A University of Oxford project that rejects the blanket assertion that imperialism is “wicked” has attracted widespread criticism.
A series of invitation-only workshops on Ethics and Empire, being convened by the McDonald Centre for Ethics, Theology and Public Life, sets out to “measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe”.
Other aims of the project include “develop[ing] a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire”, with a view to “enabl[ing] a morally sophisticated negotiation of contemporary issues such as military intervention for humanitarian purposes in culturally foreign states, the cohesion of multicultural societies, and settling imperial pasts”.
In response, almost 60 Oxford scholars working in the area published an open letter in The Conversation, expressing concern that the views of course leader Nigel Biggar, Regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford – who has argued that Britain need not be ashamed of its imperial past – should not be “misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship”.
“For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past,” the authors say.
In parallel with this, a group of five scholars based at other institutions – Priyamvada Gopal, Gavin Rand, Katherine Schofield, Kim A. Wagner and Jon Wilson – have been collecting signatures for another statement to register their “surprise and concern”.
“The empire was a complex, changing, dynamic thing,” explained Dr Rand, senior lecturer in history at the University of Greenwich. “Trying to reckon the good against the bad – the balance-sheet approach – is so outdated [and] problematic because it is rooted in the justifications of imperial administrators and those who benefited from imperialism.”
Attempts to develop a “Christian ethic of empire”, Dr Rand went on, ignored the fact that “You can’t seriously read the British empire in South Asia as a Christian project. You can’t understand empire through that Christian ethical lens.”
The final problem, according to Dr Rand, was that the Ethics and Empire project “features a pretty select and narrow range of scholarship”. He and his colleagues were not interested in “shutting it down but calling it out and subjecting it to the typical standards of academic scrutiny and debate we all expect”.
Asked for his comments, Professor Biggar told Times Higher Education that he was “not advocating a ‘balance-sheet’ approach. However, if imperial government, like any government, involves both good and evil, we need to find a more sophisticated way of evaluating it morally.” Furthermore, since all ethical arguments have to “start from somewhere”, he saw “nothing to stop a Christian ethic of empire being both intellectually sound and academically robust”.
Invitation-only events, Professor Biggar added, were not unusual and could “enable focused reflection and sustained discussion…Besides, in the current illiberal climate, such discussion is only possible in private, because the ideological enemies of free speech and thought would disrupt it, were it to be held in public.”