Q. How did the English utilitarian thinking impact India in the British era? [UPSC- 2021]

Q. How did the English utilitarian thinking impact India in the British era? [UPSC- 2021]


  • Utilitarianism is a theory in ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Classical utilitarianism’s two most influential contributors are 19th century English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. English Utilitarianism was an offshoot of the western liberal ideas.

English utilitarian thinking impact India in the British era:

  • The influence of Utilitarianism in law, politics, and economics is especially notable. The three key areas utilitarians were especially interested in were the landed property, the law and the administration.
  • 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.
  • At the start, the Company’s government was still tentative about interfering for fear of adverse Indian reaction. It could not do so unless a section of the Indian society was prepared to support reform.
    • Such a group that would support wide ranging social reforms in India was soon to emerge through the introduction of English education, which became therefore the first and the most important area of intervention and innovation for the Company’s state in India.
    • For Utilitarians, introduction of English education was the ultimate fulfillment of Britain’s imperial mission; “imparting education to natives is our moral duty”, said Lord Moira in 1815 .
    • 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.
  • The Utilitarians advocated the ‘Rule of Law’ for India, while a uniform system of administration throughout the conquered territories also suited British interests.
  • 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. (IPC)
      • Though he approved of this aspect of institutionalism, he did not at all agree with their goal of reforming India.
  • When in 1819, James Mill was admitted into the executive government of the East Indian Company’s London office, it became easier for the utilitarian ideas to be implemented in the Indian situation.
    • 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.
    • Mill was responsible for transforming Utilitarianism into a “militant faith”.
    • James Mill condemned Indian culture as irrational and inimical to human progress.
    • He exploded the myth of India’s economic and cultural riches, perpetuated by the “susceptible imagination” of men like Sir William Jones.
    • Mill first formulated a periodization of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim, and British periods.
    • He argued, what India needed for her improvement, was an effective schoolmaster, i.e., a wise government promulgating good legislation.
    • It was largely due to his efforts that a Law Commission was appointed in 1833 under Lord Macaulay and it drew up an Indian Penal Code in 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 philosophy justified colonisation by arguing that paternalistic colonial governance of indigenous people are required until they matured and acceded to rational thought and self government.
    • The pursuit of colonial people’s own welfare and happiness defined in utilitarian terms was invoked to justify colonisation.
    • Indian civilization was branded by British as backward.
      • The Englishmen took on themselves the task of taking India on course of modernity. Indians were to be taught the virtues of self-government.
  • 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 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.
    • He also targeted other customs that offended Western sensibilities, often with the help of Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
    • 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.
  • 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. ”
    • 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.
    • 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.”
  • Sprung from Paternalism the English Utilitarian Philosophy as introduced India rejected its human warmth between rulers and the ruled:
    • The paternalism in utilitarianism involved restrictions on the rights of individuals in order to protect and reform them. This caused loss of human warmth between rulers and the ruled.
    • English Utilitarian’s ideas of strong, efficient and centralised administration gave almost despotic power to the government.
      • This was without human warmth in the relations between the ruler, whereas humans constituted the centre point of the libertarism of which utilitarianism was important part.
      • For example: 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. He applied utilitarian principle in heavy hand manner without taking the consideration of people.
    • Ryotwari system derived from utilitarianism also caused suffering of peasants. ©

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