Hayes: At the end of your book After the Terror
you mentioned US intervention in Afghanistan and you
appeared to be somewhat equivocal as to whether it
might be justified in some way. What are your thoughts
now post-Iraq? Is there any sense that the USA might
be able to produce what you might call a "good
end" even from the wrong motives?
Honderich: When I was writing the end of the book,
it seemed you could think somehow instinctively that
America could take some action against the 9/11 attack.
You could think, maybe, of some primitive act of self-defence
- a people's
self-defence. This would be somehow related to an
individual's right of self-preservation. This thought
went together with the idea that America would need
a little time to think after 9/11, and it could do
something to deter further attacks while it did its
thinking. But it has to be said that this is not clear,
and it hasn't got clearer with the passage of time.
Maybe it would have been got clearer, for me, if I
hadn't been distracted by other things. I certainly
think that the right thing can be done from the wrong
or bad motives. The right thing is the one that, according
to the best judgement and knowledge now, is the rational
one with respect to a certain end - in my case, the
end of the Principle of Humanity, which is getting
and keeping people out of bad lives. Clearly
the right thing in this sense can be done out of bad
intentions, even bad character. No doubt some M.P.
voted for the National Health Service although he
was against it in principle and just wanted to get
Is US intervention in Iraq motivated purely by
imperialistic impulses? Some commentators on the liberal-left
have sought to justify or excuse American intervention
with reference to the nature of Saddam's regime. Do
there is any mileage in that kind of argument?
The explanation of the U.S. attack on Iraq is of course
not easy, despite being clear in outline. One part,
certainly essential, is American ignorance. It is
a stupid society, by which I mean one that is uninformed
and also unpracticed in judgement. Another part is
an ideology made use of by the well-off Americans.
One element in that part is the vague bundle that
is liberalism. There is also the resolute and economically
powerful neo-Zionist pressure. There is also the intent
to assert an ideology, i.e. to answer critics, by
taking action. This non-rational thing seems to me
to deserve more attention than it has got. And there
is Chomsky's good point about establishing new international
imperialism separate from those things? I suppose
so if it is, in general, state power aimed at permanently
controlling the sovereignty of other states through
coercion. It is nonsense to suppose that the nature
of Saddam's regime was much of the explanation of
the American action. If it was, obviously, there would
have been a lot more interventions in the past against
terrible regimes. Both the previous question and this
one, by the way, raise a kind of philosophical issue.
How do you assign different explanatory weights to
different conditions within a sufficient condition
for something? We commonly pick out one condition
and call it the 'cause', but that certainly poses
questions. I wonder if philosophy has got in the way
of my own little moral mission or helped it. Maybe
there is a place for this kind of thing alongside
How do you see the plight of the Palestinians now,
in the context of the so-called "roadmap"
I think they'll fight until they get something that
they wouldn't have got without fighting. It will be
something like a state - certainly not a mess of bantustans.
The roadmap is just American and neo-Zionist strategy
at the moment. It is attached, for one thing, to no
actual and real benefit for the Palestinians right
now. There are just promises, or promises of promises,
by a state whose record of implacable and vicious
self-interest has been proved. The Palestinians are
to give up something real, their violence, for something
unreal, nothing real. The violence of terrorism, I
can imagine somebody saying, is a kind of property,
the only property some people have. Anybody with a
real curiosity about Palestine should read Norman
Finkelstein's Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine
Conflict. In general I am pessimistic.
You have referred on numerous occasions to the
moral right of Palestinians in using force against
an oppressor. Many on the left will find your arguments
persuasive (as I do), but isn't there a sense in which
any such violence is likely, on balance, to precipitate
a "bad end"?
The right action or policy, to repeat, is the one
that on the best judgement etc. now is the one that
will have the best effects - secure the end in view,
and secure it at the least human cost. That certainly
leaves open the possibility that the right action
can produce a bad result, even a disaster. You can
leave your money to establish a cancer-research centre
that unpredictably develops a bug that wrecks human
life. As for generalizations about violence producing
a bad result, they seem to me almost always silly.
That is, they are arrived at by excluding vast amounts
of violence that we morally defended and still defend.
World War II for a start. The terrorism that contributed
to the founding of the state of Israel and so on.
Does it concern you that some elements have taken
the opportunity to describe you as an apologist for
violence, and even anti-semitic? I ask this question
in the context of the most recent controversy in Germany.
I was at first intrigued and then shocked to be accused
of anti-Semitism. When you think of anti-Semitism
in a German context, you have to think of something
different from, say, having preferences about who
is to be let
into your golf club. You have to think of gas chambers,
etc. That got through to me. But since then, having
informed myself a little more of the long and solid
history of using the charge of anti-Semitism against
anybody critical of neo-Zionism (by which I mean the
enlargement of Israel beyond its 1967 borders, with
all that the enlargement entails), I've come to a
different attitude. That attitude is one of confidence
and, perhaps unattractively, arrogance. You cannot
be too wounded by some little shit - I mean my principal
accuser in Germany, Brumlik - who goes on television
and says in his suitably garbled sentence that the
book After the Terror is anti-Semitic because it lays
the blame for the starvation of all those Africans
on the state of Israel. It is a pleasure to be able
to report - in line with paragraphs in praise of Leftist
or progressive Jews written by me long before the
German fuss happened - that my book will be out in
German again before Christmas, brought out by an honourable
seems to me essential that, given my ideals, that
the expression of my own morality should be outright.
One shouldnt allow oneself to be bullied into
a certain kind of civility. We should speak clearly
and forcefully, and I have that impulse. I get enraged
when I hear Israeli spokesman or New Labour talking
about democracy and terrorism at times it is
part of the obligation of morality to challenge, even
if it gives offence.
With reference to the use of violence to secure
political objectives there is an argument that suggests
that any "good end", even if achieved successfully,
is inevitably degraded by the methods used. In effect,
the agents of violence are tainted by their deployment
of such tactics. Can you comment on this approach?
There now seems to me a big division between moralities.
There are the ones that are moralities of concern,
as I call them. They are for somehow helping out the
badly-off, those with lives of wretchedness or other
distress. My thing, the morality of humanity, is one
of these moralities. Then they are the other moralities.
They are to one degree or another moralities of self-interest.
They produce endless amounts of doctrine and perception.
One bit is that the violent are tainted by their tactics.
No doubt some are. But the general charge is just
part of a morality or the like that comes out of a
kind of self-deceived inclination to have the world
go in the way that has been good to yourself and people
You utilise the term "terrorism" to describe
particular actions. But in doing this aren't you engaging
your opponents on their own linguistic territory?
The way the term "terrorism" has been used
has completely discredited its usage - so when you
talk about the idea of a "terrorism" motivated
by some kind of humanity or morality it's almost an
oxymoron. "Terrorists" are already seen
as devoid of humanity and morality. Certainly most
of those who have been engaged in legitimate armed
struggle would reject the term. Why don't you abandon
the phrase altogether?
I can sympathize with your different inclination.
But there are reasons to use the word, which of course
can be defined, and indeed is very ordinarily intelligently
defined, in such a way as to leave open the possibility
of justification. One reason is that it is morally
a good idea not to lose sight of the fact that setting
bombs in something that maims and kills, horribly.
Another reason is that you can add immediately, as
I often do, that what is terrorism is also likely
to be a liberation-struggle etc. A third reason is
that I want a hearing for my views from people who
will have a resistance, not without reason, to more
politically enlightened usages. A fourth reason, related
to the third, is that truth is more a weapon of the
Left than the Right, by a country mile, and it is
important to remember that.
Your general ideas about political morality and
philosophy obviously have a much broader relevance
and applicability, and in your work you mention the
Labour Party as "your" party. What are your
thoughts on the contemporary Labour Party?
I have some credit there. I was calling Blair a liar
in print before the world discovered that fact. (Incidentally,
a worried publisher got in touch with the lawyers
to see if it was libelous. They wouldn't be doing
that today. They would have saved £2,000.) I
think New Labour is unspeakable. The lying is part
of something deeper and wider. It is so morally stupid,
and so rightly led by the leader it has. On the front
of Blair's lies, by the way, we can hope for something.
No people is actually overwhelmned a leader who 'fibs'
or whatever. A people can get troubled, though, about
what a leader is lying for. I think that
is a main part of Blair's problem at the moment. It's
not going to go away. The Third Way stuff
is a horrific joke. Its incomprehensible, and
part of a serious want of serious reflection and self-reflection
in New Labour.
During the course of your work, as you articulate
your position, you spend a considerable amount of
time de-constructing Libertarianism (Nozick) and Liberalism
(Rawls) but you pay very little attention to Marxism
or the Marxist perspective - is there any reason for
Well I plead guilty. There is a little historical
explanation, but it doesn't take me far. It is that
I have always been an analytic philosopher,
and found Marx's philosophy, like Hegel's, pretty
dopey. You can have a look at my paper against Jerry
Cohen's Marxism - before he became whatever he is
now. The paper is coming out again in a collection
of my papers in political philosophy. The paper has
a new introduction in which I full acknowledge Marx's
greatness, indeed moral grandeur. Mainly for seeing
the fact of class self-interest and the stuff that
it produces. My admiration for Marx has come a little
late. My ideas about hierarchic democracy, for instance,
in some ways reflect Marxs ideas about capitalism
producing a form of government and form of society
which are iniquitous.
Your Principle of Equality or Humanity is constructed
upon notions of morality and the arguments are very
powerful and interesting. However, you refer to the
"natural fact" of morality, but couldn't
you argue that, in the same way as with Rawlsian Liberalism,
you get out at the end what you put in at the beginning.
If you assume that people are rational, with a basic
affinity for fellow humans who are suffering, then
your conclusions are correct. But if your assumptions
are erroneous or over-stated, then there is no prospect
of a "good end".
It's true that Rawls puts in at the beginning, silently,
what he gets out at the end. So there's no 'proof',
as he maintains - depending on which parts you read.
But I don't think any such proof is possible. My main
argument for my principle, though, is that we all
judge that our own personal right not to be miserable
or otherwise distressed is always greater than somebody
else's right to have an improvement in their already
existing well-being. That is one fact of our human
nature. Another is that we are rational in the sense
of having reasons - as in the case just mentioned
- and all reasons are general. So anybody else can
use my reasons back against me.
Isn't there a sense in which your "great goods",
the items required by individuals and communities
to end "bad lives", are achievable via dictatorship
or some kind of authoritarian government? Can you
comment on this?
My disdain for our hierarchic democracies is considerable.
Still, they accord more freedoms than many past systems
of government - presumably all dictatorial or really
authoritarian ones. So I don't see much hopes for
non-democracy. Needless to say, there is much more
hope in anything like real democracy.
With regard to your Principle of Humanity you appear
to make the observation that there is really not a
relativist dimension to this, in that you would not
argue for any kind of levelling down. Am I correct?
If you're starving and I'm well fed, the fundamental
argument for your being given food is not that you
have less than me, but that you are in distress, starving.
You could be in that condition even if I was too.
But I grant that there are other goods that are in
fact relative: freedom is one of them. How much I
have does indeed depend on how much you have.
You have spoken before about your broad sympathy
for the Republican Movement in Ireland. You have also
stated that the reason why you couldn't endorse the
Republican position more fully was the existence of
legitimate objectives of the Protestant Irish, can
Probably not. Or not well. My feeling was that the
Catholic Irish had got something - i.e.
the south of Ireland. So they were not like the Africans
in South Africa. But you are right about what you
refer to as the broad sympathy. My violence book put
together the PLO, the ANC and the IRA. In seeing some
of the Prods on the telly, a remark of Sartre's comes
back to me sometimes. He said he wasn't a Communist
himself, but an anti-Communist was a dog. Not very
philosophical I suppose.
Are you surprised that Sinn Fein have settled for
the Good Friday Agreement? They appear to have moved
from a clear commitment to national self-determination,
to a justice and equality agenda within existing constitutional
arrangements. They are, in effect, helping to administer
British rule, and have effectively ignored other options
like joint authority or re-partition - is this a "good
One thing that has struck me is that a moral and political
campaign cannot be regarded as having only one end
that, if realized, justifies it, and if not realized,
makes it all a mistake. The IRA ought always to have
had in mind a range of possible successes, a spectrum.
That is not a full and adequate answer to your question,
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