Grounding the Wrong of Colonialism in Self-RespectAnthony Nguyen (University of Southern California)
26th Annual Oxford Graduate Philosophy Conference
Faculty of Philosophy
Oxford OX2 6GG
- Aristotelian Society
- Royal Institute of Philosophy
- Analysis Trust
- Faculty of Philosophy
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.
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