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The Fixation of (Moral) Belief

Making Imperial Administration Modern

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 July 2018

Nicholas Hoover Wilson*
Stony Brook University []
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This article argues that the transition between early-modern and modern organization of empires—especially the administrative outlooks and institutional logics used to govern them—revolved around how moral conflict was viewed within imperial organizations themselves and by metropolitan audiences. Early modern imperial organizations were deeply patrimonial, and hence relied on a style of embedded moral reasoning that distanced and segmented their affairs from the metropole. By contrast, modern empires order what they govern in hierarchies that are nominally objective and whose criteria seem universal. Using a case study of the British Empire’s crisis and transformation at the turn of the 19th century, I argue that modern imperial administration emerged because networks of moral justification, which provided the scaffolding for patrimonial early-modern empire, eroded in the face of “disinterested” metropolitan scrutiny. This scrutiny created an audience for bitter political and moral conflicts among imperial administrators, who then used disembedded moral claims to mobilize support.


Cet article étudie le rôle de la perception publique du conflit moral pour la transition entre les organisations impériales de type pré-moderne et moderne, en particulier du point de vue des approches administratives et des logiques institutionnelles mobilisées pour les gouverner. Les premières organisations impériales modernes étaient profondément patrimoniales et s’appuyaient sur un style « implanté » (embedded) de raisonnement moral qui contribuait à éloigner et segmenter leurs affaires courantes des métropoles. À l’opposé, les empires modernes ordonnent ce qu’ils gouvernent dans des hiérarchies théoriquement objectives et sur la base de critères qui semblent universels. À l’aide d’une étude de cas consacrée à la crise et à la transformation de l’empire britannique au tournant du xixe siècle, cet article montre que l’émergence de l’administration impériale moderne repose sur l’affaiblissement des réseaux de justification morale, qui constituaient l’échafaudage de l’empire patrimonial, face à un contrôle métropolitain de type « désintéressé ». Ce contrôle a contribué à créer une audience pour les conflits politiques et moraux entre les administrateurs impériaux, qui ont ensuite utilisé des revendications morales « désimplantées » (disembedded) pour mobiliser leur soutien.


Beim Übergang von vormodern zu modern organisierten Weltreichen, und hier insbesondere in puncto Verwaltungsperspektiven und institutionelle Logik, um sie zu regieren, wurde die Frage, wie moralische Konflikte innerhalb der Reichsverbände einerseits und im Mutterland andererseits gesehen wurden, zum Angelpunkt. Neuzeitliche Imperien waren vermögensrechtlich aufgestellt und stützten sich auf eine moralisch verankerte Argumentation, die zu einer Trennung ihrer Angelegenheiten vom Mutterland führte. Ganz anders moderne Weltreiche, die ihre Regierungsstruktur hierarchisch gliedern, die rein formal betrachtet objektiv sind und deren Kriterien universell erscheinen. Aufbauend auf einer Fallstudie, die sich mit der Krise und Umwandlung des britischen Empires Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts auseinandersetzt, behauptet dieser Artikel, dass die Entstehung der modernen Kolonialreichsverwaltung auf die Zerrüttung der moralischen Rechtfertigungsnetze, das ursprüngliche Gerüst der frühen, vermögensrechtlich organisierten Weltreiche, zurückzuführen ist, die sich wiederum durch eine “desinteressierte” Überprüfung durch das Mutterland erklären lässt. Diese Überprüfung führte zu harten politischen und moralischen Konflikten zwischen imperialen Verwaltern, die schließlich durch “unverankerte” moralische Anforderungen Unterstützung zu erwirken suchten.

On the Historical Sociology of Morality
Copyright © A.E.S. 2018 

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