HONDERICH INTERVIEWED BY CHRONIS POLYCHRONIOU
The interview, in anticipation of a lecture in Athens from the book Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, appeared in Epsilon Magazine, the weekly supplement of the newspaper the Sunday Eleftherotypia. Professor Polychroniou has taught political science in several American universities and is currently Head of Academic Affairs at Mediterranean University College in Athens.
Q. You were born in Canada but ended up for your studies in the U.K., becoming eventually the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London and one of the world’s most controversial thinkers. Has philosophy been kind to your life?
A. One or two philosophers in University College revered Sigmund Freud. They tried to stuff a chair in pschoanalysis into the philosophy department. I never did revere him, even before it turned out that he was a liar in his theory, partly about sexual desires early in life. The philosophers in question probably thought I needed psychoanalysis myself because I wanted to climb up the academic ladder above them, and be better at philosophy than them. We weren't kind to one another at all -- about Freud or the ladder. But philosophy itself, the writing of it in the early morning, has been more than kind to me. It has been lovely. Early in the morning the rest of the world, including colleagues, just disappears, and I'm alone with what seems to be truth. Philosophy has also paid a lot of bills, helped out with some marriages, and given me some confidence, in particular in disputes with scientists.
Q. Do you remember a time when you were not an intensely political and philosophical human being? What created your passion?
A. Many professors and lecturers in London in 1959 when I came there at age 26 were socialists in some intellectual way, and they also had been to good schools that made them seem upper-class socially. Very attractive combination it was to a callow Canadian lad with a love of England. Then there was Bertrand Russell, who was more real. Sitting down in Parliament Square with him to Ban the Bomb, and going to jail overnight before appearing in court, probably put a little iron or anyway toughness into my politics. More realism was added, too, by the scepticism that is part of decent philosophy. As for passion about philosophical subjects rather than in actual morals and politics, that somehow came with work, of which I've always done a lot. You can work yourself into a state of strong feeling. Anyway I can.
Q. In your autobiographical book Philosopher: A Kind of Life, in which we all noticed that politics, sex and wine mix quite nicely with the world of the mind, you write there was a time before you came to England that you travelled around together with Elvis Presley. Somehow I have a hard time imagining you and Elvis as pals. I mean he was basically a hillbilly, so what was the chemistry like between the two of you?
A. Pals we weren't. He didn't like me and I didn't like him. He was indeed a hillbilly. I was then a snob, keen on cultural and maybe intellectual credentials. I said to him, remembering his famous song, that as far as I was concerned Beethoven could do more than step on his blue suede shoes. In fact it could be I wouldn't have minded being in Elvis's shoes. He had a powder-blue Cadillac that was turned pink by lipstick kisses of bobby-soxers who couldn't get into his concert in Memphis, Tennessee. I guess I still think that low culture, that commercial drivel and racket, different from the culture of a people, or working people, has itself been a little argument for revolutionary change in a society, in fact revolution. No doubt it still is an argument, mahybe more than ever. I wish there weren't arguments against revolution. But I like Elvis's songs now. He was OK.
Q. If you were asked to describe very succinctly the use of philosophy in today’s world, what would you say it is?
A. Its main use, or anyway one main use, is the awful one of supporting conventions of several kinds -- including the moral and political conventions that in England this very day, after eight years of New Labour government, are making the poor poorer, making their lives nastier, more brutish and shorter. Keeping young people cheated by keeping their parents ignorant. That's liberalism and of course conservatism. All philosophy, if it is not support for convention, but instead is true to Socrates and itself, is the logic that is the very enemy of convention. Some of it should be dead against social and political convention. It should not be quiet and civil.
Q. You have devoted a large part of your philosophical thinking about the problem of determinism and freedom. Why?
A. A good part of the answer is accident -- one of those classy London gents, Professor Sir Stuart Hampshire, was writing about it in an elevated and baffling way in 1959. That I didn't understand him didn't seem to me my fault. This got me going on the subject. But I did have a predisposing boyhood behind me in what you could call rural philosophy and religion, unbookish and uneducated intelligence. My Germanic father was a village Marxist who had never read a word of Marx. My Scottish mother was first a Presbyterian and then a Pentecostal fundamentalist. She had the originality of getting less respectable in religion as she went along rather than more. But I need to add about my getting involved with determinism and freedom is that it has been among the few very greatest philosophical problems -- along with, say, how societies ought to be and the nature of consciousness.
Q. So, how free are we?
A. Determinism is true. Everything that happens is just an effect -- despite the stuff to the contrary in philosophical interpretations of Quantum Theory. All our decisions and actions are just effects. Thinking anything else is dreaming. So we aren't free in the sense of being uncaused in our choices. There isn't free will or origination, and so there isn't the kind of moral responsibility that goes with it. Nobody every deserves anything. But we, or some of us, are free in that our choices are according to our own desires and personalities. So there is a way in which we are responsible, and some of us can be punished. But that isn't the end of the story. Somehow determinism doesn't let us off a hook of something related to personal guilt. Read the new last chapter of How Free Are You? Maybe you can improve on it. Somebody needs to.
Q. How would you characterize 'the good life'?
A. 'The good life', as that phrase is used in English journalism, is one with sun tans and skiing holidays in it, and top-end consumer goods, and two family dogs. Maybe bidets. There is something greatly more fundamental. Good lives, in another sense, the fundamental sense, are different. They are lives that to a specified extent are lives of the great human goods, satisfactions of the great desires of our shared human nature. Those desires are for a decent length of conscious life, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, goods of relationships, and the goods of culture. Bad lives are ones that are deprived of at least some of these things.
Q. Philosophy and politics mix together in roughly equal parts in your work and the problem of justice figures prominently among your concerns, as it does with most philosophers, dating all the way back to Plato. Do you have a working definition of justice?
A. The just society is not one that is merely legal in some historical sense. That is the viciousness of some recent conservatism -- notably the libertarianism of the American philosopher Robert Nozick. The idea is also part of the self-deception of liberalism. The just society is not Plato's just society either. That society is in ways better than hierarchic democracy, but it has class-selfishness at the bottom of it, no doubt self-deceived class-selfishness. The just society is the one directed by the Principle of Humanity. In short, that is the principle that we must take real steps -- not engage in pretences -- to get and to keep people out of bad lives. It's less respectful than other moral attitudes, and uniquely well-supported.
More fully, the principle is as follows. The right thing as distinct from others -- the right action, practice, institution, government, society or 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, out of wretchedness. There's a lot more to this morality, but that will do for the moment.
Q. Would you say that contemporary society is unjust?
A. It is monstrously unjust. An easily defined sample of Africans now alive, alive at this minute, are in process of losing 20 million years of living time. We treat them as animals. The poor in our own rich societies are also dying when they should living. We have wretched politicians who prate about this a little, but like the morally stupid Blair, pretend that it is somehow inevitable. The great pretences of our age are about what is possible, what is necessary, what is realistic and so on. Those judgements are usually just cover for what some people want for themselves.
Q. Where do you stand on the issue of equality?
A. It is one means to the end of the Principle of Humanity, the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. It is a very important means in some circumstances or contexts. In other circumstances and contexts, inequality is such a means. But equality isn't the end of the Principle of Humanity. What is bad about a bad life is that it is a life of suffering, in absolute rather than relative terms -- not that it is a life of less of the great good than other lives. Starving to death is not mainly bad because other people are not. There is some more to be said, but....
Q. Do equality and freedom go together?
A. Yes, they very often do. If you and I are in conflict, or if two socio-economic classes or two peoples are in conflict, and only one has a gun or wealth or nuclear arms, that inequality reduces the freedom of the other side, maybe right down to no freedom. It has been a delusion or pretence of liberalism in particular that equality and liberty are somehow always or fundamentally in conflict. What that has really come to is that equalities for the deprived, if they could get some, would reduce the culpable freedoms of those of us on top.
Q. You have written a great deal on terrorism and war and your views on these subjects have generated lots of controversy. Because you have defended a Palestinian moral right to their terrorism against Israeli attacks, in Germany you were charged with ‘anti-Semitism', the original publisher there 'banned' your book After the Terror or anyway withdrew it from sale, and protests followed your lectures at American campuses. Are you surprised by the reaction to your views on terrorism?
A. When the Holocaust professor Brumlik in Germany made the charge of anti-Semitism originally, I took him to be a jackass, not to mention an ass-hole. I am and always have been a Zionist in the sense of justifying the state of Israel in more or less its original 1948 borders. I call it a sacred fact. My demand in the newspaper that the professor be sacked from his university for his libel of me was more jocular than serious. Only later did I come to see that libels about anti-semitism are in a way not surprising. They are very often part of the dirty morals and dirty politics of neo-Zionism -- I mean taking from the Palestinians the last one-fifth of their homeland since 1967. The libel is also typically also part of Semitism, which is prejudice in favour of Jews. It too exists. Semitism, by the way, was opposed by the admirable publisher who retranslated and republished my book in Germany -- Melzer Verlag is a Jewish publishing house.
Q. Why did Oxfam U.K. refused to accept a donation of GBP5000 accrued in royalties from sales of your book After the Terror?
A. It was blackmailed by a Canadian newspaper with an editor not detached from neo-Zionism. The newspaper threatened that it would 'expose' Oxfam as taking money from 'a terrorist sympathizer' -- and thereby the charity would lose other contributions. A weak deputy-director of the charity gave in to the blackmail, against the judgement and feeling of other people in Oxfam. Also against the verdict of the British media, I am happy to say.
Q. So what is your definition of terrorism?
It's not the common one that makes terrorism into the intentional and indiscriminate killing of innocent people. Exactly that is true of war, in fact all war. There is only one serious conception of intentional killing of the innocent -- you do that when you do something of which the reasonably foreseeable result will be deaths of innocents. How many of them are there in Iraq now? Because of Iraq, Blair is a mass-murderer. So my definition of terrorism, a neutral one, is that it is killing, maiming and destruction, for a political and social rather than personal end, illegal, smaller in scale than war, and prima facie wrong because it is killing, maiming and destruction. That leaves open the possibility that sometimes in the last analysis it can be right in terms of the Principle of Humanity -- as was Zionist terrorism in the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.
Q. Is Israel now a terrorist state?
Perfectly obviously it is such in terms of my definition -- and probably in terms of any serious definition, since what it is doing is illegal. Remember all those United Nations resolutions against it and so on. Quite as obviously Israel isn't a terrorist state in terms of some Israeli definition of terrorism. But the definitions don't matter. What matters, to my mind, are the facts that enter into my definition. In a way the world agrees that it is those facts that matter.
Q. Noam Chomsky always refers to the U.S. as the world’s number one terrorist state. Do you share his view on this matter?
A. Yes, I do. Don't you? The U.S. has probably engaged in more terrorist attacks and campaigns than any other contemporary state. Remember South America for a start. It is also engaged in a terrorist war in Iraq. Terrorist war is the same as terrorism except for being larger-scale.
Q. How would you describe the status and relevance of an intellectual like Chomsky for our times?
A. Most Americans have been made stupid not by their genes but by the conventions of ignorance which other Americans benefit from. So they do not see what I am happy to call his true grandeur. That grandeur is a matter of his towering over our age in the realism of intelligence. They said of the great epic poet Homer that even Homer sometimes nods -- sleepily makes a mistake. Chomsky hardly ever nods.
Q. Do you anticipate the new prime minister of the UK to Bush’s poodle as well?
A. Brown has begun a little better than I myself hoped. It seems he is at least less confused and self-serving than Blair about right and wrong, more capable of actually thinking about them. Still, he is merely a hierarchic democrat -- at any rate that has been his life. He has not shown himself against a system in which the economically best-off tenth of population has at least 1,000 times the political influence and power of the worst-off tenth. I doubt that he will in the end separate us much from the barbarism of America.
Q. How concerned are you about the environment and climate change?
A. Everybody who isn't in a state of culpable self-deception produced by the oil industry and the airline industry and the sort of press owned by Murdoch just has to be concerned. You also have to escape the selfishness of forgetting about the grand-children of us all, of course. We should all have been there in the protest camp at Heathrow -- millions of us -- and stopped the airport for a while.
Q. Do you have faith in humankind’s ability to radically transform the institutions and enterprises which waste our resources and seem to be destroying the planet?
A. Well, we all share the same fundamental desires, as I've said. And we are all rational in the minimal sense of having reasons for what we do. Reasons are by their nature general, and so everybody can use them. Everbody can demand consistency. Some people will always see through excuses and shams and self-deceptions. So the basic struggle will never end. Will the side of humanity succeed? I don't know. But we won't give up.
Q. What is your life like these days? Are you still teaching? Do you still travel a lot?
A: Life is just fine, so much better than that of so many people. Partly because I have reformed and so will be having only exactly three glasses of wine every evening for the rest of my life. Partly because my book on the nature of consciousness goes forward pretty well, despite the distraction that Ingrid and I are moving out of the country back into the town, from Somerset back to London. The book has something different in it. What it is for you to be conscious of the room you're in isn't a fact in your head. It is for the room in a way to exist. Your being conscious is that fact outside your head, not something in it. Life is good too because it has no teaching in it, and quite a lot of going places, like Greece.
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