As European colonial and imperial exploits reached their apogee in the late 19th century, moral philosophers such a John Stuart Mill were faced with a quandary: how to justify the colonial project? In fact, it doesn't seem to have been too much of problem for Mill, for whom utility was solely an occidental preoccupation. That subject peoples were variables in a “greatest happiness” metric was apparently inconceivable or at least an inconvenience to be side-lined like an embarrassing relative.

“For Mill, colonization is like a case of public charity,” writes Eddy Souffrant, associate professor of philosophy at UNC Charlotte. “And in it, the activities of the individual colonizer have repercussions beyond his own particular interests.” If colonization could solve overcrowding in British cities while turning a profit, it was justified according to Mill.

And while he voiced abhorrence to the slave trade – most famously in response to Thomas Carlyle's support of the system – he was after all a man of his time. Following 35 years as an employee of the British East India Company, Mill was later to remark, “To characterize any conduct whatever towards a barbarous people as a violation of the law of nations, only shows that he who so speaks has never considered the subject.”

These, and other related considerations popped into my head earlier this week, as an article in the Japan Times became something of a discussion topic among foreigners in Taiwan. Titled “Taiwan: Where Japanese go to feel home on vacation,” the piece consisted mainly of anodyne insights into Taiwan's supposed “nipponophilia.” There's wasn't much in it that wouldn't have already occurred to anyone with half an eye open.

Several paragraphs in, however, the author dropped a clanger. “Amazingly,” wrote Kaori Shoji, whose regular beat is the film page, “this is the one country where the Japanese imperialists managed to do more good than harm when they colonized it in 1895.”

A chorus of cyber hissing ensued. Ms. Shoji was obviously a delusional Japanese nationalist engaging in the kind airbrushing of history for which her ilk are renowned. She clearly knew nothing of the Wushe Incident (霧社事件), where Japanese covered themselves in the glory by gassing and butchering hundreds of indigenous Taiwanese, before posing for photos with a pile of severed heads. And how about the Ta-Pa-Ni Incident (噍吧事件) – the last armed rebellion by Han Chinese?

Historians have pointed out that there was no mass mobilization in Taiwan on the scale of the March 1st Movement of 1919 that occurred in Korea. Still, there were guerilla campaigns against the Japanese from the moment the last Qing governor Tang Ching-sung (唐景崧) fled his short-lived Republic of Formosa.

These sporadic and hapless actions may have been doomed from the start, but they helped sow the seeds of a Taiwanese consciousness. This eventually culminated in a drive for self-determination best exemplified by the establishment of Chiang Wei-shui's (蔣渭水) Taiwan Cultural Association (台灣文化協會) in 1921. The transition of the chastened combatants into political agitators is most famously depicted in Li Qiao's (李喬) Hakka epic “Wintry Night (寒夜),” though the volume that deals with the process is inexplicably absent from the English translation of the novel.

Across social media on Monday, the responses to Shoji's piece – or, rather, the passage that began with the offending paragraph – ranged from bemusement to indignation. Several people tried to bring some balance to proceedings by listing the benefits of Japanese rule and its relative benignity compared to the despotic excesses of other colonial regimes.

And this was where Mill's utilitarian analysis came in.

The apologists for Japanese rule were going a step further than Mill in positing a "summa bona" for the subject people themselves, rather than gains for the colonial government. But, as was rightly observed, there can be no trade-off between development and the right to self-determination. It was with frustration, then, that I read and heard the same people who had made this point continuing to respond to the devil's advocates with a tit-for-tat laundry list of the crimes and abuses that occurred under Japanese rule. The aforementioned brutal crackdowns, comfort women and the pilfering of natural resources all featured.

Yet, this pissing contest is premised on a fundamental category error.

The wrongness of colonialism, or indeed any exercise of naked power – in the Russellian sense of the term – can no more be balanced out by a corresponding weight of developmental benefits than a gangster's murders can by charitable donations. For how is any such supposed correspondence to be measured? No principle I am aware of has come up with a plausible formula, least of Mill's brand of utilitarianism.

Even that great champion of liberty John Rawls allows for a degree of rights curtailment in the early stages of development. In his landmark “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls writes: “It is only when social conditions do not allow the full establishment of these rights that one can acknowledge their restriction. The equal liberties can be denied only when it is necessary to change the quality of civilization so that in due course everyone can enjoy these freedoms.”

He does not expound on this particular point, and in want of an explanation, it sounds awfully like a utilitarian view of things. But any such approach is surely, as I have indicated, to compare apples and oranges. Souffrant is surely on the money in evincing “the spurious ability of utilitarianism to justify wrongs.”

Explaining exactly why colonialism and, more broadly, coercive forms of government, can never be justified is not easy, and such an attempt is way beyond my remit here. I think many of us feel this on a visceral level, so it is perhaps fitting that I end with the words of a poet here.

In his “Discourse on Colonialism,” Aime Cesaire sums things up thus: “What am I driving at? At this idea: that no one colonizes innocently, that no one colonizes with impunity either; that a nation which colonizes, that a civilization which justifies colonization — and therefore force — is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.”

Editor: Edward White