Ubuntu and Rational Action Theory: Exploring two different approaches to dealing with COVID-19 pandemic

by Aminu Mamman, Professor at Manchester University

Under the current global economic system underpinned by Rational Action Theory (RAT), the society is built on the idea of individualistic, competitive, goal-directed, self-interested, utility-maximizing economic man and women. The economy is viewed as central to the society and individuals are viewed to be rational actors. The assumption is that without economic incentive, the individual, being an economic man or woman, will not behave to ensure effective operations of the economic system. Therefore, any challenge to the society such as COVID-19 pandemic will be addressed under the assumption of “economic man and woman”. Every economic and social support is based on the assumption of economic incentive to ensure that the individual does not take advantage of the social and economic support provided.

An alternate approach is Ubuntu, which is rooted in the African philosophy of humanness. Ubuntu does not view (hu)man as individualistic, competitive and utility maximizer but as a communal, spiritual and “humanistic” being. Ubuntu philosophy would not operate under RAT paradigm. First, rather than the individual viewed as an “economic man and woman”, under Ubuntu, an individual will be viewed as a social and spiritual man or woman. Spiritual, not as a worshipper of a particular deity but connected and interconnected to the animate and inanimate beings. Social not as subjugating self to the interest of society but seeing self-interest and society’s interest as one and the same. Ubuntu philosophy can be explained as follows; “this is my interest because it is the society’s interest”. This is because the society and I are one and the same since the society says, “I am”. Therefore, Ubuntu cannot be described as Capitalist, Collectivist, Socialist or Communist. This is because these systems see individuals as separate from the society or at least see the possibility of self-interest conflicting with the interest of the society. Under Ubuntu, one ceases to be recognized as part of the society if his/her interest conflicts with the society’s interest. Thus, when the individual melts within a society, the question of personal interest disappears.

What happens if a business runs into difficulty as a result of a pandemic under RAT paradigm? The workers will be retrenched because in the economic philosophy views, the business is not set up to look after the workers but to look after the customers and shareholders/owners. In other words, the society (i.e. workers and their families) is not central to the economy. To put it bluntly, the workers and their families exist to serve the business either as employees or as customers. As Henry Mintzberg (2015) argued in his book entitled Rebalancing Society, “Instead of Capitalism serving us, we are serving capitalism”. Under Ubuntu economic philosophy, the workers and their families as well as the business are one and the same. In other words, a family man does not get rid of his wife and the children because he lost his job. There is moral and psychological contract between the workers and the employer under Ubuntu economic philosophy. After all, a business is only a business if the society says so, otherwise, it ceases to be a business. I am because we are. Thus, living up to the social, moral and psychological contract is a condition to qualify as a business.

There is a widely held view that the Chinese Government withheld information on human to human transmission of the Coronavirus (Kuo, 2020). If this is true, perhaps one of the main reasons is economic. The assumption by the Chinese authorities might be that if they reveal the information, it will affect their economic activities. Even in the Western countries, there is debate on when and how to lift the lockdown to save the economies. There is also a debate on the type of data to collect and how much data should be revealed to the public, especially, in the UK. Also, some countries do not wish to carry out mass testing because it may reveal how ineffective the government is or the mass testing may frighten people from engaging in economic transactions which are needed to save the economy. The American and Brazilian Presidents were reported to be amongst the proponents of ‘saving the economy’ approach. Similarly, Sweden decided not to lockdown its economy because it views the cost of damaging the economy as much higher than the potential health risks of COVID-19. Broadly speaking, whether we are talking about Chinese failure to reveal all they know about COVID-19, or the Western countries’ desire to save their economies or failure to mass test and include all data on COVID-19, it all boils down to putting the economy central to the system rather than the society as central. There are also arguments that the US, British and Swedish approaches of either refusing to lockdown or dithering to lockdown is underpinned by cultural orientation for freedom and liberty. Again, whether one views it as an economic argument or a cultural argument, the society is not central to the approach to dealing with the pandemic but the economy. How would this differ under the philosophy of Ubuntu? Under Ubuntu, the Chinese authorities would not withhold information because, first, the global society would have been central to the decision rather than the economy, and the cultural or political identity. Secondly, under Ubuntu, China and the rest of the world would be one and the same. This is because the concept of nationhood under Ubuntu would include humanity not geographical locations. The rest of the world would not be debating about when and how to lift lockdown because the economy would not be central to the decision but humanity.

In the wider society, there are debates on human rights and constitutional rights, about wearing masks, and freedom of movement and association. Under Ubuntu, such debate would not exist because one does not debate with oneself. With the announcement of lockdown, there has been reported panic buying all over the media. Everyone for him/herself. There is also panic buying by nation states who are trying to stock up medical supplies. The UK Government was reported to be reluctant to join EU in collaboration to buy Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This is probably because there is need to protect the newly acquired political identity in the wake of Brexit. Also, in the United States, the states have no longer been united when it has come to buying PPE. They were competing against each other and out bidding each other in the local and global market. There were reports that even the Federal Government was competing with the states in the global market for PPE and ventilators. Under Ubuntu philosophy, such phenomena would not happen because competition and disharmony are inimical to the principles guiding the philosophy of Ubuntu.

Additionally, individuals and business organizations artificially inflated the prices of PPEs and hand sanitizers in an attempt to make abnormal profits and to benefit unduly from the pandemic. This is not a hallmark of the Ubuntu philosophy but clearly of rational actors who are motivated by self-maximation tendencies.

In a nutshell, under Ubuntu philosophy, the economic system is subservient to society. In other words, the survival of the economic system depends on the survival of the society unlike the capitalist system where the survival of the society depends on the survival of the economic system. Therefore, there is paradigmatic difference between the current global economic system and how the Ubuntu economic system would have handled COVID-19 pandemic if the ideal African philosophy of Ubuntu had been applied.


Kuo, L. (2020). China withheld data on coronavirus from WHO, recordings reveal


Mintzberg, H (2015). Rebalancing Society. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Oakland, California. USA

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