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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: On Relational Injustice: Could Colonialism Have Been Wrong Even if it Had Introduced More Benefits Than Harms?

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This essay was awarded second place in the Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics Undergraduate Category.

Written by University of Oxford student, Brian Wong

Recent debates over the legacy of colonialism – such that that of the British Empire – have often been centred around whether members of colonies have, on balance, benefited from being subject to colonial rule. Such debates are not only epistemically futile, for counterfactual analysis remains necessarily and largely speculative hitherto; they also neglect a potential alternative to the discussion: that colonial projects could have been wrong independent of the harms they bring.

My thesis is that there existed the unoffsettable wrong of the relational injustice perpetuated under colonialism, such that colonialism was wrong even in cases where it introduced counterfactual-sensitive benefits. I will first discuss my concept of relational injustice, prior to establishing the empirical premise and explaining why such wrongs are unoffsettable by consequentialist gains.

Harm is often employed in a counterfactual-sensitive manner: X is harmed by A who carries out Z iff X experiences lower welfare[1] in a world with Z than in the closest possible world without Z.[2] Given the contestations over the term, this essay suggests the following definition for wrongness: X is wronged by A who carries out Z if X is justified in holding resentful reactive attitudes towards A in relation to Z. X is wronged by A if Z is an act of unoffsettable wrongness, even if X is not harmed by Z.

Relational injustice refers to the specific injustice perpetuated when an individual is placed in an unjustifiably lower status in relation to another within a relationship. Anderson (1999) discusses the concept of relational inequality, which involves status disparities that prevent individuals from relating to each other as equals within communities. Relational injustice is a particular form of inequality, which involves two additional features: i) a group characteristic-based form of prejudice towards particular demographic groups that is ii) institutionalised through formal structures, such as government or the civil service. At its very core, relational injustice measures the quality of relationships between individuals – it maps onto a 2-place predicate that reflects the nature of ties and interactions, as opposed to the harms towards a particular individual’s welfare. Relational injustice differs from distributive injustice, in that its manifestations – biases, psychological exclusion, and imposed deprecation of status – cannot be rectified even in a distributively egalitarian society where individuals have equal levels of welfare, or access to welfare.

Consider now the specific empirical premise, which concerns a violation of relational justice: as such, evidence for or against materialist benefits (e.g. greater income) should be viewed as parallel to the discussion. Whilst African slavery had existed prior to European colonisation, the process of Western colonisation was embedded with large-scale Transatlantic Slavery that led to the non-consensual and dehumanising transfer of 11 million Africans to the Caribbean and Americas.[3] Colonies were governed by structures beholden (by definition) to either their original sovereign state (e.g. the UK, Spain, or France), or a newly emerged substitute (e.g. the US, Rhodesia); the colonised public in these areas operated in asymmetrically lower status than a select group of elites[4]. Moreover, indigenous populations faced psychological exploitation and social exclusion from elites who entrenched foreign interests and designated them the effective Other in governance. The apparent caveat is that not all colonial projects exemplified these phenomena equally, if at all; yet to the extent that they did, they were relationally unjust.

Why is relational injustice a wrong in general? My view is that there is something intrinsically valuable in equal relations between persons within a particular society. Suppose we remove all specifications of characteristics and features about individuals within a hypothetical society, and are asked to choose between a world where all relations are deeply egalitarian and grounded upon mutual respect and compassion, and a world where all relations are inegalitarian, with a clearly arranged status order and hierarchy. Now suppose that both societies have achieved the same, optimal state from the point of view of distributive justice. We would intuitively find the former more appealing, for the reason that relational equality counts as an axiological component of how we assess the quality of a state of affairs.

Now why is such injustice a wrong for an individual, independent of specific impacts on their individual welfare? Could an individual be wronged in such a way that cannot be reduced to an aggregation of their preferences and utils? A potential justification is to view relational equality as the component of a particular, universal claim right held by all individuals – that all individuals are entitled to being treated equally in their relations, independent of the outcomes associated with such treatment. This proposition appears to also ground our common intuitions concerning why discrimination along arbitrary lines – even if it does not manifest in concrete outcomes for the individual – is intrinsically wrong.

The onus lies in establishing why such the wrongness caused by relational injustice cannot be offset by aggregate welfare gains accrued to individuals. Consider the following example[5]: the Discriminated Homeless Person. A homeless individual is denied entry into a homeless shelter from the freezing weather outside, by an explicitly racist manager of the shelter; the shelter later collapses, killing everyone inside. From a counterfactual-comparative point of view, it appears that the homeless individual, whilst suffering from hypothermia, was indeed made better off by the initial denial of entry (which prevented their death)[6]. However, there remains an intuition that the homeless has suffered relational injustice at the hands of a formal structure (the shelter) on the basis of some group characteristic (their ethnicity). In other words, they are wronged without necessary harm.

 There are two primary strands of arguments in favour of why the wrongs (in both cases of colonialism and the Homeless), are not cancellable by offsetting welfare gains. Firstly, there is the argument from non-fungibility: every relation maps onto a correlation between two individuals – e.g. the coloniser and the colonised, the shelter manager and the homeless. Whilst redistribution of money, goods, or opportunities might have compensated the colonised’s individual welfare, it did not rectify the imbalances that had previously persisted (and continued to persist) in spite of the economic advances and technological innovation introduced under colonial rule[7]. We intrinsically feel that there are certain items that money cannot buy – for instance, relational attributes such as genuine love, compassion, or dignity and respect by other individuals. These are dimensions that exist independently of material benefits or individual welfare, in that they necessarily involve interactions between two or more individuals (e.g. it is unintelligible to discuss acquiring love without another person to love you). Therefore, assuming that such improvements to welfare did not (as per empirics) improve the relational parity between the colonised and colonisers, mere material improvements do not suffice in compensating for the previous wrongs.

Secondly, there is the argument from intentions. Many of colonial states’ greatest advances were often unintended side benefits of projects primarily installed to generate revenue for the purpose of the colonisers. As such, material gains to the colonised were often the result of fortune and unintentionally favourable policies; even if this were not the case – as per certain colonies that acquired special economic status, such as Hong Kong and Singapore – the primary end objective of beneficiary economic policies remained ultimately the entrenchment of the colonisers’ interests. Consider the Saviour Burglar: a burglar breaks into a house with a malfunctioning microwave, and wakes up the sleeping houseowner in the process; the burglar steals $1,000 from the owner, but effectively saves the resident as they would have perished had the microwave later exploded. Now consider the Selfish Coach: the coach of a prodigy athlete views their success as the only means to accumulate substantial wealth and fame. As such, they sustain a relationally unequal relationship that nonetheless succeeds in training the athlete into becoming highly successful. The athlete would not have been as famous or well off had it not been for the unequal relations between them and their coach. In the case of the Selfish Coach, the benefits to the victim were accrued as a side benefit; in the case of the Saviour Burglar, the benefits were accidental and unintended. This is important, for whilst these benefits accrue to the victims both cases above, in neither of the cases are they relevant to the particular relation between individuals – the coach and the student, the burglar and the homeowner: the student’s success derives from their interaction with and recognition by external sporting organisations and other competitors; the counterfactual harm that the burglar ‘helps’ the homeowner avoid is originally caused by the homeowner’s microwave malfunctioning, as opposed to the burglar. The absence of active intentions to compensate renders the comparative benefits accidental, as opposed to being morally relevant and legitimate as a form of compensation. In both cases, we feel that the coach and the burglar have wronged the athlete and homeowner – in spite of the net benefits their actions brought; this analogy also applies to the historical examples of colonialism.

A primary objection to the above is the view that individuals may opt to waive relational equality in exchange for greater material benefits. For instance, I may consent to selling myself into slavery (lower status within a relationship) in exchange for large volumes of money. If this were deemed legitimate, it would not be implausible to hold that colonised individuals could waive their relational equality in exchange for better socioeconomic conditions.

The first response to this is empirical. Movements ranging from Gandhi’s non-violence to Ho Chi Minh’s pro-independence struggle; or even large-scale protests that pre-dated independence in Ghana, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the Caribbean, were indicative of substantial popular discontent in spite of the arguably greater (and unique) socioeconomic benefits the colonial regimes had brought the colonies.[8] Moreover, individuals often were not given the opportunity to choose whether they accepted the related benefits – there were minimal options that would permit easy international migration, let along inter-regional movements for individuals to ‘opt out’ of the provided benefits.[9] Furthermore, the uniqueness of considering relation – as opposed to individual welfare – as the base unit of justice, is that violations on a relational level cannot be (for the above reasons) waived unilaterally by one party: they must compensate precisely pre-existing relational inequalities in order to carry any offsetting weight.

A second objection is quasi-Parfitean[10]: it reasons that it would be unreasonable to hold that x is wronged by some injustice Y if x would not have been better off in comparison, had it not been for the injustice Y. The metaphysical assumption is that in the absence of relational inequality afflicting them, colonised individuals would not have acquired the material gains and welfare improvements. As such, it would be unreasonable for the colonised to regret colonialism, without also regretting the comparative benefits they derived from the process.

Note the distinction between harm (a comparative concept) and wrong  (a non-comparative concept). This objection assumes that the relevant metric is reasonable regrettability, but neglects whether regrettability maps onto the concept of harm, or wrong. I suggest that it maps onto only the former – for we may find something wrong without wishing that it had not happened. The homeowner and athlete may find the burglar and their coach having wronged them, whilst simultaneously content with the burglary and training they received. Most fundamentally, Parfit’s regrets test could be turned upon the argument – perhaps it is the necessary entailment between the wrong-making feature (e.g. the break-in, the harsh training, and the relational injustice under colonialism) and the welfare improvements that is most reasonable to regret: after all, it is not inconceivable for there to be a possible world where individuals’ welfare is benefited without the preceding acts of relational injustice.

In conclusion, the concept of relational injustice offers a useful avenue to accounting for the wrongness of empires independent of counterfactual-based disputes over colonialism’s impact on individual welfare. Even if colonies had become more prosperous under colonisation, this offers no recuse for the errs of empires past.

[1] Let a pluralist conception of welfare be assumed – that is, some relatively uncontroversial combination of hedonism and preferentialism; this assumes, of course, that there exists some level of fungibility between utils and preferences etc.

[2] Possible worlds here refer not necessarily to full, concrete entities (cf. Lewis, 1968); they could also be simply books of possibilities

[3] King, Russell (2010). People on the Move: An Atlas of Migration. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-520-26124-2.

[4] Belich, James (2009). Replenishing the earth : the settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world, 1783-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 573. ISBN 978-0-19-929727-6. Retrieved 2009-12-18.

[5] This example is similar to the one discussed by Woodward in “The Non-Identity Problem” (1986). Ethics 96, no. 4 (Jul. 1986): 804-831

[6] Assuming, of course, that their existence is utility-positive

[7] Even for ‘successful’ colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore, the public continued to reside under governance systems that were led and controlled predominantly by British civil servants; in British colonies in West and South Africa, many economic and social privileges were restricted solely to white residents.

[8] Belich, 2009

[9] For more arguments that are similar to this, cf. common objections to tactic consent arguments in political theory.

[10] cf. Parfit’s response to rights-based solutions to the Non-Identity Problem in Parfit, 1984

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Surely it depends on the actual details of the colony in question?

    Imagine groups of people in Hobbesian anarchy (which is the observed sort of anarchy, rather than the floral, sweet-scented varieties imagined in coffee shops). Imagine superman flies in, restrains the anarchy, improves everyone’s lives, but insists on being treated as The Man and setting himself above everyone who already lives there. He has committed this new-fangled relational injustice, but everyone is better off in absolute terms, even if everyone-1 has slipped a notch in relative terms.

    Either that’s ok, in which case there are at least some cases in which relational injustice is trumped by consequentialism, or it is still not ok, in which case we should care only about relative outcomes and not at all about absolute ones.

    If it’s ok, then there are some consequences that trump relational justice. If it’s not ok, then we care only about relative outcomes, and not at all about absolute ones.

    This is plausible, but you might want to check out your neighbours: in international relations, a strong preference for valuing relative outcomes over absolute outcomes is associated with flavours of realism rather than liberalism. A preference considering only the relative outcomes and not the global outcomes would suggest that it’s all about self-interest (group self-interest) – I guess you could say that you care about how all groups fare, but in fact your argument is that we should systematically topple any elites. This is a recipe for instability (or permanent revolution). Since no one can agree on what fair treatment of groups looks like*, the insistence that relative outcomes are all that matters is a recipe for the inter-group hostility of zero-sum reasoning.

    *Where should we demarcate national borders in the South China Sea? Is Kashmir Pakistani or Indian? Are reparations for slavery, sexism and so on warranted? If so, how far do we go back, and how do we set the price? And so on.

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