Moral Economy: An Original Economic Form for the African Condition

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 human beings 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 imagination.

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.


Collier, Mark, and Bill Manley. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs, revised ed. Berkley: University of California Press, 2003.

Faulkner, Raymond. The Egyptian Book of the Dead. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.

Karenga, Maulana. Maat, the Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study of Classical African Ethics. (New York: Routledge, 2004). This work is the leading historical text on Egyptian ethics, and I am taking its claim further and seeking to theorize it as a principle for modern ethics, capable of resolving the moral crisis of the contemporary African state.

MAAT News (Legrand H. Clegg II, Editor and Publisher), Volume I, Edition I, December 1996.

Mancini Anna. Ma’at Revealed: Philosophy of Justice in Ancient Egypt. New York: Buenos Books of America, 2004.

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