Teaching Mill’s Colonialism (and Other Great Mistakes of Great Philosophers)




By Sam Duncan

I made a mistake in my ethics class this semester: I canceled John Stuart Mill. To be quite honest it wasn’t entirely Mill’s history as an administrator for the East India Company or the fact that he was the author of an unsuccessful defense of the company and its (mis)deeds in the wake of the Indian rebellion that made me drop him from the syllabus. Mill’s Utilitarianism was on the bubble. Mill has an ability to turn a phrase yes, but students are often confused by the meandering presentation of Utilitarianism where he spends much more time arguing with an imagined opponent than presenting the theory itself, and it is hard to overstate how much the higher/lower pleasures stuff muddies the water while also solving no problems whatsoever. But Mill’s history as a colonialist and defender of colonialism pushed Utilitarianism over the line for me. The fact that J.S. Mill spent most of his working life involved in a project of injustice and oppression and devoted some of his considerable intellectual and literary gifts to defending that project seemed to settle what would otherwise be a close call. In retrospect, I realize that Mill’s colonialism is actually a powerful reason to keep him on the syllabus. He made huge mistakes, and if someone wants to tear down statues of him I won’t argue against that. But like many mistakes made by great philosophers, and Mill is certainly that, there is much to learn from his mistakes. By dropping him from our syllabi we would deprive students of the opportunity to do just this.

I began to suspect that I’d made a mistake as we discussed utilitarian moral theory and the common criticisms of it. When I presented Thomas Nagel’s charge in “War and Massacre” that utilitarianism too easily justifies the unconscionable in foreign policy I found myself veering into a discussion of Kant’s principled opposition to colonialism versus Mill’s utilitarian justifications of it. Here was somewhere where Nagel’s charge rang much more true than in throwing the guilt for Vietnam at the feet of utilitarianism. The Pentagon Papers showed that Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and their underlings had long known that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but kept it going out of political expediency. They were not sincere utilitarians, but political cynics looking for some convenient cover for decisions motivated by domestic political concerns. As J.S. Mill points out, any moral theory can be misused by such cynics to justify their decisions. Mill on the other hand was a utilitarian and a sincere one. His support of the colonial project on such sincere utilitarian grounds is a much more damning indictment of utilitarian reasoning in international affairs than is someone like Johnson, Nixon, McGeorge Bundy, or Robert McNamara trying to paint over amoral realpolitik with idealistic utilitarian gloss. Yes Mill a cynic can misuse your theory as they can any moral theory, but what does it say that it leads an idealist like you to a horrible moral mistake? 

As my students almost instantly noticed utilitarianism’s flexibility often gives it a clear advantage over the rigid certainties of Kantianism. Contrast the utilitarian’s easy, and correct, explanation for why one should lie to the murderer at the door with the tortured reasoning a Kantian must engage in to even get the obviously right answer to a case that should not even present a dilemma. But in Mill’s colonialism and Kant’s anti-colonialism they had a clear example of how double edged both Kantianism’s rigidity and utilitarianism’s flexibility are. What was a clear advantage in one situation leads to mistakes in another.

What has truly convinced me beyond any doubt that I made a mistake though is reading Priya Satia’s excellent book on Britain’s colonial past Time’s Monster. One of Satia’s main concerns is with how a progressive conception of history and a focus on the supposed moral judgment of history can warp the conscience of sincere people so that they not only do bad things but do them out of a legitimate concern to do good. This raises a number of uncomfortable but vitally important questions. For one thing, it deepens the objection to utilitarian reasoning, who can fail to see the obvious parallels between the judgment of future history a utilitarian like Mill thought could vindicate the British colonial project despite its obvious crimes and the long-termist utilitarians’ invocation of future history to justify their own commitments and projects?

Perhaps more importantly examining Mill’s colonialism raises uncomfortable questions even for we non-consequentialists. Mill is a victim of this conception of history, but as Satia makes clear Kant did much to lay the groundwork for this conception. Not only that but it is one that many liberals (in both senses of that term) are deeply committed to whether explicitly or implicitly. As Satia notes, Barack Obama took being on the “wrong side of history” to be the most damning moral judgment one could level. And of course many of us think that someone who defends a monstrous project like colonialism must be either a monster himself or a cynic. We tend I think to follow Kant in thinking it impossible that conscience could truly err and that truly bad action must have some hidden element of self-interest. Mill’s colonialism presents a powerful challenge to it.  Reading Mill would then not only be a way to naturally introduce an objection to utilitarianism, but would have led naturally to exactly the sorts of uncomfortable questions that a good ethics class should take up, questions which perhaps implicate and accuse us as much as the philosophers we read.

I offer this as a more general lesson for whom we should teach in a philosophy class and why. All too often these debates take the following form: Someone points out the misdeeds or awful intellectual commitments of a famous philosopher as reason to drop them from our syllabi, and the replies take on the form of a Mad Lib “What does famous philosopher’s terrible claim or political commitment have to do with fill in philosopher’s famous work or influential claims here?” Both sides of this debate are mistaken. We should take up the famous philosophers in history for the same reasons that Socrates questioned influential and powerful Athenians. For one thing, these thinkers have set the very way we think and live. They have power over us whether we acknowledge them or not. Ignoring them will do nothing to challenge that power. This is where the camp that would banish them from our syllabi and attention go wrong. Moreover, we can learn from them, though what we learn will often make us uncomfortable. Here we see that the Mad Lib defense of famous philosophers is wrong in that the disagreeable bits of great philosophers’ works and lives are often intertwined with the parts we admire. Even when they are not, we and our students can learn something from the failure of a philosopher’s ideas to make contact with other elements of his life.

Consider Heidegger’s conception of authenticity, which I still remember as one of the most thrilling ideas I came across as an undergraduate in philosophy. There is something undeniably captivating about this picture of heroic choice and godlike creation of values through sheer acts of human will. But when one hollows out any transcendent or objective values from such willing and emphasizes only the brute will and its power, well then does Heidegger’s Nazism look like mere opportunism or a relic of his background? Is authenticity then not a dangerous ideal? How comfortable are we with it? Or consider Hume and Kant’s racism. Justin E.H. Smith has made a powerful case in his Nature, Human Nature, and Human Difference that Hume’s racism is not some mere accidental prejudice but is closely connected with Hume’s empiricism. According to Smith the emphasis on observable differences inclined Hume toward racism while Cartesians and Leibniz were much more resistant to this doctrine because of their now deeply unfashionable view of the human mind, which retains so much of the Christian conception of the soul. Can we really separate Hume the empiricist and intellectual grandfather of the “New Atheism” whom so many Anglophone philosophers revere from Hume the racist whom we should all revile? I would by no means confidently say we cannot, but we do our students a grave disservice if we do not even raise these questions. Or consider Kant. While the evidence suggests that Kant did rethink his earlier racist commitments in light of the moral philosophy he worked out in the Groundwork, which also bolstered his anti-colonialism, he never publicly repudiated it or wrestled with it in the ways one would like. And racist elements seem to linger despite Kant’s professed moral values. As Lucy Allais shows in her “Kant’s Racism”  we can learn something about the phenomenon of racism itself from Kant’s halting and imperfect repudiation of ideas so blatantly at odds with his moral philosophy. Here the Mad Lib defense actually seems partially right: Kant’s racism does seem to have nothing to do with his formula of humanity, but that itself is a philosophical problem in a way that the Mad Libs defense cannot admit. If a giant like Kant can ignore the conflicts between his moral commitments and his prejudices, well then what are the chances that we are not also doing the same thing in some obvious way?

Philosophy classes are not and should not be exercises in hagiography. We should not drop philosophers from our reading lists because they fail to be moral exemplars. That misunderstands why we read and wrestle with them in the first place. On the other hand, it is even worse to try to revise and edit them into saints when they clearly are not. When our great predecessors err we should take them to task for it. We and our teaching will be better for it.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More