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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Ted Honderich Interviewed
Mark Hayes • 6.11.03

Mark 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?

Ted 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 elected.

MH: 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 you think
there is any mileage in that kind of argument?

TH: 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 norms. Is
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 others.

MH: How do you see the plight of the Palestinians now, in the context of the so-called "roadmap" to peace?

TH: 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.

MH: 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"?

TH: 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.

MH: 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.

TH: 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 Jewish publisher.

It seems to me essential that, given my ideals, that the expression of my own morality should be outright. One shouldn’t 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.

MH: 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?

TH: 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 like yourself.

MH: 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?

TH: 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.

MH: 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?

TH: 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. It’s incomprehensible, and part of a serious want of serious reflection and self-reflection in New Labour.

MH: 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 that?

TH: 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 Marx’s ideas about capitalism producing a form of government and form of society which are iniquitous.

MH: 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".

TH: 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.

MH: 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?

TH: 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.

MH: 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?

TH: 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.

MH: 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 the other
legitimate objectives of the Protestant Irish, can you explain?

TH: 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.

MH: 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 end"?

TH: 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, however.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Ted Honderich Interview
Mark Hayes


Disappeared and Disapproved

Anthony McIntyre


HMP Maghaberry: First Flames from a Tinderbox
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Housebreaking Ulster Style
Brian Mór


United Irishmen
Davy Carlin


From A Granny
Kathleen Donnelly


An Enemy of the Republic
Liam O Comain


Some Count, Some Don't
Michael Youlton


If Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Made Illegal!
Sean Matthews


Hackneyed Views of Cuba
Douglas Hamilton


Colombian Trade Unionist in Belfast: Meeting
Sean Smyth


2 November 2003


A Memo to Adams: Remember That Every Political Career Ends in Failure
Tom Luby



Anthony McIntyre


Ballot Papers and Elysium
Eamon Sweeney


Republican Prisoners and their Families Put at Risk due to Prison Strike
Martin Mulholland


Trust Without Honesty in the Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


The Letters Page has been updated.




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