Legitimacy of modern colonialism in Asia and Africa



European colonialism in Asia and Africa last well into the modern age. Most Asian countries only became independent after WW II, and Most African nations became independent only in the 1950's and 1960's. That is way after the enlightenment, after the French Revolution (liberty, equality, ..) and after the likes of Locke, Kant and Hobbes. My limited understanding of those thinkers is that the legitimacy of government come from social contracts, consent of the governed, democracy - government as the agent of the governed, and freedom. These all seem to contradict the legitimacy of colonial governments, which exploit foreign nation for their advantage by the force of arms. Divine rights and natural law might be used to justify colonialism, but after the enlightenment it seems that these theories are obsolete.

What are the common philosophical justifications of colonialism in the 19th and 20th century? How did they address the lack of consent, freedom and democratic rights of the governed?


Posted 2017-02-28T05:20:36.033

Reputation: 450

Question was closed 2017-03-02T13:40:33.233

3why the downvotes? this is likely a pretty good picture of how the ruling class thought back in the day. sorry this was intended as a comment, hit the wrong button. – None – 2017-02-28T22:22:05.167

1@JosephWeissman: Could you explain why you closed it as 'too broad' and what can I do to narrow it down? – user69715 – 2017-03-02T15:31:21.913

Narrowing this to some specific issue in your reading/study would help a lot in terms of moving it closer to being topical here -- what is the specific philosophical problem you're encountering here? Asking for "common" philosophical responses to something as huge as "colonialism" feels a bit fishy here; surely there's a narrower criterion -- some particular confusion, in some specific philosopher's work you're reading, which someone could here could explain to you? – Joseph Weissman – 2017-03-02T16:30:31.440

2Posts that question the status quo or expose the fallacies of the powerful nations are usually not welcome in this site... – Rodrigo – 2017-03-15T01:25:25.513

Good question. +1 from me – None – 2021-02-10T22:55:57.117



According to Bertrand Russell, colonialism is justifiable if the result is the spread of civilization and the survival of the fittest. The dispossessed is either raised to a higher plane of civilization or is taken out of misery. In order to justify colonialism, the colonizers must also be able to enjoy his fruit of labour and be able to flourish in the climate of the conquered land.

By a "war of colonization" I mean a war whose purpose is to drive out the whole population of some territory and replace it by an invading population of a different race. Ancient wars were very largely of this kind, of which we have a good example in the Book of Joshua. In modern times the conflicts of Europeans with American-Indians, Maories, and other aborigines in temperate regions, have been of this kind. Such wars are totally devoid of technical justification, and are apt to be mor ruthless than any other war. Nevertheless, if we are to judge by results, we cannot regret that such wars have taken place. They have the merit, often quite fallaciously claimed for all wars, of leading in the main to the survival of the fittest, and it is chiefly through such wars that the civilized portion of the world has been extended from the neighborhood of the Mediterranean to the greater part of the earth’s surface. The eighteenth century, which liked to praise the virtues of the savage and contrast them with the gilded corruption of courts, nevertheless had no scruple in thrusting the noble savage out from his North American hunting grounds. And we cannot at this date bring ourselves to condemn the process by which the American continent has been acquired for European civilization. In order that such wars may be justified, it is necessary that there should be a very great and undeniable difference between the civilization of the colonizers and that of the dispossessed natives. It is necessary also that the climate should be one in which the invading race can flourish. When these conditions are satisfied the conquest becomes justified, though the actual fighting against the dispossessed inhabitants ought, of course, to be avoided as far as is compatible with colonizing. Many humane people will object in theory to the justification of this form of robbery, but I do not think that any practical or effective objection is likely to be made.

Russell, Bertrand. The Ethics of War, 1915

Being colonized is equivalent to emigrating to another country. In the former case, the border crosses the person, in the latter case, the person crosses the border. In the former case, a more desirable way of life is brought to a person; in the latter case, that person seeks out a more desirable way of life. A lot of people who hated colonialism would happily emigrate to a more developed country while being totally oblivious of the apparent contradiction in their opinions: what is the difference between emigrating to Austria and cloning a piece of Austria in your neighbourhood? If the cloning is done by the colonizer, you don't even have to worry about copyright infringement.

In plain English, natives never lived lives thug-free; civilized foreign thugs were a lot better than indigenous thugs. Towards the end of the 19th century, colonialism had become a vanity fair of the civilized, and there was a healthy rivalry between world powers. Civilized countries built universities, hospitals, rail roads and even legal infrastructure in other parts of the world which were mostly medieval and barbaric. This type of colonialism was entirely beneficial to the then-medieval Chinese. WWI put an end to it.

Even during WWI, Bertrand Russell recognized Germany as a civilized nation and called for swift British compromise in order to bring the war to an end.

George Chen

Posted 2017-02-28T05:20:36.033

Reputation: 2 102

"The principle of consent does not apply because all men are not equal, and between men and apes, there is no such thing as an impassable gap" Did philosophers really use this in the 20th century as a justification for colonialism? Is there an example passage/writing? – user69715 – 2017-02-28T21:01:55.850

2do the last two paragraphs reflect your personal opinions, or are they intended to explicate Russel? – None – 2017-02-28T23:28:37.920

These are facts. All you need is to take look at empirical evidence. – George Chen – 2017-03-01T00:31:51.093

I don't see from this quote where Russell gives any type of philosophical justification of this opinion of his. "Survival of the fittest" in its proper Darwinian context does not justify or explain colonization or aggressive extermination of populations. It's to be understood as a capacity of robustness or adaptability in the context of ever changing natural conditions. – ClearMountainWay – 2017-03-01T02:41:42.220

I was asking less for what one thought about the merits of "civilization", but rather philosophical bases of a justification. A person living tranquily off the land isn't looking for a saviour. The person conceiving of himself [sic] as a saviour has a concept of himself and Others that creates this sense of "lack" in an Other and a "justification" for the mode of intervention in their mode of existence. – ClearMountainWay – 2017-03-01T04:22:33.497

Your criterion for what is "philosophical" is peculiarly yours. In a lawless world, "a person living tranquilly off the land" only exists in your imagination. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/murder-of-usc-chinese-students-brings-second-life-sentence These two persons sitting tranquilly in a car but was shot dead nevertheless. In a lawless environment, bullying like this was the order of the day. Besides, colonists are not here to save you; it is my way or the high way; they reason only with those who are able to reason; those who cannot reason are not so different from wild beasts.

– George Chen – 2017-03-01T06:23:40.577

2George, a desire for empirical explanation is not a philosophical justification. The OP isn't asking for a sociological or historical account of the world. That different modes of being result in an overall lawlessness is a quite banal given. He's asking neither for your own personal politics nor for your sociological view of the world. Please reread what was asked and start again. – ClearMountainWay – 2017-03-01T13:26:50.397

@mobileink am I still not excused? – Not_Here – 2017-03-01T22:41:41.363

5Right after that extract, Russell adds "Such wars, however, belong now to the past" – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-03-02T05:29:35.707

He also wrote it in 1915, I wonder whether he would have reconsidered his position after WWII. – Mozibur Ullah – 2017-03-02T05:31:54.397

@Not_Here: You are hereby officially pardonned. George himself made your point, vividly. – None – 2017-03-02T19:59:59.967

This is not a blog. Please make it clear in your post what is Russell's, what is your interpretation of Russell, and what is your own opinion. Also, please keep this on-topic. All the images you added do not help answering the question "What are the common philosophical justifications of colonialism in the 19th and 20th century?". – None – 2017-03-14T11:49:27.443

1@Keelan Guys, if it's not an appropriate answer for the site, as in "it's not even wrong", but a non-answer to the question, just delete it. That's what deletion is for, rather than endless comments under a controversial post. – Dan Bron – 2017-03-14T12:37:20.793

@DanBron what remains may be incorrect, but it does try to answer the question, doesn't it? – None – 2017-03-14T12:41:47.283

@Keelan That's what I'm asking, I guess. I'm seeing a lot of "this is just a personal blog and doesn't answer the question" kinda comments. If it's a legit attempt to directly answer the question, keep it, but if it's a non-sequitor delete it. Not that it matters too much. The Q is closed with no upvoted answers; the roomba will swing by soon enough and vacuum the whole thing up, answer and all. – Dan Bron – 2017-03-14T12:45:39.203

@DanBron exactly. I think many of the comments were directed to the part that I deleted, so that what remains is somehow an answer. But as you say, it will get cleaned up soon anyway. – None – 2017-03-14T12:49:18.243

Is being colonized equivalent to emigration? I generally don't hear about slaughter and armies involved in emigrations. This description is not an empirical fact, it is simply a clever characterization which glosses over pertinent differences. This feels similarly disingenuous as Ben Carsons recent comment positing a false equivalence of slavery and immigration. Also "better" is entirely subjective in your second to last paragraph (not empirically impartial) – Mr. Kennedy – 2017-03-15T00:55:57.623

@DanBron is it that "it's not even wrong" or does it simply argue a justification for colonialism rather than present a summary of what could be argued as a "common" one? – Mr. Kennedy – 2017-03-15T01:01:48.200

@Mr.Kennedy - Immigrants have to obey laws, in the making of which they took no part, and the enforcement of which depends on armed forces. Comparing to how the natives were being mistreated by their own kind, the civilized invading force was remarkably humane. What was Lord Clive's crime after all these hype? Forging a paper? – George Chen – 2017-03-15T10:55:13.570

Such is a minimally viable necessity for a comparison of similarity and wholly insufficient for an equivalence. – Mr. Kennedy – 2017-03-15T12:07:41.873

@Mr.Kennedy - Huge volumes are coming out. Someone needs to right some historical wrongs. If not I then who? – George Chen – 2017-03-15T12:44:15.263

Nobody noticed the subtle irony of the History itself. Obviously the colonialists are the most uncivilized ones. And about Universities etc, they copied the knowledge from India, Africa and China. Nobody except me noticed that mr. Chen wrote quoting from a book of a philosopher who was himself AGAINST colonialism. Now in HSE they censor me. @George Chen. This is "CensorofTyrannyStackExchange". Hirony is a weapon. 90% of humans ignore that. – None – 2021-02-10T23:19:35.563