Interviewed by Max Lorenzen for The Marburger Forum about the book After the Terror and the resulting German controversy. There is also a German version of the interview.

Marburger Forum: You defend Palestinian terrorism against neo-Zionism, which you define as the aggrandizing of Israel beyond its 1967 borders with the attendant degradation and murder of Palestinians. You declare the Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism. As a result, an accusation of anti-Semitism has been made against you. You say it is totally unfounded. People then ask why you then gave an interview recently to the extreme right-wing National Zeitung?

Ted Honderich: The editor wrote me and said that the publication had in the past interviewed the likes of Chomsky, Boutros-Ghali, Moishe Arye Friedman, Francis Boyle, the British MP's George Galloway and Clare Short, Menachem Klein, Peter Ustinov, Gore Vidal, and so on. Pretty good company. Chomsky is the great moral judge of our age. George Galloway is a principled, honest and resolute politician -- a rare bird. I thought the publication was an ordinary one, somehow attached to an ordinary publishing house. Ordinary questions were then sent to me by email, and I replied. When the interview was published, German friends gave me the bad news about the nature and history of the publication, and that I had in effect been tricked. It is terrible to be in its pages. In future, I won't go outside a house in Germany except in the care of a responsible adult. As for what I actually said in the interview, which apparently was properly translated, I stand by every word. As for the idea that this interview in this place actually supports the idea that I am an anti-Semite, well, that would be nonsense only possible for the likes of my accuser Brumlik. The first paragraph of the interview, incidentally, speaks with horror of gas chambers and desecrated cemeteries.

MF:  Having now had your nose rubbed in actual German anti-Semitism, are you more inclined to agree with a lesser accusation made against you by some? It is that that your defence of Palestinian terrorism is 'anti-Semitic in effect'.

TH: Every moral proposition under the sun, every political or national or religious outlook, certainly Christianity, can be argued or said or pretended to have had some unwanted side-effects. This was true, even of anti-Naziism. If the moral proposition or outlook is decent, that side-effect, if it exists, is no sufficient reason not to express the proposition or outlook. You have to take any side-effect into account, but you must not get it out of proportion. What is happening to Jews in Germany and what is foreseeable is nothing in comparison to what is happening to Palestinians in Palestine. It is worth adding about world-wide and of course German anti-Semitism, as the Jewish philosopher Michael Neumann lately has written, that the only really dangerous place in the world for Jewish people these days is Israel, exactly on account of neo-Zionism.

MF: Getting back to „After the terror“: In your book you describe what you call    the fact and practice of natural morality. Is this  the ultimate basis that you found your ethical convictions on in the face of the terrorist attacks of September 11  ?  Could you outline the main characteristics of this morality?

TH: Our natural fact and practice of morality involves the fact that we all have certain great desires, six in my way of counting, for such things as a decent length of life, freedom and power, respect, bodily well-being and so on. We are also subject to that minimal kind of rationality that is consistency. You can't give a moral or other reason for a particular thing -- say a benefit to yourself -- without being committed to benefits for other people. That is the way reasons are. We also have some sympathy for others outside of our families -- we are to an extent empathetic. These three facts are much of our human nature, and much of natural morality. But the natural fact and practice of morality, I guess, is not the ultimate or fundamental basis for my conclusions about terrorism. That basis is a particular working-out or clarification of natural morality -- the morality of humanity and the Principle of Humanity. It is that we must take actually rational steps -- effective and humanly uncostly ones -- to get people out of bad lives, deprivation of the great goods. We must stop just pretending to take steps. I have to add that your question about our natural morality is a little philosophically embarrassing to me. It is not easy to say what the point was, exactly, of starting in my book with the natural fact and practice of morality, rather than going straight into the morality of humanity. Moral philosophy, including applied moral philosophy, isn't easy. We make mistakes. That can't stop us from trying to see and act on our obligations, however.

MF: You say that we have those inescapable great desires for the great goods, and you probably grant that we are not only subject to consistency in giving reasons but also rational in the different sense of being efficient pursuers of our own self-interests. You also say that we are capable of compassion. Are these things consistent?

TH: Well, it would be inconsistent to say that we have to or we are caused to pursue our own great desires without limit, that we are nothing but self-interested, and that none the less we are subject to compassion in the sense of really being affected by sympathy for others. So I do not say either thing. I do not need propositions as strong as that. My view is that we are subject to both some self-interest and some sympathy for others. What is most important to me in this neighbourhood is that in effect all of us take the six great desires to be more important than any other desires -- in a word, we take the avoiding of bad lives to be more important than the improving of already good lives.

MF: Do you think that all humans, independent of their cultural identity, have something like your natural morality and have the three attributes having to do with the great goods, compassion, and rationality?

TH: Well, to repeat, all my arguments rest on the Principle of Humanity, not really our ordinary morality. I suppose, having been made to think about it by your good questions, that the importance of ordinary morality in such reflections as mine is partly that it shows that there is some actual practical possibility of our coming to support of the Principle of Humanity some day. That is, we are a little bit on the way to it, if only a little bit, in our ordinary morality. Ordinary morality has seeds of the Principle of Humanity in it. But to answer your question, I do indeed think that at least most people, independent of their cultures, have something like natural morality in my sense and also the three attributes. I don't think that is a natural law, a neccessary truth about every human. Philosophers have sometimes seemed to suppose that arguments of  various kinds have to depend on cast-iron natural laws that are without exceptions. That doesn't seem to me necessary. I don't care if there are a few unfortunates or idiots or whatever who don't want to live good lives as against bad lives, or have no sense at all of the suffering of distant people, or don't know what a reason for something is and involves.

MF: Is there a  real  obligation to act and to live according to the moral principles and judgements that you make?

TH: Let me state what is pretty much my central piece of argument, alluded to already, about this matter of a real obligation. I am confident that you personally, Mr. Lorenzen, think something is right. You are convinced of it. It is that if there is a choice between your being tortured for a month and someone else still having to put up with going to work by public bus rather than have their own car, the right thing is for you not to be tortured. It isn't that you just want not to be tortured. You are convinced it would be wrong for you to be tortured just in order for the other person to be able to go to work by car. This judgement as to great goods and lesser goods, I argue, is much of what commits you, like the rest of us, to the Principle of Humanity. The judgement does indeed give rise to a real obligation. What is a real obligation if this isn't one? What stands in the way of accepting that there is a real obligation, as it seems to me, is not a good objection, but the sad fact that we are all, to greater or lesser extents, victims of convention. Some people seem to think, too, that obligations and rights are only a matter of existing law, which cannot possibly be true. The main thing that is wrong with the world is a mess of conventions that goes against moral intelligence.

MF: How should we assess what also exists, human nature’s strong tendency to egotism, indifference and even cruelty? Are these not natural conditions as well that we also have to consider?

TH: It is impossible to deny that these things exist, even if it is also true that some people like to make a lot of them in order to excuse themselves in one way or another. It is a theme of conservatism in politics, anyway conservatism in the English language, that we are all awful, and so we have to be kept in our places, etc., and we won't be altruistic in a fair society, and profiteers are just human, just like the rest of us, etc. But forget about that. I admit that we are to degrees egoistic, indifferent and maybe cruel. What is supposed to follow from that? The proposition that certain things exist is not any justification of them, or of some moral principle contrived to fit the fact, is it? Anyway, any attempt on somebody's part to defend cruelty or whatever will fall victim, as I see it, to the basic argument given in the answer to the question above. There is no chance of a starting point for a counterpart argument by you -- say the judgement that someone is right to be being pointlessly cruel to you.

MF: Is it true that your moral principle and other propositions permit or even require that I defend myself or others if other human beings, organizations or states deprive me, my family or my country of a good life or lives?

TH: I don't think any attack whatever on a family or a people or a country justifies a violent defence. There are circumstances where that is a bad idea, a disastrous conclusion, just irrational and wrong. That conclusion probably follows from any morality like mine that looks at the rightness and wrongness of actions in terms of their consequences. The conclusion is easy for me since the particular consequences with which I am concerned have to do with the great goods and deprivations of them -- in particular with bad lives. It very likely was right for several countries just to give up against Hitler at the beginning of the last war rather than fight on hopelessly. But that comment, maybe like everything else said in a short interview, needs some qualification. There is qualification to be found in writings on my website and a lecture given in Leipzig and other books than After the Terror. I happen to think it was right for the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto to have fought to the end -- 'hopelessly', as it is said. They were fighting not for themselves but for people who would come after them in history. It comes to mind to say they died sacred deaths. The same comes to mind with Palestinians.

MF: Is it not strange that an ethic which as a matter of course includes the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ only becomes valid and takes on reality if it goes on to define exceptions where the commandment does not apply? And isn’t this true of your ethical outlook? 

TH: That sounds interesting, but I am not quite sure I understand. The thought or impulse 'Thou shalt not kill' presumably remains a good thought or impulse -- even if you have to make exceptions to it, as virtually everybody does. It's interesting that the morality of humanity involves various policies that give further content to the Principle of Humanity. One of these is exactly a policy against violence. But, as you gather, it cannot prohibit all violence. On the general matter of exceptions to principles, incidentally, it seems to me that any decent morality, which is to say a clear morality that escapes self-deception and so on, will have one exceptionless principle that governs everything else, settles conflicts between conflicting considerations. Anything else is likely to be a morality tailored to suit self-intrest. The Principle of Humanity certainly has that role in the morality advocated by me.

MF: In After the Terror you maintain that we, i.e. the whole Western World, bear some responsibility for the attacks of September 11. You argue at length in one chapter that our great omissions with respect to the wretched in Africa and elsewhere are as wrong as certain conceivable awful acts. Does this mean that you and me are -- in principle -- to be blamed in the same way as Bush or Blair, or leading managers of large corporations who try to derive the largest possible profit from Africa, Latin America etc.? Does it not make sense to make a distinction?

TH: My main concern in the book, in connection with these matters, is to answer the question of whether certain actions, policies and the like -- certain acts of omission -- are wrong. That is connected to but is not actually the question of whether we as people are good, bad or maybe monstrous. There is a difference between the matters of right actions, morally good agents in particular actions, and morally good persons in general rather than in connection with particular actions. It is just obviously possible for even morally impressive people to do wrong things, and for monsters to do right ones. But that isn't the end of the matter. There is a complicated connection between right actions and moral credit, and wrong actions and moral discredit. I do believe, with respect to the wretched of the earth, that almost all of us, or anyway very many of us, and certainly you and I, bear some responsibility and are rightly subject to moral judgement as persons. I believe that. But I do agree there are degrees. There must be. To change the subject away from omissions to commissions, there is a lot of difference, thank God, in connection with 10,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, between me and the liar who is the elected leader of my country.

MF: What could be done to strengthen our sense of responsibility in view of the hunger and exploitation in the world? May I ask you what does responsibility in this sense mean to you personally in your own life?

TH: There is no one thing that should be done to change things, and to change us as a first step. There is no panacea. We should do all we can, everything. We should give money, write books, expose shams, try to be like Chomsky in our scepticism and indeed cynicism. We should also take up arms and fight when that is rational. As for me, as I continue to admit, I am not living up to my principle. I should be doing more. I have very little to say for myself. There is the small consolation, very small, that by giving away what I have I would in a sense -- by some comparisons if certainly not all -- be treating my children unfairly. One last thing: that I am a hypocrite, if that is the right description, does not entail for a moment that what I advocate is wrong. Sometimes the instruction `Do as I say, not as I do' is exactly the right instruction.

MF: Our share of the responsibility for September 11, as diagnosed by you,  does not lead you to say the 11 September attacks were right. You condemn them. How can you justify condemning them?

TH: My condemnation of September 11 is based essentially on the proposition that the attacks could not be judged likely to have a good effect in terms of the Principle of Humanity. In plain English, they would not work. As it now seems, they haven't worked. It is possible or probable that 10,000 civilians in Iraq would be alive today if September 11 had not happened.

MF: Let us now return to the point in your book that has caused the biggest stir and has brought about the accusation of anti-Semitism -- which I agree is unfounded. Do you really, in your quiet moments, consider the attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers to be morally justified, a matter of moral rights, in contrast to the attacks on the Twin Towers?

TH: I stand by my view on the Palestinian moral right. In my book, it was a kind of afterthought -- you know the book is not really about Palestine and Israel. The view was not much defended in the book in a detailed way. It was presented as a conclusion derivable from the Principle of Humanity and intermediate premises, but a lot was left unsaid. Since then, a good deal has been said. Some of it is about civilians, innocents, half-innocents and the like. Some is about the ordinariness of a judgement as to the rightness of killing -- neo-Zionists claim a moral right to their murders every day. As for factual judgements on what violence will have what effects, I grant to you that they are difficult. They are harder than purely moral questions. But I stand by my judgements on September 11 and Palestine. Let me repeat one other thing. You can go wrong in life, morally wrong, by not facing up to issues because of philosophical and other difficulties. You have to act in a situation of imperfect knowledge. You can't not act, not speak, because judgement is difficult. Germans should remember that. To go back to a lecture given in Leipzig, they should also remember that their being silent, on account of the Holocaust, about the violation of Palestine, brings to mind a certain question. Are they being like someone whose father killed a woman and who is now keeping quiet about an ongoing rape by her son?

MF: Maybe you are right maintaining that in certain ways there is no difference between an Israeli helicopter pilot killing a Palestinian passer-by and a Palestinian girl and suicide bomber killing an Israeli passer-by. But perhaps neither of these actions is to be approved of ?

TH: It is a common view that both killers do wrong. But that common view seems to me unreflective. If both the Palestinians and the neo-Zionists stop killing, the result will be the permanent violation of a people and their homeland. A great rape will continue. There are overwhelming differences between the killing on the one side and the killing on the other side, the two terrorisms. They are not the same. To lose sight of this, to lack the courage to see it and stick to the fact, is quite wrong. This is a moment to say, by the way, that this view is shared by some Zionists, indeed a lot. It is shared by these morally honourable and brave people in Israel. And the view that what neo-Zionism is doing is wrong is shared by still more Zionists and Israelis. It is shared, I am happy to say, by Abraham Melzer, who brought out the second translation of my book in Germany -- an honourable German, Israeli and Jew.

MF: Do you believe that the motives of the Hamas leaders, for instance, who send their followers to their deaths, are really humane? Would not these individuals, being so fanatical and cruel, suppress their own people if they came to power? Just like the Taliban in Afghanistan?

TH: I am pretty much cured of the boyish idea that there is an easy moral comparison between peoples, cultures and leaders. Our leaders are allowing a loss of 20 million years of living time in Africa at this moment -- which is just a sample of such losses. As you know, the United States and Britain, or rather their leaders, with a lot of tacit support, ordered the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians in World War Two. For a start there was what was called, by we British, the terror bombing of  Germany. And you will not have forgotten the contribution of German leaders.

MF: Should one not consider such Hamas motives – and, consequently, analyse them – before one speaks of Palestinian ‘liberation terrorism’ or ‘terrorism for humanity’?

TH: I don't have a lot of reason really to doubt the motives of the leaders you are speaking about. They're a lot worse than Bush, are they? It seems to me possible that they can stand a comparative investigation pretty well. I agree that it's generally or very often not a good idea to support people with bad motives, of course. But, as you have heard already, that is not the main question. I think just about everybody, if they could be got to think about the matter, would support some evil character in some situation if they really judged that this would get people out of lives of misery. What would be important if you could have one world without the other -- a world without suffering or a world full of good motives?

MF: You argue   in a consequentialist way that terrorist actions that really serve the end of the Principle of Humanity are justified. Is there not  an immense danger of your undermining valid moral principles?

TH: The Principle of Humanity, as I say, is that we are to take rational steps to get people out of what are underdescribed as bad lives -- many of them brief and horrific lives. It prohibits all steps aimed at serving the principle that are in fact irrational or non-rational ones. In fact it is more humane than other principles or pretended principles. Of course if it was adopted it would undermine other moral principles, which of course it does not take as valid. To my mind, that is what ought to happen. That is what I want. I am in this respect like any other defender of a moral position. He or she believes his or her principle should carry the day. That is even true of the mish-mash of liberalism.

MF: Let us finally return to the main problem that you have dealt with in your book. Thousands and thousands of people fall victim to hunger in the world every day. You remark in your book that on September 11, when 3,000 died in the attacks, 24,000 people died of hunger. Do you believe that the deadly poverty of people that you describe will be done away with in the foreseeable future? Are you optimistic or pessimistic regarding this?

TH: I am pessimistic with respect to the shorter term. The hungry and dying are of course not very good at fighting the self-interest of the oil-presidents and the public-relations men turned into prime ministers. To their credit, they never will be. And moral appeals do not overturn the world. They cannot do much to touch the moral stupidity of America -- I mean a stupidity owed to ignorance and no real practice in judging things. But that does not raise a doubt as to what ought to happen. If you are asking if there is any point in declaiming propositions like mine, there are several answers. It is important to keep decency alive, not to allow it to sink out of sight in the stinking hypocrisy and self-deception of Blair and the like. And of course you may get a little help. Someone like Brumlik can come along and make a lying or stupid or self-deceived accusation, such as to call into question his fitness to hold a university professorship, but get you a lot more attention for your views. Anyway in Germany, which gets credit for the fact.

MF: Thank you very much, Professor Honderich, for answering our questions. One does not necessarily have to share your opinion on Palestinian terrorist attacks to acknowledge that your book deserves the great credit of focussing the ethical debate on the real problems in this world.

BACK to The Fall and Rise of a Book in Germany
HOME to T.H. website front page
HOME to Det & Free website front page