LIVING THE GOOD LIFE by Ted Honderich, and POWER TO THE PEOPLE by Sholto Byrnes, and POWER TO CLARITY by Ted Honderich

The first little essay below, an Ideas column in the New Statesman, is Ted Honderich's sketch of a lecture given by him recently in various places. The second essay, by Sholto Byrnes, whose point of departure is the first, is an Ideas column in praise of liberalism taken as exemplified by John Stuart Mill. The third essay, by Ted Honderich, is a response to the second, a very different view of liberalism. It is a revised version of what got itself onto the website of the New Statesman a bit prematurely.

by Ted Honderich
New Statesman, 27 August 2007


    His wife has an affair and leaves him and the children. He can't handle it. In his self-deceptions he goes around to the house she's in, with petrol for the letter box and glue for the locks. She's there, but he sees the cleaning woman go in too. The judge treats with contempt his plea that he is guilty of only one murder, that he did not intend to burn to death the innocent cleaning woman. Her family loathes him for his note of condolence.

    That is as good an analogy as needed for the intentional killings of great numbers of innocents in our terrorist war in Iraq. They are first of all the moral crimes of Bush and Blair. They will be Brown's too if he does not act soon on his moral character. You intend to do, as all decent law and sense knows, what you foresee as the probable consequence of your actions.

    Is the problem of Palestine hard, the rights and wrongs controversial? No. There is no complexity at all. None. 4/5ths of the homeland of an indigenous people, the Palestinians, was taken from them, then defensibly in a circumstance that included the Holocaust. Neo-Zionism is the taking from them at least their freedom in the last 5th. It is moral barbarism. They have a moral right to their terrorism against it.

     Do these judgements rely on some principle of retributive justice in Immanuel Kant's ethics, along with the emptiness that all men are to be treated as ends as well as means? There is no such principle. Do they depend on the congeries of stuff that is liberalism? Do they depend on human rights -- there for everybody's picking and choosing? Are they at bottom about equality? Do they depend on hierarchic democracy?  On the past retorts of a shyster-lawyer in an elected assembly, a ferret at the despatch box? On conventions of the bonus-taking society with feral children?

    No, the judgements rely on a less manipulable attitude we all share despite our terrible self-interest, the Principle of Humanity. It is about bad lives, lives deprived of the great human goods, frustrated in the great human desires -- decent length of life, bodily quality of life, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, goods of relationship, goods of culture.

    The principle is that the right thing as distinct from others -- action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational one, in the sense of being effective and not self-defeating, with respect to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives.

    The judgements rely on the principle, but the connection is not simple. Any principle that tolerates the torture of a child for the purposes of a man's sexual excitement is destroyed by that toleration. The Principle of Humanity can be relied on in judging Iraq and Palestine. It is also supported by morally intelligent convictions about them that are independent of it.

Ted Honderich's  recent book is Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War.

by Sholto Byrnes
New Statesman, 13 September 2007


"The congeries of stuff that is liberalism," wrote Ted Honderich dismissively in this space two weeks ago. It's true that the word "liberal" is used so often and variously as to have lost much precision of definition. Liberal parties can lean to the right, like the German Free Democrats, or to the left, in the British tradition of Lloyd George and Maynard Keynes. To the American right, it is a catch-all term for anyone vaguely left-wing, while to some on the US left, such as the actor and activist Danny Glover, a liberal is an apologist -- "a guy who talks about how bad segregated trains are. Yet he rides in the whites-only section," as he told me once, quoting the poet Langston Hughes. But liberalism is still a word worth fighting for.

At its heart is a belief in individualism, perfectly expressed by John Stuart Mill in his in troduction to On Liberty: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his own will, is to prevent harm to others.... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

The second of Mill's sentences is one of the most stirring statements to be found in political philosophy. The first is where all the problems arise. For the second provides tinder for the libertarian fire, while the first is the bucket of water ready to douse it.

This compromise makes liberalism vulnerable to the more obvious certainties of conservatism and socialism (or its more amenable sibling, social democracy). It appears to lack conviction, even though believing in both freedoms to (behave as you wish) and freedoms from (ignorance, poverty, etc) is a consistent position.

Come back to the second of Mill's sentences; that is the key to why true liberals are bloody-minded about being told what to do; to why, above all tolerant, they are determinedly intolerant of intolerance, which makes them the enemy of closed minds, whether in terms of racial, sexual or religious bigotry or selfishly class-based politics. It is the key to why liberalism always allows for the question, "Why must this be so?"

Think of how the term is used in everyday conversation, too. A "liberal measure" is a generous one, which is appropriate for a philosophy that takes an optimistic view of human nature, one that assumes the betterment of character always to be possible; which, again, is why the liberal is for reform, not revolution.

Perhaps the seeds of liberalism's downfall as a specific political movement were sown by its very success. After all, it is not democracy itself (a process that can lead to the election of the most illiberal extremists) that we revere today, but liberal democracy. It is liberalism's misfortune that framing, as it does, the constitutional parameters, it struggles to find a distinctive voice against the more boisterous and simplistic creeds that spar within those borders.

Ted Honderich
New Statesman website, 17 September 2007


Sholto Byrnes is right in his piece 'Power to the People' if he allows, as he seems to, that liberalism is a congeries of stuff in the sense that it has in it pretty diverse left-leaning and right-leaning parties and traditions. But it is also a congeries of stuff when you take its heart to be in John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty, something that Sholto reveres. In fact you can think liberalism in this sense is worse than a congeries of stuff, considerably worse. Close enough to a philosophical disaster.

One of Mill's utterances, the second noted by Sholto, is that an individual is to be left to do what he wants, to be left sovereign in body and mind, unaffected by the moral judgements of state and society, so long as he does not harm anybody else. For example, he is to be left at liberty to wreck his own life and that of agreeing partners, left to go to hell in his own way. Sholto finds this to be a stirring statement of individualism.

Another of Mill's utterances, implied by the stirring one, is that the state and society can intervene in an individual's life against his will only if he or she harms or threatens harm to others. Mill qualifies that a bit, in fact in a way relevant to the present day, but not much.

Sholto underestimates what is in fact the disaster of the second utterance, which is owed to the absence of any half-adequate, quarter-adequate or indeed in any fraction adequate definition of harm. What is it? It can't be doing what is against Mill's Principle of Utility, since that, unlike Jeremy Bentham's principle, is just a particular mess of rhetoric, about qualities as well as quantities of happiness, lyricism about great individuals, and so on.

You get some idea of what Mill might have thought of producing by way of a needed definition when you notice near the end of On Liberty that the essay is all about state and society intervening to stop harm, whatever it is, and is not at all about intervening to help people. It doesn't touch that large question. So, we are on the way to understanding that harming people doesn't include, for a start, financial or economic activities of companies or governments that leave families in poverty or worse, or indeed directly impoverish or degrade them -- leave them in need of help. Nothing in the essay gets in the way of our inclination.

It is hard to read the essay and escape the conclusion that if Mill had been as clear-headed in his morals and politics as he was in other parts of his philosophy he would have had to consider that what he actually had in mind in talking of harm was just what the legal and related conventions of 1859 said was harm. Harm where that is at least closely related to harm according to the existing criminal and civil law. I pay him the tribute that he could not have swallowed that awful conventionalism about what is right and what is at some time legal.

What Mill did do was not face his own problem about harm, and the result is the general mess of On Liberty. It is also the mess of liberalism in so far as On Liberty is its heart. I guess it is possible to say that liberalism can be distinguished from conservatism. That is the political tradition that shares the self-interest of all political traditions but is unique in having no moral principle at all, nothing of the sort, to support its self-interest. But this superiority of liberalism is no reason for much self-celebration of it by liberals.

To speak for my own Principle of Humanity, in fact the principle of what I am pleased to call the true Left of the past and future, it is not boisterous and simplistic when compared with liberalism, as Sholto implies. It is unconventional or disrespectful. It is clear and specific. In virtue of being clear and specific, it is better at resisting self-deception, in particular the self-deception of liberalism. It is also direct and plain about our liberal democracy, which is merely hierarchic democracy, the kind that goes to war as a result of the will of politicians incapable of seeing, for a start, that the conventional is not the necessary.

For more on Mill and liberalism, go to J. S. Mill's On Liberty, and a Question About Liberalism. See also The Principle of Humanity and the Principle of Utility.

to T.H. website front page
HOME to Det & Free front page