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. Continue reading “J. S. Mill, the Prime Directive, and the Theory of Moral Intervention”