Colonialism is not accidental. It is the consequence of a specific conception of the world that was supported by western thought. In this essay, we motivate this assumption and show that it entails stronger requirements for reparation than the ones advocated for by proponents of structural injustices such as Catherine Lu1. Furthermore, we illustrate our argument by articulating climate injustices as an ongoing case of colonialism.

Structural injustice

The importance of the social environment in the decision process of human beings has been assessed since the works of Emile Durkheim2 and further reinforced ever since. Because they interfere with the individual’s autonomy, social structures are essential when it comes to assessing responsibilities for the consequences of one’s actions. As such, the wrongdoings of colonialism, and the discussion regarding its responsibilities and reparative duties should also be analyzed from this perspective. This treatment of colonialism as a structural injustice has been developed by scholars like Catherine Lu3 or Iris Marion Young4, among others.

Common historical simplifications have reduced the colonial enterprise to a collection of wrongdoings perpetrated by a colonizer state on a colonized people. This vision has led to a simplistic approach of responsibility focused on the liability of individual perpetrators towards victims. However, this approach overlooks the structural social conditioning of the perpetrators and does not account for the whole complexity of colonial interactions, such as the possible complicity of individuals from the colonized state itself. A more comprehensive perspective complements this individual liability model with a structural approach and analyzes the social structures that allowed the tragedies linked to colonialism to take place. The assumption that individual agents’ decisions are the product of both free choice and social structures therefore suggests assigning a responsibility for colonial wrongdoings to that structure. However, this raises the difficulty of assessing how this responsibility of the structure is inherited by currently living individuals.

To understand how reparation for past wrongdoings caused by structural processes can incumb to present individuals, we distinguish between two different temporalities of social structures. The first type consists of past structures that contributed to the creation of injustices but have now ceased to apply. Having expired, deriving individual responsibilities from these structures is arduous and outside of the scope of our present argument, we will thus ignore them. The second type concerns structural processes that contributed to past wrongdoings and continue to exist today. The persistence of these structures therefore contribute to maintaining some form of injustice that was initiated with the colonial enterprise. Structural injustices are then inherited by the individuals supporting their existence, relying on an ideological inheritance mechanism rather than genealogical.

Remarkably, Lu does not distinguish between the different levels of support individuals can provide to the perpetuation of any unjust social structure but rather follows Young in assigning collaborative individuals with a political responsibility5. This specific type of responsibility reflects the specific duties of individuals who did not directly cause any harm, or did not willingly do so, but who contributed to the underlying unjust structural processes. In contrast to the notion of blame embedded in the liability model, political responsibility is aimed at “stimulating collective action to transform social structures so as to avoid further injustices and injuries”6. This definition, aimed at “stimulating” the reformation of unjust structures, does appear feeble as it fails to prescribe concrete action for reparation. In an attempt to make the concept of political responsibility more decisive, Lu supplements the definition by requiring the elimination of the unjust social structures that underlie the disadvantages suffered by past and current victims of colonialism7. The fulfillment of the political duties is thus conditioned on the advent of just social conditions8. In the following, we argue that this is not a sufficient reparation and that a deeper reconsideration is needed.

The ideology of colonialism

One of the implications of the conditions for political responsibility is that colonized people can also be deemed responsible for colonial injustices if they helped perpetuate unjust structural processes. Lu takes the example of the misogynistic features of the colonized Korean society that contributed to the establishment of the comfort system9. However, in other cases, such structural processes have been previously induced by colonialist culture that essentially relied on an ideology of exploitation. This is the case of the caste systems in India. Pre-colonial India relied on complex identities able to reflect different forms of relationships across the community members. It is the interaction with British rule that led to the development of the strictly hierarchical system that contributed to many past and ongoing injustices10.

This suggests that several of the social structures that contributed to serious wrongdoings in the context of colonialism were in fact supported by a larger ideology that underlay the idea of colonialism itself. We argue that this general worldview corresponds to a typical western standpoint asserting the superiority of white men over the natural world, competition over collaboration, and strict hierarchies.

However, in her discussion of political responsibility, Lu does not seem to challenge this prevalence of the western perspective. Instead, she advocates for the elimination of unjust social structures without requiring a reform of the worldview that underlies these structures. Because such a worldview motivates colonial injustices but is not essentially unjust, it escapes her definition. The political “stimulation” of Young and Lu would therefore fail to operate the more fundamentally required metaphysical reappraisal.

This realization is made more obvious when taken from the prism of cultural injustices. Cultural injustices are cases where cultural forms of a group are forcefully altered, suppressed or denied by the actions of another powerful group11. In our case, structural social processes induced by violent western cultural dissemination is thus a case of cultural injustice. The pervasive and pernicious rationale of European culture being more valuable than others has distorted previous cultural systems and allowed the establishment of social norms that would support the atrocities perpetrated in the context of colonialism. An example of such rewriting of social norms is the evangelization campaigns that the catholic church carried around the world during the colonial period. If Catholicism is not essentially unjust, it can nevertheless serve as a support for the development of unjust structures12.

By considering this enforcement of social norms through the lens of cultural injustice, we thus observe that the simple elimination of the social structures at the source of injustices, as envisioned by Lu, is not enough of a reparation. It fails to challenge the underlying belief system that supports these structures in the first place and fails to account for the cultural injustice.

Supplementary compensations to the political responsibility reparations should therefore at least include apologies and truth telling, as advocated for by Rajeev Bhargava in her discussion of cultural injustice13. Shame, first, supposes recognizing the other cultures as equal and thus acknowledging the inappropriateness of the western worldview that has supported colonialism. Remarkably, it contrasts with the attempt of political responsibility to avoid blame14. Nevertheless, we argue that the realization of the failures of an ideology that one has always supported, albeit unconsciously, could and should instill shame. Franz Fanon described how shame resulted from the constant depreciation of African culture15. Realization of the inappropriateness of one’s colonial ideology should thus naturally lead to the same sentiment. Second, truth telling implies a constant and honest reassessment of our different ethnocentric biases. It is about developing a more objective and fair appraisal of the different cultural positions. It is a broader and permanent deconstruction that encourages a creative and just renewal of our societies. As pointed out by Bhargava, the western standpoint had conquered the universities of many countries. Truth telling is about realizing the implications of such a dominion to bring forth a permanent reassessment of the validity of our ideological assumptions.

The political responsibility of Young and Lu applied to individuals that were not directly perpetrators themselves or did not inherit such responsibilities, but nevertheless supported unjust structural processes. The extensions to reparative duties proposed above similarly apply to the same category of individuals. However, in contrast to Lu and Young, we want to distinguish between the different levels of involvement and enthusiasm in the perpetuation of an unjust system. It is clear that some people adhere to a social structure because the incentives do not give them much other choice, while others actively and freely maintain it. This differentiation should therefore entail a difference in responsibilities for reparation. When this difference in engagement results from a free and informed decision, it could also entail a moral liability in the stricter sense for active advocates of unjust systems.

Climate and colonial justice

In the previous section, we pointed out that a complete account of structural injustice must also include a complete reassessment of the deeper ideological system that underlies the development and continuation of the unjust structures. We also identified supplementary reparative duties for individuals engaging with this worldview. In the following, we illustrate the above construction by articulating topics of climate justice as an ongoing colonial injustice and how our reparative requirements would differ from the ones of Lu in this case.

The climatic and related ecological crisis we are currently experiencing has important and global consequences. While being multifactorial, from a philosophical point of view, this ongoing disaster arose from a specific ideological human perspective on the natural world, and on the interaction with natural resources. Without requiring the assumption that territorial natural resources should belong to everyone, it is clear that several individual groups (i.e. industrial nations) have monopolized essentially global resources. The most obvious example of this communal appropriation is the atmosphere. A handful of countries have consumed the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas absorption capacity, at the expense of others, which is an act of colonization. This injustice has been fueled by a particular worldview that sees nature as an exploitable resource, and relies on the principle of infinite economic growth.

Despite being typical of the western thought, this worldview is certainly not shared by all cultures around the world. As an example, animism, which is present in large parts of Asia and Africa, supports the belief that objects, plants and animals possess a distinct spiritual essence16. This perspective offers a radical alternative to the exploitative view of the natural world. Nevertheless, the aggressive proselytism of the western view has now forced a large part of the world to subscribe to its conception of nature, resulting in global natural over-extraction, with vastly different consequences on different countries.

According to the structural justice approach derived by Lu, most of this climatic injustice lies in an unfair repartition of the negative consequences of climate change, such as water level rises threatening the survival of islands in the pacific or drought in countries already subject to food supply challenges. Political responsibility would therefore only consist in having a more fair repartition of the negative effects of climate change17. We claim that this is not enough. The underlying ideology that supports this mode of exploitation of natural resources has to be thoroughly addressed and revised. It is a necessary part of the reparations due to the victims of this injustice. Specifically, it requires apologies, in the form of formal acknowledgement of the failures of the western thought system and a revalorization of more suited belief systems, and truth telling, in the form of a permanent reappraisal of our underlying ideologies.


Colonialism is not an isolated event but the result of a specific philosophical conception of the world. A structural injustice approach of colonialism must therefore include a criticism of its underlying ideologies in its minimum requirements for reparation. It is our moral duty to identify the ethnocentric biases of this particular worldview that continues to underlie present-day colonization.


Bhagava, Rajeev. “How Should We Respond to the Cultural Injustices of Colonialism?” In Reparations: Interdisciplinary Inquiries edited by Jon Miller and Rahul Kumar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press, 1982.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

Lu, Catherine. “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 19 (2011), 3: 261-281.

Smith, Tony. “Animism.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on June 4th 2022, “”.

Young, Iris Marion. “Responsibility and Historic Injustice.” In Responsibility for Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.


  1. Catherine Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 19, 3 (2011): 261-281. ↩︎

  2. Emile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: The Free Press, 1982), pp 52-59. ↩︎

  3. Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress.” ↩︎

  4. Iris Marion Young, “Responsibility and Historic Injustice.” In Responsibility for Justice. (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2012). ↩︎

  5. “What I call the social connection model of responsibility, on the other hand, consists in a shared responsibility that all members of a society have to redress structural injustice […]. This model of responsibility does not assign blame or fault, but rather enjoins a political responsibility to organize collective action for change.” in Young, “Responsibility and Historic Injustice,” p.173. ↩︎

  6. Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress,” p.17. ↩︎

  7. “My argument, however, makes the concept of political responsibility more controversial, because the justness of the ouotcomes or social conditions that result from structural reform must include the elimination of social disadvantage that identifiable victims may suffer as a result of past injustice.” in Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress,” p.18. ↩︎

  8. “A political responsibility to correct structural injustice is thus concerned with changing the formal law and societal norms underlying social institutions and practices, but political responsibility is fulfilled only when these changes bring about or realize just structural or social conditions.” in Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress,” p.19. ↩︎

  9. Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress.” ↩︎

  10. “Second, related to the first, is the invention in India of a new conception of caste and its elevation as the central symbol of Indian society. Precolonial India has multiple social identities and their relations and trajectories could be understood only as part of a complex and dynamic social and political context. […] Not much evidence exists that the people of pre-colonial India ever used a single term to express the diverse forms of identity and community in their own life worlds. Colonialism displaced the idea of jati with varna - the classification of all castes into four hierarchical orders with the Brahmin on top - gave it the sanction of religious scripture, thereby making caste a matter of a person’s religious identity and finally turned it into the central, pervasive, and centralizing feature of Indian society and Hindy religion.” in Bhagava Rajeev, “How Should We Respond to the Cultural Injustices of Colonialism?,” in Reparations: Interdisciplinary Inquiries, ed. Jon Miller and Rahul Kumar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.231-232. ↩︎

  11. “If members of a group are denied access to their own culture then they suffer cultural injustice. […] Cultura injustice occurs when the basic cultural forms of a group are altered by the arbitrary or deliberate actions of another powerful or dominant group.” in Rajeev, “How Should We Respond to the Cultural Injustices of Colonialism?”, p.218. ↩︎

  12. We stress here that we do not intend that there is something specifically wrong with Catholicism in particular, or with any other religious beliefs. We point out that these systems of beliefs, which are not unjust per-se, can be used to motivate or legitimate unjust actions. In the case of christianism, it is well known that some interpretations of the Bible can lead to sexist views of the world. ↩︎

  13. Rajeev, “How Should We Respond to the Cultural Injustices of Colonialism?”. ↩︎

  14. “To accept political responsibility, therefore, is not to accept moral blame for the harms and damages caused by others’ wrongdoings.” in Lu, “Colonialism as Structural Injustice: Historical Responsibility and Contemporary Redress,” p.18. ↩︎

  15. “The black man will, unfailingly, remain in his hole. In Europe the black man has a function: to represent shameful feelings, base instincts, and the dark side of the soul. In the collective unconscious of Homo occidentalis the black man—or, if you prefer, the color black —symbolizes evil, sin, wretchedness, death, war, and famine.” in Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967), pp. 144-145. ↩︎

  16. Tiddy Smith, “Animism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on June 4th 2022. “”. ↩︎

  17. An example of such a repartition could be to share the financial cost of the burdens of climate changes proportionally to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by each country. ↩︎