Before I delve into this issue, I would like to make an argument or establish a premise, if you like. I argue that questions of virtue shouldn’t be argued from the lens of “reasoning” but can invoke it to buttress a point (not to establish it). An illustration of this effect is a contrast between a Muslim, who does not eat pork because it is inherently wrong to do so and a person who decides not to eat pork because he/she is choosing a healthier alternative. These people are not equivalent as one is solely on the basis of virtue and the other is not.
Supposing we had a soup which previously contained pork meat. The Muslim is less likely to drink that, as compared to the latter individual. It is a simple illustration of virtue and reasoning. Or suppose we ask the Muslim why he/she doesn’t eat pork and the individual begins to argue from a standpoint of reasoning by saying that it contains unhealthy fat and it houses a lot of parasites.
That is a fair argument from a logical perspective but if we create a lump of hypothetical pork meat that is 100% rid of its fat and parasite too, would the Muslim then be inclined to eat it? -In fact, this pork meat need not be hypothetical as the tools of biotechnology are being used to make this possible (maybe not 100% rid of fat but a good amount)- If no, then we can establish that the claim to not eat pork is deeply rooted in virtue and not reasoning.
You may ask why is this important given that the title of this chapter is the Rastafarian conundrum. Well, it is essential in finding whether a claim is just or not which is what we are going to try to reason around with regards to this issue.
In the Ghanaian system of education, to proceed to acquire secondary education, one must first participate in the annual Basic Education Certification Examination. Placement of successful students is then done by a Computerized School Selection and Placement System (CSSPS).
On 19th March 2021, following the release of the placement system, two boys went to Achimota Secondary school- one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Ghana- to do a routine registration, since they were granted admission by the said computerised system. But surprisingly, they were denied entry on some interesting grounds.
These brilliant boys, Tyron Iras Marhguy and Ohenba Kwaku Nkrabea (Lartey, 2021) were denied admission on the basis of their dreadlocks, the signature of their religious and cultural heritage. Surely as you read this you ask questions like, “Where is their right to education” and “where-is their right to freedom of religion” or conversely you may assert, “Well, if they cannot comply with the rules of the said institution, they should just leave”.
Many of the proponents of the “admit the Rastafarians” argue their frustrations on the foundations of the fundamental right every human being is entitled to. While the opponents of this cause claim, as I have above mentioned, that it is merely a situation of if you go to Rome and can’t do what the Romans do, leave.
It is noteworthy that some institutions like the Ghana Education Service, GES (at one point), the Coalition of Ghana’s independence have supported the cause to allow the students entry into Achimota. Other institutions like the Old Achimotans Association, the National Association of Graduate Teachers (NAGRAT), led by their president, Angel Carbonu (Ansah, 2021) have adamantly resisted (in the person of their president) the cause and vowed even, to be voluntarily engaged in opposing any lawsuits demanding admission of the said students.
Let us begin to dissect this issue. Mr. Angel Carbonu argues that there wouldn’t be an enabling environment for teaching and learning if all students are allowed to freely and fully practice their beliefs. Achimota Secondary school, which is a Christian school, allows and even to an extent forces its members to engage in all mandatory Christian programs it holds.
So if Christians in Achimota are presumably allowed to, in this case fully and freely practise their beliefs, why not the Muslims or the Rastafarians? Secondly, in asserting that students shouldn’t be allowed to fully and freely practise their beliefs while conversely allowing Christians to do otherwise, we inadvertently put one religion on a pedestal, in a way that the law doesn’t or in this case shouldn’t permit.
On the other side of the coin, Mr. Carbonu does raise an important issue which I presume is hidden in the statement ‘freely’ and ‘fully’. In the scenario that the said boys were Muslims, would it be as wrong to disallow them from engaging in their daily prayers at times that clash with the school’s timetable as it is to prevent Rastafarians from keeping their dreadlocks? The answer is no because an obvious and fundamental difference is that while in one case, there is a disruption in the very system, the other case has no bearing on any third party or system. If the argument is that the dreadlocks can stink when it isn’t well kept, then we go outside the scope of the argument itself. It ceases to be a question of the right to education and the right to freedom of religion and commences to be a question of good hygiene which all individuals are to uphold in order to ensure a conducive environment for learning.
Lartey (2021) explains that the chairman of the Achimota PTA, Dr Andre Kwasi-Kumah argued that, “The situation cannot be compromised because allowing students to come into the school with their own choice of hair will breed indiscipline.”
This brings up a lot of questions. At the beginning of this chapter, it was said that arguments about virtue shouldn’t use reasoning to establish an argument. At the root of this argument is simply a case of what I believe is what the Ghanaian populace agrees is a virtue worth upholding and fighting for. This, I hypothesize, is more than just a fight for discipline but more of a fight for the continued entrenchment of these virtues that the majority of Ghanaians have grown to love and appreciate. Because I suspect that even given a system where indiscipline is unduly affected by the acceptance of Rastafarians, there would still be arguments raised about the issue. If not, then we must ask ourselves if we are utilitarians or not. Because if the case of whether something is right or wrong lies on the shoulders of what or who it can affect indirectly, rather than whether it is inherently wrong, serious consequences will evolve.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to establish what exactly is a decent hairdo. If the argument, from the other side, is that the hairdo of a person doesn’t characterise the content of his/her character, why are things like wearing a formal suit during an interview or having neatly combed hair seem non-negotiable. If none of these describes the content of a person’s character, then why do we uphold them? Likewise, if we justify this reasoning on solely the grounds of reasoning alone, then are we right in defending other customary practices like shaving one’s beard in school, wearing white to a naming ceremony or even greeting with the right hand?
Let us use a powerful philosophical principle by John Rawls, the veil of ignorance, to see a possible answer. The veil of ignorance represents a state in which we do not, as individuals, know the outcome of our lives and we use that uncertainty to make laws and policies that govern us all. Rawls argues that it is only under this veil that we may produce a way of life that is just for all. Supposing all together as stakeholders we converge behind the veil of ignorance to decide what policies should govern. Behind it, I reason that none of us will choose to prevent religion, looks, disabilities (that do not unduly affect the nature of work we choose to engage in), and the likes to be barricades to our access to resources in our nation.
This is because the principle prevents us from knowing which end of the religious, appearance, and ability spectrum we would be lucky or unlucky to occupy. But how practical would this be given that we have registered, as a society, that things like greetings, looks, and mannerisms give us a quick and sometimes accurate way of determining the content of an individual’s character?
I would argue that things of this sort evolved with society for the sole purpose of making personal and timely (and sometimes accurate) decisions about people we meet briefly in the course of life. But this 6th sense, I reckon, should end at the doorstep of briefly meeting the individual. For example, if you are approaching an alley and you see 3 very built tattooed men coming from the opposite direction, odds are you will try using any other possible route.
You’ll probably be wise to do so because common sense and the mere outcome of events past, give you a reason to trust the likely probability that you’ll be jumped by these strangers relative to some ordinary-looking men. But this shouldn’t be the dogma for judging people you have the potential of knowing for extended periods of time. In short, the caveat of premature judgements of persons should just be limited to instances where it would be otherwise impossible to ascertain the true moral character and motive of an individual, given that that decision is made when one’s back is against the wall, in my opinion.
Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism would have suggested, I suppose, that we take utility to find what the greatest pleasure is and that will be the just thing to do. In this case, Bentham would have possibly argued that if enough people want the Rastafarians to be admitted, that should be the case and vice versa. But we see a clear problem with that. Values should not be dynamic but inert. The only problem here and now is that we seem to be in a state of epistemic relativism fighting about what possibly tantamounts to the right value to uphold since everybody’s system of values is valid from their reference.
On the other hand, Kant the pioneer of the deontological argument would have championed a search for an absolute system of morality that is right given any context- something he calls the categorical imperative. As of 5th March 2021, the verdict from the Accra High Court has been given and the Rastafarians have won under the banner of human rights administration. But I believe a deeper problem has been put forward, catalysed by the Rastafarian saga.
It is a question that requires that we have a civic debate about the good life, one like the political philosopher, Michael Sandel proposes. The goal of this wouldn’t be to make us all have an absolute understanding but to merely be a pivot to learning, dismissing the illogical and null points, and revising the arguments of both sides to decide what is truly just.
Lartey, N.L. (2021) ‘ Achimota School vs dreadlocked students row; the story so far’ Citi Newsroom 29 March
Ansah, M. (2021) ‘We’ll oppose any lawsuit demanding admission of dreadlocked students – NAGRAT’ Citi Newsroom, 22nd March
Larry Asiwome Afun