The Moral Aspects of British Imperialism

When speaking colloquially, words like “good”, “bad”, “useful”, “unhelpful”, “detrimental”, and “beneficial” (among many others) are often understood in simplistic ways which, upon analysis, are less clear than initially thought.[1] While the jargon may be fine for every day conversations, when attempting to form conclusions about historical events, or when trying to offer serious analysis of a given state of affairs, determining what, if anything, is meant by these terms, becomes vitally important.

The subject this paper attempts to briefly address must, itself, be exposed to such meta-ethical considerations. I wish to discuss “Imperialism”; more specifically: imperialism as an historical phenomenon, and I wish to determine (to the extent possible in this short essay), if it was “beneficial” or “detrimental” in a general sense.[2] To do so, I’ll briefly discuss aesthetic theory, and construct an off-the-cuff rubric of determining what is to be counted as “beneficial” and what is to be counted as “detrimental”.

This may be to start with a handicap however, as the debate over the meaning of such terms hinges, in large part, on the bias of the debaters. The confusion can be quickly illustrated by thinking of a child; what the parent considers “beneficial” may not be, at all, what the child thinks. The two have different standards of what the word means. This same is true for adults in conflict with each other. What the Muslims think is beneficial for France, may not be what Charles Martel thinks is beneficial for France, and thus the two collide.[3]

It would be helpful at this point to consider that the most well-known form of “Imperialism” in history, and also what I’ll be discussing in this paper, was that practiced by the British Empire. As such, we might be able to look at the word “beneficial” from their perspective, and determine if, at least as far as they were concerned, their practices were beneficial or detrimental.

In his book “The Industrial Revolution and British Imperialism” J.R. Ward says the following:

In 1750 Great Britain stood alongside Spain, Portugal, the Dutch Republic, and France, just as one of the five European colonial powers. By 1850 the British overseas empire was quite unrivaled. Over the same period Britain achieved a temporary pre-eminence as ‘the workshop of the world’. To what extent was its imperial expansion a consequence of its industrial revolution, perhaps through the need for enlarged markets and raw material supplies?

And so, it might be expected that the moral and religious climate of the time, would motivate intellectuals in the society to rationalize their need for resources by appealing to popular sentiments and prejudice.[4] This, however, would be to analyze these justifications from outside the perspective of those offering them, and often overlooks the complexity of the individual’s thinking and emotional involvement.

The great historian Thomas Macaulay is an excellent example of this sort of complexity. In 1835, while considering how best to improve the living conditions of the native Indians under British rule, the question was raised as to how best to educate them, which naturally lead to a discussion of the limits of native language. Still, if their native language wasn’t conducive to education, then what language would they be better learning? Macaulay, in his essay “The Intrinsic Superiority of Western Literature” argues in an off-the-cuff manner, that “everyone” would concede that a European library (and by extension, the European languages) is superior to anything in Sanskrit. He says the following:

“…I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable.”

While these sorts of statements may come across as harsh and unjustified to modernist ears, there may be subtleties involved in Macaulay’s position that aren’t readily apparent at first. Far from being a whipping-boy “hate-filled-bigot” type of caricature for left-wing hipsters, Macaulay, at other times, showed a deep care for the native Indians, and, indeed, spent much of his life trying to better their position.

In March of 1838, when opposing a bill that would benefit the white aristocracy in India, biographer Sir George Otto Trevelyan presents Macaulay’s account of his opposition’s opinion:

The firmness with which the Government withstood the idle outcry of two or three hundred people, about a matter with which they had nothing to do, was designated as insolent defiance of public opinion. We were enemies of freedom, because we would not suffer a small white aristocracy to domineer over millions. How utterly at variance these principles are with reason, with justice, with the honour of the British Government, and with the dearest interests of the Indian people, it is unnecessary for me to point out.

And so we have Macaulay both assertion European superiority, while also accepting that native self-rule would, in the end, be better, or more “beneficial”. This implies that Macaulay’s view of “superiority” is only coherent within some ideological structure.

Think of it this way. To say apples are superior to oranges, is incoherent, until one asks… “Superior in what way?” Or, “superior how?” Ones an objective rubric is provided, such comparisons become possible. We might say apples are superior at being red, while oranges are superior at being orange. Or, someone might say apples are superior at being nutritious, while oranges have the superior flavor.   Thus, Macaulay can presuppose an objective literary standard, and determine (according to his rubric) which literature and / or language, is “superior” to the other – while still, presumably, granting the native culture the dignity required by upstanding Christian propriety.[5]

On this view, there is an objective rubric for determining when something is or isn’t beneficial – in Macaulay’s case, specifically as it concerns education, something is beneficial when it provides ample utility for learning, as (he argued) the English language would.

Macaulay’s view is echoed by Rudyard Kipling, and so, to some extent, might be seen as representative of British Imperialism in general. If there is a God, then He has created a world in which objective analysis is possible, and, as Kipling says in his poem “The White Man’s Burden”, the benefit of adhering to His standards will be seen by the natives over whom they are imposed.

To conclude with Kipling:

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples,

Shall weigh your Gods and you.



[1] A quick survey of the vast amount of philosophical material devoted to meta-ethics proves that, on the scholarly level at least, there is little agreement about what such words really mean. Many, like philosopher J.L. Mackie have concluded that the words may have no objective meaning at all! See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s discussion of “Moral Nihilism”.

[2] While it’s hard to say any historical event was totally “beneficial” or totally “detrimental”, I’ll be aiming at a general assessment and evaluating the data with an eye for trends one way or the other.

[3] The Muslims might argue that their invasion of France would be beneficial, because wiping out the erroneous Christian religion and replacing it with the truth of Islam would ensure that far more people make it to Heaven than had the invasion not occurred.

Martel, on the other hand, may consider it more beneficial for his people to express themselves organically, without having a foreign culture imposed on them. Thus – the two different worldviews lead to two different understandings of what would be beneficial to France.

[4] As a brief editorial note: the negative portrayal of British interests is so constant in American pop-culture, that there’s little wonder many people are quick to think the worst without, at times, considering the complexities involved in their situation. General Robert E. Lee made an ironic remark about these sorts of people – saying that the South’s only mistake was putting all its worst generals on the battlefield, and leaving all its best to write newspaper editorials…

[5] Macaulay, early on, joined the abolitionist movement as well; additionally, in his memoirs, he praises the introduction of Christianity into the Indian continent. See chapter 1 of Trevelyan’s biography, alluded to above.

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