I was lucky to meet Arianala Ratiarivelo, a researcher on Malagasy philosophy, during my Fulbright. He is retired but still very active in his research. He taught philosophy at the University of Antananarivo, among other places. He has written books, in English and Malagasy, on Malagasy philosophy. It was thanks to the head of the Philosophy Department at the university, Josette Rapiera, that we came into contact. We have been talking about a project of comparing Malagasy Ethics to Western Ethics. He came to about four meetings of the Philosophy Club that I was running to talk to students about just this topic. We met outside of this as well. He is a wealth of information and all of our discussions have been very productive. We usually communicate in a mixture of English and Malagasy. People sometimes call this vary amin’ ananana which is the national breakfast. It’s basically a soupy rice dish with greens that is often served with smoked meat. Two languages get mixed just as the rice and greens do in vary amin' ananana.
Our first project will provide a philosophical analysis of the famous concept FIHAVANANA and explain the role that it plays in the Malagasy ethical tradition. (Professor Ratiarivelo has already done a good deal of work on this, but we want to say more about it and also contrast it more with the Western tradition.) 'Fihavanana' is a word that many people say defies translation. The root is 'havana' which means relatives or kin. Since 'fihavanana' is a substantive it often is translated as kinship, but this fails to really flesh out the full meaning. It’s a sense of belongingness or love that people feel for each other that is perhaps modeled on the immediate family but extends to others in society as well. It's a sense of belonging that motivates people to help others and treat others well. It’s a force for good in the world, and it is the most central ethical concept in the system of Malagasy Ethics. Our first project focuses on just on fihavanana and not the other aspects of the sytem. We also explain how Malagasy Ethics differs from some main themes and approaches in Western Ethics. We also discuss what makes Malagasy ethics distinctive. We talk about the status of fihavanana today (efa manomboka mivaha). And we offer some lessons to be learned from comparing the two approaches to ethics.
We plan to look to proverbs to explicate the concept. Here are just a handful. For reasons owing to the difficulty of translating the term 'fihavanana' we leave it in Malagasy in our literal translations and interpretations.
Aleo very tsikalakalan-karena , toy izay very tsikalakalam-pihavanana.
Literal meaning: It’s better to lose the basis of wealth than the basis of fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is harder to restore than wealth.
Tsy ny varotra no taloha, fa ny fihavanana.
Literal meaning: Selling was not first, it was fihavanana.
Interpretation: Fihavanana is more important than selling or commerce.
Ny fihavanana ohatra ny famoriana tain'omby: ka izay mahavezivazy no mahafeno harona aloha.
Literal meaning: Fihavanana is like collecting cow feces: those who move around the most fill their baskets first.
Interpretation: Fihavanana can grow with work and effort.
Ny vola tsy lany hamamiana fa ny fihavanana mahavonjy amin'ny sarotra.
Literal meaning: Money is sweet but it is fihavana that saves you from trouble.
Interpretation: Fihavana is stronger than money when it comes to getting oneself out of trouble.
In just these few proverbs, one can see the stress placed on fihavanana by Malagasy. Looking at the proverbs will paint a more complete picture of the traditional conception--though we talk about its existence today as well. As I said, one focus of the project is to explain the contrast between Malagasy Ethics and some Western ethical systems. In the end, we want to say that the principles of Malagasy ethics are rooted in everyday life and the impetus for action is rooted firmly in the heart, whereas in some system in the West the principles are incredibly abstract (take Kant’s system for example) and also motivated not by the heart but by reason and the mind. There’s a lot of the details to work out but we’ll keep working on it, as we have been over the past few months. I am excited about explaining Malagasy Ethics to a Western audience and showing the lessons that might be learned from it.