Moral Economy: An Original Economic Form for an The Ethiopian Transitional Council By Teodros Kiros

March 17th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

MAAT was to ancient Egypt as Wisdom was to ancient Greece. Wisdom was to Plato’s aristocratic regime as Maat was to Egypt’s social and political life. The concept of Maat insinuated itself into every aspect of Classical Egypt. Pharaohs and the majestic slaves who erected the pyramids swore by Maat. Rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free citizens worshipped the magic of Maat. Maat was the moral organizer of everyday life. Every facet of life was framed by Maat.

Why did Maat have such a presence? What was its magical spell? I should now like to address these questions. The human self required an organizing moral principle. Life could not be lived without a moral frame, a frame that furnished the self with boundaries and limiting conditions of social action.

This was lacking in Egypt until its gods originated the expansive concept of Maat. Maat was symbolized by the feminine principle of “truth, balance, order and justice.” Maat was harmony, righteousness, patience and vision, born out of the feminine principle of patient labor. For the ancient Egyptians, the order of the universe was also the ideal order for the human world.

In this paper, I seek to theorize the relevance of Maat, a mythic concept, as a modern moral principle that can motivate both (a) organic leaders of the people, and (b) social movements themselves, to reorganize the public sphere in contemporary Africa, which is in serious crisis.


For the Greeks, the universe was ordered by Logos, by the rational word. It is this order that Plato used in his Republic, when he constructed an ideal city out of Logos. This principle was later translated into, “In the beginning was Logos,” and the Logos was God (John 1, 1). Jesus himself was Logos; in marked contrast, for the ancient Egyptians, the organizing principle of logos was replaced by the organizing principle of Maat.

The Egyptian city was ruled by Kings who personified Maat. The human heart, which was worshipped by the Egyptians, and which they considered the seat of thinking, was also the seat of Maat. The pharaohs were expected to rule with Maat. The Pharaoh’s greatness was measured by the quality and quantity of the Maat which he/she internalized.

After death, their hearts would be weighed by the scale of Maat, the scale of Justice.
When famines occurred and deep inequalities became a way of life, it was the duty of the rulers to uphold Maat and measure the depth and extent of the
suffering. Not that this practice was perfectly upheld, particularly, when nature overwhelmed the rulers’ ideals, but there was at least an absolute and
objective standard by which social/political life was judged and measured.

Maat requires an appropriate economic form, which has yet to be theorized. I would like to argue that the dominant capitalist economic form, no matter how
elastic and flexible, and however generously it is stretched, is morally vacuous and hence unable to accommodate Maat.

A moral form requires a supportive economic form. Classical Egypt had the right moral form but not the right economic form. Whereas Maat singled out the self
as capable of stepping out of its ego shell and embracing other egos outside itself, the corresponding famine and hunger situations forced the actual
Egyptian, not to embrace the other, but to destroy other selves. It is these particular moments of despair and anguish that killed the enabling moments of
patience, justice and love, Maat’s feminized principles. The Egyptian self was thus denuded of its potential grandeur, which would make many Afrocentrists –-
intent on proving the moral superiority of the African self –- cry in despair. The attempts by Egypt’s leaders and people to internalize the limiting
conditions of Maat prove the Afrocentric hypothesis that there was a particularly Egyptianized/Africanized effort at internalizing moral greatness,
but it was not institutionalized in Egyptian life in the way that the capitalist form was in 17th-century Europe and beyond.

The moral form of life that Maat promised remained on paper, as nothing more than an ideal. African thinkers did not take the trouble to embody this ideal
in the lifeblood of institutions. In short, the moral form did not produce a corresponding economic form -– in contrast to the capitalist economic form
which did produce a corresponding moral form, and institutionalized the latter in far-reaching structures of state and civil society. That is the task that I
should like to impose on myself.

The threat of inevitable doom has yet to be heeded, and capitalism itself continues to marvel at its resiliency in creating crises and immediately
correcting them, thereby proving its “naturalness” and making it easy for its proponents to present it to the world as a God-chosen economic form. Any
attempt to counter it with something like Maat is dismissed as a pipedream. No sane person is expected to take Maat seriously. And the fact that its
geographical origin is an African civilization, conveniently leads many to dismiss Maat as irrelevant and wishful thinking.

Maat as a moral form is considerably deeper than the passing moral sentiments that the Scottish moral philosopher proposed. Generosity, justice, uprightness,
tolerance, wisdom and loving patience go directly against our natural proclivity to injustice, dishonesty, intolerance, closedmindness, ignorance and hate. These
vices, which have been used to build empires and economic forms that support the visions of the rich and powerful, seem to fit the ready-to-hand tapestry of our
makeup, which by now has become so second-nature that no Maat is going to dissemble it. In contemporary life, revitalizing the features of Maat requires
nothing less than manufacturing a new human being.


We must create Ethiopians who can act generously, patiently, tolerantly and lovingly. We do not have such human beings in sufficient numbers to construct
an economic form that values justice, uprightness, wisdom, tolerance and loving patience. Taking the virtues singly, the following picture emerges. Let us begin
with generosity. Generosity is a virtue. It means that one is willing to give without receiving, or is willing to give without the deliberate intent of
receiving anything, or for which the receiving is only incidental. The generous person gives a particular good A to person B; and person B does not simply
receive A as a matter of course. B receives A with a profound respect for the giver, and even plans, if she can, to one day reciprocate not in the same way,
but in some way. The reciprocity need not be of equal goods (where equality is measured by money). What makes the act morally compelling is the desire to
reciprocate, and not the quantity of the reciprocity. One of the central pillars of Maat as an economic form is the cultivation of a human self willing
and able to act generously in the relational moral regime of giving and receiving, or simply giving without receiving, or receiving with a profound
sense of gratitude and respect.

Justice is one of the features of Maat and it is also a potential source of a Moral Economy, appropriate for the African condition. As Aristotle taught, one
does not become just merely by abstractly knowing what Justice is; rather, one becomes just by doing just things. The puzzling question is this: if one does
not know what justice is, then how can one know what just things are, so that one could choose only just things and not others? The question is not easy to
answer. But an example might give us a sense of what Aristotle means.

It is Christmas evening and a family is gathering for a dinner and the table is set for ten people. Among the popular dishes are five pies, and shortly before
the guests arrive, one of the family members has been asked to cut the pies into exact sizes, such that no single person would feel that he has mistakenly
picked one of the smallest pies. The task of the pie cutter was to observe that justice is served and that all the pies are cut evenly and fairly. What must
this person do? That is the moral question. Well, at the minimum the person must be just in order to perform just action, and in this instance, justice
means nothing more than cutting the pieces equally to the best of one’s ability. The pies must be cut with moral imagination and with intuitive
mathematical precision. There is a spiritual dimension to the science of measurement, which could have been simply done with a measuring rope. That
possibility, however convenient, is not elegant. Rather, the expectations are that (1) the person is going to make an effort to be precise, because her
intention is to be just, and (2) that her eyes are just, or that she prays that they would be. (1) and (2) are the requirements; the rest is left to moral

She cuts the pies, and it turns out that all the pieces appear to be equal, and when the guests arrive, they randomly pick the pieces, and appear to be
satisfied. What we have here is a display of justice in the Aristotelian sense, in which justice is defined as an activity that is guided by a measure of
equality, and equality itself is manifest in the attempt at being fair to everyone -– in this case, an attempt to be fair to the guests, without their
ever knowing that they are being worked on. They judge the event as illuminated by justice, and as uplifting.

Generalizing to a higher level, what we can say is that any economic form must be guided with justice and that all the commodities that human beings should
want must be distributed with such a standard, the standard of justice as fairness. Given justice as fairness, commodity A can be distributed between
persons B and C, in such an equitable way that B and C share commodity A by getting the same amount at any time, any place and for a good reason.


Compassion is another feature of Maat; indeed, it is one of the cardinal moral forms for the new moral economy that I am theorizing here. Compassion is to
moral economy as greed is to capitalism. One cannot imagine capitalism without the salient principle of greed, and similarly, one cannot imagine moral economy
without the originary principle of compassion. The modern world, being what it is, is divided by class, race, gender, ethnicity and groups. Out of these
divisions, it is class division which is the most decisive, as it is also the one that seems to be so natural that we cannot surmount the pain and agony that
it produces. In a class-divided world, compassion is the least present; since there is no compelling reason for individuals to be compassionate if they are
not naturally so, or so inclined. In such cases, though, compassion could be learned, either by example or directly through teaching.

An example may elucidate the place of compassion in moral economy. It is summer, and exhaustingly hot. People that you encounter are hot-tempered too. Everybody
is on the edge, including you. You happen to be a coffee-lover, so there you are standing behind a long line of people to get your fix. The heat has made
you impatient, and you are ready to explode on anything around you. You are naturally generous, but not this day. Shortly before you leave the coffee shop,
a homeless person smiles at you and tries to talk to you, hoping that you will understand the purpose of the conversation. Of course you understand, but you
ignore him and walk by. But then something bothers you, and you came back to the coffeshop and generously give the man what he wanted. You are proud of
yourself, because you have done what generosity demands, that you control your temper and perform the morally correct action. Surely, you say to yourself, it
was not easy, but you did it.

Now you wonder what all this means, and why you did it. The answer is obvious. Indeed, it is because you are really a compassionate human being. You had no
obligation to pay attention to that person. He is not related to you, he is not an ex-friend that fortune turned against, nor did you do it so as to be a
media-hero. Your action is morally worthy only because you have internalized compassion. To you compassion comes quite naturally. It is part of your moral
frame. Any repeated action becomes a habit. So compassionate action comes habitually to you. You rarely fight it. Rather, you exuberantly let it lead
your way, as it eventually did on that hot and difficult day. But even on that day you conquered the temptation of doubt, and excessive self-love, by the
moral force of compassion. That is why you corrected yourself when you were briefly but powerfully tempted by forgetfulness, and returned to do the morally
right thing.

Compassion is morally compelling when it is extended to a total other, who has nothing to do with our lives, beyond awaiting our moral attention. It is much
easier to be compassionate towards a loved one, a friend, a relative and even an acquaintance; harder is the task when the subject is a real other, such as
that person by the coffee shop. In order for any action to be morally worthy, the motive must be pure, and the purity is measured by the quality and quantity
of the compassion that is extended to any needy human being, uncontaminated by external motives, such as love, friendship, acquaintance and relation. It is in
this particular way that I am arguing that compassion serves Maat.


Tolerance is another crucial feature of Moral Economy. In fact, it could easily be argued that it is an indispensable organizing principle, which works in
tandem with loving kindness. Just as we cannot love a person –- except illusorily -– without respecting her, so we cannot live with one another
without tolerating each other’s needs, habits, likes and dislikes. In the economic sphere tolerance is subtly pertinent. We cannot readily sense its
inner working unless we pay attention to its musings at the workplace, as we interact with one another as managers and workers.

Consider the following example to underscore the point. There is this worker who does things in ways that many people find annoying. She customarily comes late
to work; she procrastinates; she spreads papers, cans and food stuffs all around her; sometimes she cannot even find herself amidst the dirt, the pile
and the dust. Yet, and this is the point, whatever tasks she performs are carried out as flawlessly as is humanly possible. Her supervisor has agonized
over what to do with her and has often contemplated firing her. Lulled by the elegance of her work and his loving-kindness towards her, he decides to keep
her. He has promised himself to erase those occasional thoughts of getting rid of her. As he told one of his friends, he has learned -– not very easily -– the
ways of tolerance as a principle of management, as an approach to dealing with workers who will not and cannot change their habits.

I consider this manager very wise and skilled at the art of management. He decided that it was better to change himself, as hard as it was, than to expect
the worker to change. The structure of his thoughts could be put syllogistically:

Y can change his way;
X cannot change easily;
Therefore Y must change for the sake of Z.

Y is the manager. X is the worker. Z is the organization where Y and X work In this situation Z was saved precisely because the manager internalized tolerance
and loving-kindness as the organizing principles of the organization. Y controlled his ego and chose to advance the interests of Z over and against his
own private needs. He did not fire X, nor did he insist that X must change. He must have intuitively and empirically concluded that it is pointless to expect
X to change, nor would it benefit Z to lose X, since X is an intelligent and skilled worker.

Where tolerance is habitually practiced at workplaces, it becomes an indispensable good that can save many enterprises the unnecessary costs arising
from hiring and firing workers -– including the distress of their families and loved ones. Tolerance can easily remedy the situation. If it is easier for
managers than for excellent workers to change, then it is the managers who must do so for the sake of a functional and democratic moral economy.


The Egyptians held the human heart at a level beyond any other organ, and this decision is not an accident. They revered the heart and mummified it, whereas
the brain was sucked and thrown out at death. While modern medicine treats the brain as the cognitive organ that originates and processes thoughts, the
Egyptians treated the human heart as the seat of thinking. To the Egyptians the human heart had both a physical and a transcendental function. Its physical
function is pumping blood, and its transcendental function is moral thought. Maat was guided by the human heart. The heart is the home of thought impulses,
or what we loosely call feelings.

The Egyptians accorded weight to the heart’s transcendental function. They reasoned that thoughts originate in the heart, are processed by the brain, and
are emitted as language. Some thoughts are expressed as speech and others are buried in the depth of the unconscious, beyond language, the realm of the
expressible. It is the Egyptian insight about the heart as the seat of thinking -– particularly moral thinking -– that gives the heart a central place in moral economy.

The citizens of the new moral economy must be encouraged to practice what they intuitively know: that moral thinking is both thinking outside of the self and
the attempt at reaching the unknown and perhaps unknowable other. This difficult task of embracing another person’s concerns as your very own is
precisely the territory that the human heart undertakes. The brain indeed processes those thoughts, moral and otherwise, which originate in that regime
of transcendental thought, but the depth of the need to embrace the other, to think for the other and with the other, are practices in moral thinking that we
feel deeply in our hearts, and the will propels us toward action, and the brain organizes the sequences of what must be done.

The new moral economy must make the heart the initiator of action, and citizens must be encouraged to take the language of the heart, namely feeling, much more
seriously. Where these intuitively felt and lived thoughts are temporarily absent from our busy lives, they must be made present by being remembered and
recollected as the citizens’ habits, on the basis of systematic education at schools, madrassas, churches and other institution of modern society.

The new moral economy desperately needs thoughtful human beings. A functioning moral economy not only needs leaders who follow the ways of Maat; more
importantly, it needs citizens who practice what they feel in their hearts, or who at the minimum know intuitively that that is what they must do, if they are
to preserve the human species. Maat shows us the way, and the human heart demonstrates the value of the practice.

Of course, what is difficult is the institutionalization of Maat as a regulatory ideal that could reform individual behavior. Social movements are composed of
individuals who can be guided by moral ideals such as Maat. The same social movements, however, also require institutional conditions, which can facilitate
individual behavior. The challenge is to use Maat both as a moral regulator and as the generator of institutions willing and able to encourage social movements
seeking to change dysfunctional moral principles – such as the principles of the capitalist state that does not embrace Maat as its moral ideal.

I modestly suggest to the transitoanl council that it considers the new moral economy as an alternative to bogus liberal democracy and tyrranical communism.

Teodros Kiros
Professor of Philosophy and English (Liberal Arts)
Berklee College of Music

  1. ሶብየት ቻይና ግብጽ ግሪክ?
    | #1

    የጠፋን ምን ሆኖ ነው
    አንዱ የሶብዬት ሌላው የቻይና ሶሻሊዝም በመደገፍ የተጣላነው?
    አሁን ደግሞ የግብጽ ወይስ ግሪክ ሥልጣኔ ፍልስፍና የሚሻለው የምንለው?

    ያልኖርበትን ዘመንና ያላደግበትን አገር ፍልስፍና ይሞከር ስንል ግንዛቤያችን መሰረቱ ምንድነው?

  2. teodros kiros
    | #2

    You are right. This is not the whole article. This will be corrected shortly. I am suggesting that the transitional council ought to consider an alternative modality of organizing the economy by what I have dubbed moral economy.

    | #3

    Thank you Professor Teodros, your philosophical merit contribute for Ethiopia Unity and integrity. You are there to protect Ethiopian interest and I admire you, your concern about our mother land Ethiopia.

  4. ሶብየት ቻይና ግብጽ ግሪክ?
    | #4

    በመጀመሪያ አመስግናለሁ ለመልሱም ለጽሁፎም
    ሰው ነንና በሞራል መነጽር ተግባሮችንና ውጤቱንም ጥቅሙንም ካልመዘንን እንጠፋለን

    የኛ አገርም ሆነ ብዙ አገሮች ኢኮኖሚ አቅጣጫ የሚወሰነው በአገሩ ሕዝብ መሆኑ ቀረ መሰለኝ
    ለምሳሌ እርስዎ እንደሚያውቁት የጣሊያንና ግሪክ መሪዎች ከብራስልስ በተሾሙ ሰዎች ተተክተዋል

    ሕዝብ ተደማጭ መሆኑ ያከተመ አይመስልም?

    ጣልቃ ገብነት አልበዛም? ምሳሌ አፍሪካ አገሮችን በተመለከተ
    የአይቮሪ ኮስት ሱማሌና ሊቢያ መሪዎች የተተኩት በውጭ ሃይል ድጋፍ ነው
    ሕዝብ ያልወክላቸው ከአገር ውጭ ተደራጅተው የሕዝቡን መብት አስክባሪ ነን ብለው ሥልጣን ያዙ ታዲያ ማንን ይሰማሉ?

    በሥልጣን የነበሩት አይወገዱ ሳይሆን የማናውቀው እየመጣ የተቸገርን አይመስሎትም?

    ሕዝብ አቅም ከሌለው የሞራል አስክባሪ አይሆንም የሞራሉ መመሪያ ተጠቃሚ አይሆንም
    መብትን በተመልክተ ፓሊሲ ቢወጣ ፕሮግራም ቢቀረጽ በወረቀት ይቀራል መሃላ ቢበዛ ማታለያ መሳሪያ ሁኖዓል

    ያጣነው ሕዝብ አቅም አጣ ነጣ ገረጣ ነው

  5. አቶ ኪሮስ
    | #5

    በቃ የ እናንተ ነገር እንዲ ሆኖ ቀረ? አሁን እየገዙን ያሉ ዘመዶችክ ማለሊት ብለው-እግዘአብሔር የለም ብለው-አውሬ ሆነው ሆዳቸው አምላካቸው ሆኖ ምድሪትዋን ታእታይ ምስቅልቅል አርገዋታል!!! አንተ ደሞ የግብጽ ማጥን እንሆ እንካቹ ትለናለ!!! ሲጀመር በጥንት ጊዜ በ ዳማት ያሉ ሰዎች ምናልባትም የ አሁኑ ትግራውያን በ ጽሃይና በጨረቃ ያመልኩ ነበር-ለ እኛ አምሐራ ብሔር ግን ይህ አይደለም! እድሜ ለቤተ አምሐራ መጀመርያ ኦሪትን አወረሳቹ ከዛም ተዋህዶን ግን ሳባውያን በዛ ልትጸኑ አልቻላችሁም እንድያውም ብላቹ መሰረቱ እኛ ነን ልትሉ እና ታሪክን ልታጣርሱ ይቃጣችዋል! እሱም ብቻ አይደለም የ ውሸት መጸሓፍም ትከትባላቹ!! እና ቤተ አምሐራ ማትን ማለሊትንም አይፈልግም-በግድ የተጫነበትንም አሽቀንጥሮ ይጥላል! የፈረሰውን የ ቤተ አምሐራን ቅጥር እንሰራለን!!!
    ይህ የ ማራ ድምጽ ነው!
    ከ ቤተ አምሐራ!!

  6. tewbel
    | #6

    So much effort to address a non existing Transitional Council.

  7. bim
    | #7

    where is Tekola Hagos these days?

  8. aha!
    | #8

    There is such thing as moral economy, there is such as ethics in business and free market capitalism, which stipulates based on ones acquired skills, the individual participates in the free market capitalism to get his share of the pie. It is not a pie to be aportioned to his according to his need and from each to according to his ability in the Marxisist ideology. I doubt if there is moral authority to maket this pie resulting from a participation in a free market capitalism and Golaboal market economy to have an equal share of the pie.

    What is prevalent however, instead of the free market capitalism being available to the silent majority of Ethiopians, instead the the prevalent ideology of ethnic fereralism, secessionism and totaliarinsm, hindering free market captialism and private ownership of land as one of the means of production is only made availeble to TPLF and TPLF affiated enterprises and foreign corporations and political leaders, where the moral, legal and/or constitutional question of balance of power of the branches questions comes for legal and moral questions of the share of resources of the Ethiopian land mass and capital in a democratic society to undertake fair legislations and justices, independent of each other, based on the underlying Judaic Christian Faith.

  9. aha!
    | #9

    Your morality guide line as regads justice, compassion and tolerance to bestowed upon the individual and/or political leadership, I presume, hinges on Maat, which is not based on Judaic Christian Faith, currently prevailing. Your council to a council does not make any sense, uless that suggestion is pointed towards the current exploitation, political and economic and political strangle hold of the counry’s resources and the silent majority of Ethiopians by TPLF and TPLF affiliated enterprises, and land lease by foreign corporations and TPLF leaders as forbidding and immoral action from the stand point of lack of justice, compassionand tolerance as currentely operational behaviors, where behaviors are defined as actions observed by a third party.

    Your suggestion to the Transitional Councel is misplaced from the standpoint of intention being that each individual that is not part and parcel of the current faction and yet disaffected by TPLF/eprdf regime to stand up for ones own individual freedom, with due due regards to efforts being made by the existing political factions in similar movement lead by Martin Luther King, I presume.

  10. ሶብየት ቻይና ግብጽ ግሪክ?
    | #10

    ፖለቲሽያን በሞራል ሆነ በreasoning አይመሩም
    ለዚህ አመለካከቴ ብዙ መሪጃዎች ቀደም ብዬ ጠቅሻለሁ የክሪክም ሆነ በጣሊያን አገር በየመንም ሆነ በሊቢያ የሚያሳየው የሞራል በላይነት አይደለም ወይም ርምጃቸውም ትክክል አለመሆኑን በሃይል ነው ውሳነው የተወሰደው

    ፕሮፈሰሩን አሁንም የምጠይቀው
    ሕዝቡን በሞራል ለመምራት የማይችል ፓለቲከኛና ፖለቲካ ሂደት እናያለን ታዲይ ሕዝቡ አቅም ከሌለው እንዴት ያስከብራል?

  11. ጥያቄ ለጉረኞች?
    | #11

    ዛሬ ለሞራል ኢኮኖሚው በኢትዮጵያ እንዲኖር ይረዳል የምለው አንዱ ቴክኖሎጂ ለኛ የሚበጀውን ኮፒ ማድረግ መቀስቀስ ነው
    ሞራልና አስተዳደር አስተሳሰቦችን እንደራስችን ለማድረግ የኛ ባህል እንዲሆኑ እንደምንጥር
    ቴክኖሎጂን ኮፒይ በማድረግ ምርትን ብንሳድግ ለሁሉም የሚበቃ ይኖረናል ባይ ነኝ
    ምድራዊ ሕግ ወይም ሰማዩ ህግ ሞራሎች የቴክኖሎጂ ኮፒይ በማድረግ ዘመቻ ቢካሄድ ምን ችግር ይኖረዋል?
    ቻይናም ጃፓንም በዚህ ድርጊታቸው ብዙ ተጠልተዋል ቢሆንም ዛሬ ሕዝባቸው በራሱ ይተማመናል
    የጃፓን እቃ ክሽ ክሽ እያልን በልጅነት አፋችን እቃቸውን እንድናቃሽሽ ማን አፋችን እንደከተተው ባላውቅም እንደሚባል አውቅ ነበር
    ዛሬ ቻይና እንዲህ የደረሰችው ቴክኖሎጂው ባለቤት በመሆንዋ ነው ብዙ ጊዜ ኮፒ ታደርጋለች ሲከሰሰ እየሳማሁ ነኝ
    ቴክኖሎጂ ያለፈቃድ ኮፒ ማድረግ ሞራል ጥያቄ አለው ወይ? ከመራብ ከመቸገር ለምርት የሚረዱ ቴክኖሎጂ ቢገለበጥ ነውሩ ምን ላይ ነው?
    ወጣቱ የቴክኖሎጂ ግልበጣ እንዲያደርግ ለምን ምሁሩ ቅስቀሳ አያደርግም?

  12. ይቅርታ
    | #12

    ጥያቄ ለጉረኞች? የሚለውን ስም የተጠቀምኩ በስህተት ነው
    ለርሶ የተሳበ አይደለም
    ከፍተና ይቅርታ እጠይቃለሁ

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