|"THIS HOUSE BELIEVES THAT THE STATE OF
ISRAEL HAS THE RIGHT TO EXIST" -- OXFORD UNION DEBATE SPEECH IN FAVOUR
OF THE MOTION by Ted Honderich
24 January 2008
What is it to have a moral right to get or to keep something? The answer comes from what is different -- having a legal right. To have a legal right to something is to have the support of the law of the land, positive law, good or bad, in getting or keeping the thing.
To have a moral right to something is to have the support of moral law, the first or fundamental principle of right and wrong. That will be a principle out of our human nature, more supported by all of us than any other.
Analytic philosophy, a concentration on the ordinary logic of intelligence, has a large part to play in finding and establishing this principle. But should it take aid from some other more worldly practice or doctrine?
In this age we hear daily of the Manichean struggle between good and evil, these being democracy and terrorism. Shall we find the fundamental principle in our democracy?
The great argument for democracy, in plain English, is that two heads are better than one, more heads better than two. So our democratic attitudes and decisions are better than those of other forms of government. But plainly two heads are only better than one, in general, when all the heads can equally and freely express what is in them.
Our democracies are merely hierarchic democracies. The top economic 10th of population has at least 1,000 times the political power and influence of the bottom 10th. Here there is no approximation to equality but only absurd inequality.
Do our democracies still have the recommendation of issuing in attitudes and decisions that are freely chosen? No. Important freedom and equality, at bottom, are one thing. If you and I are unequal in that I have a gun, your freedom declines to zero.
Should we take help from doctrines of human rights in coming to a fundamental principle of right and wrong? No, we need some principle for choosing between claims as to human rights -- just as we need a principle for choosing between outputs of hierarchic democracy. The same is true of other aids that may be proposed -- say reliance on international law or just war theory.
Let us put aside these crutches and consider our human nature. What do we all want? What are the great human desires, the great human goods? By one method of counting, there are six -- (1) a decent length of conscious life, (2) bodily wellbeing, (3) freedom and power, (4) respect and self-respect, (5) the goods of relationship, (6) the goods of culture.
In terms of deprivation of these goods, we can define what it is to have a bad life.
The Principle of Humanity is that what is right is what gets and keeps people out of bad lives. More fully, what is right is what, according to the best information and judgement at a time, is the rational means to getting and keeping people out of bad lives. The rational means, in short, is one that prevents more bad lives than it causes.
This principle gives no easy or automatic answer to any large question. Anything that does give such an answer can be known in advance to be worthless. That is mainly because you also need propositions of fact in order to get to an answer. Questions of fact, centrally questions of probability, such as the question of the probability of success of terrorism, are harder than getting to the fundamental principle of right and wrong.
The motion before us is ''This House believes that the state of Israel has the right to exist'.
That motion, compared with other possible motions in this neighbourhood, has what may be the recommendation that in its vagueness and ambiguity it actually seizes on the reality of the central questions in this neighbourhood, the real subject matter. Before taking a side on it, all of us can think of complimenting on the Union on choosing it rather than something anodyne that allows for evasion.
My qualified support for the motion begins from this -- any judgement of a state's right to exist presupposes an extent of that state and the nature of that state. Typically the presupposition is clear enough. With Israel and Palestine it is not clear. In fact there are two possible states to consider. Call them the Zionist state and the neo-Zionist state.
The Zionist state, to speak only of extent, has or would have roughly the borders that Israel had when it came into being in 1948 -- 4/5ths of historic Palestine, 4/5ths of that land of which the Palestinians were indubitably the indigenous inhabitants. The neo-Zionist state, in contrast, denies to the Palestinians at least their liberty in the last 5th of their homeland.
The Zionist state came into being partly because of the condition of the Jewish people after the Holocaust, the greatest such horror of the 20th Century. It came into being, partly, because it was arguable, according to the best information and judgement in 1948, that the Palestinians were not fully a people. There was a right to bring that state into being because of such factual premises together with the Principle of Humanity.
The intifadas since the war of 1967, those holy struggles, have established that it was false that in 1948 the Palestinians were not fully a people. A people does not come out of a hat, even a hat of bestial oppression. But something else is also true. There is another factual premise now, a half-century later. It is that the lives of Jewish people, their great goods, are now deep in a land. That too is a holy fact.
In my judgement, therefore, the Zionist state does indeed have the right to exist.
There is no doubt, however, of something else -- the right of the Palestinians to a viable state in the last 5th of their historic homeland. There can be no vestige of moral intelligence in the opposite proposition that a neo-Zionist state has a right to exist, to have or control all of Palestine. There can be no decency in common Jewish and other ambivalence about neo-Zionism, or the pretence that the moral problem of Palestine is a particularly difficult one.
That proposition about a neo-Zionist state is brought into greater clarity and given its proper force by a corollary of it. This is that the Palestinians have had and now have another moral right. They have a moral right in all of historic Palestine, including Israel, to their terrorism against the ethnic cleansing of neo-Zionism.
I find myself supporting the motion in so far as it is taken to have to do with a Zionist state. You too can do this. But you should no less, elsewhere, assert the bestiality of neo-Zionism and the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism against it.
I thank you for listening, some of you with forebearance.
The other invited speaker in favour of the motion was Prof. Norman Finkelstein. Those against the motion were Dr. Ghada Karmi and Mr Michel Massih, QC.
Crossing the Floor of a Debating Chamber -- a Note
An article from Cherwell on the debate
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