“Certainly an injustice of terrible proportions was done to the Palestinians. Certainly Israel has not come within sight of compensating them. It has not done anything like what has been done by the Germans for the Jews for a related reason — the Holocaust.”
Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College, London. His many books include: After the Terror, Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy, Political Means and Social Ends, Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? and Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7 (Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7 in the US). His website can be found at: www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/.
This interview was conducted via email with SoN editors Jon Bailes & Cihan Aksan in September 2007.
Professor Ted Honderich
Photo by Nick Dawe
State of Nature: You define the Principle of Humanity as being that the right or justified thing as distinct from others – the right action, practice, institution, government, society or possible world – is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational one in the sense of being effective and not self-defeating with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives, where bad lives are those deprived of some or all of the “great goods” of decent length of life, bodily quality of life, freedom and power, relationship, respect and self-respect and the goods of culture.
How has something like this Principle stood up in a philosophical climate where any kind of asserted moral truth is deconstructed to the point of being abandoned as subjective? You “make no claim of completeness” for the Principle and, at the same time, quite rightly in my view, point out that “you cannot give up on trying to answer inescapable questions” as well as that “generalization … is the essence of inquiry”. But still a question remains: what do you supplement the Principle with when it fails to produce clear answers to specific questions?
Ted Honderich: The principle is closest to, and close to, escaping the historic and familiar charge against moral principles and judgements in general of being merely subjective. Our human nature is such that each of us shares and gives priority to those fundamental human desires in our own case — for a decent length of life and so on. Our human nature is also such that we depend on general reasons in our own case — and hence are subject to consistency-tests with respect to the lives of other people. As for failing to produce clear answers to specific questions of what is right, the principle does better than anything else to produce clear answers. It is a determinate principle, engaging directly with life, not a piece of rhetoric or worse. Its difficulties are factual — what will probably lead to what? But it shares such difficulties with all principles and moralities. Its difficulties are not a matter of its own vagueness and the like. For just a start, compare the Principle of Utility, about ‘happiness’ or even ‘satisfaction’. Compare the vacuity of principles of retributive justice or desert.
SoN: You say that “the Palestinians’ self-defence against neo-Zionism is morally justified”; yet at the same time still use the word ‘terrorism’ to describe it. Given that the modern conventional use of ‘terrorism’ is always implicitly connected with immorality, may it not possibly be counterproductive to the greater understanding of the Palestinian situation to bundle all political violence together under such a term?
TH: Definitions do not matter in serious reflection. What matters is only sticking to them and the like. Serious reflection is my own first aspiration or hope. You could define ‘terrorism’ to pick out only and exactly Palestinian self-defence — which of course it also is — and hence use ‘non-terrorism’ to cover neo-Zionism. That would not commit you to condemning the first and justifying the second. My further and connected aspiration or hope is to contribute to the struggle against neo-Zionism, a struggle I regard as in a sense sacred. Some of us can contribute to this — get a hearing — partly and exactly by taking up something close to the ordinary understanding of terrorism. A multitude of people actually say or at least imply that Palestinian terrorism is right. My saying it has had a little more effect partly because there is no reliance on a particular sort of definition of terrorism.
SoN: You make a clear distinction between Zionism and neo-Zionism, with “the latter being the enlarging of Israel since the war of 1967 into still more of the land of Palestine”. However the expansionist mentality of Zionism was apparent long before 1967; for example, although the 1947 UN partition plan was accepted by the Jews, according to David Ben-Gurion Zionist aspirations were never to be limited by such “external factors”. And then much Palestinian land beyond the planned UN borders was taken in 1948, never to be returned and creating a huge refugee problem which is yet to be solved. In light of this, how is it possible to maintain a clear distinction between pre and post 1967 Israeli policy?
TH: I remain a little puzzled by the regularity with which this objection is produced, and also wonder if there is a mistake or confusion on my part in moral thinking. Still, I know full well, and have never doubted, the resolute rapacity of at least many leaders of the Jewish people from before 1948 to 1967 and of course after. That does not affect what is to me the fact that a certain project, a certain possible line of action, Zionism in my definition, was right in 1948, for certain reasons which include the Holocaust, and is right now, partly for the reason of the Jewish homeland that has come into existence. Maybe there are general questions in moral philosophy here, but I don’t quite see what they are. I am of course a consequentialist. That is, I judge the rightness of actions by their probable consequences. Maybe things become clearer when I allow that I think that I would in 1947 have supported actions of Ben Gurion, taking them as likely to forward Zionism in my sense, as distinct from neo-Zionism, even if I know his own intentions were otherwise, in fact rapacious.
SoN: I’m still uncertain where the distinction lies. What is the difference in the movement that took and occupied land beyond the UN borders in 1948 and that which occupied the remaining Palestinian territories after 1967?
TH: There are clear and crucial distinctions. One, already mentioned, is what had just happened in 1948, the Holocaust. Another, as obvious, was that no ordinarily secure Jewish homeland existed in 1948. There was one, despite pretences and feigning to the contrary as well as self-deception, in 1967. I wonder, by the way, if you are inclined to judge the right or wrong of actions, indeed movements, by the intentions of those acting — judge them in a simpler way than is defensible. Certainly the right thing can be done with vicious intentions.
SoN: One of the key justifications you give for the formation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine after the Second World War is that “it was not ignorant and it was within reason to judge in 1948 and before that the Palestinians were not fully a people”. Could you clarify what this means? Where is the line drawn between the inhabitants of a land being “fully a people” and “not fully a people” and why should this be so crucial in this matter?
TH: The distinction is not uniquely crucial, but I admit there is some uncertainty and vagueness about it. That is something it shares with conceptions of various things, say the conception of a viable homeland — let alone fundamental and key conceptions in the dreary messes of liberalism, conservatism and so on. Uncertain and relatively vague conceptions are not necessarily false and they are not necessarily useless. It is pretty clear, it seems to me, that two sets of human beings can suffer in different ways and to different degrees as a result of extents to which they have a kind of group-identity. Members of a set that lacks such a group-identity, for a start, simply cannot be victims of a certain kind of prejudice, a certain kind of disrespect. So with suffering harms or violations of the good of a certain kind of relationship.
SoN: But even if we could say that the people living in Palestine at the point of the establishment of Israel did not have a group-identity, the fact those people were victimized and made to suffer should not be any more tolerable than if they had a group-identity, should it?
TH: My concern for and empathy with the Palestinians, as you will guess, is not small. My feeling for the Palestinians of 1948 is not slight. But the Jews in 1948 also existed. They could weep too. The plain necessity, more often admitted than stuck to, is to keep two sets of human facts in view. Certainly an injustice of terrible proportions — an inhumanity — was done to the Palestinians. Certainly Israel has not come within sight of compensating them. It has not done anything like what has been done by the Germans for the Jews for a related reason — the Holocaust. But that does not affect the fact that it was reasonable to judge in 1948 that there was a certain harm the Palestinians did not and could not suffer.
SoN: Does your assertion that the Palestinians have shown themselves to be fully a people since the establishment of Israel not point to the possibility that a different conclusion could have been arrived at in regards to their status, if those making decisions over Palestine’s future had actually had the desire to find it?
TH: Well, the question isn’t easy. I agree that the intifadas since 1967 are an argument for the conclusion that the Palestinians might have been seen to be fully a people in 1948. But it does not seem to me clear that it was only desire that got in the way of seeing the fact. There were certain other facts of relevance, as I remark in various writings, and as you will know.
SoN: One of the reasons you give for maintaining the Israeli state, at least within its 1948 borders, is that the current inhabitants “have a dependence on that land” and that their “lives have grown and are rooted here”. Could the same not be said of the pre 1948 Palestinian inhabitants of this same land who are still refugees, still depend on that land and, in some cases, still have their roots there? Also, what are the criteria for the habitation of a land becoming a dependence on it? For example, at what point, using this logic, would Israeli settlements in the West Bank have a legitimate claim to the land they occupy?
TH: Well, it seems to me that one of the strengths of my position is that it has admitted weaknesses. What I mean by that paradox is that it is not the sort of thing, often enough a moral stupidity, that supposes that issues of right and wrong are easy, that there are knock-out arguments, and so on — and in particular that certain lines of argument can only be used on one side of a dispute. I grant that you raise difficulties for me by your acute questions. I do not grant that I have to weigh up considerations finally in some way differently from the one I do. You have not shown that. Indeed you have not indicated how you weigh them — how you do this in general. If not by the Principle of Humanity, then how?
SoN: You argue that Palestinians have a right to political violence as it is their only means to achieving a viable state – which is their moral right – all other attempts to do so having been ignored. The Principle of Humanity says that the right or justified thing should be “effective and not self-defeating”. Can violent means really be expected to be any more effective than non-violent ones, or may they end up producing more misery and so be self-defeating? In other words are they justified because they are the only option left, rather than because they actually stand a chance of success?
TH: I don’t quite see your distinction between the violence being the only option left and its actually have a chance of success. I would understand the former as more or less equivalent to the latter. I don’t suppose you think that there is a general truth that violent means are always less effective than non-violent ones. You will agree, I take it, that that is nonsense. If you are considering only Palestinian terrorism, I would be surprised, given neo-Zionism’s settled history of intransigent rapacity, if you suppose that neo-Zionism is about to change its spots. Tigers don’t do that.
SoN: Bill Clinton is arguably responsible for more deaths in Iraq than George Bush, as throughout his Presidency the US was adamant that UN sanctions against Iraq should remain, despite massive known human costs. In your list of exceptions to the rule that “all politicians are shits” you say “maybe Clinton”. Why might Clinton not be a shit compared to the likes of Bush and Blair?
TH: You are more confident than I am in assigning weights to elements — in this case people — in causal circumstances or full explanations. There seems to me a great and philosophically greatly interesting problem here. I am not very serious about the tentative excuse for Clinton. But it seems to me possible that he escapes to some degree the charge against Bush and Blair. It is, in brief, that they have acted solely and entirely for conservatism — a social, economic and political tradition that has no principle at all of right and wrong to support the self-interest that it shares with other traditions.
SoN: You condemn on moral grounds the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent occupation. Looking at the situation as it stands now, what should the US and its allies be doing, if they were ever to act according to the Principle of Humanity?
TH: They should be withdrawing immediately and absolutely and without condition or negotiation. The same as Israel should do with respect to the remaining fifth of the indigenous homeland of the Palestinians. Of course, that prescription depends on beliefs as to probability, beliefs as to the extent of self-deception in the leaders of our own societies in their protestations about dire consequences, and so on. The vulnerability of my answer to your question is a vulnerability more than shared by outlooks different from the morality of humanity.
SoN: You identify democracy in countries like Britain and America to be “hierarchic”, meaning that certain members of society have vastly more power than others. You also exhort readers of your book to take part in boycotts of Israel or to stop elections through mass civil disobedience. But, given the marginal nature of books such as your own or websites such as this one in comparison to the mass media juggernaut of conventional thinking, what are the chances of a mass protest movement actually gaining enough momentum to make a difference in today’s Britain? If some feel utterly powerless to make their voice heard through non-violent protest because of the sheer weight of convention and unequal power distribution in countries like Britain, does this in any way give them a moral right to violent activities?
TH: Everyone has to share something of this grim pessimism. But, again, the situation is not simple. Civil disobedience elsewhere, in a number of places, has actually been notably successful in the last couple of decades. It has changed governments. There are real historical precedents now that were missing for quite a while. You don’t have to go back to Gandhi now. As for a moral right to violence, you only have such a thing if the violence is a rational means with respect to the end of the Principle of Humanity. It is only rational if it is effective and does not make for more misery than it prevents. One other remark is worth repeating: some Jews in the Warsaw ghetto fought on in a way hopelessly, to their own deaths. You can say they fought for those who came after them. Israel now exists. The remark pertains both to civil disobedience now and to some terrorism.
Jon Bailes is co-editor and webmaster of State Of Nature. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on ideology theory at the Centre for European Studies, University College London, and has an MA in European Thought from the same department. He is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).
Cihan Aksan is co-editor of State Of Nature. She left her native Turkey as a child after the 1980 military coup and lived and studied for many years in England. She has an MA in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, and is now an independent writer. She is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).