Terrorisms, Wars and the New Teletubbies
Prof. Honderich took part in a panel discussion on terrorism and war at the 2011 thinking-persons festival in Hay-on-Wye, that second festival, the one for philosophy and music. Called How The Light Gets In, it is the invention of Hilary Lawson and a further contribution of some of the Lawson family to the civilizing not only of the Welsh but also the English. The other participants in the panel discussion on terrorism and war were Yvonne Ridley, the English journalist of the Left who at least honourably and bravely converted to Islam after experience with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and has since become a Respect Party politician, and Mark Littlewood, former Head of Media for the Liberal Democrat Party and now director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. The chairman was Rana Mitter, Oxford professor of the history and politics of modern China. Here below is a sketch of Ted Honderich’s intended remarks, very many of which could not be uttered on the occasion. More was said by him on another subject in the festival, in the lecture Being Conscious — From Metaphors to Theory.
The definition of terrorism is no difficult or contentious issue, no difficult or contentious issue in actual inquiry or in reasoned argument among grown-ups.
One thing required of people who think and talk about terrorism in the serious ways, by which I also mean not in politics as we haveit or in much journalism, is that they make clear what their definition is, what they are talking about. Another thing required is that the definition should not have the childish shortcoming of begging a question at issue — or rather trying hopelessly to beg a question at issue.
Certainly in serious discussion the attempt at begging the question, the attempt at proof by mere definition, will be hopeless. Suppose I define terrorism, in effect, as being among other things wrong and never engaged in by such civilized nations as the United States, England, and Israel. It is perfectly open to my adversary to accept my definition, but then to introduce his or her own defined term that covers the same activities of my chosen nations, without any implication as to civilization, and leaves open the question of rightness. He can then if he wants condemn these some of these activities as wrong and barbaric.
Terrorism in my own definition of it has five characteristics. (1) It is killing and other violence. (2) It has some political and social end, maybe contemptible, maybe the claim of a whole people to their homeland. (3) It is illegal or not clearly legal in terms of national and/or international law. (4) It is prima facie wrong because it is killing and other violence, but not necessarily wrong on further and final consideration. (5) It is smaller in scale than war.
The definition evidently covers state terrorism, very common indeed. For its history, say by the United States in South America, read Noam Chomsky, the greatest judge in our age of international relations, the master in our time of consistency-testing that gives truth. Or read your newspaper about Israel in almost any week, or just remember the violence against Gaza.
The definition of terrorism and a related definition of state terrorism call up another one, for terrorist war. Terrorist war differs from terrorism only in one respect, its being larger in scale. Terrorist war, then, is among other things illegal or not clearly legal in terms of national and/or international law. Our war on Iraq, or rather the war not of the British people, but of Blair and Bush, was such a war.
More subjects come to mind. In my case, they hurry to mind.
One, of course, is legal war or legal war so named. It really is arguably legal, or it is spoken of or declared as legal by many people, including some independent international lawyers among them, or else it is just legal in the declarations of politicians and their creatures. Needless to say, despite international lawyers, there is no clear and effective verdict of international legality with respect to many large questions of war and peace. International law and convention is in good part the child of international relations, often enough of the inhumanity of a nation of relative power.
Judgements as to this legality are often just made up, often enough by lawyers such as the wretched The Baron Goldsmith, Attorney General of England at the time of the invasion of Iraq. These lawyers, relying partly on the mystique of law, dishonour themselves and their profession by toadying to such other creatures as Blair. This complicates my definition of terrorism a little — being serious has complication as part of it. But leave that.
To terrorist war and somehow legal war, I add cowardly war. Our war in Libya, our air war on Libyans, is limited by the cowardice of our leaders. They are unwilling to take the responsibility and pay the penalty of engaging us in all-out war, including the casualties on our side. So with the cowardly war of killing by drones in Pakistan.
Maybe some of this cowardly war is just state terrorism. Maybe it should be classified that way, or also in that way. We do not have to join our simple adversaries in pretending that there are easy and sure-fire distinctions. We do not have to join the confidence of the simple.
There is, too, war to save civilians from their rulers, a relative of what was called humanitarian intervention. Let us not fall into cynicism, but agree that war to save civilians from their rulers exists — there can be such an intention on the part of politicians, whatever else goes with it. Let us, however, also not fall in here beside the child-like, those above or below moral complexity. Let us instead engage in the adult reflection and articulation that registers that intentions and motives are commonly mixed.
That leads to the thought that there is also ideological war. A war can be both an attempt, anyway at the beginning, to save civilians from their rulers, and also be an ideological war. The air war on Libyans is of both kinds. It is as obviously the second as the first. This is as clear as the general fact, so firm as to be rock-solid, that the sources and motivations and in short the causal explanations of government or state policy and action are never simple, certainly no more simple than in the rest of human life.
In this fact of ideology there are several motivations. The lowest and worst is the impulse to increase or fortify the standing of a politician and the ideology of his or her system of government. This is done by now adding the supposed necessity of killing, the gravity of killing, to ordinary peacetime self-justification and to ordinary peacetime condemnation of a different system of government, of those other leaders. They are actually so wrong and vile we are so right and upright that we can kill and must them. That we are justified in going so far as killing them reinforces or finally establishes our relative standing.
There is one more category of war worth mentioning here. It is empty. It has nothing in it. It is like the category of the dodo or the unicorn. That is the category of war that does not intentionally kill innocents or civilians or the like. You hear of this category from the pious. You certainly hear of the category by implication when terrorism is said or even defined wholly or partly for whatever purpose as the intentional killing of innocents — or civilians or non-combatants or the like.
What is it intentionally to kill innocents? That is not hard. It is to do something with the foresight or under the requirement of foresight that it will kill innocents. A war does that, a lot of it, more than any terrorism. All of the history of modern war establishes this truth.
But, maybe having been influenced by the kiddies’ definition of terrorism, as the killing of innocents or the like, do you need some persuading about intentional killing of innocents in general, about what it is, and hence of whether war is such a thing?
For what it is worth, which is quite a lot, every decent legal system understands intentional killing in terms of foresight. Take the husband who cannot handle it when his wife is unfaithful to him and then leaves him. He goes to her new house with matches and petrol for the letterbox. He knows she’s in there, but he also sees the cleaning woman go in. He carries on with his plan.
In court he tries on the inanity that he did not intend to kill the cleaning woman, that he is guilty of one murder, not two. The family of the cleaning woman loathes him. The judge convicts him of two murders. The judge, being sane and human and having learned a thing or two, not being a politician of a certain kind, maybe of a coalition government, knows about the intentional killing of innocents.
Perfectly clearly the whole subject of terrorisms and wars is to some extent, as you will have understood, a matter of the partly overlapping categories so far mentioned and others. What makes the difference between going to war to save civilians, and not doing so, as so commonly happens, may be be a war’s also being or not being ideological. It can do with repeating that our air war in Libya is plainly a case in point.
So far we have a good start on our subject, if only that, in the categories of terrorism, state terrorism, terrorist war, legal or so-named war, cowardly war, war to save civilians from their rulers, ideological war, and the empty category of war that does not intentionally kill the innocent.
THE PRINCIPLE OF HUMANITY
For another good start, and more than that, we cannot avoid the proposition in anything that deserves the name of adult inquiry that a war of any of these kinds, and others, may be either right or wrong. It is always a possibility, to take the case of war that kills people out of the ideological motivation of our little politicians, that the war is right and justified. What justifies anything is rational judgement then as to consequences. It is not the motivations of agents — interested though we are in motivations for several reasons, all of them connected to consequences.
I here pass by a ludicrous pretence, implied and no doubt half-believed by The Baron Goldsmith, and unfortunately by some of whom more can be expected. It is that what is legal is right. Or that anything that is legal is something like prima facie right, or that it goes in the direction of what is right. Or anyway something is right if a few fellows in wigs are minded, if that can possibly be the right verb, to contemplate the possibility.
To inquire into the right and wrong of terrorism and war, there is the plain necessity of a principle of right and wrong. There is the necessity of an articulated and determinate general rule of conduct, something distinct from premises of fact, that is a foundation or at least a really constraining guide for reasoning about what is to be done.
Consider the alternative of the congeries of stuff, say the congeries of stuff that is liberalism, indeed the stuff of the Liberal Democratic Party. It is a means, whether or not wholly intentional or conscious, to self-deception. If you have no principle to enforce or push consistency on you, then whatever your good impulses you will be so human as often to favour your own people, your own class, your family, your past, your own personal political future, or whatever.
You will remain a kind of child. You will be able to make an alliance in government pretty easily, maybe as on a playground. You may be able to go along with the dragging down of the greatest piece of civilization in British history, the National Health Service. You may be able to say nothing much when its dragging down by privatization, by what of course is better called profitization, is attempted by means of lies of omission.
THE PRINCIPLE OF HUMANITY
The principle which I now recommend to you is the Principle of Humanity.
It rests on and departs from a definition of bad lives. Those are lives deprived or destroyed in terms of at least some of six great goods, great desires of human nature. These are (1) a decent length of conscious living time, (2) such bodily well-being as exemplified by not being hungry or blind, of (3) freedom and power in more settings than the large political one, (4) respect and self-respect of several kinds, (5) the various goods of relationship, (6) the great goods of culture, say being able to read.
The Principle of Humanity is that we must take take rational steps to get and keep people out of bad lives. A little more fully, it is as follows.
The right thing as distinct from others — the action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world — is the one that according to the best judgement and information then is the rational one, in the standard sense of being effective and not self-defeating, with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.
It is of course a consequentialist principle in that it concerns itself with the consequences of actions and the like, that it judges actions and the like by their consequences. In fact, in my view, all morality without exception does this, despite some pretences to the contrary about virtue, virtues, character, the pure good will and so on. Still, the principle is not to the effect that the ends justify the means. It is to the effect that the ends and means justify the means. It is necessary to justification by the principle that the means are indeed rational in the sense of not being self-defeating in particular. The means cannot be otherwise than that. In that sense they will never be victimizing means.
Let me say some things of the nature of the principle, and make some comparisons in the process.
The principle is not Utilitarianism, the principle that what is right is what produces the greatest total of happiness or satisfaction or wellbeing, however distributed among people. That principle was dead a long time ago, on account for example of justifying a slave class in a society when that would produce the greatest total of happiness. It was dead long before it recently again met its end at the London School of Economics — indeed met its end in the hands of Professor Layard, who is also with us at this Hay festival.
I have in mind that Utilitarianism died the death again recently when it became in part the principle that there is the rightful prospect of dealing with the problem of the slave class in a certain way. You do not just take the slaves out of slavery, or entirely out of slavery, but partly by psychoanalysis and neuroscientific operations make the slaves happier in their slavery. Still, go along to Professor Layard’s event at this festival. Maybe I’ve got him wrong. I hope so.
The Principle of Humanity, secondly, is not any principle of equality, of what is called distributive justice. It has nothing to do with the idea that an equality of deprivation is better than an inequality of satisfaction, as I think my fellow panelist Mark Littlewood agrees. The support of the Principle of Humanity for equality, and for inequality, is always and indubitably support for a rational means to the end of the Principle of Humanity.
The principle, thirdly, has nothing to do with retributive justice or desert. What that reduces to, when it becomes something clear and explicit enough to be worth consideration, as in some jurisprudence, is the circularity that something is right when it is deserved — which is to say right when it is right. You can see that very clearly in stuff on the justification of punishment in terms of retribution.
You will not need telling, fourthly, that the Principle of Humanity is precisely not the conservative tradition in politics, right up to David Cameron, our Dave. He adds to the tradition only weekly ideas from his creativity department, ideas whose aim is merely distraction. The Principle of Humanity is not the unique and ongoing politics of conservatism, whatever the advertising.
But conservatism is not the politics, as you may be expecting to hear, that is unique in its self-interest. All political traditions are self-interested. Conservatism is the politics that is unique in having no moral principle, no principle of right and wrong, to defend its self-interest. Instead there is just all that declamation and mumble about reform, reform but not change, reform that is not destruction, selected freedoms and not others, equality conflicting with freedom, human nature, competition, the family, the holy family, maybe a bit of rhetoric out of the past, say an updating about half a dozen grasshoppers with their importunate chink, these being intellectuals, failing to disturb the great cattle reposed beneath the British oak.
Despite the one thinker in its history, Edmund Burke, he of many thoughts on the sublime and the beautiful, conservatism is on the whole what you might call pre-school. The Left, as you will expect me to say, as I do, has the Principle of Humanity. It has thought a bit, and got beyond metaphor and vaguaries. I do not confuse it, of course, with the New Labour Party.
You will not need telling either, to revert to liberalism, that the Principle of Humanity is precisely not the tradition of liberalism in politics, let alone its fulfilment in the Lib-Dems. The principle is not that mixed and usually inconsistent tradition, always irresolute except when it gets a chance to join itself to conservatism. The principle is not the tradition of John Stuart Mill, who said that individuals have to be left to themselves by the state unless they harm others, and then did not say what it is to harm others. He did not entirely recover his reputation in this neighbourhood by distinguishing conservatives as making up the stupid party.
The Principle of Humanity is also not the Categorical Imperative, that contribution of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. That imperative is that everybody is to be treated by us not only as a means but also as an end. What does that mean? What did it ever mean? It is also said to be the principle of respect. Does it tell you any more than you have to nod to the chap in the street when you are not buying a copy of The Big Issue from him? Anything about taxation in it? About no place to live? About terrorisms? Wars? Kant is among the greatest of philosophers. With his categorical imperative he is also above reality, above specificity, out of sight of what matters.
The Principle of Humanity, finally, is not the Golden Rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated, until it is filled in, is in effect no rule at all. Whatever its use in particular situations and moments, it fails for want of content. Like so much else, it is an escape from obligation, an invitation to self-deception.
What we need, as against all this, is the literal and the unvague, the clearly arguable — not the refutable, the emptily general, the vague, the rhetorical, or the allusive.
Having itemized some things that the Principle of Humanity is not, and compared them to it, I tell you again in its own way what it is.
The Principle of Humanity is for an ending to men dying at an average age of 36 because the resources of their people are going somewhere else. It is for an ending to being hungry or in pain or limping. An ending to being without liberty and strength or the hope of them, in a society or where you work. An ending to being treated in the way called for by the epithets nigger or Jew or Paki or whatever beastliness of racist language is now in use among many Israelis for speaking of the Palestinians. The Principle of Humanity is also for an ending to the destruction or damaging or dragging down of private and public relationships. It is, sixthly, against a boy or a girl not being able to read, and guessing the ignorance of not being able to read and the penalties of that ignorance.
Should we supplement the Principle of Humanity by something else? Should we, as some say, bring it down from the Ivory Tower by joining it to our democracy, joining it to that great and sacred national decision-procedure? Should we marry it to British and American democracy as it is? Shall we make it a rule to take instruction from our democratic politicians?
Shall we think of Barack Obama? No Uncle Tom he, despite some notable shortcomings, including no great respect for international law and its courts in the killing of his great adversary. He is at least a grown man speaking to grown men and women. He knows at least something about one kind of bad life.
But we are here in Hay-on-Wye. Shall we not think English or British instead? Shall we be taught by our some of our own democratic politicians of this day in Westminster? In particular, shall we learn more of humanity, of what to do, from those who I as a watcher of the 7 o’clock news cannot but think of in a certain way, as the new Teletubbies, successors to those great stalwarts of children’s telly gone by but still on video, a little pudgy, large-eyed, and getting messages from somewhere?
There the new Teletubbies are on the screen when they judge it is safe to turn up, generally jolly, uttering things in a kind of gurgling baby language, never actual answers to Jon Snow’s questions of course, but maybe reassuring.
There on the screen is Tinky Winky, in purple, as befits the majesty of a graduate of the public relations industry. He is the pre-eminent Teletubby, the leader, the most jolly, full of new and very little ideas. Of course matey, which is democratic, and to be known known less formally as our Dave.
There is Dipsy, in green, also known as Once The Great Debater, or Clogg, or the maker of Coalition, or Always True To My Word.
There is Laa-Laa, in yellow, second in Tinky Winky’s party. In charge of the economy and the deficit and the financial recovery, better known as his absolutely necessary job of robbing the poor to feed the rich better.
And there is Po, in there next to Dipsy, in cunningly deceptive scarlet, also known as Vincey from Shell and no doubt familiar with that company’s depradations in Nigeria. Po was to be the great hammer of Rupert Murdoch but boasted early. Po is also to be present at this very festival in a day or two. Go and listen to him. Listen and learn.
You will gather from this jocular and not wholly deferential idea of our English superiors of this day, our rulers, that I am indeed in favour of any actually rational means of advancing the end of the Principle of Humanity. I am in favour not only of philosophical reflections and comparisons, not only of ordinary logic, not only of parliamentary language, not only of academic restraint, not only of the decorum of professorial style, not only the conventions of speech, the pure or infinite tolerance so useful to our new Teletubbies.
I am also in favour, in its place, of low politics, the fairness of reciprocal low politics, in the service of the Principle of Humanity. Low politics about future, present, and past. Speaking of past, something about Tinky Winky comes back to mind.
A fellow interviewed me back in 1998, an author of academic books of note and an acute journalist, with a D.Phil from Oxford. He told me something in passing, in the billiards room of the Garrick Club. It was that maybe he still has in his possession, among his old Oxford photos, a photo of Tinky Winky. Dave of the Bullingdon Club, in a T-shirt. It has something printed on the front. ‘Hang Nelson Mandela.’ I’d get the photo onto a website near you like a shot if I could.
It would go some way to explaining Tinky Winky’s prompt visit to South Africa around the time he became leader of his party, and his visit to Nelson Mandela in particular, and then his piece in the paper saying that Nelson Mandela was his personal hero, the living person he most admires.
But I stray a little, if rightly, away from the mode of address and conduct taken as proper at a philosophy and music festival.
Let me start again with that question of whether we should supplement the Principle of Humanity with an embrace of our democracy and its decisions, a recourse to the idea that what is right is what democracy decides.
Laa-Laa of the Exchequer does not take much time off from his mission of saving us from the final economic depression. He is mainly taken up with overlooking that you could best deal with the deficit not by making the poor poorer and not by supporting the profitizing of the National Health Service — and not by spending less public money as distinct from getting more money in, which is called taxation.
Still, if he was here, he would no doubt agree with a certain proposition. He would have the support of Po from Shell, not to mention economists at Oxford, London, Cambridge and Lampeter, and probably Yvonne Ridley and Mr. Littlewood here on the panel.
He would agree that economists have not yet answered a pretty simple question. How much financial or economic power is had by the top 10th of citizens in our societies of Britain and America as against the bottom 10th? A straight figure, please. It can’t be that hard to bring together wealth and income and tax avoidance and so on.
And, using another measure that should not be beyond the reach and devising of the dismal science, anyway with the help of university departments of politics, how much more political power and influence for the top 10th does the distribution of financial or economic power translate into?
Inspired by the example of a sensible fellow at the University of Sussex who used to tell me he was the best kind of economist, an impressionistic economist, I give you an answer to that second question.
I take out of the air, with calm pride, the proposition that the top 10th of our citizens has at the very least 1000 times the political power and influence of the bottom 10th. The judgements and desires of the bottom 10th count for at least that little, as against the judgements and needs of the top 10th. Remember for a start that the bottom 10th has more or less no wealth at all.
Any denial of my proposition, it seems to me, is at the level of discourse exemplified, say, by stuff about the big society, which you heard a lot about for a while from Teletubbyland. But think about what follows from the proposition.
How does that inane inequality between top and bottom 10th in the expression of judgements and desires go with what has always been and is, and has always had to be and still has to be, the fundamental argument for democracy in general and for our democracy in particular? The argument, which like any decent argument can be got into a plain English sentence, is that two heads are better than one and more heads are better than two.
Well, as you will readily agree, not having spent your time in PPE in Oxford only collecting bits of verbiage for future speeches in Cheltenham, there is something that needs to be added. It is that two heads are better than one and more heads are better than two only under a couple of obvious conditions.
One condition is that the heads can have an equal say in the decision procedure, that what is in them can get an equal hearing. Anyway there is no constitutional or governmental obstruction to some decent approximation to an equal say. That is one thing that is supposed to make democracy better, of course.
The second condition is that there is freedom in the expression of judgements and desires. It’s not that according to the rules they can speak, but in fact they are captured or constrained by party-power or financial contributions or general convention or whatever.
People in think tanks, but I hope not Mr. Littlewood, manage to suppose that even if there isn’t great equality written into our democracy, which proposition they must allow, there is still freedom. That is the thinking of their think tanks. Inequality doesn’t drive out freedom.
Well, suppose you and I are in disagreement or conflict. Suppose your equality with me decreases. You get more and more unequal in putting or pressing your case. Suppose, so to speak, your equality gets down to zero, because I turn out to have a gun and you don’t. Well then, your freedom in our relationship reduces to zero too. A D.Phil isn’t needed to have the idea. It is simply nonsense to take equality and freedom, in fundamental contexts, as two things. Equality and freedom in such contexts run together. It is bumble to take equality and freedom as two things with a society’s decision procedure. That is Teletubbyland.
TERRORISMS, WARS, THE ARAB SPRING
Come back with me now first to terrorisms and wars.
Certainly, I put it to you, we can have no confidence in what it is too kind to call our merely hierarchic democracy. Its verdicts on terrorisms and wars, some of them right, are not made right at all by their coming from that political system.
They are made right, if they are, or wrong, by serious inquiry, by escape from selfish childishness, by escape from dim conventions — above all at this time by escape from the dim conventions of pretended necessity or pretended impossibility so clear to Tinky Winky, Dippy, Laa-Laa, and Po. Their rightness or wrongness has absolutely nothing to do with the conventions the Teletubbies are continuing their mission of imposing on so much of a society, at any rate the public part of a society,
The question of a general principle of right and wrong, the question to which the Principle of Humanity is my answer, is in a relative way not hard. It is surely less hard than certain questions of fact, the propositions of fact also needed for argument. To think of terrorism and war, the more difficult questions are those of the probability of good and bad consequences. Judging this is hard. The most salient question here, maybe for all of us, is the question of whether terrorisms will work. The counterpart problem of war, or rather wars, is sometimes less hard.
My views as to several particular questions of terrorisms and wars have been given elsewhere. You can read a book or two. But let me say something about Iraq, Palestine, and the Arab Spring.
The war on Iraq, as the world largely agrees belatedly, was wholly wrong. It was a barbarism such as to make small the alleged barbarisms of African nations and of peoples we take to be primitive. The war on Iraq was such that its perpetrators are criminals against humanity. If it is our concern to find moral monsters, to find war criminals, to find butchers, then we have in Blair and Bush two stronger candidates than Gadafi. We have stronger candidates in Blair and Bush than with Ratko Miladic of Serbia. I am talking about killing and who gets killed. The numbers count. We have no need of the gurgling baby thinking about the matter.
A second view about terrorism and war has to do with Palestine. This view includes, first, a justification of Zionism, clearly defined as the founding and the perpetual actually necessary defence of Israel within its 1948-1967 borders. Zionism is right partly for the reason that Jewish lives are now planted deep in the soil of Israel. My view of Palestine includes, secondly, a condemnation of neo-Zionism, the project of taking from the Palestinians at least their liberty in the last one-fifth of their historic homeland. My view includes, thirdly, the proposition that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism against neo-Zionism in all of historic Palestine.
I reaffirm and recommend to you all three propositions. In particular that is now less hard with the third proposition, about a moral right. I have in mind the attack on Gaza and the Wikileaks revelations about negotiations between neo-Zionism and the leaders we have absurdly chosen for the Palestinians in place of their democratically elected ones, in place of democracy.
There is now also the Arab Spring to consider, and more particularly Libya. Here I have myself no such confident judgements as with Iraq and Palestine. The Principle of Humanity prompts a thought or two, however.
We are to support the anti-Gadafi revolutionaries or counter-revolutionaries because they are for democracy. We are to support them because they are for hierarchic democracy, our kind of democracy. That is all I have ever heard of their commitments, save for a passing report, in The Guardian or The Independent, to the effect that they are monarchists intending a return to the monarchy that Gadafi ended.
We are to support the anti-Gadafi people, that is, because they are fighting to achieve one form or part, admittedly the most important form, a political form, of the great human good of freedom and power. But freedom and power, as you have heard, is itself but one of the six great human goods. It is also good to live decently long, not to be in pain, to have respect rather than denigration, to be with people, to have your religion not disdained.
Could the good of freedom and power in its political part, be outweighed by the other five goods? Could there be a society that is better despite having less freedom and power, less of a certain kind? The question isn’t easy outside of Teletubbyland.
Do you say, if less hopefully than you might have five years ago, that the political freedom and power of hierarchic democracy just is the best means to the realization of the other five great human goods?
I don’t take that to be an absolute truth, even a general truth. Cuba still exists. They can all read there. The Soviet Union existed in its extent of fairness until its leaders lost the Cold War, which was not in itself an argument at which the other side was better. I am no Marxist, no residual Marxist, no fellow traveller past or present. But I do not join you in your optimism about the effects of the freedom and power of hierarchic democracy as a means to all the great goods.
It is time, I suspect, for new categories in thinking about states, governments, regimes, societies and the like. Shall we finally forget about beginning with such traditional categories as democracy, plutocracy, aristocracy, monarchy, tyranny, dictatorship, and such additions to them as kleptocracy and rule by priests? Shall we instead begin with the large categories of governments of humanity and governments against humanity? And then democracies of humanity and democracies against humanity?
If I have no settled answer to questions having to do with the Arab Spring, I am more for it than against it. I remain so despite the uncertainty about facts that is the rational condition of us all save for the Teletubbies. The necessity of uncertainty is a truth known to pretty well all of the rest of us when we are not caught up in the self-interest, selfishness, kidding yourself and inhumanity that is the enemy of the Principle of Humanity.
The Principle of Humanity in my judgement commits us to much. It commits us not only to philosophical reflection, parliamentary language, academic restraint and so on, down to low politics. It also commits us to mass civil disobedience in support of its great end, the greatest of ends. It supports more effective action in the street than the marching against the war that was Blair’s crime against humanity. It supports boycotts and strikes, of course a general strike, when those are rational means to the end. It supports some terrorism, as you have heard.
I give one cheer for the Arab Spring, maybe two, certainly not three. And I have got Gadaffi’s Green Book to read on the train from Hay back to Paddington. I see it begins with thoughts about something called the dictatorship of democracy. I will be reading it with more hope than anything I can lay hands on from, say, the public relations of Tinky Winky. He sometimes says he is a salesman, which is right, but he doesn’t say or maybe know something — that the aim of selling is never truth.
Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
at University College London and Visiting Professor at the University
of Bath. His relevant books are After The Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003), Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War (UK: Continuum Publishing / US: Seven Stories Press, 2006), Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Pluto, 2006); Philosopher: A Kind of Life (Routledge, 2001).