Ted Honderich, a Philosopher in the Trenches

It is unusual to find philosophers getting into the debate on current events; most of them are safely ensconced in their ivory towers pondering questions of higher importance. It is therefore gratifying to find some philosophers in the trenches tackling questions pertinent to all of us — trying to understand current events and to untangle the meaning of propaganda-frayed language. PAUL de ROOIJ recently had the opportunity to ask Prof. Ted Honderich some questions pertaining his latest book and the furor surrounding it.

About Ted Honderich: he is a distinguished British philosopher, has been Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, and also taught at Yale and CUNY. He is the author of the most-translated living philosopher’s book on determinism and freedom, “How Free Are You?” He is the proponent of an alternative view of the nature of perceptual consciousness, and the editor of the most-used one-volume reference work of its kind, “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy“. His new book “After the Terror” addresses questions raised by September 11. The British branch of Oxfam International recently declined to accept a donation of ?5,000 in royalties from the book after a Canadian newspaper raised the issue of a statement made in the book as to the rights of the Palestinians.

PAUL de ROOIJ-(1): Isn’t the issue of the justification of political violence old hat? The UN recognizes the right for an oppressed people to resist. There is an enormous body of work in this area. So, why was it necessary to traverse this ground again? Why did you write “After the Terror”?

Ted Honderich: I know the UN has recognized the right of peoples to self-determination and to freedom from foreign occupation, and indeed recognized the legitimacy of struggles by national liberation movements. But I have been under the impression that the UN also condemns terrorism. Certainly, its Secretary-General has done so, no doubt on the basis of UN resolutions or the like. So surely the fact of the matter is that the UN doesn’t recognize the right of a people to engage in what is now the most common form of resistance and liberation-struggle.

Claiming that the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism, which I do, can hardly be old hat given the reaction to the claim. If some people readily accept it, some of them out of anti-Semitism, many are shocked or disturbed by it. The moral feelings of people at Oxfam GB were shocked by it, as their public statements clearly show.

As for my reason for writing “After the Terror”, I was like so many of us in being overwhelmed and then thrown into reflection by September 11. In my own case, September 11 also came as a kind of charge against or question about things written by me in the past, notably the book “Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy”.

The new book is an account of what you can call the moral state of the world. It is only about Palestine in passing. Only a few pages are on Palestine. The most important thing you come on, in thinking about us and our world, is our omissions rather than our commissions. One large thing we omit to do, most notably in connection with Africa, is to help people with short and even brief lives — half-lives and quarter-lives. In one sample there is a loss of 20 million years of living time.

This is yet more terrible than what we positively do — say aid the Zionists, by whom I mean overt and covert supporters of and participants in Israel’s ongoing aggression against the Palestinians, the violation and occupation of their homeland.

PR-2: So what is your definition of terrorism? Isn’t terrorism generally understood to be illegitimate violence? Resistance on the other hand is legitimate, and may employ terrorism as a tactic. So how do you define these terms?

TH: Terrorism has a number of features, but fundamentally it is a kind of violence, which is to say physical force that injures, damages, violates or destroys people or things. It is this: violence with a political and social end, whether or not intended to put people in general in fear, and necessarily raising a question of its moral justification because it is violence — either such violence as is against the law within a society or else violence between states or societies, against what there is of international law and smaller-scale than war. It is illegitimate in terms of law, but not necessarily in terms of morality.

Terrorism understood in this uncontentious way evidently includes suicide bombings. As evidently, it also includes state-terrorism and cat’s paw terrorism.

You say resistance as ordinarily understood is “legitimate”. Do you mean it’s ordinarily taken to be lawful? Then it itself can’t include terrorism, and I guess it can’t employ terrorism. If saying resistance is legitimate means it is morally defensible, which is certainly different, then it can’t employ any old terrorism whatever, because not all terrorism is morally defensible. But it is obviously possible that some morally justified resistance can employ some morally justified terrorism.

PR-3: What terrorism do you justify, and how do you arrive at those conclusions?

TH: In the book what I say is morally permissible is the terrorism of the Palestinians in the present situation. It seems to me very similar to the terrorism of the African National Congress against the South Africa of apartheid.

I also say that the only general kind of terrorism that is likely to be justified, in the world as it is, is what you can call liberation-terrorism: the violent struggle of a people to come to freedom and power in their own homeland. The likely justification depends importantly on the fact that the suffering that is caused does have a probability of success. What is wrong with other terrorism is that it is the causing of suffering for no probable gain, with no reasonable hope.

You will notice that what I have said does not amount to a complete answer to the question of what violence is justified. I don’t have one worked-out. What does seem to me clear is that the Palestinians have a moral right to their struggle. It seems to be a fact about morality that one can be sure of a particular moral proposition, a particular case, without having a complete answer to the large and general question in the neighborhood.

How do I arrive at the conclusion about the Palestinians? Well, I have a lot of reasons. The book gives various premises for the conclusion. One is my fundamental moral principle, which is the Principle of Humanity, about taking rational steps to getting people out of bad lives. Another is that the Israelis certainly claim a moral right to their state-terrorism and perhaps war. In consistency, which is necessary to actually saying anything, the Palestinians can claim the same, and they can do it truthfully.

Another reason for their moral right is that 50 years of history have proved that the Palestinians have no alternative whatever to terrorism in trying to secure freedom and power in their homeland. What they were offered in the Clinton negotiations at Camp David was not a state, but, if anything, a dog’s breakfast of a state. That is proved, incidentally, by the fact that everybody now speaks of their need for a viable state. But still more has to be said in support of the moral right, and can be. There is no simple proof of the claim about their moral right. That is because there are no simple proofs in morality.

PR-4: What do you think elicited the criticism of your book? How has your book been received in academic circles?

TH: The book has been seriously and respectfully received in meetings in nine universities here and in America, including Oxford and Columbia. There has been a little Zionist fuss, but not much. That has to be kept in mind when thinking about the Oxfam business. As for newspaper reviews, for starters, The Guardian lauded it, The Times said it was the best reflective book on 9/11, and The Sunday Telegraph, owned by the man who also owns The Jerusalem Post, said it was the worst book ever written. All of those three reviews, to my mind, given the newspapers in question, proved I must have written something decent.

PR-5: Your arguments are ahistorical. Isn’t the historical context crucial to understanding violence?

TH: I don’t quite understand what you mean by saying that my arguments are ahistorical. The way the argument goes forward is pretty typical for a moral philosopher. It is a kind of logical sequence, but most certainly it does not ignore history. Another principal premise for my conclusion about the moral right of the Palestinians is that they have indeed been treated horrifically in their homeland for 50 years. Population figures I give in the book for Arabs and Jews at various stages overwhelm the familiar stuff about who did what in what year in terms of massacres, negotiations and the like. The Palestinians are right to say they are the Jews of the Jews.

My reflections are an attempt to try to give a good argument for a moral conclusion about what is right and what we ought to be doing. To do so is not just to engage in historical explanation, of course, but historical explanation must enter into the thing.

PR-6: In the context of the Middle East violence is usually referred to as “terrorism”. This word has become very politically charged, and its meaning has changed from its dictionary definition. Has terrorism become the violence of the “other”, actions that don’t require explanation? How do philosophers cope with words whose meaning keeps changing ? aren’t you dealing with a moving target?

TH: Of course the word has been kidnapped by the Israelis above all, and used just for the violence of the Palestinians. “Democracy” is used as mindlessly — you might add as viciously. “Terrorism” is also used in such a way as to suggest wholly irrational evil and whatever else. That is pretty obvious. It is also one of the facts that affected me in the writing of my book. I was outraged by the endless parade of Israeli government spokesmen on television going on about the unspeakable terrorism of the Palestinians and the murdered children of the Israeli democrats. It turned my stomach, as it did many other stomachs.

But that is not to say that changes in uses of a word, and a word’s being kidnapped, stand in the way of using it correctly. To my mind, I do that. This is more or less necessary to actual thinking. It is also necessary to strong argument. You just weaken your argument, on whatever side you are, by self-serving definitions. It is plain that pretending that terrorism can exist only on the other side is usually lying in the aid of killing, maybe killing in the aid of taking more of another people’s land.

PR-7: You mean that Israel is not a democracy?

TH: I don’t mean that. It is a hierarchic democracy, like the hierarchic democracies of the United States and Britain. But that you are a democracy, even a better one, most certainly doesn’t legitimate you in anything like the sense of making all your actions and policies right, or even your main actions and policies. No chance whatever of that. Did anybody even say it who was actually thinking about the matter rather than engaged in doing something else?

PR-8: After the recent Palestinian attack in Hebron, the Israelis engaged in a wave of “retaliation”, and people living in Gaza, totally unrelated to the original attack, were targeted. One Israeli soldier was quoted as saying that “none of them are innocent.” On the other hand, when a terrorist attack occurs in the West the condemnations always refer to “innocent” civilians. What do you make of this, and are there any innocent civilians? Does the civilian’s responsibility for actions of their state diminish their innocence?

TH: I think that lying is a part of such conflicts as the Palestinian one. It enables people to do unspeakable things. They should say and let themselves know what they are doing. This comment applies to both Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis and the Palestinians should not engage in awful stuff about young children not being “innocent”. Of course and unquestionably, these children and some other people who have been killed are innocent in an ordinary sense.

These truths cannot possibly be overlooked, and nor can they be taken by themselves to decide the main questions. To take but one example, we British did not take it that our terror-bombing of Germany in World War 2, which in fact was called just that, was wrong because it killed innocents and civilians and children. Remember Hiroshima too.

PR-9: Israelis often justify their violent actions as a deterrent. Pulling out of Lebanon without gaining anything was seen as weakness, thus encouraging the Lebanese resistance. The other side of this story is that any Palestinian action must be met 100X as a deterrent. So, is there any merit to the deterrence argument?

TH: I don’t quite see what this comes to. You can engage in deterrence, so-called, in a good cause, and you can engage in it in a bad cause. To the extent that the Israelis are engaging in deterrence, they are engaged in wholly wrongful deterrence. What they are trying to do is to destroy the desire and will of a people to be free in the place to which they have a moral right.

PR-10: In the media, the Israelis are always portrayed as “responding” or “retaliating,” thus justified in their actions. Palestinian actions are never described this way. Can there be a “cycle of violence” with only one party “responding”? Furthermore, Israeli violence is usually unrelated to original Palestinian action, and it is usually called “collective punishment.” So, do the Israelis have any justification for their violence in this case?

TH: There is all this use of language to a particular purpose, a wrongful purpose. The main one, of course, as already mentioned, is the use of the term “democracy” in such way as to suggest that what a democracy does must be right, and the use of the word “terrorism” in such a way as to suggest or declare that this terrorism is always wrong or barbarous. It is just self-serving commandeering of language.

What is most important about it is that it does not amount to serious moral argument. Nor will it in the end be decisive. It seems to me that just about everybody in the world, including all supporters of Israel, do in fact see through this vile stuff. Vile stuff with a vicious purpose.

As for whether Israel does in fact have an argument for its own existence, it seems to me very clear that it does. It also has an argument for defending itself, where that actually means what the word “defending” does mean. It does not mean attacking somebody else in order to seize more land. What Israel does not have an argument for, whatever wretched terminology and talk it goes in for, is the taking of more and more land beyond its justified borders, these to my mind being its borders before 1967.

PR-11: Amnesty International in their latest report [1] recently stated: “Israel has the right and responsibility to take measures to prevent unlawful violence [referring to Palestinian violence]. The Israeli government equally has an obligation to ensure that the measures it takes to protect Israelis are carried out in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.” What do you think of the first sentence, and isn’t it in contradiction with the second sentence?

TH: I think this stuff from Amnesty as it stands is typical unreflective moralizing, avoiding the issue. What Israel ought to do is give up, withdraw from the homeland of another people. That is the main thing.

How they do this, how they go about protecting Israeli lives and what they do to Palestinians in the process, is a secondary matter. It is a large matter, but a secondary matter. Needless to say, they should cause the least possible suffering and death, to the Palestinians and themselves.

PR-12: Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have proscribed any violence against civilians, settlers, and even off duty soldiers. Violence in Israel is proscribed completely. It seems that Palestinians are only allowed to fight one of the most powerful armies in the world within the occupied territories. What do you make of this?

TR: Probably I disagree with it. I guess I disagree with it. My view of the Palestinians’ moral right to their terrorism is most confident with respect to the occupied territories, but I also extend it to Israel itself.

PR-13: Amnesty equates the nature of the violence perpetrated against Israelis and Palestinians. That is, it will condemn to the same degree when an Israeli is killed, and when a Palestinian is killed. It also calls on “both parties to respect human rights, and to make human rights central to their agenda.” Is AI’s stance valid?

TH: Everyone should object to the terrible “even-handedness” of such statements as the Amnesty one. Everyone should choke on such attempts at “balance”. In an ordinary sense of the words, there is no place at all for even-handedness and balance in actually dealing with the rapist engaged in the rape of the woman with a knife at her throat. The rapist has no rights that bear significantly on the question of whether he should stop or be stopped. The analogy with Israel is not a wild one, but exact.

If Amnesty were taking the view that any killing is as bad as any other killing, it would be taking a view that is denied by all of history. If it is saying that you can settle any question of killing by making a declaration of a right to life, that is nonsense. It has the upshot, to mention but one, that it would have been wrong to kill a single German guard in order to save a thousand Jews from death in gas chambers in a concentration camp.

PR-14: A few months ago Cherie Blair, the wife of the current British Prime Minister, stated: “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up, you are never going to make progress.” This seemingly bland statement elicited a barrage of criticism, and a statement from the Prime minister’s office announced that she retracted the statement, and apologized for it. So, why do you think her bland statement elicited this response?

TH: It elicited this response as a result of Israeli and Zionist activity. There is no puzzle about that. Cherie Blair’s statement did not elicit the response because people in general thought the comment was terrible. In fact, probably, most people thought the opposite.

PR-15: I understand that you recently arranged to donate ?5,000 ($8,000) to Oxfam GB, and that this was then rejected on account of the statement in your book about the moral right of the Palestinians. Why did Oxfam refuse your donation?

TH: Well, there was a Zionist threat. But I think Oxfam could pretty easily have accepted the ?5,000 without thereby losing a larger amount of money as a result of Zionists or others not making donations. Oxfam could have done this by declaring that it would not dream of endorsing or agreeing with my view, which it hated, but that regretfully Oxfam was obliged legally and morally to save 2,000 lives, the lives of 2,000 dying children, by taking the money. This is just obvious. Those who suggest otherwise are trying to avoid a clear truth, for whatever reason.

So what happened has some other explanation in place of or in addition to the Zionist threat. You get to it by reading Oxfam’s own statements. What it comes to is that some people — certainly not all — in the Oxfam GB office in Oxford were disturbed or outraged by my view. They were upset, as I said in answer to an earlier question.

That is all right by me. Philosophers are used to disagreement. What isn’t all right is allowing more people to die for certain of your conventional moral feelings. That is neither a legal nor a moral possibility for Oxfam. Its objects, which are defined in the foundation document lodged with the Charity Commission, do not include refuting moral philosophers it thinks are mistaken. In particular it can’t do this if it reduces their income to serve their real objects of saving lives and preventing suffering.

Mr. John Whitaker, the Deputy Director of Oxfam GB, who has taken responsibility for the decision to turn away the ?5,000, should resign. If he does not, he should be relieved of his duties by the Trustees of Oxfam, who have authority over the charity. There is also the fact that Oxfam’s acting on the moral feelings of some of its officers raises a bigger question not about their raising of money but their use of it. In particular, it raises a question about their policy with respect to Palestine. For a start, this is a matter of their political activity, which is one of their stated policies, and their literature. Why aren’t they putting out a lot of forceful and effective literature against the violation of Palestine? Why is this missing from the stuff we all get in our mailboxes?

PAUL de ROOIJ is an economist living in London and can be reached at proox@hotmail.com. He will forward legitimate emails to Prof. Honderich.


1 Shielded from scrutiny: IDF violations in Jenin and Nablus, Nov. 4, 02

2 There is an extensive account of the Oxfam dispute by Ted Honderich at www.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/ATTOxfam1.html


PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)