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J. S. Mill's Anti-Imperialist Defence of Empire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2022

Tim Beaumont
Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, P.R. China
Yuan Li*
Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, Guangzhou, P.R. China
*Corresponding Author. Email:


It is possible to distinguish between empire, as a form of political order, and imperialism, as a process of aggressive expansion. Mill's liberalism allows for a legitimate empire, in which a civilized state rules a less civilized foreign people paternalistically to prepare them for liberal democratic self-rule. However, it rejects paternalistic imperialism, in the sense of aggression designed to establish such an empire. Apparent textual evidence to the contrary really demonstrates Mill's commitment to three distinct theses: that imperialism may benefit those subject to it, and this can mitigate its evil; that it is easier to justify non-aggressive, empire-creating wars of conquest in response to aggression by barbarian powers; and finally, that civilized states are justified in engaging distant uncivilized peoples non-aggressively, even though the latter's aggressive tendencies mean that such engagement renders empire-justifying wars more likely.

Utilitas , Volume 34 , Issue 3 , September 2022 , pp. 242 - 261
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 XVIII:119; X:16. All references to Mill's writings are to the volume and page number of Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson, 33 vols (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–91).

2 XVIII:119–120.

3 Inder Marwah notes that some of Mill's most vociferous critics overlook the scalar usage (Liberalism, Diversity and Domination: Kant, Mill and the Government of Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), p. 167, fn. 106).

4 XVIII:122. Cf. Pitts, Jennifer, The Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 137–39, 142CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 XIX:577. See also Meadows, Thomas, The Chinese and their Rebellions (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1856), p. 519Google Scholar. Cf. Pitts, p. 143.

6 XVIII:253, 135. See also: Jahn, Beate, ‘Barbarian Thoughts: Imperialism in the Philosophy of John Stuart Mill’, Review of International Studies, 31(3) (2005), 599–618 (p. 609)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chin Liew Ten, ‘Justice for Barbarians’, in Mill on Justice ed. by Leonard Kahn (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012) pp. 184–97 (p. 188); Marwah, pp. 194–97.

7 XVIII:119; X:123; XI:273; XIV:18.

8 Bell, Duncan, Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), p. 21Google Scholar. See also: Smits, Katherine, ‘John Stuart Mill on the Antipodes: Settler Violence against Indigenous Peoples and the Legitimacy of Colonial Rule’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 54(1) (2008), 115CrossRefGoogle Scholar (p. 3); Marwah, pp. 228–29.

9 Bell, p. 22.

10 XXI:114.

11 See Moore, Robin, ‘John Stuart Mill at East India House’, Historical Studies, 20(81) (1983), 497519CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Even when charging Mill with supporting what he should have realized was imperial aggression in practice (e.g. Don Habibi, ‘Mill on Colonialism’, in A Companion to Mill, ed. by Christopher Macleod and Dale Miller, (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017) pp. 518–32 (pp. 527–29)).

13 E.g., Bell, p. 226; Ten, pp. 187–88; Williams, David, ‘John Stuart Mill and the practice of colonial rule in India’,Journal of International Political Theory, 17(3) (2021), 412–28 (pp. 416–18)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 From here onwards, unless stated otherwise, all discussion of ‘civilization’ is of the narrow variety.

15 XVIII:120; XX:276.

16 XIX:577; cf. Pitts, p. 139.

17 Although another factor is that Mill's incorporation of ‘improvement’ into the definition of ‘narrow civilization’ implies it is not enhanced by over-population or other forms of over-development (III:752–757).

18 XVIII:120.

19 II:3. See also Marwah, p. 175.

20 XVIII:120; X:312.

21 XXX:110–11.

22 XIX:546; Tim Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka's Alignment of Mill and Engels: Nationality, Civilization, and Coercive Assimilation’, forthcoming in Nationalities Papers, online first (2021), 1–19 (pp. 3–5).

23 Georgios Varouxakis, Liberty Abroad: J. S. Mill on International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 11–14.

24 XXX:151–52.

25 XVI:1202.

26 XX:347.

27 XVIII:120.

28 V:746–49.

29 XVIII:197.

30 III:588, 594.

31 II:17; XIX:394–95.

32 Michael Levin, J. S. Mill on Civilization and Barbarism (London: Routledge, 2004), pp. 102–04.

33 XXIII:739–42.

34 XXIII:750.

35 Illusory because more civilized options were available (XIX:395; Bell, pp. 216–219). Cf. Jahn, pp. 601–02.

36 Marwah, p. 198.

37 Ten, pp. 185, 188–89. Cf. Pitts, p. 136.

38 XVIII:224.

39 VI:190; XVIII:193; cf. XVI: 1205–06. Cf. Ten, p. 188.

40 XVIII:120.

41 XIX:377.

42 XVIII:178; XX:278; Beaumont, Tim, ‘Mill and Pettit on Freedom, Domination, and Freedom-as-Domination’, Prolegomena, 18(1) (2019), 27–50 (p. 41)Google Scholar.

43 XXI:246, 346.

44 XVIII:123. But see Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’ (p. 9) for a qualification concerning Russia.

45 XVIII:121.

46 XVIII:146–47, 30–31.

47 III:706–07.

48 XVIII:122, 125–26; XVIII:165.

49 XVIII:192.

50 Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’, pp. 6–7.

51 X:274, 415–17, 486–88.

52 XVIII:143–44; XX: 239.

53 XXI:296; XIX:397; XXV:1181; XXX:30.

54 XVIII:223, emphasis added.

55 Pitts, p. 143.

56 Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’, pp. 2–3.

57 XVIII:292–93.

58 XVIII:223–24, emphasis added.

59 Cf. Bell, p. 298.

60 XIX:567, emphasis added.

61 Kymlicka, Will, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 166Google Scholar, emphasis added. See also: Baum, Bruce, ‘Feminism, Liberalism and Cultural Pluralism: J. S. Mill on Mormon Polygyny’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 5(3) (1997), 230–53 (p. 235)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Habibi, Don, ‘The Moral Dimensions of J. S. Mill's Colonialism’, Journal of Social Philosophy, 30(1) (1999), 125–46 (p. 133)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, emphasis added; Habibi, ‘Mill’, pp. 519, 528.

63 XVIII:290.

64 I:250.

65 Baum, p. 249, fn.71.

66 XVIII:291.

67 Meadows, pp. 543–44.

68 XVIII:290; Baum (p. 232).

69 Habibi, ‘Dimensions’, p. 141.

70 XXI:120.

71 Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’, p. 10.

72 XVIII:290.

73 XXI:336; XXI:99.

74 Meadows, pp. 543–44.

75 XVIII:290, emphasis added; Tunick, Mark, ‘Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill's Defence of British Rule in India’, The Review of Politics, 68, 586–611 (p. 595)Google Scholar.

76 Meadows, pp. 544–45.

77 XVIII:290.

78 Noting that Mill denies the existence of a right, rather than a responsibility, to engage in civilizades does not refute the point, as one people cannot have a moral responsibility to conquer another without having a moral right to do so (cf. Habibi, ‘Dimensions’, p. 141).

79 Meadows, pp. 541–42.

80 Cf. Kymlicka, pp. 52, 69–70.

81 Meadows, p. 540.

82 XVIII:291.

83 XXI:118, emphasis added. Cf. Habibi, ‘Dimensions’ p. 141.

84 XXI:118. Here the ‘that’ requires the ‘should’ to be interpreted as implying that they would benefit from being conquered rather than that they ought to be.

85 XXI:118–19.

86 See also XX:307.

87 X:387, 271.

88 XI:313.

89 XI:321, 314–15, emphasis added.

90 Cf. Habibi, ‘Dimensions’, p. 135, and ‘Mill’, p. 519. See also: XIV:17–18; Varouxakis, pp. 143–44. Likewise, when Mill suggests that early barbarian slave societies helped to civilize savages by imparting discipline and obedience to them, he does not say that this justified the slavery. Instead, it gave the barbarians an ‘excuse’ that slavers in an otherwise civilized state would lack (XIX: 395).

91 See also XI:314–15.

92 XI:321 emphasis added,; see also XIV:384. Compare: ‘you hold […] a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe’ (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, in The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. Robert Strassler (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 1–548 (p. 126).

93 XI:321.

94 XXI:118–19, 123, emphasis added. Mill also suggests that, to end ‘the invasions’ of Frankish lands, Charlemagne ‘repelled the Saracens’ but ‘attacked and subjugated’ the ‘Saxons’ because ‘merely defensive arrangements’ were insufficient against the latter (XX:277).

95 VIII:670–72.

96 III:882; X:317.

97 XXI:118.

98 Tunick, pp. 595–96.

99 XVIII:120; V:455.

100 XXX:153–55.

101 XXII:307; XXI:120–23.

102 XXI:119.

103 Davies, Robert, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003)Google Scholar. See also Memorandum, XXX: 122.

104 Clarence-Smith, William, Islam and the Abolition of Slavery (London: Hurst & Company, 2006), pp. 99100Google Scholar.

105 In 1786 the Tripolitan ambassador to London indicated to Thomas Jefferson that mere resistance was insufficient by informing him ‘that the Barbary states’ policy toward the Christian world “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them whenever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise”’ (Frederick Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror: America's 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 17–18).

106 XXI:119.

107 XIX:571.

108 XXI:119.

109 XX:339–41; XXIII:611.

110 XVII:1983.

111 XXIV:929.

112 XXIV:903; Pitts, p. 308.

113 XIX:551; VI:216, 520–21; Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’, pp. 10, 12–13.

114 XXI: 119, emphasis added; Levin, p. 49.

115 XXXII:232; XXIV:792–93.

116 Bell, pp. 212–13; Smits, pp. 4–6.

117 XXII:271–72; Bell, pp. 216–24.

118 James Mill, The History of British India, vol. 1 (London: Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1826), p. 29.

119 XXX:151–52.

120 Mill doesn't say whether all of Charlemagne's conquests were defensive or protective. However, he seems to see some parallels between the role that Charlemagne played in bringing order to early medieval Europe, and that played by the EIC in India (XX:277–78, XVIII:224; XXX:151–55).

121 XXI:119, emphasis added.

122 XXI:120.

123 XXI:119–20. See also: VI: 216–17; XXX: 224; Moore, pp. 501–06.

124 This reading is compatible with Mill's willingness to support the annexation of Indian territories run by ‘foreign dynasties’, such as the ‘Mahomedan’ and ‘Mahratta’ kingdoms, if the latter abused their power (XVI:1202). By construing these dynasties as foreign interveners, Mill can construe action against them as protective counter-intervention (XXI:123–24), with post bellum annexation rather than liberation justified paternalistically via the civilization clause.

125 XXX:15.

126 XIX:403–04, 567–68; cf. Jahn, p. 617.

127 XXX:81; Ten, p. 216; Tunick, p. 593.

128 XXX:121–25.

129 XXX: 81; VI:519; Beaumont, ‘Kymlicka’, pp. 10–11.

130 XXX:123.

131 Williams, p. 417.

132 III:593–94; Tunick, pp. 593–94.

133 See XIX:569.

134 XXI:111, emphasis added; XXX:109.

135 XXI: 111–12; XXVIII: 223; Varouxakis, pp. 143–44; Bell, p. 230.

136 For discussion, see: Bell, pp. 229–33; Pitts, pp. 150–60; Smits, pp. 9–14; Williams, pp. 423–24.

137 I:281.

138 The ‘barbarian liberty’ of XVIII:178. See Beaumont, ‘Domination', p. 47.

139 XVI:1126, 1205–06, 1410–11.

140 XVII:1983; XIX: 568–73; XXX: 30.

141 XXII:289; Habibi, ‘Mill’, pp. 522–23.

142 XXX:15.

143 XVI:1136; XVI:1196.

144 Consider Habibi, ‘Mill’, p. 528.