J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention

John Stuart Mill [left] and Jean-Luc Picard [right, drawing by gerardtorbitt]

This is the penultimate post of our five-week roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, herehere, and here. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!

“No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.”

— Prime Directive (United Federation of Planets General Order 1)

“The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy…and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.” – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

The Victorian political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1973) and Star Trek’s far-future United Federation of Planets (the Federation) differ substantially on the colonial question. In particular, Mill the Victorian liberal imperialist thought that it was the duty of the British to help “civilize” less developed states through colonialism. Within his stages of civilization, Mill regarded underdeveloped states like India to be backwards and in need of benign British despotism, which was “a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”[1]

Although Star Trek‘s Federation may share some similar Victorian-era ideas about imperial power structures and civilizational stages, by contrast it has strict rules about not attempting to “civilize” or colonize “backward” societies. It is enshrined in their Prime Directive, which was first introduced in the Original Series (1966-69) as a none-too-subtle anti-imperial rebuke of the US war in Vietnam.[2]

However, despite their glaring differences on colonialism as civilizing mission, J. S. Mill and the Federation do see eye-to-eye when deciding whether it is morally justifiable to intervene in foreign conflicts.

Mill had strong opinions about when a country should and should not intervene in international conflicts, which he articulated in his short 1859 essay “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” and elsewhere in his writings. He made a provocative argument, which has led to the spilling of much scholarly ink on the subject.[3]

For Mill, whether a country ought to be able to help another “in a struggle against their government” depended upon whether “the yoke which the people are attempting to throw off is that of a purely native government, or of foreigners.” If it was purely an internal struggle — a civil war, a conflict within a nation — Mill advocated for a policy of non-interventionism.

However, in the case of hostilities between nations, Mill urged a policy of interventionism. In “the case of people struggling against a foreign yoke, or against a native tyranny upheld by foreign arms,” the people “may be unable to contend successfully for them against the military strength of another nation much more powerful.” To provide humanitarian assistance to “a people thus kept down, is not to disturb the balance of forces…but to redress that balance…Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent.”[4]

Mill’s moral justification for humanitarian intervention has proven to be at least as palatable for future generations as it was back then. In The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect (2015), for example, political scientist Michael Doyle returns to Mill to make the 21st-century moral case for certain instances of humanitarian intervention, including in Syria.[5]

Mill’s moralistic theory about when and when not to intervene is also put into practice by the far-future generations of Star Trek’s Federation.

The two-part “Redemption” episode (1991) of Star Trek: The Next Generation vividly illustrates the series’s Millian theory. The episode opens with Gowran, the newly appointed leader of the Klingon High Council, beseeching Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the Federation starship Enterprise, to help defeat the Duras family, a powerful Klingon clan that has challenged Gowron’s newfound authority.

Because this is deemed to be a civil war purely within the Klingon Empire, the Prime Directive’s Millian policy is obvious: the Federation shouldn’t intervene. Thus when Picard’s first officer, Will Riker, asks if Gowron is “the legitimate leader of the empire, shouldn’t we help him?” Picard gives an emphatic no. If they were to give aid to Gowron, they’d “be dragging the Federation into a Klingon civil war.” To which he later adds, “the Federation cannot interfere in, what is by definition, an internal Klingon affair.”

Jump forward a few weeks, and Gowron’s side is losing the civil war, and badly at that. They are outgunned and out-equipped. What happens next embraces the other dimension of Mill’s theory: If one side of a civil war is receiving military aid from a foreign power — “foreign arms” as Mill called it — intervention becomes morally justified.

When it becomes clear that the Duras are receiving “foreign arms” from the Romulans, Picard begins to advocate for the Federation to intervene in the conflict, and it’s right out of Mill’s playbook. “If the Duras are being aided by the Romulans,” he argues to his superiors, “it becomes very much our concern” because the Romulan Empire – prone to duplicitousness and hostility — would then be able to shift the balance of power in the quadrant and destroy the hard-won 20-year Klingon-Federation alliance. The Duras, Picard continues, “must be getting help” from a foreign power. The Federation therefore needs to intervene to “redress the balance,” as Mill put it.

Picard proposes that the Federation intervene to restore the Klingon civil war to a purely internal affair. He suggests blockading the suspected regular shipment of military supplies being sent by the Romulans to the Duras with a Federation fleet parked at the Romulan/Klingon border. “We take no offensive action, but we will be in a position to expose any Romulan supplies that attempt to cross the border.” In this way, he is able to even the playing field. With his moral justification for intervention to enforce non-intervention, Jean-Luc Picard was effectively plagiarizing J. S. Mill.

It thus seems that Mill’s  theory of moral intervention is bound for a long shelf life. After all, it’s living long and prospering in the far-future foreign policy of Star Trek’s Federation.


[1] J. S. Mill, Collected Works, VIII, 224. On J. S. Mill and colonialism, see, et al., Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India (1959); Bernard Semmel, “The Philosophic Radicals and Colonialism,” Journal of Economic History 21 (Dec. 1961): 513-525; Eileen P. Sullivan, “Liberalism and Imperialism: J. S. Mill’s Defense of the British Empire,” Journal of the History of Ideas 44 (Oct.-Dec. 1983): 599-617; Lynn Zastoupil, “J. S. Mill and India,” Victorian Studies 32 (Autumn 1988): 31-54; Michael Levin, J. S. Mill on Civilization and Barbarism (2004); Beate Jahn, “Barbarian Thoughts: Imperialism in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill,” Review of International Studies 31 (2005): 599-618; Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire; The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (2006); Duncan Bell, “John Stuart Mill on Colonies,” Political Theory 38 (2010): 34-64.

[2] Manu Saadia, Trekonomics: The Economics of Star Trek (2016).

[3] Kenneth E. Miller, “John Stuart Mill’s Theory of International Relations,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct.-Dec. 1961): 493-514; Carol A. L. Prager, “Intervention and Empire: John Stuart Mill and International Relations,” Political Studies 53 (Oct. 2005): 621-640; Alexis Heraclides and Ada Dialla, Humanitarian Intervention in the Long Nineteenth Century: Setting the Precedent (2015);Michael Doyle, The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect (2015).

[4] Mill, Collected Works, XXI, 122-3.

[5] Michael Doyle, “When to Intervene: What Would John Stuart Mill Do About Syria?Foreign Affairs, Nov. 20, 2015.

2 thoughts on “J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention

Comments are closed.