Human egoism and human nature

These two approaches can easily be identified in utilitarianism. The utilitarians proceeded from the assumption of certain unchangeable principles of human nature. These had their source not in the idea of natural rights, but in the universal inclination to seek pleasure and avoid pain (Burrow 1968, 24). These theses can be found, for example, in James Mill’s ([1820] 1937) Essay on Government, in which the immutable trait of human egoism is set in contrast to historically shaped habits (regarded as secondary). On these premises Mill outlined the philosophy of history' that informs his History of British India. The principle of utility thus became the gold standard against which to measure the degree of civilization reached by different societies, at whose apex he set the Europe of his own time. By the same criterion he accordingly thought he could assess the degree of civilization achieved by Hindu society, which he characterized as stationary.11 He also thought that there was a single path which all nations inevitably must follow in their evolution (Burrow 1968,47).

Indeed, one of the recurrent themes in nineteenth-century legal and political thinking on the problem of civilization lies in the distinction between civilization as an event, that is, as a condition already attained, and civilization as a process towards a goal yet to be achieved (Keene 2002, 114). Civilization as an event was seen to be embodied in the European countries and the American states-union, which accordingly were fully legitimized in their endeavour to bring good government to peoples who had yet to achieve civilization, as well as to promote trade as a means towards economic and technological progress. The argument, in short, was that it was in the best interest of the world’s civilization to give universal currency to the freedoms, legal principles, and order proper to the world and to Western civilization (ibid.).

International law and Western civilization

What in this way came into form was the vision that drove the rise ofWestern colonialism, whose legitimacy rested on the idea of the “civilized peoples” of Europe


As Mill put it, the “Hindus have, through all ages, remained in a state of society too near the simplicity and rudeness of the most ancient times” (Mill [1817] 1997, vol. 1, p. 173). On the significance of The History of British India as a work that helped to shape the “discourse” through which to legitimize British colonial rule in India, see Giuliani 2008.

and North America. Civilization could only be ascribed to those in the community of peoples who subscribed to the principles of international law, regarded as the embodiment of the consciousness of European peoples. Such international law was understood to be universal and could accordingly be extended to all peoples—or rather, it could be imposed on them—regardless of their distinctive cultures and religions. This vision accordingly denied any claim to universality that might be advanced by other great legal traditions, such as the Islamic tradition and the Chinese. In reality, as was made explicit at the Berlin Congress of 1884-85, it was the path of trade and commerce that needed to be pursued if Western civilization was to extend its reach across the globe (see Onuma 2000, 1-66).

There were some major consequences that would follow from the West’s engagement with the “otherness” of non-Western peoples and cultures. For, on the one hand, international law as an expression of the scientific outlook embraced by Western states came to be restricted in its scope to this very system of states, and the contrast was therefore highlighted that set their system of law apart from others. Thus, for example, the claim was made that international law belonged to Christian nations and could not be extended to Muhammadan ones (Wheaton 1836, 45). On the other hand, while the stance was taken that asserted the superiority of European international law—Christian and Aryan— revolving around the idea of the sovereignty of the state, it was felt that “noncivilized” peoples were deserving of “humanitarian” treatment, and native peoples were accordingly recognized as entitled to enjoy the rights of man. But what this meant, in short, was that in the nineteenth century the rights of peoples did not express the recognition of each people’s right to self-determination—much less was it recognized that different peoples had a right of ownership over their own natural resources: they were only accorded a right to humanitarian treatment.

The phases just briefly outlined—from the early modern age to the Enlightenment to the colonial age—were ultimately capped by the demise of colonialism. This in turn dragged into crisis the paradigm that had sought to couple the certainty of a universal human nature with the recognition of the cultural differences that were observed to exist among peoples. In fact this paradigm was predicated on a Eurocentric understanding of human nature in light of which other peoples could be cast as backward, in such a way as to legitimize Western hegemony over them. With the end of the colonial age came a recognition of the inherent value of other cultures and civilizations: this made it necessary to part with the idea of human nature conceived according to Western criteria, and to construct a new foundation on which to represent cultures and understand their relations. It is this new approach that we will now turn to.

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