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The ethics of artificial intelligence, UNESCO and the African Ubuntu perspective

Dorine Eva van Norren (Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Society, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands)

Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society

ISSN: 1477-996X

Article publication date: 22 December 2022

Issue publication date: 31 January 2023




This paper aims to demonstrate the relevance of worldviews of the global south to debates of artificial intelligence, enhancing the human rights debate on artificial intelligence (AI) and critically reviewing the paper of UNESCO Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) that preceded the drafting of the UNESCO guidelines on AI. Different value systems may lead to different choices in programming and application of AI. Programming languages may acerbate existing biases as a people’s worldview is captured in its language. What are the implications for AI when seen from a collective ontology? Ubuntu (I am a person through other persons) starts from collective morals rather than individual ethics.


Literature overview on the African philosophy of Ubuntu as applied to artificial intelligence. Application of it to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) debates on establishing guidelines to the ethics of artificial intelligence.


Metaphysically, Ubuntu and its conception of social personhood (attained during one’s life) largely rejects transhumanism. When confronted with economic choices, Ubuntu favors sharing above competition and thus an anticapitalist logic of equitable distribution of AI benefits, humaneness and nonexploitation. When confronted with issues of privacy, Ubuntu emphasizes transparency to group members, rather than individual privacy, yet it calls for stronger (group privacy) protection. In democratic terms, it promotes consensus decision-making over representative democracy. Certain applications of AI may be more controversial in Africa than in other parts of the world, like care for the elderly, that deserve the utmost respect and attention, and which builds moral personhood. At the same time, AI may be helpful, as care from the home and community is encouraged from an Ubuntu perspective. The report on AI and ethics of the UNESCO World COMEST formulated principles as input, which are analyzed from the African ontological point of view. COMEST departs from “universal” concepts of individual human rights, sustainability and good governance which are not necessarily fully compatible with relatedness, including future and past generations. Next to rules based approaches, which may hamper diversity, bottom-up approaches are needed with intercultural deep learning algorithms.

Research limitations/implications

There is very few existing literature on AI and Ubuntu. Therefore, this paper is of an explorative nature.

Practical implications

The ethics of Ubuntu offers unique vantage points in looking at the organization of society and economics today, which are also relevant for development of AI, especially in its tenet of relatedness rather than individuality (and practical use of AI for individuals), taking responsibility for society as a whole (such as analyzing the benefit of AI for all strata of society), and embodying true inclusiveness. Whether looking at top-down guidelines for the development and implementation of AI or the bottom-up ethical learning process of AI (deep learning), ethics of the Global South can have an important role to play to combat global individualist tendencies and inequity, likely reinforced by AI. This warrants far more research.

Social implications

Applications of AI in Africa are not contextualized, do not address the most pressing needs of the African continent, lead to cybersecurity issues and also do not incorporate African ethics. UNESCO’s work in this regard is important but expert inputs are largely centered around Western “universal” principles and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and EU precedence. African ethics have, so far, a small role to play in global ethics and philosophy and therefore risk to be overlooked in the discussion on AI and ethics. This is why the consultation process of UNESCO on ethics of AI was of paramount importance. However, it does not automatically lead to consultation of African philosophers or sages, as many are educated in Western (ized) education systems. See further details under practical implications.


This is a new area of research in which little work has been done so far. This paper offers the opportunity to widen the debate on AI and ethics beyond the conventional discourse, involving multiple worldviews, of which Ubuntu is just one.



Funding: No funding was received for the preparation of this article.

The author was Coordinator for UNESCO affairs in the Netherlands from 2016 to 2020, employed by the Dutch MFA and seconded to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science.

This article was first prepared as a working paper presented at the 2021 Conference “Africa Knows” of the Africa Study Centre, The Netherlands.


van Norren, D.E. (2023), "The ethics of artificial intelligence, UNESCO and the African Ubuntu perspective", Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 112-128.



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