The current tempest over the newly formed Centre for Ethics and Empire at Oxford University revives an old debate that has two well-known positions, both of which have been familiar for decades. And neither side has any reason to change its views. Yet, like a periodic fever, every recurrence reflects new underlying causes. What is going on now for this tired debate to be dusted off and enacted again?

The first thing is Brexit, with the additional threat of a Scottish exit from the United Kingdom hanging in the air. The sun sank on the Empire in 1947, but it is now sinking on the United Kingdom, with Europe abandoned and the nation itself increasingly a pale extension of the London of royalty and bankers. Soon, the United Kingdom will consist of Buckingham Palace, the City, some satanic mills in the north and some desiccated farms elsewhere. So, the debate over the Empire has the soothing quality of a dream world in which it seems alive again, brought to life by the question of how bad, or occasionally good, it was. This is certainly nostalgia, but nostalgia not just for the Empire but also for a time when this debate had real meaning. Unlike with regard to the Empire, the sun can never set on this debate, with its reassuring certainties on all sides.

The second is the background noise from last year, when Shashi Tharoor brought his Nehruvian wit and Fabian vigour to promoting his book on the evils of the British Empire. There were few new facts in this book. Yet, as Tharoor strode across television screens and lecterns, a Colossus of Rhodes, he infused fresh vigour into the dead horse of this debate, which had already received life support during the storm over the statue of British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College at Oxford. And apparently new arguments for the anti-Empire view brought more energy to the dinosaurs of the Right, who also repeated arguments as old as the Enlightenment and as recent as historian Niall Ferguson’s 2002 ode to the British Empire.

Rhodes Must Fall protests outside Oriel College in March 2016. (Credit: Eddie Keogh / Reuters)

Throwing ethics in the mix

But the most serious issue here is not the absurdity of the new centre’s “balance sheet” approach to historical periods and institutions, which is rightly derided by its opponents. It is the extension of the rubric of ethics to patently violent, brutal and exploitative regimes and practices. The troubling tectonic process here is not the ethics of Empire but the growing Empire of ethics. Ethics used to be a narrow but important part of serious academic philosophy, even narrower than moral philosophy. When my one-time teacher, Alasdair MacIntyre, published his brilliant A Short History of Ethics in 1966, he could not have anticipated how large the market in ethics talk would become, nor how ignorant it would be of his acute remarks about the complex relationship between historical change, philosophical change and changes in ethics.

What we see today is a turn to ethics among anthropologists, biologists, media theorists, and, of course, historians, which reflects the greatly reduced price of entry into this market. For one thing, using the word ethics allows many of us to talk about good and evil without using the dreaded word morality, which is of course dangerously close to religion. It also allows some of us to approach ethics one ethic at a time, a great convenience for relativists, contextualists, and situationists of all stripes. And it permits many of us to discard the tiresome fetters of objectivity, value-free inquiry and disinterestedness, so that we can identify with causes, movements and groups that we admire. And these are not bad developments, as they have inspired some of the best recent work in the social sciences, in political theory in history. Yet, the turn to ethics among many fine scholars of human affairs has also opened the gates to apologists of various stripes. Among these are the scholars who seek to find the goodness hidden in Empire.

The trouble with bringing an ethical lens to Empire is that it legitimises a slippery slope. How about new research initiatives on “ethics and slavery”? Or “ethics and human trafficking”? Or “ethics and ethnic cleansing”? Or “ethics and paedophilia”? Where do we draw the line? After all, funded research on the ethics of anything implies and requires that something be there to find, since negative results are rarely rewarded in the human sciences. So, all sorts of demonstrably nasty human inventions can become opportunities to troll for small nuggets of goodness.

Red herring in a Pandora’s box

And then there is the question of Oxford as a sponsoring institution, which some critics see as having crossed the line in supporting Nigel Biggar’s project, even if the professor should be free to inquire into whatever he likes. This too is a red herring in a Pandora’s box, since there is no line between Oxford financial support to various projects and individual faculty privileges (fellowships, high table, rooms, sherry?). It is hard to ethically distinguish one part of Oxford’s largesse from another. And that is true of all large academic institutions.

The most recent intellect to speak up on behalf of Empire is Trevor Phillips, who wishes to remind us that without the colonies there would not be a multicultural Britain today. By this logic, without Hitler there would not be a strong distaste for anti-Semitism in Germany today. And without Israeli occupation, there would not be as strong a sense of Palestinian identity. And without slavery, the civil rights movement in the United States would have been much more anemic. Every disease can thus be justified by the side benefits of its cure.

The British universities minister, Jo Johnson, has expressed the fear that criticism of such projects as Biggar’s is the beginning of a risky movement towards suppression of dissent and of scientific innovation. Johnson wants us to believe that we need to identify the diamonds of goodness in the mud and stone of Empire in order to protect “the open society” from its enemies. So, let the projects that find ethics everywhere multiply, say Biggar’s supporters. For theirs is the Empire of ethics, long may it thrive. And if it means we must encourage the study of the ethics of our imperial past, even better, since we have nothing to lose but the mission to civilise. And that mission is the last relic of the good times of Empire. So, Empire is just the appetiser. The main course is ethics, and we are likely to see many more cooked up projects such as Biggar’s.

Arjun Appadurai is the Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.