Grounding the Wrong of Colonialism in Self-Respect
Anthony Nguyen (University of Southern California)

part of: 26th Annual Oxford Graduate Philosophy Conference
November 13, 2022, 3:45pm - 4:45pm
Faculty of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Lecture Room
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford OX2 6GG
United Kingdom

This will be an accessible event, including organized related activities

Go to conference's page


  • Aristotelian Society
  • Royal Institute of Philosophy
  • Analysis Trust
  • Faculty of Philosophy


Oxford University
Oxford University
Oxford University
Oxford University
Oxford University
Oxford University

Topic areas



Colonialism is always seriously pro tanto wrong. But why? Is colonialism wrongful  for merely contingent reasons? If so, then, in principle, colonialism could be  unobjectionable. I argue against this possibility by showing there is something  necessarily pro tanto wrong about colonialism. Colonialism always involves  political subjugation of the colonized people. This conceptual observation is, I  believe, key to ascertaining what is necessarily wrong with colonialism. By  politically subjugating the colonized, colonial institutions treat them as inferior with  respect to the Rawlsian moral powers for a conception of the good or for a sense of  justice. By treating the colonized in this way, colonial institutions seriously threaten  their social bases of social respect. But the social bases of self-respect are the most  important social primary good, the most important good to distribute justly. 

Colonialism is particularly detrimental to colonized peoples’ social bases of  self-respect because it involves control over a significant part of colonized peoples’  basic structure of society. But a basic structure consists of a society’s most important  sociopolitical institutions. So, colonialism egregiously degrades colonized peoples  by making some the most important sociopolitical institutions that they live under  colonial institutions. The way in which colonialism permeates their basic structure  make it a pervasive influence on colonized peoples’ lives. So, since colonialism  necessarily treats the colonized as inferior, it must threaten their social bases of self respect. This is the necessary pro tanto wrong of colonialism. 

I conclude by objecting to two of the most influential accounts of  colonialism’s wrongfulness: Stilz’s autonomy account and Ypi’s associative  account.  

For Stilz, colonialism is pro tanto wrong because it involves alienating  coercion. This is because colonialism cannot respect the colonized people’s shared  political will if any. For Stilz, it follows that colonial rule cannot be fully legitimate,  no matter how beneficial it is to colonized and no matter how substantively just it is.  However, Stilz’s view is unable to explain why colonialism always contributes a  significant pro tanto wrong. Suppose a people lacks a shared political will to  cooperate together. For Stilz, their state lacks full legitimacy. But if they are  colonized by another state, this colonial state also lacks full legitimacy. However,  intuitively colonialism adds an additional wrong. But Stilz’s view does not supply one. The self-respect account, in contrast, can. On this view, colonial rule contributes  a new threat to colonized people’s social bases of self-respect. 

For Ypi, colonialism is wrong because it involves unequal or unreciprocal  terms of political association. Ypi argues the reason why is that colonialism involves  coercion. However, this explanation either undergenerates or overgenerates the  wrong of colonialism. Either colonialism need not involve coercion, or if it does,  then the colonial coercion pervades ordinary life. The wrong of colonialism cannot  be that common. Ypi can solve this problem of extensional adequacy, but only at the  cost of rendering her view insufficiently explanatory. My appeal to self-respect,  however, avoids this problem.

Supporting material

Add supporting material (slides, programs, etc.)

This is a student event (e.g. a graduate conference).




Who is attending?

No one has said they will attend yet.

Will you attend this event?

Let us know so we can notify you of any change of plan.