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Ethics and Empire

The McDonald Centre is pleased to announce Ethics and Empire, a five-year interdisciplinary project led by Professor Biggar and held under the auspices of the McDonald Centre.  The project will gather colleagues from Classics, Oriental Studies, History, Political Thought, and Theology in a series of workshops to measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe.   The themes on which the project touches have been the focus of intense public debate in the last two years, a debate to which Professor Biggar has contributed by engaging criticisms of the statue of Cecil Rhodes (herehere, and here) and the recent case of Bruce Gilley's article for Third World Quarterly (here).     


1. Rationale

In most reaches of contemporary academic discourse—not least in Theology, Religious Studies, Political Theory, Cultural Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies—the topic of ethics and empire raises no questions to which widely accepted answers are not immediately to hand. By definition, ‘empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical. Nothing of interest remains to be explored.

This project begs to differ. First, it observes that, as an historical phenomenon as distinct from an ideological construct, ‘empire’ has meant all manner of ethical thing. In the British case, on the one hand, it presided over the ‘genocide’ of Tasmanian aboriginals in the early 1800s, the Irish Famine in 1845-52, and the massacre of unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919. On the other hand, it suppressed the Atlantic and African slave-trades after 1807, granted black Africans the vote in Cape Colony seventeen years before the United States granted it to African Americans, and offered the only centre of armed resistance to European fascism between May 1940 and June 1941.

Second, three features of contemporary international and national experience raise ethical questions of urgent public importance, which the history of empire can illuminate.

  1. Recent interventions by Western powers in the affairs of other sovereign states, ostensibly to replace despotic regimes with constitutional and democratic polities, have been highly controversial, attracting the charge of ‘liberal imperialism’. These controversies have reprised many of the issues raised by, say, British imperial activity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the moral responsibility of global powers to defend and promote ‘humane’ values and to maintain or impose peace in faraway parts of the world , the right of peoples to determine their own political life, and the contradictory combination of democratic demand to ‘do something’ about the plight of oppressed peoples with democratic reluctance to pay the necessary costs. Contemporary discussion is shaped, and sometimes distorted, by assumptions about ‘empire’ and ‘imperialism’.
  2. Western liberal states, not least in Europe, continue to grapple with social, legal, and political tensions generated by the co-existence in a single polity of significantly different cultures. On the one hand policies of assimilation and integration have been denounced as racist and oppressive, while on the other hand laissez-faire, multicultural tolerance stands accused of presiding over de facto segregation, the violation of the rights of women, and the growth of jihadism. Multinational and multicultural empires faced the same problems, attracted the same criticisms, and developed a variety of policies in response. Reflection on their experience might augment current wisdom.
  3. Whether the First Nations in Canada, the Caricom [Slavery] Reparations Commission, those demanding the redistribution of land in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Greeks lobbying for the return of the Elgin Marbles, or Oxford students chanting ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, the descendants of the subjects of empire are now claiming restitution or compensation for alleged imperial crimes. This raises complicated questions of rights and responsibility: Do aboriginal peoples have a right to cultural immunity from ‘modernity’ (Canada), or do they have a right to full participation in ‘modernity’ (South Africa)? If contemporary British Government is responsible for the effects of slavery almost two centuries after its abolition, how is that responsibility to be shared with the descendants of the Africans who profited from selling their own people to the slave-traders?

2. Purposes

The purposes of this project are:

  1. to trawl the history of ethical critiques of ‘empire’;
  2. to test the critiques against the historical facts of empire; and thereby
  3. to garner possible ethical resources for contemporary deployment.

Beyond the project, Professor Biggar intends to use its results:

  1. to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire;
  2. and so to enable 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.

3. Leadership

The project was conceived by Professor Nigel Biggar in the Faculty of Theology & Religion, and by Professor John Darwin in the Faculty of History, at the University of Oxford.   

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, and a Canon of Christ Church. He holds degrees in History as well as Christian Ethics, and has written on the rectification of violent history (Burying the Past: Making Peace and Doing Justice after Civil Conflict, 2001), the ethics of international military intervention (In Defence of War, 2013), and the ethics of the nation and empire (Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation, 2014). His contributions to the public debate about the Rhodes Must Fall campaign—most notably “Rhodes, Race, and Empire” in Standpoint magazine (March 2016)—have attracted international attention.

John Darwin is Professor of Global and Imperial History (retired), Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, and Fellow of the British Academy. He was the first Director of the Oxford Centre for Global History. His first three books  on the British Empire – Britain, Egypt and the Middle East (1981), Britain and Decolonization (1988), and The End of the British Empire (1991) – were pioneering studies. Most recently his work has become global in scope: After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (2008), The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World System, 1830–1970 ( 2009), and Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (2013). After Tamerlane was awarded the Wolfson Prize, the pre-eminent award for a history book, and The Empire Project won the triennial Trevor Reese prize for Commonwealth and Imperial history.

Sadly, Professor Darwin felt obliged to resign from the "Ethics and Empire" project for personal reasons on 18 December 2017.

4. Process

The project will run for five years from 1 June 2017 to 31 August 2022. It will take the basic form of five invitation-only workshops or ‘colloquia’:

  • ancient empires;
  • medieval empires;
  • early modern empires;
  • modern empires (with a British focus); and
  • post-colonialist critiques of empire.

Each colloquium will run for two days, and involve a series of 90-minute sessions. In each 90- minute session a colleague will present a 45-minute paper expounding and analysing a tradition's views of empire (e.g., the New Testament's) or a classic critique of empire (e.g., Augustine’s). To this another colleague will then offer a 10-minute critical response, with a view to stimulating subsequent discussion. One focal question in every session will be, "How well did empire's critics or supporters actually understand the historical phenomenon?”

The first colloquium, “Ethics and Empire: The Ancient Period”, took place on 6-7 July 2017 and comprised five sessions (the full program is available to view here):

  • Ancient Israel and the Assyrian Empire:
    • Carly Crouch, Associate Professor in Hebrew Bible, University of Nottingham
      • Respondent: Nicholas Postgate, Senior Fellow, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge
  • Classical Roman republicanism and early Roman empire:
    • Malcolm Schofield, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy, University of Cambridge
      • Respondent: Dr Hannah Cornwell, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London
  • NT/early Christian Church and Roman empire:
    • Peter Oakes, Greenwood Senior Lecturer in the New Testament, University of Manchester
      • Respondent: Dr Martin Goodman, Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Oxford
  • Augustine and late Roman empire:
    • Charles Mathewes, Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
      • Respondent: Dr Gillian Clark, Emeritus Professor Classics & Ancient History, University of Bristol
  • Classical Chinese appraisals of empire:
    • Aaron Stalnaker, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University
      • Respondent: Professor Dirk Meyer, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford

The second colloquium, “Ethics and Empire II: (Mostly) The Medieval Period”, took place on 20-21 June 2019 and comprised six main sessions (the full program is available to view here):

  • Thucydides and the Athenian Empire
    • Speaker: Roger Brock, Senior Lecturer in Classics, University of Leeds
      • Respondent: Paul Cartledge, A. G. Leventis Professor Emeritus of Greek Culture, University of Cambridge
  • The Byzantine Empire
    • Speaker: James Howard-Johnston, former University Lecturer in Byzantine Studies, University of Oxford
      • Respondent: Jonathan Shepherd, former University Lecturer in Russian History, University of Cambridge
  • The Holy Roman Empire
    • Speaker: Len Scales, Professor of Late Medieval History, University of Durham
      • Respondent: Stuart Airlie, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Glasgow
  • Towards a Theory of Empire
    • Speaker: Robert Jackson, Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, formerly Member of the European Parliament, member of the UK Parliament for Wantage, and Special Adviser to the Governor of Rhodesia
  • Arab and Turkish Empires
    • Speaker: Carole Hillenbrand, Professor of Islamic History, University of St Andrews, and Emerita Professor of Islamic History, University of Edinburgh
      • Respondent: Christian Sahner, Associate Professor of Islamic History, University of Oxford
  • Mongol Empire
    • Speaker: Peter Jackson, Professor of Medieval History, Keele University
      • Respondent: David Morgan, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

The third colloquium, “Ethics and Empire III: The Early Modern Period”, took place on 1-2 September 2021 and comprised seven sessions (the full program is available to view here):

  • Resumé of Ethics & Empire I and II
    • Speaker: Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford
  • The Akbari Conception of Empire
    • Speaker: Douglas Streusand, Professor of International Relations, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA,
      • Respondent: J. J. L. Gommans, Professor at the Institute for History, University of Leiden
  • Hugo Grotius and Dutch Empire
    • Speaker: Martine Van Ittersum, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Dundee
      • Respondent: Tristan Mostert, PhD candidate, University of Leiden
  • Towards a Theory of Empire
    • Robert Jackson, Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and former Special Adviser to the Governor of Rhodesia
  • Edmund Burke and the British Empire in India
    • Speaker: Uday Mehta, Distinguished Professor in Political Science at Central University of New York
      • Respondent: Zareer Masani, author of Indian Tales of the Raj (1987) and Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist (2012)
  • The Ottoman Empire
    • Speaker: Douglas Howard, Professor Emeritus of History, Calvin University
      • Respondent: Dimitri Kastritsis, Senior Lecturer in History, University of St Andrews
  • Spanish Empire and its Critics
    • Speaker: Anthony Pagden, Professor of Political Science and History at University of California Los Angeles
      • Respondent: Sir John Elliott, Regius Professor Emeritus of Modern History, University of Oxford

5. Core Group

A core group of researchers will attend each workshop:

  • Professor Ali Ansari, St Andrews University (History)
  • Professor Nigel Biggar, University of Oxford (Ethics)
  • Professor Eric Gregory, Princeton University (Ethics)
  • Professor Krishan Kumar, University of Virginia (Sociology)   
  • Professor Robin Lovin, University Professor Emeritus of Ethics, Southern Methodist University, Dallas (Ethics)
  • Dr Zareer Masani, biographer of Indira Gandhi and Thomas Macaulay 
  • Professor Charles Mathewes, University of Virginia (Ethics)
  • Dr Alexander Morrison, University of Oxford (History)