John Stuart Mill was born in London, England on the 20 May 1806. He is the eldest son of a philosopher and historian, James Mill, who educated him. James Mill hoped to educate his son in a way that would see John Stuart Mill carry on the philosophical thought of his father. It is said that he had learnt Greek by age three and Latin by eight. His father was part of the "Philosophic Radicals", who wanted law and the legal system to be more rational, the economy to play a part in political decisions and more focus on human happiness as opposed to absolute moral considerations. All of this rubbed off on Mill, although he saw problems with their philosophy. In 1820, for one year, Mill studied in France. In 1826, the pressures of education and his father's vision lead him to have a "mental crisis", he got himself out of his depression by reading poetry. Poetry led Mill to question the emphasis of the Philosphic Radicals on rationality over human feelings.

Mill was well-versed and wrote on many subjects including economics, law, maths, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, religion and current affairs.

Mill worked for the East India Company and was financially secure. His job did not take up much time and so Mill was able to keep up a steady flow of writing. Later he was a member of Parliament for one term, although he did not affect any great change.

Mill passed away in 1873. Some claim that he was the greatest philosopher of the 19 century.

John Stuart Mill grew up with the movement of Philosophical Radicalism, made famous by Jeremy Bentham and Mill's father James Mill, which applied utilitarian principles to contemporary political issues, particularly challenging traditional institutions of class.

Mill embraces a conception of the socially constituted subject who is both disciplined and enabled by rights -- this subject is suited to democratic participation. Mill argues for a defense of rights, presuming that individuals are naturally and rightfully best off when they are unencumbered by the interferences of others because individual and social progress depends on freedom. According to Mill rights should be respected because they serve the interests of society, as they advance men and women as progressive beings. (Zivi, 2006, Cultivating Character: John Stuart Mill).



Chapter 3:

  • It has been supposed that absolute despotic rule, when controlled by an all-powerful, righteous individual, would be the best form of government.
  • The public in this society would be blissfully ignorant. They would also not care about their country, as they are not at all involved in running it. They are all essentially slaves to this despot (despite how well he may treat them).
  • The best form of government is that in which the controlling power is held by the community as a whole, with every citizen taking some part in the government.
Government can be judged by two standards:
  • How far it promotes the good management of the affairs of society by means of the existing faculties of its various members?
  • What is its effect in improving of deteriorating those faculties?

This best form of government may not be practical in all states of civilization.
There are also two principals with respect to human affairs:
  • That the rights and interests of every or any person are only secure from being disregarded when the person interested is himself able, and habitually disposed, to stand up for them.
  • The second is, that the general prosperity attains a greater height, and is more widely diffused, in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it.

Chapter 4:

Are there social conditions in which representative government is inapplicable?
Three fundamental conditions for a government to permanently subsist:
  1. That the people should be willing to receive it.
  2. That they should be willing and able to do what is necessary for its preservation.
  3. That they should be willing and able to fulfill the duties and discharge the functions which it imposes on them.

There are two states on inclinations in people:
  • the desire to exercise power over others
  • the disinclination to have power exercised over themselves.

Chapter 6:

A government which does not fulfill its necessary offices is defective.
  • One defect is not successfully exercising the moral, intellectual and active faculties of the people
  • People who are too independent to wish to be ruled are not ready for representative government

There are two causes of the dangers of government:
  • General ignorance and incapacity
  • Low grade intelligence in the representative body or in the popular opinion which controls it

Being under the influence of interests not in line with the welfare of the state
  • Legislation specific to a class
  • Those in power will naturally hold their own immediate interests in higher importance. Unfortunately, governments must be made of men, who are corrupted by power

Chapter 7:
• A government must limit these aforementioned dangers, while preserving benefits of representative government
• Democracy is often the government of the whole people by a numerical majority
  • Disenfranchises this minority.
• The natural tendency of representative government, as of modern civilization, is towards collective mediocrity

Chapter 16:
• People constitute a Nationality if they cooperate with each other more willingly than with other people
• This feeling of identity may be caused by
  • Race and descent
  • Language
  • Religion
  • Geographical restrictions
  • A collective history
• Free institutions are difficult in a country made up of different nationalities
• Political obstacles exist when there are nearly equal amounts of different nationalities

Chapter 18:
How should dependencies acquired by conquest of colonization be governed?
• Some dependencies are composes of similar civilizations to the ruling country, while others are very different
  • Those which are similar are developed with the culture of the ruling country and are ready to be given a representative government
• Other countries which have not attained that state and must be governed by the dominant country.
  • It is, however, always very difficult for a country to be ruled by foreigners
  • Sometimes the dominant country will do more harm to the country being ruled

A Few Words on Non-Intervention
Mill commences by extolling the virtues of England as a European power, ‘far exceeding any other in wealth, and in the power that wealth bestows’ and how English foreign policy is directed to non-intervention in the affairs of other nations – if only reciprocal. Action by the English Government in the international realm according to Mill, even if undertaken in the best intentions of mankind are viewed with suspicion by rival nations as though ulterior motives are at play (The example of the abolition of British Slavery is given).

Mill continues to support British policy of non-interference by government in the speculations or private citizens even if those ventures are unsuccessful. Although the initial investor may not have benefited others who followed and improved the design of such a speculation may do so.

Concerning the interference in the affairs of other states, to wage aggressive war for an idea is equal to that of a criminal – nothing but revenue. No right to force ideas on others. However, Mill expands upon this to further justify war between more or less equitably civilised nations and war waged upon Barbarians. Barbarians cannot reciprocate ‘rules of ordinary international morality’ and have not progressed beyond the period in civilisation and as such conquest by a foreign party is in their best interests. Jus gentium cannot also be invoked to defend Barbarians from attack as Barbarian nations cannot exist.

Sometimes a nation is impelled to act due for moral reasons. To prevent brigandage in India, England was morally bound as the conqueror had destroyed the police/military capability of the former.

Intervention can be justified according to Mill in order to preserve non-intervention however with certain conditions and if the nation is not a barbarian. If party A invades party B and party c evicts party a) is always justified. Thus intervention is used to liberate a previously free society that had already found the 'Balance of forces for the permanent maintenance of freedom'.

Study Questions

(Add, answer, and discuss study questions for this author and reading)
  • Why does Mill think that imperial government can sometimes help another country? Under what conditions is this claim true, for Mill? Critically evaluate his arguments for benevolent imperialism.
  • The summary states that Mill disagrees with the notion that 'it has been suggested that a state is best ruled by an all knowing/power righteous dictator.' But what if this all knowing and powerful benevolent dictator is there to facilitate democracy? From Mill's words on non-intervention Britain certainly appears to fit this description. If the dictator is all knowing/all powerful, and benevolent, doesn't this automatically suggests that he would be leading his people down that path? If he were righteous he would know that the best form of government is representative democracy and would strive to impart the values needed to make it work. I think something has gone wrong in that first argument, at least in terms of making distinctions where there are none. If Representative Democracy = Good, then Righteous Dictator -> Representative Democracy = Good as well. And of course the benevolent dictator, perhaps a state like Britain, is needed to bring the greater good to places like India. Of course, we don't have these benevolent all knowing dictators, rather self interested ones. What do you think Mill says to this? Doesn't he say precisely what you say? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008
  • Is war ever justified?
According to Mill "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things...The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made so and kept so by the exertions of men better than himself". As a utilitarian Mill is able to justify war when it can be determined to be a necessary force in a struggle for liberty and freedom from tyranny. It will end up bringing overall improvement (to happiness). Not quite - he certainly does not justify interference in the revolutions of other people, when those other people are civilised. - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008In the 19th century, capitalist countries similarly justified their imperial conquests on utilitarian grounds, claiming to be bringing civilization and prosperity to the backward countries of Asia and Africa.Yes, sometimes they used such justifications, other times they did not; often they used racial justifications of natural inferiority, which Mill does not use - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008
  • What does Mill mean by saying that some people are "civilized" and others are not? What is the implication of this distinction for international relations?
Mill distinguishes between “civilized” people and “barbarians”. What Mill meant by saying that some people are "civilised" and others are not, Mill strives to argue that "civilised" people are people who have created a culture that is ready for representative government. They have forged (in modern terms) a nation which has a wide ambit of moral concern, as opposed to a narrow self-interested concern which makes representative government flawed. Mill believed that most of Europe was at this stage despite many countries within Europe not having representative government. Mill thought only Europeans countries possed the cultural preconditions to have a representative government.

This analysis creates an issue when comparing it with Mill's definition of barbarians. Mill believed that barbarians were people who were not ready for representative government, which in some ways was evidenced by the lack of representative institutions. Though lack of representative institutions is only one piece of evidence.

The implications that this distinction has in international relations is that it creates a different moral standard between those who are civilised and those that are not. For "civilised" countries their independence and nationality are held to be sacred, but for barbarians their 'nation' is not something that has moral authority. Do barbarians have nations, according to Mill? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. Therefore barbarians who want independence - before they are 'ready' - do not have a legitimate aim. But, he also knows that every culture is not prepared for this kind of government. For him those civilizations are barbarians. Even if they have a rich culture they are still “barbarians”. They are “barbarians” because they are not prepared to receive a representative government.

"The same rules of international morality do not apply between civilized nations and between civilized nations and barbarians…The sacred duties which civilized nations owe to the independence and nationality of each other are not binding towards those to whom nationality and independence are either a certain evil or at best a questionable good."

An alternative view:

In International Relations Mill makes a distinction between “civilized” countries and “barbarians”. This kind of separation is not fair because it does not count the culture of the countries It only counts the culture of the countries - what do you mean it does not? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. But, this kind of argument in Mill’s time was accepted. One can see, even in modern agreements (before World War I and the Inter War period) clauses in agreements which talk about “race”. A race qualification therefore was (and it could be argued still is) “normal” in Mill’s time. Speaking of culture and speaking of race are very different things. Mill never speaks of "natural" inferiority (race); he speaks of cultures that are not yet ready for representative government but might be in the future - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008~

  • How does Mill justify the British conquest of India? What does he assume about India in the process?
JS Mill justifies Empire and the conquest of India because it served England’s (and to some extent India’s) economic, cultural and political interests. Each will be examined in turn:

Cultural Argument:
One of Mill’s major justifications for the conquest of India was the idea that rule by England served a civilizing function. This idea sits in a construct of Mill’s - different morals and rules apply between civilized and uncivilized nations This runs together two different arguments of Mill - the idea that different rules of international morality apply between civilized and uncivilized nations, and the idea that Britain can serve a civilizing function in India- xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. Therefore the desire for nationalism and independence is only of value for people who were civilized. Not clear. Why, exactly, is independence only of value for civilized people? Mill gives a few reasons - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008*

"The same rules of international morality do not apply between civilized nations and between civilized nations and barbarians…The sacred duties which civilized nations owe to the independence and nationality of each other are not binding towards those to whom nationality and independence are either a certain evil or at best a questionable good." This is from A Few Words .... - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Therefore in terms of India it is justified for England to rule against their will because India was uncivilized Not quite - there has to be a prior case. England is not justified in just conquering every less civilized people - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008; moreover, the English brought gradual improvement. Barbarism, Mill believed, is not an innate characteristic; it was a result of “history and could be remedied by history” (Eileen Sullivan: Liberalism and Imperialism). The benefits below flow from having a civilized India, therefore Mill justified interventionism.

Economic Argument:
A second justification for Mill was an argument based in economics. Mill believed that England produced a surplus of labour and capital which would become not as profitable as it could be.

“Mill maintained that if, with the large amounts of capital, population remained the same, the cost of labor or wages would rise and, hence, profits fall. If, with the large amounts of capital, population increased, there would be a greater demand for food. More inefficient land would be brought into cultivation and hence the price of food and the cost of labor or wages would rise. Again, as wages rise, profits fall.” Where is this from? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Therefore the security provided by England in India would encourage people at home to invest overseas, contributing to the growth of the colonised economy and eventually leading to cheap imports of food and materials. The colony also benefited from law and order and the investment from abroad, which would help the historical trend towards inevitable civilization.

Political Argument:
One of the last major justifications for the conquest of India was that it increased the political power and prestige of England. Mill reasoned that England was the most civilized nation on earth and truly understood liberty, therefore it should intervene more in international affairs.
“[England was]…incomparably the most conscientious of all nations... the only one whom mere scruples of conscience would... deter…[further England was] "the power which of all in existence best understands liberty." I'm not sure that this is an argument for intervention that Mill makes; only an argument perhaps for the benevolence of England's interventions - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Mill thought that there was a need to have "a moral influence and weight in the councils of the world.” This would not only advance the interests of England but also the interests of all humanity. This is not necessarily a justification for intervention- xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Another reason for intervening is to protect the natives from private adventurers. Does this fit with any of the arguments above? this can be integrated better - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

In chapter 18 of Considerations on Representative Government Mill describes how Free States should govern their colonies (“dependencies”). He divides the dependencies into “two classes. Some are composed of people of similar civilisation to the ruling country, capable of, and ripe for, representative government: such as the British possessions in America and Australia. Others, like India, are still at a great distance from that state.”

That means that colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the "colonies of European race”) can establish their own government, because there, the “population is in a sufficiently advanced state to be fitted for representative government.”

However, the situation in India according to Mill is different, “there are others which have not attained that state, and which, if held at all, must be governed by the dominant country.” Mill is arguing that India is not ready for a representative government, and therefore the British conquest is justified and a despotic government by the British rulers in the best interest of the Indians, “There are… conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilisation”. Mill names several reasons to justify the British rule in India but also sees the difficulties of the foreign rule: “It is always under great difficulties, and very imperfectly, that a country can be governed by foreigners. …Foreigners do not feel with the people”. Ok, but some of this repeats points made above - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

  • Are these assumptions plausible?

From the point of view of Mill, it seems that his proposal for justifying imperial rule in a country is only beneficial when the foreign country completely rules the barbarian society But this is because by the time intervention is justified, the imperial power has destroyed the country's government in order to protect its own interest, and so gains a responsibility to provide protection - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. From the perspective of the today's foreign policy it could be agrued that many, for the most part, agree with what Mill is saying (in terms of justification but not necessarily methodology.) In terms of Iraq, part of America's reasoning (which some consider dubious) for invading was based on the outcome i.e. Iraq would (more quickly) progress towards being a civilized culture. That assumes Iraq was not civilised in Mill's or our terms - can that assumption be justified? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. It could be contended that the US believed that the invasion and foreign rule would lead towards the establishment of a representative government. Mill's proposed assumptions seem plausible and appropriate, but it seems that he jumps to an extreme conclusion from his judgments. Mill lives in a society that is very cut and dry in terms of foreign policy between two countries. Britain needs to be either all the way in or all the way out (e.g. in terns of India). There is no balance between the two extremes. Using Mill's assumptions about a barbaric vs civilized society, a civilized country could be lead to dabble in the affairs of India or Iraq. This doesn't require the civilized countries total commitment; yet, the country is free to give advice and guidance to the barbarian society in an attempt to progress it towards a civilized, representative government.

  • Is intervention ever justified by a "civilised" nation into another "civilised" nation? If so, under what conditions?
Mill argued that intervention by a "civilised" nation into another "civilised" nation is sometimes appropriate if it is the best interests of both states When is that the case? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. He justifies intervention and argues that “barbarians” can benefit from the influence of “civilised” nations This is not the kind of intervention that the question is asking about - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008, with the example of the Roman conquests of Gaul, Spain, Numidia and Dacia. The barbarians “have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one”.

There are certain cultural conditions that apply to a justified form of intervention. Mill suggests that there are different morals and rules that apply to civilized and uncivilized nations. Not the relevant point - the question is about interventions within civilised nations - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008 He argues that the need for nationalism and independence is valuable for people who were civilised; it is a nation’s interest to be “civilised”.

According to Mill, representative government is the best form of government if the state is stable and capable of establishing an electoral system. He suggests that representative government is not suitable for all states, so they should have a non-representative form of government. In this case, it is possible that a “civilised state” should intervene and assist that state in establishing a better form of government where the people are law-abiding and capable of judging the moral worth of a person standing for election.The question does not ask about these sorts of interventions, but about the civilised on civilised interventions - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008
  • Is intervention justified in order to help a people get rid of a tyrant? If so, under what conditions?
Only if the tyrant is being supported by a foreign intervening force. When a tyrant imposes their rule from outside the nation by conquest. Intervention is justified to restore the non-intervention principle (among already civilised states).
  • When is intervention not justified?
When two native parties are warring and are not influenced by outside factors intervention cannot be justified even where the intervention would results in a new system. This is because there is no 'assurance that intervention would be good for the people themselves' Does this principle apply for all peoples, or only for civilised peoples - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008
  • What, in brief, are the cases in which intervention is justified? Is there a basic principle running through all of these judgments?
Intervention can be justified in order to create a state that is preparing itself for a representative government. Like the English influence in India, Mill justifies the English influence in the affairs of India. There are certain times when a foreigner would be better for a country (i.e. in terms of guidance.) The goal of the foreign country does not have to be to create a representative government, but if the foreign government is in some form a representative government then there will be an influence. This foreign influence affects the invaded country. Mill believes that the foreigners, in some way or another, expedite the progression of the country towards a society and culture that can handle representative government. With the help of the English, India was able to progress into the democracy that it is today. Mill believes that if the current conditions of the society or government do not allow for a representative government, then the interference of foreigners can in some means be justified.

What follows repeats some points above, and does not consider the cases of civilised nations intervening in other civlised nations - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008First of all when Mill said something about intervention, he was in favor because the United Kingdom was in expansion Not clear - he was not always in favor of intervention by the English - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. But also he argued that intervention was good in places like Algeria or India, where British and French soldiers were fighting, because they are ‘barbarians”. For Mill there is no “reciprocity” with “uncivilized” people. A “civilized” country can intervene in a “barbarian” country but a “uncivilized” country cannot intervene in the affairs of a “civilized” country. Second, being in contact with British and French will be good for them because they are going to assimilate European culture. To support this argument, Mill compared the United Kingdom with Rome and its intervention in Gaul, Spain, Numidia and Dacia. Basically for him you can intervene for:
  • To teach representative government to a “barbarian” country
  • If there is a civil war, in an “uncivilized” country in a civlised country- xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008, the intervention have to be on the side who wants to make the people free. Check A Few Words for all the cases Mill discusses, and see if you can find a principle - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008
  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Mill's defence of the principle of non-intervention. (Taken from pols/phil 2005 exam)
The principal weakness behind his principles of non-intervention comes when compared word choice? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008 to his justification of the British in India. Mills seems to truly believe in non-intervention but due to being English, contemporary circumstances appear to force him to elaborate ways to justify the British Raj.Elaborate - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008 It reminds me partially of Aristotle and slavery, who appeared trying to justify slavery - on the basis of finding unfindable natural slaves. Expand - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

  • How could Mill's principles on intervention feature in the debate about American intervention in Iraq? Is Mill still relevant in a modern context?
Mill would argue that the USA had no right in helping the people of Iraq to overthrow or otherwise depose of Saddam Hussein's government. Mill says that where the people are attempting to throw off the yoke of a purely native government (i.e no foreign involvement), the strength and conviction of the people is the crucial test. How badly the people desire freedom can be gauged by how much they are willing to risk in the pursuit of liberty This all assumes that Iraq would count as civilised in Mill's view - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. The problem with foreign intervention to achieve democracy is that the value is diminished because it has come too easily to the native populace. "If a people...does not value it [liberty] sufficiently to fight for it, is only a question of [time]...that people will be enslaved." John Stuart Mill 'A Few Words on Non-Intervention'.

Mill's doctrine of non-intervention only allows for prevention of intervention by another foreign force and this is not the case of America in Iraq. A good contrast would be the prevention of Russia invading Georgia.

Mill's ideas are still relevant today, even more so as the world becomes smaller through globalization. His arguments are particularly important for the topics of nationalism and humanitarian assistance. If an oppressive dictator is causing suffering and cruelty in their dominion, are other countries entitled to enter and save lives? Can they bring their ideas of democracy with them? Mill would say no, for the true path to freedom and liberty must be for the people to come to realise it themselves. There are some exceptions - look closely at what he says in a few Words - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

If you can take tyranny to be synonymous with Barbarism under JS Mills terminology, if the Americans would simply say 'Yes we are here to rule you for your own good', it could be justified They could not just simply "say" it - they would have to show that by providing for an administration of competent people with language and cultural skills, committed to the long-haul improvement of Iraq - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. America claimed to be bringing democracy to Iraq, but hasn't gone through the period of colonial rule necessary as for the British in India to impart the mental attitudes suited toward democracy. They immediately set about replicating parliamentary institutions.

You could perhaps make a case from in the 'Few words on non-intervention' on the basis of "redressing balance when it is already and violently disturbed". These situations in which a small group holds power and dominates through the use of weapons (i.e. Iraq under Saddam, Zimbabwe, Fiji, etc while not strictly 'foreign forces') can easily be seen to be disturbing the natural balance that would lead to democracy. In situations where it is impossible to gain liberty regardless of the extent of the risks, foreign intervention would not diminish its attainment. However, this reasoning may conjure an image of an Iraq where America came in, destroyed the army, and simply left. Is this Iraq not the Iraq of the first gulf war? The removal of a substantial quantity of Saddam's military power didn't cause the people to immediately rise up that time, though maybe it wasn't a thorough enough job, maybe they needed to get rid of Saddam and his government as well. Wouldn't Mill say that no intervention would be justified in that case? That they were given a chance (not a great chance) and the people weren't able to overthrown Saddam; further intervention would not be indicated - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008 The Kurdish people certainly wanted to rise up (though not for democracy), and were cracked down upon. If we can believe that there was no chance at all of the people being able to rise up in Iraq (should they have wanted to) then the intervention is justified.Not sure that Mill would agree; if there is no chance, then democracy would be unpromising even if some of the people succeeded in implementing it - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Unfortunately for this theory, the Americans didn't leave this time Not sure what you are referring to here - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008. The likely situation would have to be a Hobbsian state of nature along nationalist ethno-religious lines anyway. How is this relevant to Mill's arguments? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Mill states that "intervention to enforce non-intervention is always right" and that sounds awfully simply ? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008 to the UN charter of the modern day. However while Mill's underlying concepts of non-intervention, democracy, utilitarianism, and so on are still relevant, his elaboration belongs to the colonial era of 150 years ago. It is hard to define anywhere in the world as 'barbarian' in the typical sense of the world even though there are plenty of Tyrants. Instead of barbarian, substitute "traditional," or "developing". Isn't that the same thing for Mill's arguments? - xmarquez xmarquez Sep 25, 2008

Lecture Notes

External Resources

(Add links to useful external resources)

Selected Bibliography

  • Eileen P. Sullivan (1983). "Liberalism and Imperialism: J. S. Mill's Defense of the British Empire." Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 44, No. 4., pp. 599-617. Link.