Prof. Ted Honderich  

This is a sketch for a talk on 14 November 2011 of the University Tent of the occupiers of the churchyard of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. A small contribution to a splendid moral and political endeavour, one that has rightly gained the attention of the world, an advance in necessary civil disobedience. For a second talk, in the University Tent and also to a general assembly of the occupiers, go to Humanity, Conservatism, Desert, Two Freedoms, Near-Determinism, Inhumanity, Resistance .

You haven't got a telly in your tent, I guess, so cast your mind back to your last viewing of one or more of our New Teletubbies -- still rightly named by me Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po. There they are, still making funny noises and uttering things in their baby-language, just like the originals, and getting messages from somewhere. They are also known by their aliases, of course, which conceal their kiddy-reality -- these aliases of course being Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, and Cable.

Think of what the New Teletubbies go on about. They go on about the unacceptable, the fair, the democratic, freedom, the absolutely necessary, competition, social mobility, the market, terrorism, humanitarian war, the limits of civil disobedience, the big society, the prudent family we've got to keep in mind in connection with the economy, and so on.

What this stuff comes down to is what to do, what kind of society to have -- in short to what is right or wrong. No one does or can avoid the question, whatever reluctance there is about using the terms, whatever is said about moralizing and preaching, whatever the desire to avoid difficulty and challenge.

 Anybody actually thinking about the unacceptable, the fair and so on has to have a way of comparing supposedly good things. For a start, there are different kinds of freedom, from market freedom to freedom to get a job or not to be cold and hungry in retirement. You need to compare an awful lot of things that people are for or against. You also need to save yourself and others from self-deception. For such reasons you need a general principle of right and wrong, as definitely as you need one measure or unit, say a foot or a metre, to compare heights of people.

There are a lot of provably hopeless principles, some owed to good intentions. Democratic decision-making. Desert. Human rights. Negotiation rather than force or violence. Law and International law. Utility or the sum total of happiness. Conservatism. Liberalism. Realities of economics. Just war theory. Terrorism being unique in intentionally killing innocent people, so unlike war.

Help from democracy? Fundamental argument for democracy is two heads better than one, more better than two. Equality and freedom presupposed. Compare our hierarchic or pushers' democracy. Top decile of population with at least 1000 times the political influence & power of bottom decile. Freedom decreases with equality.

Desert? -- no non-circular principle. Claims of human rights? -- they conflict, probably like human rights themselves. Always negotiate? -- with rapist in action, with Hitler when tanks on the way to Holocaust? Law? -- all agree there is vicious and self-interested law. Greatest total happiness? -- justifies victimization of a minority, indeed a slave class. Conservatism? -- no principle at all to justify the self-interest it shares with the rest of us. Liberalism? -- a dim mess, despite a good intention or two.

The Principle of Humanity is a clear and effective principle or decision-procedure, as subjective as any but uniquely provable. Rests on a definition of bad lives.

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

The Principle of Humanity: The right thing -- 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 of being effective and not self-defeating with respect to one end -- getting & keeping people out of bad lives.

 Character of the principle. Analytic philosopher's descendant of the Golden Rule. Consequentialist -- what is right is what has certain consequences. Principle that the ends justify the means? No, the ends and the means justify the means. Unvague concepts. No metaphor. No pretence of necessity. No cant of a political class. No ad man's stuff.

 Uniquely provable, on basis of our shared fundamental desires and the generalness of reasons. No one prefers shorter conscious life to longer, pain to comfort, captivity to a freedom, etc. You don't want, e.g. pain, whatever you think of others being in same pain -- or others being in comfort but not excess comfort, i.e. not comfort that could be reduced to end your pain. What of excess comfort, which could be reduced but not turned into pain, with the effect of somebody else's pain becoming comfort? Say yours. All of us, if we were in the pain position, would believe that excess comfort should be reduced. That this would be right. Our reason for this would indubitably be general, i.e. applying to us now in our comfort. The argument pretty irrefutable. Certainly by stock market traders et al, espite the inanity of various sonorous falsehoods & lies.

More difficult matter than proof of the principle, very difficult, is the general question it raises -- of judging rationally re probable consequences of lines of action, e.g. of pushers' democracy, civil disobedience, terrorism, etc. Also the lesser question of rational modes of address -- not only parliamentary language or academic restraint but also the expression not only of condescension to conservatism but also contempt?

A few remarks later in the discussion period after this talk -- on on the Principle of Humanity and terrorism, terrorist war such as ours against Iraq, Palestinian terrorism in historic Palestine against neo-Zionism, our ideological air war in Libya, the Arab Spring, the need for an English Winter -- and the general and great recommendation of civil disobedience.

Thinking of the New Teletubbies, I celebrate the moral nobility and glory of this St. Paul's civil disobedience in tents. It is not childlike. Still a need for further forms and gestures of civil disobedience. And gestures. By another English colonel today, true to Rainborough of the Civil War -- "For really I think the poorest he hath a life to live, as the greatest he...."? A tank in Parliament Square? No shells in the thing. After the telly arrives, back to barracks in Pimlico to accept penalty of his civil and military disobedience.  

For more along these lines, go here.

Ted Honderich's relevant 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); Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Revisited (Pluto Press, 2006); Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Continuum, 2006), in America titled Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Seven Stories Press). Papers etc at http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/