Ted Honderich

This is a further revision  as of 9 December of  a paper that was given around 11 September 2002 at Columbia University and the New School University in New York, Brown  University in Providence, and the University of Toronto. It is derived  from the new book After the Terror. It is a summary of much of the  book but  not all. It also has in it some new reflections, including some that should  be in the book about the secondary subject of Palestine and the right of the Palestinians to their terrorism. It is good to report, since what is said is not popular, and exercised some newspapers in Canada, one of which by a threat then got Oxfam Great Britain not to take £5,000  in royalties  from the book as a donation, that the four academic occasions  went at least decently in their different ways, those at Columbia and Brown   being particularly enlightening to me. The final version of this paper appears in The Journal of Ethics, 7:2 (2003).  


There are things that all of us desire, great goods.

We all desire to go on existing, where that is not a lot more than being conscious. We want a world to exist in a way, which literally may be what it is to be perceptually conscious. We have the same desire for those close to us, our children first. This desire can sometimes be defeated by others. It comes to mind that a lot of American men and women would have ended their own worlds, carried out suicide missions, to prevent the 3,000 deaths on September 11. Nonetheless, this existence is something almost all of us crave.1

A second desire is for a quality of life in a certain sense. This is a kind of consciousness that has a lot to do with our bodies. We want not to be in pain, to have the satisfactions of food, drink, shelter, safety, sleep, maybe sex. As that implies, and as is also the case with the first desire, we also want the material means to the end in question, this bodily quality of life. Some of the means are some of the consumer-goods, so-called, easier to be superior about if you have them.

A third thing we all want, no less, is freedom and power. We do not want to be coerced by personal circumstances arranged by others, bullied, subjected to compulsion, unable to run our own lives, weakened, humiliated. We want this voluntariness and strength in a range of settings, from a house, neighbourhoods and places of work to the greatest setting, a homeland. It is no oddity that freedom from something is what is promised by every political tradition or movement without exception -- and secured to some extent if or when it is in control. It is also promised by every national tradition.

Another of our shared desires is for goods of relationship to those around us. We want kinds of connections with these other people. Each of us wants the unique loyalty and if possible the love of one other person, maybe two or three. We also want to be members of larger groups. No one wants to be cut off by his or her own feelings from the surrounding society or cut off from it by others' feelings. This was a large part of why it was no good being a nigger or a Jew in places where those words were spoken as they were.

A fifth desire, not far away, is for respect and self-respect. No one is untouched by disdain, even stupid disdain. No one wants to feel worthless. As in the case of all these desires, this one for respect and self-respect extends to people close to us, and in ways to other people, and it goes with desires for the means to the ends. If the generalization that we all want respect and self-respect requires qualification, it remains about as robust as generalizations about human beings can be.

Finally, we want the goods of culture. All of us want at least some of them. Many of us want the practice and reassurance of a religion, or the custom of a people. All of us with a glimmer of knowledge want the good of knowledge and thus of education. All with a glimmer of what is written down want to be able to read. We also want diversion if not art.

This is no simple taxonomy of satisfaction or well-being. Certainly several of the desires shade into one another. There is room for decision rather than discovery as to where to locate a particular real-life desire -- something you had this morning, since desires are of course several-sided. Other kinds of questions can be raised about the taxonomy, more than are answered in the book2 from which this paper mainly comes, but I think they can be answered. It will do as an account of our shared and fundamental human desires.

It is by its nature an account of certain reasons for actions, policies, practices and the like. That an action satisfies someone's desire to go on existing, or for a bodily quality of life that is decent, or for freedom and power where they have lived in their own memory and that of their parents and grandparents -- these are reasons for an action or whatever. So too is an action's satisfying someone's desire to get over a threshold with respect to each of the other three great goods a reason for it.

We may call all these six reasons first-order reasons. They are of course general, like all reasons. They are also of very great weight. That does not imply that they cannot be misused, or that one of them cannot be overcome by another such reason or conceivably by a lot of reasons of some other sort.

In connection with first-order reasons, and large questions that arise by way of them, let us turn our attention to lives. Let us turn our attention to bad lives in particular but also good lives.

A bad life, we take it, is to be defined in terms of the frustration of some or all of these desires for great goods. A good life is defined in terms of satisfaction of them. Other grades of life would be defined similarly. Uncertainty about such a question as whether a good life must have in it the goods of culture show this is partly a matter of decision. But it is not only that. Let us approach the matter by way of the world itself.


Take the nine countries of United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Japan. Compare them with the four African countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Zambia. The individuals in the first group of countries, our group, have life-expectancies or average lifetimes of about 78 years. Those in the second group live for an average of 40 years.

That means that many individuals in the second group, those who pull the average down to 40, have what with reason can be called half-lives at best.

This is only partly owed to a certain fact, but it is a fact that needs attention for itself. In the United States and like countries, for every 1,000 live births, the number of children who die under the age of five years is about five or six. The number of dyings for the second group is about 200.

The proximate or immediate explanation of this difference, and the full lives as against the half-lives, and of other things to be mentioned, is material means to well-being. We in our group of countries have means worth an average of $24,000 a year. The individuals in the African countries have means worth an average of $220 a year.

Compare the economically best-off tenth of population in our group of countries with the worst-off tenth of population in the four African countries. The average lifetimes in our best-off tenth are about 80 years. The individuals in the worst-off tenth in the other group live for an average of about 30 years.

So most of those in the latter tenth who bring the average down to 30 have what can reasonably be called quarter-lives at best.

Consider the individuals in the worst-off African tenth, and the question of whether their average lifetimes might have been increased. You could keep in mind that in part of the 20th Century, the life-expectancy of American whites increased by about five years a decade. That happened, so to speak, without trying. If we in our countries had made a deliberate and real effort to help the four African peoples, would those Africans now alive in their worst-off tenth live an average of 15 years longer? 10? Probably 7? Say only 5.

There are about 10,000,000 individuals in the worst-off tenth. So there is a loss of 20,000,000 years of living-time. Losing living-time is not the same as being killed. No one makes that mistake about the loss. No one needs to make it in order to reflect on the magnitude of it.

In thinking after September 11 of our part in the story, if any, and of other things, it seems to me that the first and largest subject must be our omissions, be they right or wrong. We have omitted to help those who die early. However, there are also our positive acts, so-called, our commissions, a less tractable subject, certainly less tractable when treated briefly. Or rather, since the distinction is not simple and commissions shade into omissions, there is the side or end of the whole range of our actions considered in terms of conscious intentionality -- the side or end that consists of commissions.

Here is one case, now the most salient one, a case where it is not possible to leave open the question of right or wrong even for a while.

In 1900, within something close to living memory, there were about 500,000 Arabs and 50,000 Jews in Palestine.3 Many of the latter had arrived recently on account of the barbarism of anti-Semitism. The subsequent horror of the mass murder of European Jews in the Second World War did not issue, as in justice it ought to have, in a protected Jewish state carved out of Germany.

After the war, according to a United Nations resolution, Palestine was to be divided into two states. There were about 749,000 Arabs and 9,250 Jews in what would be the Arab state. There were 497,000 Arabs and 498,000 Jews in what would be the Jewish state. It was a moral necessity, in my morality, that a Jewish state be founded somewhere. Given things as they were, that it be maintained as and where it was founded, partly by way of Zionist terrorism, and certainly to the detriment of the Palestinians, was also such a necessity.

There has since been no Palestinian state but rather 50 years of obstruction and the rapacious occupation of more and more land by Israel, importantly aided by a distinction between official or state killing on the one hand and non-official killing on the other hand. Most Arabs have been driven out of their homes. In the years 1989 to 1991, there were between 250,000 and 400,000 Jews settled on Arab land. Of about 7,000,000 Palestinians, about half are now outside of Palestine.

All this history, and the actions by Israel and its army after September 11, have been importantly owed to the policies and actions of the United States in particular. The resolutions of the United Nations against Israel, unlike other resolutions, have come to nothing principally because of the United States.

These accounts of deprivation by omission and by commission, our parts in Africa and Palestine, give rise to large questions. Our present concern, however, you may remember, was to be the general understanding and defining of bad lives and good lives.

But let us not struggle with the matter, say, of whether a life can be bad in virtue of being frustrated just in terms of the good of culture. Let us rather resolve, if that is the right verb, that those with half-lives, dying children, those with quarter-lives, those who lose 20,000,000 years of living-time -- that these individuals do have bad lives. It is worth noticing in passing, in connection with the nature of morality and moral judgements, that this judgement seems to be both indisputable, a matter of fact, and yet presumably in the old category of value-judgements.

So too, we can take it, do the Palestinians have bad lives, first because of being denied the great good of freedom and power in a homeland.


How ought we to think of various questions -- of whether or to what extent we have done wrong over decades, of the wrong of September 11, of moral responsibility for it, of terrorism more generally, of our response in Afghanistan and thereafter, and of what to do now? With what morality should we think of these matters?

If you have well in mind such facts as those at which we have glanced, you may come to a certain principle of right action.

It is not well-expressed, indeed expressed at all, as the truistic principle that we should rescue those with bad lives. It is the principle that we should actually take rational steps to the end of getting them over the line into good lives. That is, we should take steps that are not pieces of pretence or self-deception or politicians'speechifying, but steps that actually secure the end. In being rational, they will also have to be economical in terms of well-being, of course -- be effective but not cause more distress than they prevent.

The principle, again, is that the right thing as distinct from others -- the right action, practice, institution, government, society or actually-possible world -- is the one that according to the best judgement and information is the rational one with respect to the end of saving people from bad lives.

The end, by the way, is not a relational one, not the end of getting everybody on a level, making everybody the same. It is, as stated, the end of saving people from bad lives. It would demand action on your part in a world where everyone had equally bad lives. So it is a principle of humanity, fellow-feeling or generosity rather than of equality, despite certain weaker reasons for the latter name.

The Principle of Humanity can be further understood by way of at least four policies to be followed to reduce the number of bad lives.

The first policy is to transfer certain means to well-being from the better-off to the badly-off -- means whose transfer would in fact not significantly affect the well-being of the better-off. An immense amount of these exists. Think about what we waste, or just about packaging.

The second policy is means-transfer that that would reduce the well-being of the better-off, without giving them bad lives. An immense amount of these means exist. As in the case of the first policy, some consist in land, and land of a people.

The third policy, of great importance, is about material incentive-rewards. It would reduce them to those that are actually necessary, and actually necessary in terms of the goal of the Principle of Humanity. They will not be the rewards now demanded.

They will not be those that issue in the worst-off tenth of Americans having 1.8% of the income or consumption and, on the other hand, the best-off tenth having 30.5%. Or the bottom four-tenths taken together having 0.2% of the wealth -- not 2% but 0.2% -- and the top tenth 71%. The bottom tenth almost certainly has negative wealth.

The fourth policy, implicit in the others, is against violence and near-violence. Like all such policies called realistic, it is not absolute or completely general. It accommodates some possibility of justified war and other such action. Also the need for police forces, some self-defence, and so on. It gives a limited role to the distinction between official and non-official killing.


The Principle of Humanity and the facts of bad lives can lead us to contemplate or consider certain propositions having to do with September 11 and with our past, present and future. Or rather, September 11 can prompt us, by way of the Principle of Humanity, to think of our own moral situation and then, properly and necessarily, of all of that situation, not only what is most relevant to September 11, not only some of the bad lives. You get a true sense of anything, including September 11 and its immediate explanation, only by knowing the rest of the story.

Let me state all of the propositions and not just some of them without veiling, euphemism and cant, which common things pervade most writing on the matters in question and almost all the stuff of our politicians. Obscuring conventions that stand in the way of or are put in the way of thinking are no part of the Principle of Humanity.

(1) We have done overwhelming wrong, and continue to do overwhelming wrong, in failing to help those Africans and others whose lives are cut short. This wrong by omission is is as clear and indubitable as that of the positive action of an airforce commander who for reasons of international politics stops food from getting through to the starving. Our wrong is as clear and indubitable too as sexually abusing a child.

(2) To be on an airliner and look around and see the people and be able to stick to the plan of flying it into a skyscraper is to do hideous wrong. To persist if they come to know that plan is to do monstrous wrong. Nothing can be thought that will take away from such judgements of wrong, from what seem to be moral data, whatever more needs to be said. Nothing will take away from the judgements, whatever needs to be said of something else, which is moral responsibility for September 11.

(3) The wrong we have done and continue to do by omission, with respect to Africa in particular, is most important for itself and for ensuing rights and obligations. However, it was also a necessary context for the horrors of September 11. The horrors, despite their particular connection with the grievance of Palestine and also those of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, would not have happened save for the context. No such proposition is demonstrable, but this one is at least probable. To see that it is, think of the world in which ours parts in Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq were lapses, rare and momentary, from an exemplary moral record. So for September 11 there are lines of moral responsibility into the past, as real as chains of command. We are in them with the killers, our leaders ahead of us. We need to escape the illusion that to be ordinary is to be innocent.

(4) Our counter-attack in Afghanistan after September 11 was to an extent humanly inevitable. It is to an extent excused from judgement by the proposition that to say we ought to have refrained implies we could have. To the extent that the counter-attack was not necessary, only something conditional can be said. The counter-attack was right if it was accompanied by self-realization with respect to our omissions and our own share of responsibility for September 11, and also self-realization with respect to other things. It will take more time to tell.

(5) The invasion and occupation of Palestine by Israel, beyond its pre-1967 borders, is a moral crime. This too can seem to be a datum. So can what follows immediately from it, about the redress of the Palestinians. In their terrorism, their only possible means of redress, the Palestinians do have what Israel claims exclusively on its own behalf in its state-terrorism and perhaps war, which is a moral right -- a moral right to killing. 4 For our part, our support of the violation of Palestine contributed most to our share of responsibility for September 11. It is something else about which we need self-realization.

(6) What is to be done with respect to our omissions and commissions is first to try to change our own societies, our merely hierarchic democracies and our vicious economic systems -- and our leaders whose existence and sense of moral possibility is bound up with them. This we can attempt to do by mass civil disobedience. It is now the only possibility, and it has had successes in American and other history. In the end it helped to bring down a wall of the Russian empire.


What you have heard so far is not idiosyncratic or eccentric, not news from nowhere. By the only factual test in this matter, that of counting heads, it is not radical or outrageous. Something very like it has the support of a majority of those who live on this earth. It has greater support, however inexplicit, than the morals of any major government or indeed people, or all of us in political and economic systems and ways of life so fundamental to the short or brief lifetimes elsewhere of which you have heard.

That heuristic point about majority support is worth making, but of course truth is no simple matter of numbers of supporters. Nor, I trust, although this is more complicated, is moral decency. If moral decency were just a matter of numbers, this would be an embarrassment to each of the globe's large minorities with which we are most familiar, say the members of centrist and in fact self-serving political parties, to which the Labour Party in Britain has lately added itself.

Let us glance at a few things that can be said for the morality of humanity, its policies, and the propositions on September 11 that may be contemplated as issuing from them. First some comparisons with the Principle of Humanity.

Liberalism is a morality in that it purports to answer the question of how the great goods ought to be distributed and what reasons there are for this. In its best formulation, by John Rawls, a philosopher of good intentions, it remains vague. This may be its essential nature.

The vagueness is a matter of what it says and fails to say of material incentive-rewards. Also uncertainty about traditional liberties and their priority and sanctity. And, on account of both of those uncertainties, a large uncertainty about a certain principle having to do with the badly-off, the Difference Principle. Of what effect is this principle of allowable inequalities? It is clear that on different assumptions, notably assumptions about demands made for incentive-rewards, the principle could sanction degrees of socio-economic inequality from none to hitherto unrealized amounts.

The tradition of conservatism, and the special form of it that is libertarianism, is like liberalism in pretty much consisting in moralities for single societies. That is, however much these traditions hold themselves up as examples, they concern themselves with distributions of the great goods within one society.

Robert Nozick's libertarianism actually has the consequence that even starving people within its perfectly just society can have no moral right to food.5 This is vicious, but let us concern ourselves with something else -- something common to liberalism, conservatism in all its forms, and also other things. It may be an element in whatis called political realism or national self-interest. It can also stand on its ownas a kind of morality.

Let me speak, simply, of morality of relationship. It brings with it a genus of which it is a species and from which it takes support, this genus being morality of special obligation.

To cut through the cackle quickly, morality of relationship is exemplified by a woman who goes further in favouring her child over other children that some other mothers do -- say those with a feeling for the Principle of Humanity or for a certain clear Christian principle. 6 Her reason, she says, is that it is her child. Morality of relationship is also exemplified by a reason that is given for being taken up to a certain great extent with some people rather than others -- the reason that they are of your own country or kind. This goes beyond regarding relationship to those around us a great good, and goes beyond the sustaining of this relationship

As for the wider morality of special obligation, this large mixed bag includes general reasons of very many other sorts -- more or less the stuff of orthodox moral philosophy. These general reasons have to do with good intentions in actions, bad and good desert or retributive justice as these things are usually understood, certain rights of individuals and peoples, certain claims of recent or ancient history, the positive law of a land, international law, agreements made, and such values as autonomy and integrity. All of these, along with reasons of relationship, we may call second-order reasons, without thereby begging any question.

Morality of relationship, and all morality of special obligation, has been contrasted with the Principle of Humanity and related moralities. The latter are said to be consequentialisms, moralities that take right things to be such only because they are the ones with the best effects or consequences. Reasons of relationship and other second-order reasons are said to be different in one way in particular.

To cut the cackle again, we may hear that the woman's reason for favouring one child has at least a part that does not have to do with effects or consequences of her action. Her reasons, to speak differently, include at least one that does not have to do with benefits to the child or any other effects. It can be heard in her saying that it is her child.

It seems to me that too much respect has been paid to this sort of thing. This moral philosophy is at least in this one way more than suspect. Its supposedly non-conhsequentialist nature calls out for examination. It is useful to bring some philosophy of mind onto the scene. Very little may be enough.

What is an action? It is a movement or stillness in a way owed to a reason. A reason, as all agree, whether good or bad, is something that contains a desire, maybe a desire for a great good, something capable of being satisfied by some event or state of affairs.

Leaving aside some unnecessary distinctions, surely we now have an absurdity. As we have heard, some moral philosophy offers us what it calls reasons for actions that have nothing to do with effects of the actions. These reasons are things, therefore, such that it makes no sense to speak of satisfaction or frustration in connection with them. No effects and hence no satisfactions or frustrations are relevant to them. In which case they are reasons that contain no desires.

But reasons just are or just do include desires, things capable of being satisfied by effects of actions. So the conclusion has to be that in fact there are no reasons of the kind officially recommended in the case of the mother and in the case of your people rather than others. In general, there are no reasons of the kind recommended in morality of relationship, as we are supposed to understand it, and indeed in morality of special obligation generally. Second-order reasons as officially understood are not reasons.

Of course the mother's thinking, feeling or saying in a certain way that it's my child does give a reason for action. It must then be something else than is officially maintained by the moralists of relationship. It must have to do with some event or state of affairs that satisfies or could satisfy a desire of hers. It is obvious what it is.

It is no higher reason, as is supposed, or anything deeper either. It is the desire that her child should have still more than it would have if she were to favour her child to the extent allowed by the Principle of Humanity or a certain Christian principle. This is yet more obvious in the other case, where one is a little less distracted by personal feeling -- the reason for a policy or whatever that people it benefits are of your country or society.

One conclusion of all this is that morality of relationship is selfish. This conclusion need not beg the question by circularly assuming something like the Principle of Humanity. The conclusion will take into account, incidentally, that the woman's true reason includes her own anticipated satisfaction in having done better by her child.


Consider something else into which these reflections enter. It is something more fundamental and not even in part a moral judgement or objection strictly speaking. It cannot be questioned or put aside as having a basis only in such moral feelings as those against selfishness. It is a natural basis of morality.

Consider choices of a certain kind. All of them are between (A) getting someone or some people or a whole people out of bad life -- say bad lives as understood earlier -- and (B) improving the already good lives of other people. Further, these choices are between acting for first-order reasons, getting people into good lives in one or more ways, and acting for second-order reasons -- relationship, desert or whatever. Four examples come to mind.

There is the choice, for example, between contributing to saving people from quarter-lives, or the loss of 20,000,000 years of living-time, and, on the other hand, further improving the situation of other people related to the possible contributors, maybe by being of the same language or culture, but people already enjoying good lives.

There is the choice between your contributing to saving people from quarter-lives and, on the other hand, enabling other people already in good lives to have more of the great goods for the particular reason that they deserve more in terms of their own efforts to put together a productive society.

There is the choice, a version of one in sight earlier, between starvation to death of children under five and the tons of wasted food protected by the private-property rights of others.

There is the choice between your supporting a people being denied freedom and power in their violated homeland and, on the other hand, supporting another people so as to be on the side of similar democrats or an ethnic group in your own society.

Now consider yourself not a chooser but in one of the groups with the bad lives. Further, consider yourself freed of the absurd idea that that the reason for your not being helped is different in kind from the satisfaction of desires. That is, consider yourself free of the idea that the reason for your not being helped is a higher or deeper reason, different in kind from your first-order reason for being helped, your reason having to do with the great goods.

Rather, you believe that the reason for your not being helped is others having the satisfaction of still more of the great goods than they have already, and the agents in question having the satisfaction of bringing this about.

I trust it is true that everyone reading this, if they themselves were among those with the bad lives in such a group, would give decisive weight to the first-order reason for being helped rather than the second-order reason for improving other lives already good. In short, each of us would take it to be right that we be helped.

Reasons are of course by their nature general -- that is the main fact about morality and much else of our lives. So you will anticipate the next step. For you to take the given position in the contemplated situation is for you to be committed to it in this actual world in which you are among those with good lives -- an actual chooser between such options as those mentioned a minute ago.

If we do not help the deprived and violated, the upshot is not only that we are in the wrong or selfish, which we are. The upshot is that if we do not help those with bad lives we have no reason for what we do instead. We put ourselves outside of humanity, by which I here mean a reason-giving species. There are truths at the bottom of morality. One, baldly stated, is that certain wrongful acts are irrational in the sense of going against the applicable reasons, those held by the very agents in question. These agents, so to speak, are false to their own humanity, which here is to say their rationality or intelligence.

No doubt things need to be admitted in qualification of this argument for the undeniability of the Principle of Humanity, this natural basis of morality.

One is the admission that there are or may be people like us, with good lives, who would not take it to be right that they be saved from bad lives in the situations contemplated. So they may say now, some without lying. It is hard to believe, but I cannot say it troubles me greatly. It is not my intention to claim an iron law of human nature. This basis of a properly naturalistic morality can rest perfectly adequately on the proposition that by far the most of us are in such a relation to the great goods that we would not be moved by second-order reasons pertaining to others for our having bad lives.

Something not to be respected has to do with the idea that someone with a good life might carry a certain piece of theory or ideology with them into their contemplation of being in a bad life -- and so actually take it to be wrong that they be saved from the bad life. The theory would be to the effect that not improving the already good lives would help the one person with a bad life but would on the whole result in more bad lives. You will know the theory. The rich need to be richer or there will be more poor.

To my mind, if you will put up with some plain speaking, there is a great lie and self-deception of this age, speaking in particular of America and Britain. It is that any significant reduction in the material means of the possessors of good lives would necessarily damage further the bad lives in these societies or outside of them. The proposition, I take it, does not have such a  probability as would detain anyone of ordinary altruism, sense and experience actually contemplating being saved from a bad life.

The argument for the undeniability of the Principle of Humanity is not new or unique. Rather, it has the recommendation of great antecedents, the best-known of these being the Golden Rule. Among its other antecedents is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative having to do with a maxim that can be willed to be a universal law, and the clear argumentation a couple of decades ago of R. M. Hare of Oxford, and no doubt that of John Rawls, and indeed the antecedent that is the feeling of much of the human race.

What I have added, very briefly, is a consideration of the great goods as against other things, and an attempt to clear away some obscurity and confusion about the nature of morality of relationship and special obligations in general. Whether or not the obscurity and confusion has come about in order to save ourselves from our own judgements -- that is a matter that can be left alone.

Nor is it difficult for me to concede that some may not go along with my account of the great goods. You may jib at my account of our shared and fundamental desires. You may perhaps turn, for example, to a list that can be derived from the Roman Catholic tradition of Natural Law. There will of course be a congruence with respect to the two lists. But the main point here is that any of a number of factually arguable conceptions of great human good and bad and lesser, and thus of associated great reasons over lesser reasons, will generate an argument in terms of a fact of our natures and consistency.


More has now been said than can be reflected on or defended, indeed more than is fully treated in the book from which this paper comes. That is not the only possible disgrace in which a philosopher can find himself.

One way of avoiding moral philosophical challenges is by glancing at the size of a reality and then, after a chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away, turning to this or that mere bit or part of the reality supposed to be manageable on its own, something that can be wrapped up in a journal article. In fact, the bit must carry something larger with it, presume a view of the larger reality. To leave it alone and unattended to, and imply that it is in good shape, is also a philosophical disgrace. It is to depend on gesturing if not conjuring.

You may ask how how what has been said hangs together, indeed whether any necessity holds it together. You may ask how judgements of moral data and first-order reasons go with or relate to the Principle of Humanity and to the argument of undeniability for it, and how the four policies having to do with means to well-being stand to the Principle of Humanity itself. Could the principle not be argued to issue in other policies? Well, not the intended principle. Rather, despite being factual in part, the policies give content to that principle. It, as distinct from any related principle, is a commitment to the specified policies.

But leave the other questions, as we must, and come to the propositions on September 11, about wrongs, moral responsibilities, and what is to be done now. It is my view, as you will anticipate, that the propositions can be argued to follow on from the principle and the policies, although of course with the aid of judgements of fact and weighting. Anything that makes morality simpler is mistaken. Anything that delivers moral conclusion is mistaken, probably pretence.

You will gather that the first proposition, that we do overwhelming wrong in failing to help those with the bad lives, must depend on an argument that omissions with the same effects as terrible commissions are as wrong. Given the standard or at any rate the most common conception of the right action, and not necessarily that of the Principle of Humanity, this conclusion seems inescapable.

This most common conception of the right action is of an action that is the rational one with respect to a certain contemplated end on the best available judgment and information. The rightness of an action is something clearly different from what is persistently confused with it. That is an agent's kind or degree of moral responsibility in the action, something into which honest mistake or misjudgement and a good deal else can enter. It is essential to keep clear that the right thing can be done for bad reasons, and the wrong thing for good or tolerable or ordinary reasons.

To come to the second proposition, the wrong done on September 11 is untouched by the weak idea, having to do with our wrongful omissions, that two wrongs make a right or that two wrongs go somewhere towards making a right. Two wrongs do not make a right because the second victim was the first perpetrator -- or because the second victim invited that second wrong. The attack of September 11 was wrong, rather, because there could be no certainty or significant probability, no reasonable hope, that it would work to secure a justifying end, but only a certainty that it would destroy lives horribly.

Some half-suppose or half-feel, differently, that the wrong of the attack had to do with its being an attack on our democracy. Some half-suppose what our politicians of democracy imply or say, that all of the six propositions are to be looked at and treated in terms of the legitimacy that we have as democrats. This unique legitimacy makes all our actions, policies and the rest different from those of other people. Our official killing, our democratic killing, is uniquely different from non-official killing.

Well, there certainly was a time when our democracy had an indubitable decency owed to comparison with real things. Now, to my mind, indeed to a majority of minds, it has an indecency compared with possible things. It is hierarchic or oligarchic democracy. This nature can be demonstrated by the means of standing up above the ignorant and managed consensus in which we are supposed to live our lives and attending to some tenths of income and wealth, say those American ones mentioned earlier in connection with material incentive-rewards.

But our democracy's easily perceived nature as hierarchic is not, relatively speaking, what overwhelms the idea that it can and does legitimate our actions. Something else does that overwhelming. It is that hierarchic democracy, together with what is bound up with it, our vicious economic system, is a fundamental and ineliminable part of the explanation of a sample loss of 20,000,000 years of living-time.

Our democracy and our economic system do not do well at home, either, where we hear charity begins. I am 69 years old, and have a hope of going on for a while. I suppose blacks in American democracy do too. Six years would make a difference. Black men in America have lives shorter than white men, by an average of six years. There are 30,000,000 of them. Do we do things better in the democracy of England and Wales? Seven years is the difference between men of the fifth social class and men of the first social class. There are quite a few men in the fifth social class.

Some half-believe what our politicians of democracy also imply or say, that you can deal with some of the six propositions by depending on a word, 'terrorism'. They are right in one thing, which is that the word can easily be defined plainly and uncontentiously.

Terrorism, as can be elicited by starting from any decent dictionary, has quite a number of features but fundamentally is a kind of violence, which is to say physical force that injures, damages, violates or destroys people or things. It is this:

violence with a political and social end, whether or not intended to put people in general in fear, and necessarily raising a question of its moral justification because it is violence -- either such violence as is against the law within a society or else violence between states or societies, against what there is of international law and smaller-scale than war.

This definition might be enlarged in several ways. You can try to give the content of the national and international law, particularly in connection with the killing of innocents, civilians or non-combatants. But there are various clear consequences of the definition as it stands.

(1) Obviously the definition cannot be offered, so to speak, as a conclusive argument against the thing defined. Terrorism, plainly, despite the question it all raises because of being violence, is not by definition wrong, all things considered. This is in accord with the fact that almost all who condemn terrorism have it in their self-justified national histories. In particular, not all terrorism used by peoples in seeking freedom and power in their living-places is wrong.The definition is of nothing like the strength of the Principle of Humanity in argument against terrorism or condemnation of it.

(2) As clearly, the definition includes state-terrorism and cat's paw or proxy terrorism, of which there has been far more in history than of other terrorism. American history in particular contains a lot.

(3) It is plain that terrorism, by the given definition, can also be other things. It can be resistance. It can be self-defence. It can be resistance to ethnic cleansing. It can be the struggle of a people for their very survival as a people. To overlook these manifest possibilities, all of which are open to clear definition, is to fail again in moral intelligence. More particularly, to overlook the facts that may make these descriptions plainly true is to fail again in moral intelligence. If it must weaken argument, on any side, to avoid the name and reality of terrorism, the very same is true of these other things.

(4) The plain and uncontentious definition of terrorism also has the consequence that there cannot conceivably be a simple moral comparison of terrorism with war. It is of course inconceivable that war by plain definition is right. There have been monstrous wars. All educated persons know it. It is clear that the ends and the rationality of wars can be as different as the ends and rationality of terrorism.

(5) For an officer of a state, say a democratic state, to proceed as if a very different and self-serving idea of terrorism is just the plain and uncontentious definition is almost certainly lying. It may be lying in the aid of killing, killing in the aid of taking more land. Terrorism plainly defined is not only the terrorism of the other side. The other side's terrorism does not necessarily justify either your terrorism or your war. It does not justify your democracy's terrorism or war. The pretences to the contrary reiterated by the Israeli government changed and hardened my own thinking and feeling against it.

To the fifth proposition then, of which there is much to  be said.7

To claim a moral right to anything on anyone's behalf is essentially to claim that it is permissible or obligatory for them to have or do the thing, and that this very judgement has the support of a fundamental moral principle -- a true one, as we may say. The implication cannot be, obviously, just that there is a commonly accepted or established moral principle, with nothing said of its worth. No one has a moral right to something in virtue of a vicious moral principle, however entrenched. Claiming a moral right to something, then, does not go far beyond saying the thing is permissible or obligatory.

To claim a moral right on behalf of the Palestinians to their terrorism, as I do, is to say that it is permissible if not obligatory for them to engage in it, which judgement has the support of the Principle of Humanity as set out. If it supports hardly any terrorism, it can be taken to support this.

The proposition of the Palestinians' moral right must also rest, of course, on a good deal more.

It rests on the history outlined earlier of the rapacity of a state that quite quickly came to be secure in its possession of overwhelming force, now including nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The history in terms of populations, the numbers of Jews and Palestinians at the various times, overwhelms familar controversy about who did what in what year in terms of massacres, wars, negotiations, supposed offers and the like. The Palestinians are right to look back to Fascist Germany and say they are the Jews of the Jews.

The proposition of moral right rests, further, on accepting that the Palestinian people have no other means at all of securing their indubitable moral right to the great good of freedom and power in their homeland and also other great goods. This seems to me to have been demonstrated by the 50 years of denial of that indubitable right, including intransigence in various negotiations conducted by America and culminating in what has been happening since September 11. That the past and ever-greater violation of the right of the Palestinians to their land gives rise to their right to their only possible means of redress can also seem to be a moral datum.

The moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism also rests partly on something else as large. This is precisely the claim of moral right by Israel in its state-terrorism and perhaps war. It is to me unthinkable that the Palestinians could justly be denied by their enemy exactly the moral right of a people secured and now being enlarged upon by that enemy.

In connection with this requirement of consistency and rationality, something needs to be remembered. A declaration of a moral right to terrorism, like a declaration of a moral right to war, is an action within a conflict. It is a part of a conflict, even if distant from the scene of action. Asserting such a right cannot be regarded as only an abstract judgement, something only in the world of thought, something in the thinking of a moralist, philosopher, commentator or the like. The Israelis' declaration of their right to terrorism is a use of morality in a conflict, a use of morality that in consistency cannot conceivably be denied to their victims.

It is to me beyond reasonable doubt, as you will have gathered, that the state of Israel has in 2002 been engaging in terrorism plainly understood against the Palestinians while justifying itself to the world by precisely a denial of that fact. The uncertainty and vagueness of international law does nothing much to obscure the fact. The fact of state-terrorism, further, is entirely unaffected by the possibility that Israel may sometimes have been engaging in war against the Palestinian people. There was also terrorism, still taken as justified today, by two subsequent prime ministers of Israel, that was instrumental in the founding and earlier expansion of the state of Israel.

There is another and more general requirement of consistency and rationality. It is as fundamental to the support of the proposition of the Palestinians' right that the history of mankind, as remarked earlier, has importantly been a history of groups and nations claiming a moral right to terrorism and war -- the just war -- to secure or protect for themselves the great good of freedom and power in a homeland. With respect to this consistency required by our humanity in the most basic sense, there did indeed occur what was known indeed as Britain's terror-bombing of German civilians in the Second World War. We did not take it to be wrong, but right.

To the Zionist policy of making distinctions between the claims of the Palestinians and themselves with respect to moral rights and whatever else, one reply is the request for a properly articulated principle behind the distinctions. What is it? What worked-out and half-arguable morality can be put in place of the Principle of Humanity? Can there be anything that escapes at least the taint of selfishness?

A second reply to the making of distinctions is what has been said already of the legitimacy claimed by us as democracies -- and what has been implied of the use of the distinction between official and non-official killing. As well as analysis of the nature of democracy and a consideration of the world of half-lives and quarter-lives to which its omissions have contributed so greatly, there is a good deal of useful history. There quite obviously have been and are circumstances where moral legitimacy or authority is more possessed by a group that is not a democracy or any kind of state. Too many forget that Hitler was elected by a democracy.

Do you still object to the definiteness of the fifth proposition? Are you inclined to something in the direction of a moral right of terrorism on the part of the Palestinians but subject to qualification? To something other than a yes or no answer to the question of rightness? There is a difficulty that needs to be pointed out. We do not have a certain possibility, a kind of luxury.

There are degrees of moral responsibility, and shares of moral responsibility for things, and degrees of humanity or decency in a whole life. But there are not degrees of being right or degrees of being wrong. The question of which action is right is a question to which the only relevant response is a verdict. You do not have three possible answers. Nor, common though it is to try, can the question be burked.

Let me say, too, finally, and only a little uncertainly, that surely there is inconsistency in granting a people a moral right to freedom and power in a homeland and then denying them a right to the only possible means of getting it. In general it strains language and sense to accord a right to someone and forbid them the only effective means of getting it. If you purport to accord to the Palestinians a right to a homeland, and if you then deny them the only possible means, in effect you deny them the right to homeland. To accord them the one right is surely to accord them the other.

But I have been drawn away by Zionist and other passions of this time8 from a still larger and darker fact, our omissions as against this example of our commissions.

In thinking about the main subject of our omissions, like the lesser subject, it is possible to lose one's moral confidence. It is particularly possible for a philosopher. We all have something of what ought to be our very nature, I hope, which is a scepticsm including self-doubt. Certainly we have doctrines that give little place to factual truth in morality. I admit to uncertainties, to an awareness of tensions if not contradictions in what I have had to say, to weakness of moral will, to doubts about my feelings. 9 But it comes together with something else. Indeed, it does not count for much as against something else.

Does the wrong of flying the airplanes full of people into the towers, doing that, with the further results, become uncertain when I canvas my doubts? No, I am pleased to say, flying the airplanes into the towers does not become only uncertainly wrong. And the 20,000,000 years of living-time lost? If I think, say, of the possibility of an excess of empathy on my part, does that loss become only uncertainly wrong? Something our leaders can qualify and explain? No, it does not become uncertainly wrong. That wrong is real and certain too. So too, I think, with the Palestinians and their moral right.

Suppose you make it to one of those cocktail parties that some dream about, with famous people at it. You are about to meet the man who may still be spoken of by the International Herald Tribune as Mr bin Laden, maybe back from the dead. You are also about to meet Mr. Blair, who has just announced again that he and allies are about to save the world. You shouldn't shake hands with Mr. bin Laden. You could think about keeping your hand in your pocket with Mr Blair too.

9 December 02


1. This paper was read in New York, at Columbia University and the New School, near the first anniversary of September 11. The occasions brought to mind the possibility that there are places and times where, even if there are two sides to a story, only one fills the heart and should do so. Maybe even places and times where only one side of a story does and should fill the mind. This is clearer to me now than when the paper was written. It was improved not only by the discussions at Columbia and the New School, but also by discussions at the University of Toronto, Brown University, Birkbeck College London, the universities of Oxford, Durham and Edinburgh, and a meeting in the Conway Hall in London organized by Philosophy Now. With respect to the subject of perceptual consciousness as existence, touched on in passing, see "Consciousness as Existence, and the End of Intentionality", in Anthony O'Hear, ed., Philosophy at the New Millenium, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures for 2000-2001 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

2. After the Terror, Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press, 2002.

3. The figures and those below come from a source neither Israeli or Western nor Islamic or Palestinian, The World Guide 2001-2 (Oxford & Montevideo: New Internationalist Publications, Instituto del Tercer Mundo).

4. All terrorism, by a definition to be mentioned below, is against law or what passes for law. Some of it, by a state, is nonetheless what I am calling official -- terrorism by a democratic state in particular. The other kind of official killing is war.

5. A perfectly just society as conceived by Nozick is one where everyone has a moral right only to what is his or her private propertyas a result of mixing labour with things or subsequent voluntary transfers. A starving child in this perfectly just society may indeed have no right to food.

6. Is there an Islamic one, perhaps as overlaid by an institution of religion? No doubt.

7. All of it, I think, is at the very least implicit in After the Terror. There has been no change of mind on my part.

8. I refer in particular to the matter of Oxfam Great Britain. After accepting a donation of £5,000 of royalties from the book After The Terror. Oxfam Great Britain subsequently chose to decline the money as a result of a Canadian newspaper's pressure having to do with my defence of the moral right of the Palestinians. For my account of this matter, go to Oxfam GB, £5,000, Zionism, After the Terror, and Medical Aid for Palestinians

9. I have also been given pause, in different ways and to different degrees, by philosophical and other books on or related to terrorism: Noam Chomsky, 9-11 (Seven Stories Press, 2001), J. Angelo Corlett, Terrorism: A Philosophical Analysis (Kluwer, 2003), Trudy Govier, A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell us About Terrorism (Westview, 2002), Michael Neumann, The Rule of Law (Ashgate 2002), Richard Norman, Ethics, Killing and War (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust (Hodder & Stoughton, 2002)


Have a look if you want at the first chapter of After the Terror and also an interview about it by Paul de Rooij, A Philosopher in the Trenches .

For the matter mentioned in the introduction and footnote 8 go to Oxfam GB, £5,000, Zionism, After the Terror, and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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