The English Utilitarian And India

The English Utilitarian And India

What is utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism is a theory in ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as pleasure, economic well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the consequences of an action are of moral importance.
  • Classical utilitarianism’s two most influential contributors are 19th century English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Bentham, who takes happiness as the measure for utility, says, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong“.
  • Utilitarianism is an effort to provide an answer to the practical question “What ought a man to do?” Its answer is that he ought to act so as to produce the best consequences possible.

Growth of classical English Utilitarianism

  • English Utilitarianism was an offshoot of the western liberal ideas. In the history of English philosophy, Bishop Richard Cumberland, a 17th-century moral philosopher, was the first to have a Utilitarian philosophy. A generation later, however, Francis Hutcheson, a British theorist, more clearly held a Utilitarian view. He not only analyzed that action as best that “procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers” but proposed a form of “moral arithmetic” for calculating the best consequences.
  • Bentham believed that an individual in governing his own actions would always seek to maximize his own pleasure and minimize his own pain. For Bentham, the greatest happiness of the greatest number would play a role primarily in the art of legislation, in which the legislator would seek to maximize the happiness of the entire community. By laying down penalties for mischievous acts, the legislator would make it unprofitable for a man to harm his neighbour. Bentham’s major philosophical work, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), was designed as an introduction to a plan of a penal code.
  • With Bentham, Utilitarianism became the ideological foundation of a reform movement, later known as “philosophical radicalism,” that would test all institutions and policies by the principle of utility. Bentham attracted as his disciples a number of younger (earlier 19th-century) men. They included David Ricardo, who gave classical form to the science of economics; John Stuart Mill’s father, James Mill; and John Austin, a legal theorist.
  • James Mill argued for representative government and universal male suffrage on Utilitarian grounds; he and other followers of Bentham were advocates of parliamentary reform in England in the early 19th century.
  • John Stuart Mill was a spokesman for women’s suffrage, state-supported education for all, and other proposals that were considered radical in their day. He argued on Utilitarian grounds for freedom of speech and expression and for the noninterference of government or society in individual behaviour that did not harm anyone else. Mill’s essay “Utilitarianism,” published in Fraser’s Magazine (1861), is an elegant defense of the general Utilitarian doctrine and perhaps remains the best introduction to the subject. In it Utilitarianism is viewed as an ethics for ordinary individual behaviour as well as for legislation.

Effects of utilitarianism

  • The influence of Utilitarianism has been widespread, permeating the intellectual life of the last two centuries. Its significance in law, politics, and economics is especially notable.
  • The Utilitarian theory of the justification of punishment stands in opposition to the “retributive theory” according to which punishment is intended to make the criminal pay for his crime. According to the Utilitarian, the rationale of punishment is entirely to prevent further crime by either reforming the criminal or protecting society from him and to deter others from crime through fear of punishment.
  • In its political philosophy Utilitarianism bases the authority of government and the sanctity of individual rights upon their utility, thus providing an alternative to theories of natural law, natural rights, or social contract. What kind of government is best thus becomes a question of what kind of government has the best consequences.
  • Generally, Utilitarians have supported democracy as a way of making the interest of government coincide with the general interest; they have argued for the greatest individual liberty compatible with an equal liberty for others on the ground that each individual is generally the best judge of his own welfare; and they have believed in the possibility and the desirability of progressive social change through peaceful political processes.
  • With different factual assumptions, however, Utilitarian arguments can lead to different conclusions. If the inquirer assumes that a strong government is required to check man’s basically selfish interests and that any change may threaten the stability of the political order, he may be led by Utilitarian arguments to an authoritarian or conservative position.
  • In economic policy, the early Utilitarians had tended to oppose governmental interference in trade and industry on the assumption that the economy would regulate itself for the greatest welfare if left alone; later Utilitarians, however, lost confidence in the social efficiency of private enterprise and were willing to see governmental power and administration used to correct its abuses.
  • As a movement for the reform of social institutions, 19th-century Utilitarianism was remarkably successful in the long run. Most of their recommendations have since been implemented and Utilitarian arguments are now commonly employed to advocate institutional or policy changes.

James Mill’s Utilitarianism and British Imperialism in India

  • Throughout the years of his involvement in the colonial administration of India from 1819-1835 in the East India Company, James Mill persistently held a conviction that India needed enlightenment and progress. Mill applied his utilitarianism and theory of progress to justify the British rule in India.
  • Before taking up the post in the East India Company in 1819, Mill wrote a history book named “History of British India”. (he never visited India).  James Mill condemned Indian culture as irrational and inimical to human progress. Mill first formulated a periodization of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods.
  • He wrote: “India would progress and the Indians would be able to have more happiness under British rule than when they were governed by their native kings. Thus, if only the benefits which the Indians would gain from British rule were taken into account, it was desirable for the British to rule the Indians. However, whether the British should take a total control of India depended on whether there would be an overall utility or disutility.”
  • Mill believed that from the utilitarian perspective, there would be an overall utility if the British kept British India, which included the provinces of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras, and if the British extended their rule to the remaining parts of India.
  • The English Utilitarianism in India took roots under such paternalistic attitudinal context. They saw Indian people held in bondage by despotic rulers, archaic economic relations, and by religion steeped in superstition. So, they set about to reform the Indians and the colonial system.
  • Freethinking utilitarians—followers of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill—who were influential in the company’s service, who wished to use India as a laboratory for their theories, and who thought Indian society could be transformed by legislation.
  • Bentinck’s administrative reforms were in line with utilitarian theory but with deference to local conditions and in harmony with his own military sense of command. In Bengal the collector was made the real head of his district by the addition of civil judgeship to his magistracy; he was also disciplined by the institution of commissioners to superintend him. The judiciary was overhauled with the same eye to a chain of authority.


Q. “Sprung from Paternalism the English Utilitarian Philosophy as introduced India rejected its human warmth between rulers and the ruled.” Comment.


  • The philosophy that came to have its most powerful sway in the administration of India was the Utilitarian philosophy. English Utilitarianism was an offshoot of the western liberal ideas. The English Utilitarianism owed its genesis to the ideas of Bentham. The Utilitarianism philosophy believed in the maxim of greatest good and extrapolating it in quantifiable terms.
  • They believed India to be civilized under the British footage. Indian civilization was branded by most of the liberal ideas as backward looking. The Englishmen took on themselves the task of taking India on course of modernity. Indians were to be taught the virtues of self-government.
  • The English Utilitarianism in India took roots under such paternalistic attitudinal context. They saw Indian people held in bondage by despotic rulers, archaic economic relations, and by religion steeped in superstition. So, they set about to reform the Indians and the colonial system.
  • The three key areas they were especially interested in were the landed property, the law and the administration. They favoured doing away with permanent settlement and gave their weight to the Rotary system. Macaulay was appointed to organize the innumerable laws into easily intelligible codes (Thus came IPC).
  • Whatever was the most notable aspect of English Utilitarian were their ideas in administration. Their notion of strong centralized government with almost despotic powers devoid the relations between the ruler and the ruled of its human warmth, whereas humans constituted the centre point of the entire libertarian ideology.


Global happiness and the Desirability of a foreign rule

1. The enlightenment of non-European peoples

  • Throughout his life Mill’s ultimate concern was the happiness of humankind as a whole, or global happiness. Global happiness will be obtained if all races of peoples of the globe are ‘civilized’ in the utilitarian sense. Mill had a conviction that all non-European peoples would become ‘civilized’ if the European knowledge, arts, manners, and institutions were diffused to them. Mill was particularly concerned with how to bring enlightenment to what he believed to be ‘half-civilized’ peoples, such as peoples in India and other Asian nations.
  • In Mill’s view, Voltaire’s high praise of the Chinese culture originated from an orientalist bias which was similar to that of Sir William Jones who suggested wrongly that India had been quite advanced in many respects of civilization. Mill acknowledged that in ancient time, as India developed, the social structure and other institutions progressed accordingly. For instance, the division of castes in India was multiplied at some stage in ancient India from four basic castes to a number of thirty-six by admitting ‘impure’ people borne from mixed marriage of the basic castes.
  • Mill thought that the progress of the Indians up to that stage was impressive and it was ‘an important era in the history of Hindu society’ in that ancient period. But Mill contended that ‘having reached this stage, it does not appear that it India has made, or that it is capable of making, much further progress’.
  • From Mill’s perspective, the more the Asian peoples would be enlightened, the happier they would be.Given his concern with India even before taking up the administrative job in the East India Company in 1819, Mill’s immediate objective was surely to bring European enlightenment to India. As early as in 1813, Mill denounced the claim that the Indians could not be enlightened.
  • Holding firmly a conviction in the malleability of human nature, Mill thought that Indians would inevitably receive from the Europeans substantial positive impact on their social progress. In Mill’s view, a wide-spread settlement of Englishmen in India would speed up the enlightenment process of the Indians.
  • For Mill, the enlightenment of the Indians would thus conduce to a progressive development of other Asian peoples

2. The desirability of a foreign rule in India

  • The desirability for the Indians to be ruled by a more advanced civilization was revealed in Mill’s opinion on Mughal rule in India. For Mill, before the Mughals ruled India, the individual progress and the societal progress of the Hindu Indians had been retarded by their superstitions in Hinduism. But Mill believed that the Indians gained progress both at the individual level and at the social level under the Mughal sovereigns.
  • Mill thought that the Mughals were in nearly all respects of civilization, including the worldview, political arrangement, legal system, and other attainments, superior to the Hindus. It was to the benefits of the Hindu Indians when they were under the Mughal rule because they were brought with the more advanced Persian civilization.
  • The message which Mill in effect attempted to convey was that it was justifiable for a people of an advanced civilization to govern a people of a retarded progress in civilization.
  • Mill believed that the European civilization was surely a better candidate for the Indians than that of the Mughals. Given the collapse and the gradual disintegration of the Mughal Empire, there were two alternatives available to the Indians: either to revert to the Hindu despotism, or to accept European rule, French or British in particular.
  • With regard to India, it seems plausible to suggest further that from Mill’s perspective, it was desirable for the British to subjugate the whole continent of India because it was to the benefit of the Indians if they were governed by the British. But what should also be taken into account was the utility to Britain.

British India and the extension of British rule

1. Utility and the emancipation of colonies

  • There was a distinction between two kinds of colonies with which Mill was mostly concerned. On the one hand, there were colonies, such as those in America, which originated from the widespread settlement of English, French, Spanish and other Europeans. On the other hand, there were colonies such as British India where the native people constituted the majority of the population. Mill’s attitude towards these two kinds of colonies was very much in agreement with that of Bentham.
  • With regard to these two kinds of colonies, the issue which concerned Mill and Bentham was whether the European nations ‘ought to have them’. From the utilitarian perspective, it was necessary to weigh the utility or disutility in keeping colonies against the utility or disutility in emancipating them in order to determine whether it was desirable for the mother nations to retain their colonies. If there was an overall disutility in keeping the colonies, it would not be desirable for the mother nations to retain them. But if there was an overall utility in keeping the colonies, it would be desirable for the mother nations to retain them despite the fact that the mother nations suffered in keeping them.
  • For Bentham and Mill, keeping colonies brought neither economic nor political advantages to the mother nations. From the financial point of view, as Mill argued in his Essay on Colony which appeared in 1820, it was a matter of fact that colonies yielded no tribute to the mother country.
  • More important, Mill contended that ‘there is a moral impossibility, that a colony should ever benefit the mother country, by yielding it a permanent tribute’, because even if it might happen that colonies yielded tributes, the tributes should be retained for the governance of the colonies. Mill and Bentham thought that Britain suffered economic disadvantages in keeping British India as its colony. Mill had been repetitively complaining about the financial deficits of the East India Company for many years even before the publication of his History of India and his subsequent appointment in the East India Company in 1819.
  • With regard to the political advantage and disadvantage in keeping British India, Bentham listed out several reasons in his Principles of International Law as early as in 1786-9 to explain why it was in the political interest of the British to give up British India:
  1. Saving the danger of war;
  2. Getting rid of the means of corruption resulting from the patronage, civil and military;
  3. Simplifying the government;
  4. Getting rid of prosecutions that consume the time of parliament, and beget suspicion of injustice
  • In discussing the emancipation of Spanish colonies in America, Bentham elaborated these advantages which he thought Spain would enjoy if they grant independence to their colonies in America. The most important one which the mother nations suffered was the wars which were waged to contest for colonies; as Mill believed, colonies were a ‘grand source of wars’, or as Bentham claimed, colonies increased ‘the chances of war’.
  • Having shown that keeping colonies brought disadvantages, political or economic, to the mother country, we may proceed to discuss the utility that the colonies and the whole humankind would have obtained if they were retained or given up.
  • Mill claimed that the independence of the British colonies of the United States had been commercially ‘far more profitable to’ the British than its subjection. Furthermore, Mill contended that instead of hindering global trade, granting independence to well-established Europeanized colonies, such as the case of the United States, had enhanced it.  Mill was convinced that the independence of the United States presented an evidence to affirm that newly independent nations offered valuable chances for enhancement of commercial connections and free trade among nations which in turn increased the economic prosperity of all involved nations.
  • With regard to British India, given the economic backwardness of the Indians, granting self-governance would in Mill’s view not bring much enhancement of trade to other nations. And more important, given their strict adherence to the traditional economic practices and laws which were prescribed in the Hindu sacred texts, it was not very likely that a just and beneficent government, which would enhance trade, might be established. What should be done was rather to terminate the monopoly of the East India Company in the Indian trade so that not only other English merchants but also merchants from all other nations could join the Indian trade. If the monopoly of the East India Company was terminated, competition and freedom of trade would increase the prosperity of all involved nations.
  • With regard to the political advantages and disadvantages, Bentham contended in his Principles of International Law that in the case of all those distant well-established colonies in America, it would be impossible for the mother nations in Europe ‘to govern them so well as they would govern themselves, on account of the distance’. Bentham believed that it was not in the interest of the well-established Europeanized colonies to be governed by the people of the mother nations who never knew either their inclinations or their wants. Thus, there was a great disutility to the distant well-established colonies if they were kept governed by their mother nations.
  • Nevertheless, there was in Mill’s and Bentham’s view an important difference between the well-established Europeanized colonies and the British India, namely, that the European well-established colonies in America were all ready for self-government, whereas British India was not. In his “Emancipate Your Colonies! written early around 1792, Bentham advised the French to grant their colonies in the West Indies independence because they were ‘ripe for self-government’ but not to give their colonies in India back to the Indians themselves. In Bentham’s view, if the Indians were left to their own native princes, they would inevitably be ruled by despots.
  • Mill thought that even though Britain suffered in keeping British India, it was in the interest of the Indians. Furthermore, Mill believed that instead of leaving the Indians to govern themselves, if the British governed them directly would enlighten India, and this would in turn facilitate a rapid diffusion of European knowledge, arts, manners, and institutions to other Asian nations, and would thereby enhance the happiness of the humankind.
  • So far we have seen that it was desirable in Mill’s view for the British to keep their dominion in India. Let us proceed to discuss: to what extent Mill committed himself to an extension of British rule to the whole continent of India, and by what means Mill thought it to be legitimate for the British Indian government to extend its sovereignty to the independent and semi-independent native states.

2. Conquest, consent, and the extension of British rule

  • There were basically two ways for the British Indian government to bring enlightenment to the Indians in various independent native states through extending British rule to these states: either by conquest or by inducing voluntary subjection.
  • We will discuss first whether Mill thought that it was legitimate for the British to extend their sovereignty to and thereby impose their institutions upon the Indians of the independent native states by conquest. Throughout his life, Mill never attempted to conceal his passionate contempt against war. In Mill’s eyes, wars inevitably produce evils. War can never be justified unless it is used to prevent more evils.
  • Waging offensive wars against other nations cannot in Mill’s view be justified by appealing to the principle of utility. Even if it may be conducive to the overall happiness of humankind for a nation to conquer another nation, such a conquest cannot be justified because of the injustice involved.
  • To see how Mill applied these considerations in the context of India, let us begin with the system of neutrality firstly prescribed in the Pitt’s Indian Act in 1784.
  • Since the enactment of the Pitt’s Act, a system of neutrality had been the official British international policy in India and was declared repeatedly in the Act of 1793. The two acts prohibited the Governor-Generals of British India from making any attempt to pursue schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India. In order to comply with the Acts, the British Indian government should adopt a policy of neutrality in the sense that the British Indian government ‘should stand aloof from all connection with native princes, should form no alliances with them, should take no part in their quarrels, and should never draw the sword for any purpose but that of self defence, when its territory is actually invaded’.
  • Mill agreed with the basic principle that the British government should abstain from making any conquest in India and from waging any wars except those which were launched for defensive purposes. Mill praised the fundamental rationale behind the policy of neutrality, namely, the prevention of war. But Mill did not quite agree with an unconditional submission to the policy of neutrality because he believed that the system of neutrality was in many occasions impracticable in India.
  • Since Mill’s ultimate concern was peace, any policy which tended to produce peace instead of war should in Mill’s view be chosen. Accordingly, how the number and the extent of wars could be minimized in India involved a pragmatic consideration of the actual situation in India. Mill believed that to adopt a policy which departed from the policy of neutrality did not inevitably render wars more frequently. Mill claimed that, in some cases, a ‘system of vigilant interference’, instead of a system of neutrality, should be adopted. Mill contended that the ‘system of vigilant interference’ was not offensive in nature but as defensive as the system of neutrality ‘in spirit’.
  • Nevertheless, Mill admitted that ‘by opening a door to defensive policy on this ground, we open a door to offensive policy also’. Let us discuss further the abuses which Mill had in mind.
  • For almost a decade before his appointment in the East India Company in 1819, Mill had been condemning the aggressive British policy and the subsequent violent conquest over the native princes. Mill thought that the ‘system of vigilant interference’ was open to abuse in the hands of the governors-general: ‘the power of interfering in the affairs of the princes of India, might be made use of by Governors General, not for the purpose of maintaining the security and tranquillity of the Anglo-Indian dominions, but for the gratification of private ambition, or private revenge, or private avarice, or private partiality and favour’.
  • Mill persistently discredited the contemptible personal ambitions of the governors general, especially Lord Wellesley who was the governor-general from 1798 to 1805.
  • The formation of the alliance with the Peshwa under the Governor-General-ship of Lord Wellesley finally gave rise to the second Maratha war. What was wrong was not the alliance which Lord Wellesley formed with the Peshwa but his private ambitions which were hidden behind the apparent intention of bring benevolent rule in India.
  • In Mill’s view, the only legitimate means to subjugate the independent native princes and thereby extend appropriate British institutions to their states was to induce their consent. For Mill, the sovereignty of the independent native princes should be respected. And only when the Indians attacked British India or had become aggressive and were ready to attack British India might the British justifiably wage war against them and thereby subjugate them.

Impact of British utilitarianism on India

  • Several administrative and judicial reforms in India were caused by utilitarianism. Cornwallis worked mainly with the ideas and perceptions which came before utilitarianism; Macaulay was a liberal who had grown up in interaction with both the missionary zeal of evangelicalism and the emerging pragmatism of 1830s and 1840s. Thus, we see him take up the codification of laws with vigour. Though he approved of this aspect of institutionalism, he did not at all agree with their goal of reforming India.
  • Between the concern of Cornwallis and Macaulay came the intellectual current called ‘utilitarianism’ with James Mill, Jeremy Bentham, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill were its major exponents, showed a special interest in the Indian question, and were largely responsible for the kind of administration and judicial system that came into being in India.
  • The utilitarians believed in the moral worth of an education that aided the good of society and promoted instruction in useful knowledge. Such useful instruction to Indians had the added consequence of making them more suitable for the Company’s burgeoning bureaucracy. Many utilitarian ideas were employed in Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education of 1835.
  • Mill rejected the Indianisation of the government structure. Given their character, Indians were seen unfit in the task of their over ‘modernisation’. Mill therefore dismissed the idea of giving any power and responsibility to Indians. Utilitarians prescribed a modern machine of government, run by the British.
  • The utilitarian, with their well defined structure of ideas, a set of followers, their keenness on India, and the readymade applicability’s of their concerns (of taxations, forms of government and administration of justice) to India, proved to be the most outspoken and effective among other thinkers. When in 1819, James Mill was admitted into the executive government of the East Indian Company, it became easier for the utilitarian ideas to be implemented in the Indian situation.
  • Lord William Bentinck served as Governor-General of India from 1828 to 1835. His efficient financial management his modernizing projects also included a policy of westernization, influenced by the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. Reforming the court system, he made English, rather than Persian, the language of the higher courts and encouraged western-style education for Indians in order to provide more educated Indians for service in the British bureaucracy. Bentinck tried to suppress System of Sati, the prescribed death of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. He also targeted other customs that offended Western sensibilities, often with the help of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829 or Regulation XVII, was a legal act promulgated in British India by the Bentinck, which made the practice of sati illegal in all jurisdictions of British India and subject to prosecution.
  • At the heart of the ryotwari system was a particular theory of economic rent—and based on David Ricardo’s Law of Rent—promoted by utilitarian James Mill who formulated the Indian revenue policy between 1819 and 1830. “He believed that the government was the ultimate lord of the soil and should not renounce its right to ‘rent’, i.e. the profit left over on richer soil when wages and other working expenses had been settled.” According to Mill, taxation of land rent would promote efficient agriculture and simultaneously prevent the emergence of a “parasitic landlord class.”
  • Mill advocated ryotwari settlements which consisted of government measurement and assessment of each plot (valid for 20 or 30 years) and subsequent taxation which was dependent on the fertility of the soil.


Q. Assess the impact of the utilitarian ideas in moulding the British attitude towards India. How did the utilitarian try to solve the problem of land revenue?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reblogged this on HISTORY AND GENERAL STUDIES and commented:



  2. I find this a very interesting historical analysis of the practical application of utilitarianism in politics. One won’t find much on this theme (esp. in combination with ‘British’ India) elsewhere. Therefore I would have liked to hear more about the sources (which, I suppose, are not only the primary texts of Bentham and Mills). Nonetheless, my compliments.


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