Justice, conscience and war in Imperial Britain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

This article explores the political implications of opposition to war, focusing on the example of conscientious objection to military service. Conscientious objection is often treated as a fundamentally ethical issue; however, this article argues for centering questions of justice in our analysis of responses to war. Starting with ethics risks taking the social significance of ethical responses for granted and missing the role of particular ethical practices in the reproduction of wider inequalities. More specifically, when an issue is narrowly framed in terms of ethics, it has implications for who is allowed to speak, and what they can speak about. In contrast, thinking about war as an issue of justice – in the sense of how society allocates the things that it values - allows us to foreground broader issues of hierarchy, distribution and recognition. The article focuses on the example of an Indian subject of the British Empire who applied for exemption from military service during the Second World War. The valorization on conscience by the British state prioritized a limited form of opposition to bloodshed grounded in personal moral scruples, to the exclusion of anti-Imperial self-determination, and turned the war into an issue individual ethics rather than global inequality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)319-333
Number of pages15
JournalPoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review
Issue number2
Early online date11 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • liberalism
  • justice
  • war
  • Britain
  • empire
  • archives


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