by Ted honderich

These are notes, hurried at the end, for a public conversation with Tariq Ali that took place on October 17 in The Gower Street Lecture Series sponsored by a Waterstones Bookshop and held in University College London. We two did not disagree about much in our conversation. But if I am indeed tempted to join him in a judgement, I am not quite so confident as Tariq that Obama is already to be damned forever. Nor, with respect to what is to be done in the current state of the world, did I get a hold on why Tariq asserts there can be no real alternative whatever to what he called 'broad social movements' like those in South America. I will be spending more time with two of his books, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity and The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad.


             Tariq Ali's knowledge of the past and present of the societies of the Arab Spring is wonderfully greater than mine. His judgement of their likely futures is far better too. His audacity, indeed his proper arrogance, is a way to truth. They were a way to truth in the student occupation of the London School of Economics in 1968. His factual knowledge and his judgement and his audacity are main recommendations of his ideal books.

            My line of life is analytic philosophy. That is not something elevated or arcane, nothing to do with Wittgenstein and such-like performers, but just a concentration on the logic of ordinary intelligence. That logic consists in clarity by such means as analysis, consistency and validity, and completeness. Philosophy of course doesn't own this logic -- what it does is concentrate more on it than on questions and propositions of fact, say questions of probability, say the probability of outcomes of political action, maybe civil disobedience or terrorism.

            With respect to my limited factual knowledge, I am reassured a very little by the lack of logic, as it seems to me, on the part of most adversaries on the Right in politics. You will be hearing something more of that lack. I am reassured too by what is in fact the mixed nature of some supposedly factual disciplines. Almost all economics, to take the outstanding example, is in fact is no science but more than half politics. a dismal and pompous politics of capitalism that in 2011 is helping to drag down the world.

            It would be inane to take the utterances of our George Osborne, our Chancellor of the Exchequer, our economist-in-chief, as factual utterances as to what is necessary and what is impossible. For him to appear on the telly is for me to remember the story, no doubt true, that as an Oxford undergraduate he switched to the B.A. course in Modern History rather than plough on with PPE -- Philosophy, Politics and Economics -- because he couldn't understand the economics.

            It brings to mind another story that is of use in making me less uncertain of my judgements, certainly including those of right and wrong, particular those having to do with the Right in politics. As I remember another Oxford chap telling me, he might still have a photo of our Prime Minister, Cameron, no doubt at the Bullingdon Club, in a t-shirt with 'Hang Nelson Mandela' printed on the front.



            We all need a general principle of right and wrong in order to keep ourselves from self-deception, to keep ourselves from failing to see that we are cheating on behalf of ourselves or a social class.

            One of these is the principle of the Utilitarians, which is that we must have the possible society with the largest total of happiness, well-being or satisfaction. But happiness or the like is vague, and open to manipulation. And the greatest total of happiness might depend, to be brief, on the existence of a class of slaves, or on the punishment of the innocent.

             Another estimable principle is that of equality -- everbody equal in terms of something. What? Happiness? But in any case surely everbody being equal at a certain level of something is not preferable to everybody being at higher although unequal level?.

              Desert or retributive justice then? Everybody getting what they deserve? But any arguable version of that principle takes what someone deserves to be what it is right that he has. That is no answer to what is right.

             To those traditional answers to the general question of right and wrong must be added the stuff of political thinkers in the traditions of conservatism and liberalism.

             Conservatism, in fact, is unique among political traditions in having no arguable principle to justify the self-interest that it shares with us all. Certainly it is not a principle against change -- remember Thatcher. Certainly there is no arguable principle in talk of freedom, since what is necessary is a principle for preferring the freedoms desired by conservatives to the freedoms desired by others.

             Liberalism is a tradition of better intentions -- but not intentions taken forward with resolution. It is as vague as conservatism. Its founding father in England, John Stuart Mill, declared that you are to be free from state interference unless you harm someone else -- and did not say what harm consists in. He was a typical liberal in that.

             Which brings us down to the politicians of our own day. 


            The refrain of our politicians is that in deciding on right and wrong for our society, we must go by democracy.

            The main justification for all democracy is that this decision-procedure's outputs are better than those of any other decision-procedure, say dictatorship -- in terms of laws, policies, institutions, whole societies, the state of the world. 

            The argument in support is that two heads are better than one and more heads are better than two. Or more wants in a decision-procedure as against fewer. The argument obviously depends on equality and freedom in the democracy. That is, the argument depends on the heads having the possibility of equal expression of what is in them. But our democracy is hierarchic or pushers' democracy, where the highest economic tenth of population has more than a thousand times the political power and influence of the bottom tenth. 

           It is another glory of our economics, by the way, and of our political science, that it goes in for a lot of quantification, but not quantification of political power and influence in relation to economic power and influence. We don't have to join our betters in this reluctance. Remember the wealth of the bottom tenth is more or less zero.

            Is our democracy, if absurdly unequal, still a decision-procedure of freedom? No. Not at all. Important freedom requires and varies with equality. If you and I are in dispute, and we become unequal in that you have a gun and I don't, my freedom reduces to zero. The argument for hierarchic democracy that two heads are better than one and more heads better than two is an indicator of the level of public intelligence and moral intelligence in hierarchic democracy.

            I myself say three cheers even for pushers' democracy when compared with an authoritarian state of The Right. I say no cheers for pushers' democracy when compared to a democracy of equality and freedom, a democracy we are not in sight of having.

            I don't know how many cheers to give pushers' democracy when compared with some actual or possible authoritarian states of The Left. 

           Cuba still exists. They can all read there. They all have healthcare. They all live longer. They have achieved other great things. Cuba is in such ways unique in that part of the world and elsewhere.

           The Soviet Union existed in its unprecedented extent of fairness until its leaders lost the Cold War, which was not in itself an argument at which the other side was better. A battle is not an experiment. Having never been any kind of Marxist, green or otherwise, because of having been put off Marxism by the high Hegelian theory, including the theory of history in my old colleague Jerry Cohen's defence of it, I was and am saved from doctrinal commitment to the Soviet Union. I am not saved from the difficulty of thinking about it by lies, propaganda and of course statistics -- supported by a convention that is a one-sided tolerance of opinions and indeed research, in fact a concerted superiority to reasonable opinions of The Left.

            So what is needed in place of dim incantation about hierarchic democracy, or any of the other political stuff, is a clear and arguable principle of right and wrong. Nothing else but such a principle will make for consistency and hence intelligence. Nothing else will make for the defeat of self-deception. Nothing else will demonstrate the superiority of the Left in politics to conservatism and liberalism. 

            This has to be the case with any conclusion on the Arab Spring as well as on everything else -- say what is happening now here in England. Is there a principle that establishes the proposition that an economic depression is being converted into an immiseration of the poor and a victimization of the poorer, a foulness in England now? Can it be shown that we live in an awfulness as certain to be recorded in future history books as its predecessors, say the enclosures of common land and genocides, are recorded in our decent history books now?


            As you have heard, an explicit principle of right and wrong is absolutely necessary -- with unvague central concepts and other necessary strengths. A principle therefore resistant to self-deception -- and of course the deception of others.

            Start towards a new principle with definition of  bad lives. 

            Bad lives, in a sentence, are lives of deprivation or frustration in terms of six great human goods, the fundamental desires of human nature. The great goods are (1) a decent length of conscious life, (2) bodily quality of life, (3) freedom & power including political freedom and power, (4) respect & self-respect, (5) the goods of relationship, (6) the goods of culture.

            The Principle of Humanity in short is that the right thing as distinct from others -- the right action, practice, institution, government, society, possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information at the time 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.

            Some comments on it.

            The principle escapes the objections to the traditional principles mentioned above. And plainly it is not cant, not public relations, not party-political advertising. 

            It is beyond piety and spiritualism about morality too. It recognizes that all moral principles are attitudes, including desire and in particular empathy, not factual or logical truths. No alternative to the morality of humanity is a higher thing, has any innate superiority.

            The principle is not all of a morality. For one thing, it understands the relation of any principle to e.g. the sexual torture of a child. For a principle to excuse that is for the principle to be refuted. There is a relation of mutual support between a principle and its particular consequences, as John Rawls saw despite his liberalism.

            The principle does not leave the justifications of killing or starving to any state, hierarchic democracy, or political class.

            The principle of course is consequentialist, as in fact, despite illusions and subterfuges, all moral principles are -- it judges actions by their consequences. But it is not the ends that justify the means. It is the ends and the means that justify the means. 

            Of course it is a maximizing principle. Anything that does not count lives taken or wasted by different courses of action, different governments, is not worth consideration outside of a seminary in Wales or a recent college in Cambridge left over from the past century.

            The principle has more general support than any alternative in both fact and logic -- its consistency with facts of human nature and also the generalness or universal application of all reasons. Also our convergence on the principle when our self-interest does not distract us. That always happens with great disasters elsewhere.

            It is in fact easier to argue for the Principle of Humanity than for answers to factual questions that it raises. The factual questions are far harder than the question of what is right and wrong in general. These are factual questions, say, about the probability of lines of action, say civil disobedience or terrorism, having certain consequences. Anyone confident about these judgements is likely to be something like a politician in a pushers' democracy.

            There is also a hard question raised by the principle itself of the rational choice of a mode of address, even on such an occasion as this conversation tonight. Parliamentary language? Academic restraint? Or a proper contempt?  You have heard a thing or two illustrative of my tentative answer. Here is some more.


            When your subject is the level of intelligence of our public discourse, our discourse since Thatcher and Blair, it is hard to think of our coalition government of conservatives and liberals down the road, anyway when they are on the telly, as other than the new Teletubbies.

            They are the Westminster successors to that children's telly of the past -- those round, pudgy, large-eyed, brightly-coloured inhabitants of that other lovely comic-book landscape, getting messages from somewhere else and making those funny noises. Generally jolly or anyway amiable, uttering things in a kind of gurgling baby language. Never actual answers to such an interrogator as Jon Snow on Channel 4 on a good evening of course, but reassuring and on script all the way.

            There on our screens is the new Tinky Winky. Matey, but in purple, as befits the majesty of a graduate of the public relations industry. Otherwise known as Dave Cameron. He is the pre-eminent Teletubby, the leader, full of new and very little ideas.

            There is Dipsy too, in green, from the other side of the coalition, deputy to Tinky Winky. Also known as Clegg, and as Once-The-Great-Debater, or the maker of coalition out of rational necessity, or Mr-Always-True-To-My-Word.

            There is Laa-Laa, in yellow, second in Tinky Winky's own party. George Osborne when off the screen. He of whom you heard earlier, in connection with PPE in Oxford. In charge of the economy now, and the great truths of economics, and the deficit, and the financial recovery, the latter now widely known as his absolutely necessary job of robbing the poor to feed the rich more tax relief.

            And there is Po. Vince Cable, in there elbow to elbow with Dipsy in that side of the coalition. Po in cunningly deceptive scarlet, also known as Vincey from Shell, no doubt familiar with that company's depradations in Nigeria. Po was to be the great hammer of Rupert Murdoch, that greatest servant of Tinky Winky, but boasted early. 

            But leave all that proper and necessary condescension.

            The coalition is indeed choosing to visit a depression on the poor and the poorer. If ever a demonstration of the viciousess of conservatism and to a very slightly lesser extent of liberalism was needed, here it is. There is the nonsense of the analogy of a family needing to take care about expenditure so as to pay off a deficit, a family balancing its income and expenditure. 

            What we have as a society is in fact precisely not a family. It is not a family since the state can determine the society's income, decide on the income, via taxation. Also, in so far as any metaphor or simile of family is to to be a guide, it must be a decent family. What decent family, I ask you, when times are hard, deprives its worse-off members before its better-off, penalizes its weaker before its stronger members, looks after the well before the sick?

            There has also been a rare moment of exposure these weeks, if no real news, in the fact of a government minister -- Fox of the Ministry of Defence -- being found to have been involved in corruptly inducing sleezy corporations to give bribes to get defence and other contracts, the bribe-money going to the financing of organized political cells whose conservative reality is exactly opposition to humanity. 


            Certainly the Principle of Humanity supports the overthrow of authoritarian and worse regimes, despite the necessary uncertainty as to what will replace them, and the significant probability that it will not be a lot better.

           Certainly the Principle of Humanity supports all national liberation movements. The worst of them are superior to what they replace.

           The aim of the Arab Spring is a low or lower form of part of one of the aims of the Principle of Humanity -- freedom and power of the political kind. So I know the Arab Spring must of course be supported. Supported despite thoughts having to do with other kinds of freedom and power and the other five great goods lacked by bad lives. 

           Another thing I know is that the Arab Spring has the fine recommendation that it must strengthen the position of the Palestinians in their struggle against neo-Zionism. That is the taking of at least their autonomy from the Palestinians in the last one-fifth of the territory of which they are indubitably the indigenous people. Neo-Zionism is not Zionism, the founding and actually necessary defence of Israel within its 1948-1967 borders. 

           Whatever is to be said of Zionism, which I myself continue to justify by means of the Principle of Humanity, there is another truth. The Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism within all of historic Palestine against neo-Zionism. Their terrorism is no less to be reverenced than Jewish lives now rooted in Israel. On another occasion we can talk about (a) moral rights on the model of legal rights, and (b) the proposition that to have a moral right to X is to have a moral right to the only possible means to X. Certainly I believe it, and I suspect you do.


         I know little about Libya, and admit it. 

        A thing I know, no claim to much credit for me, is that it was notable that a London School of Economics professor on television, a fellow who knows about Libya, when asked who the supporters of Gaddafi were, replied that they were tribes, regions -- and the poor. Gaddafi's Green Book, at which I have looked enough in order to see a certain stylistic likeness to conservative effusions, is not on the side of the rich. Tinky Winky Cameron is not on the side of the poor.

         But there is no doubt that the Libyan regime violated the Principle of Humanity, to whatever extent. If the Gaddafi regime is replaced by a regime of hierarchic democracy, there will also be such violation, maybe more of it if omissions are counted as well as commissions, which they have to be among grown-ups. But that does not change the moral crimes in the Libyan past.

          And Gaddafi himself? If it is our concern to find moral monsters in the world, to find war criminals, to find butchers, then we have in our Blair and Bush two stronger candidates than Gaddafi. We also have stronger candidates in Blair and Bush than we have with Ratko Miladic of Serbia. I am talking about killing and who gets killed. I am talking about the intentional killing of innocents. The numbers count. Great numbers in Iraq count. We have no need of the gurgling baby-thinking on the subject.

           But as I say, our air war in Libya is against a culpable government and its supporters.

           A lot of other things also come to mind about the war, about the thousands and thousands of attacks by our air forces, the horrible deaths. Let me say some of these other things quickly, and not in perfect order.

           Our air war, it is worth remembering, is as much a war of aggression as it is a defensive war on behalf of some people of Libya.

           Terrorism and terrorist war come to mind. Yes, terrorism needs defining. It is (1) killing and other violence, (2) smaller-scale than war, (3) with a political and social aim rather than personal gain -- maybe the aim of a whole people, (4) against national or international law, and (5) prima facie wrong. It includes state terrorism. There is also terrorist war. It is same as terrorism except with respect to (2). That is, it is larger-scale than terrorism.

           Our air against Libyans was and is arguably terrorist war -- or at least a war not demonstrably or even clearly otherwise than terrorist. This is a matter of legality. What the U.N. sanctioned is not what has happened. To say otherwise is to lie about a piece of the English language. But what is important about wars is not their legality, or pretence of legality. It is their humanity or inhumanity.

            We are to support the anti-Gaddafi people because they are fighting to achieve one form or part, admittedly the most important form, a political form, of the great human good of freedom and power. There are other forms of freedom and power, one of them being the having of a job. And all freedom and power, as you have heard, is itself but one of the six great human goods. It is also good to live decently long, not to be in pain, not to be personally disdained, to be an accepted member of a society, to be able to read.  

            Could the good of freedom and power in its political part, which certainly is not all of the good of freedom and power, be outweighed by other freedom and power and the other five great goods? Could that be the case despite political freedom and power being a means to the other things? Could there be a society that is better despite having less political freedom and power, less of the political kind? The question isn't easy outside of Teletubbyland.

            Do you say, if less hopefully than you might have five years ago, that the political freedom and power of hierarchic democracy is indubitably always the best means to the realization of the rest of freedom and power, sometimes called social freedom, and the other five great human goods? Do you live in England? In America? Have you been in a hut nowhere for a long time, dreaming?

           Is our war in Libya an humanitarian intervention? Have our planes been engaged in killing in Libya only in order to protect civilians from their regime? The answer Yes is childish. No human or social or political action is so simple. It is in fact ludicrously false that our government's motives were only as they said. Causal explanation of things is not this kind of childish simplicity, whatever is mouthed in Westminister and Washington.

           Our war in Libya, whatever is to be said about protecting civilians, is also ideological war. It is a war for pushers' democracy. It is a war for the capitalism that goes with that democracy, is inseparable from it. Tinky Winky would not have supported any other revolution. No revolution against a conservative despot. As for America's record in South America, read the histories and analyses of the very greatest of Americans students of international relations, Noam Chomsky. Look at What Uncle Sam Really Wants for a start.

           Our war in Libya, certainly, is a war that includes the intentional killing of civilians. That is to say it includes what reasonable foresight settled beyond doubt, that civilians would be killed by our war. It is is true of all wars. It is nonsense to assign the intentional killing of civilians only to terrorism by way of the usual loaded definition.

           Do you say that my comment above about Blair and Bush as against Gadaffi, and the comment just made about Libya, are so extreme as to discredit themselves? So extreme as to discredit me? Well, truth and argument are not a matter of  popularity, as decent philosophers and scientists and all reflective persons are almost all ready to agree, however inclined they may be to keep their heads down. The aim of selling is never truth, but I am not selling. Still, let me say a word more about intentional killing, give you an example, an example that might come from your newspaper.

             A man's wife has an affair, and then leaves him. He cannot handle it. He eventually goes to the house she is in with petrol and matches. He knows she is in there, but he now sees the cleaning woman go in. That does not stop him from putting the petrol through the letter box and throwing in the matches. Two people are burned to death. In court, he says he did not intend to kill the cleaning woman, only his wife. He had nothing against the cleaning woman. He is guilty of only one murder. The court, like any decent court, disdains this. He is convicted of two murders, not one, of course on the ground that he did something of which he knew or could be expected to know a possible or probable outcome. So with wars.

           Our war in Libya is also a cowardly war -- it is a war of cowardly politicians, fearful of paying the price of ordering a war that would include casualties on our side and therefore affect the careers of the politicians. The nature of agents is not irrelevant to the judgement of their actions, of the consequences of those actions.

           The government or regime being brought into being will not be better than our hierarchic democracies. If there were any prospect of that, Cameron would not have supported the Libyan revolution. He would not have taken us into an air war likely to contribute to anything better than the society which he leads. A society which he would of course defend by force, defend by violence, no doubt defend by terrorism -- in all cases against some or most of the government's own people.

           You cannot be optimistic about the society to come given in Libya given that the war was taken forward by the leader of a party engaged in a certain project at home. That is the project, of course a lying project, of destroying or dragging down the greatest work of civilization in the whole history of what was a great country. I refer, of course, to the profitization of the National Health Service.


            The future in the world is not so settled as it seemed to be. Things have in a way changed. If the authoritarian regimes in the Arab societies can be brought down, so can the conservative regimes of hierarchic democracy be changed. That is possible. Actually possible.

            Civil disobedience works. Remember the fall of a Wall and an empire after it. Remember the numerous successes of civil disobedience in the more recent past.

            We in this lecture room ought not to be here tonight. We ought to be outside St. Paul's Cathedral, with those occupiers who are following the example of others in Wall Street.

            Yes, the response of moral and other intelligence must be mass civil disobedience. New ideas of it. New kinds of it. Gestures too. 

            Remember Col. Rainsborough of the 17th Century civil war in England, and whathe said, the greatest of utterances in English history. "For really I think the poorest he hath a life to live, as the greatest he...."  Shall we have another colonel today? The gesture by a colonel of the British army who takes his tank from a barracks in Pimlico to Parliament Square, and parks across the road there to stop the traffic? No shells in the guns, though. No violence. After the television cameras get to the square, there is a return to the barracks by the colonel, and acceptance of his penalty for civil and military disobedience.

Ted Honderich books: After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2003); On Political Means & Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003); Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Pluto Press, 2003); Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto Press, 2005); Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Continuum, 2006), published in the United States as Right and Wrong: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Seven Stories Press). Also Stephen Law, ed. Israel, Palestine, and Terror (2008). And many papers, chapters of books etc on the Ted Honderich website.