Baths. In spite of his good intentions and apparent love for his community, he became branded an “enemy of the people,” and that by the same people whose interests he laboured so much to protect! The lesson for us from what happened to the man is that “truth,” if not properly handled, can assume the appearance of falsehood! Indeed, Truth is a strong weapon against error or falsehood. But all through human history, many people have had to die in the pursuit or defense of truth. There are those who will commend Dr. Stockmann for choosing to suffer for the truth even at the risk of personal and family loss! In the end, the man did really suffer by daring to stand for what he was convinced was a truth worth dying for.

The issue of whistle blowing is a very serious social and ethical issue. The reason is that not minding the good intentions that may motivate it, the whistle blower is prone to suffering negative or grave consequences in the hands of his colleagues, superior officers or his or organization as well. Again, officers who engage in this type of action may even face retaliatory measures from his organization. The whistle blower may be seen as a rebel or a turn coat; he or she may be blackmailed or ostracized by fellow workers, or may even face outright dismissal from work. Hence, it is important for one contemplating the action of whistle blowing to count the costs and to put in place, coping strategies for self and family in the event of job termination by aggrieved colleagues or superior officers in the organization. Realizing the grave risk involved in the matter of whistle blowing, “The Art of Anonymous Activism” offers a set of recommendations for anybody considering the whistle blowing option. There are ten such recommendations listed; but for the sake of brevity, we shall mention only a few of them. The crucial ones, in our thinking, are the ones that admonish one to consult his or her loved ones before blowing the whistle; to choose one’s battles; to consult an attorney early; to identify possible allies in the organization. Others are to have a well thought-out plan; to get oneself career counseling, etc. (see POGO/GAP/PEER, 2002; Svara; 2007). In the case of Dr. Stockmann, none of these precautionary measures was put in place before he went ahead to blow the lead on the contamination of the Baths! In particular, he neither carried his wife nor children along in the he was about to get into. Even when the matter became public knowledge, and his wife remonstrated with him on the possible backlash effects his actions could have on the welfare of the family, he remained fixed to his convictions. His reply was that “even if the whole world goes to pieces,” he was not going to retrace his steps or go back on his set action! Perhaps this explains why Peter Stockmann remarked that his brother had always been “a headstrong man.” But as it turns out, the attitude of rigidity is not always the best way to handle some situations. Perhaps, as Aristotle says, virtue lies in the mean between two extremes—in this case, rigidity and flexibility. Dr. Stockmann chose the former and paid dearly for it.

iv. In pursuance of the “public interest”

The last but crucial issue we want to consider in the paper revolves around the idea of “public interest.” Dr. Stockmann believed in all sincerity that he was acting for the public interest in his battles with the town or municipal authorities. Severally, he harped on this idea of duty towards the public to defend his actions. Even when his wife demurred that he could get a dismissal from work if he persisted in his fight, his response was that he would then have been satisfied, having done his duty “towards the public,” that is, the community. And even after the great betrayal by the editors of the “People’s Messenger,” who suddenly aligned with the Mayor to discredit Dr. Stockmann’s findings, the man still will not relent in his battle with the town authorities. When the editors of the local newspaper declined publishing his article, he sought a public forum to passage his message across to the town’s people. This type of concern for the public interest is quite challenging. Indeed, all the authors whose views we have discussed in the paper have all dwelt on the duty of pubic officers to the public over and above their own personal goals For as Svara (2007) notes, in serving, the civil servant need to realize that “duty is the core and the ideal that is pursued is the public interest.”

There is so much to be said on the issue of public interest; but we will not go into all the details here. However, one crucial point that needs to be mentioned is that serving the “public interest” is not to be understood as being limited to duty or service to the public alone. On the contrary, it also includes duty or responsibility to administrative or political superiors as well as the organization that one serves. True, in a democracy, civil servants should be committed to serving the public (that is, the citizens); they are also expected to achieve the highest possible level of ethical attainment through “balancing virtue, principle, and beneficial consequences.” But in doing this, they are not to supplant political or organizational leaders “but to challenge them to govern wisely and to do their best to accomplish the goals that political leaders have set” (Svara, 2007: 159). From the foregoing analysis, we see that Dr. Stockmann erred greatly in having a partial understanding of the idea of “public interest.” He was committed to “duty” towards the so-called “public” or “community,” while failing in his duty to his superior officers or the legally constituted authorities in the Baths committee. No doubt, the Mayor and some other members of the Baths committee, like most politicians, were shrewd and foxy in their official dealings. Generally, political demagogues have a low opinion of the common people, regarding as tools to be used and dumped when the need arises. This attitude is despicable; but many politicians seem to speak from both sides of the mouth on very many occasion. When Dr. Stockmann spoke on the public officer’s duty to let the public “share in any new ideas” that may be essential to their living, the Mayor’s response was that the public doesn’t need new ideas but is “best served by the good, old established ideas it already has.”

There is no doubt that Peter Stockmann was a shrewd and crafty politician. To engage such a fellow in a battle, one needs to be well prepared and armed with facts that are incontrovertible and self-evident. But perhaps also, any other person in the Mayor’s position would have acted the way he did. In mobilizing the press and the people against his brother, the Mayor, like his brother, also said he was fighting to protect the public interest! However, it is clear that Dr. Stockmann played into his brother’s hands in not following the official channel for conflict resolution in the organization. As Mrs. Stockmann would remind her husband, the Mayor had “power,” that is, legal authority, on his side. Dr. Stockmann’s insistence that he had “right” on his own side did not avail much in the end. Mrs. Stockmann made a remark that has proved to be true and has stood the test of time. In a rhetorical manner she her husband the following question: “What is the use of having right on your side if you have not got might?” This question has proven to be a key factor in relationships between nations in the international arena. It is the case that powerful nations have always imposed their will over less powerful ones. Even in the United Nations, which is supposed to be a comity of nations of equal status and legal weight, the will of the more powerful nations is often the dominant will- even when those are wrong! This is perhaps, what Thomas Nagel describes as an example of “the cunning of history” (Nagel, 2005: 147). In the case of Dr. Stockmann, in the end, right did not prevail over might. The same “compact majority” he sought to defend were quick to label him “an enemy of the people.” His family also suffers along with him in the end.

Concluding remarks

Our focus in the paper has been on how to deal with organizational problem or difficulty and with the type of approach that is appropriate in resolving such problems. In the particular case of Dr. Stockmann, we have seen how he tried to deal with the issue of the contamination of the Baths. In the paper, we argued that as a civil and medical officer of the Baths, Dr. Stockmann should have first exhausted the internal mechanism of dealing with organizational problems before thinking of externalizing the matter. We also argued that if we had been in his position as the town’s medical officer, we would have acted differently than he did. We offered a number of justifications for the position took. As we said in the paper, a civil servant should be guided by reason and by adherence to rules in dealing with organizational problems or disputes. Without doubt, situations may arise in which whistle blowing may be heroic, or the “noble” thing to do. Such may be situations of abuse of public trust on the part of officers who have the legal authority to serve the public interest. Similarly, in situations of gross wrong doings on the part public servants, the need become necessary to blow the lead on such wrong doing. To repeat a point we have made severally in the paper, it is always better to first count the cost, critically weigh the facts, before ever thinking of blowing the whistle. It is always better to err on the side of the law than against it.


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