Pike on Honderich

Jon Pike on Ted Honderich is well worth reading. Studying, even.

To begin with, he doesn’t just think that affluent westerners are collectively guilty for their omissions in respect of bad lives. He asserts that this explains and justifies anti-Western hatred…The book is, as I will show, chock full of sloppy arguments and non-sequiturs but this is perhaps the worst, and is the hinge with which Honderich gets from bad lives to terrorism.

That’s an important hinge, I think. It’s a hinge that other people use in other causes, or ’causes.’ There is suffering or deprivation or injustice in X place or situation; some set of people are collectively guilty for their omissions or their ‘complicity’ (remember that word? it’s a hinge-word); this justifies hatred of said set of people, which in turn justifies tormenting them in some way.

Here is a point worth keeping in mind:

First, there is a standard, ordinary language distinction between having a right to do X and X being the right thing to do. For example, it makes ordinary sense to say that Joe has a right to vote for the (fascistic) British National Party, but that he is not right to do so. This ordinary language distinction can be philosophically cashed out as the right to do wrong.

Pike makes this in comment on a key (and somewhat notorious) passage of Honderich’s:

I myself have no serious doubt, to take the outstanding case, that the Palestinians have exercised a moral right in their terrorism against the Israelis. They have had a moral right to terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves.

There is a slippage there, Pike points out – from having a moral right, in the second sentence, to having been right, in the third. Once again we see the crucial importance of close reading.

Then he points out that even if we accept a whole absurd chain of arguments about bad lives and omission and moral equivalencies, there is still a consequentialist argument (and Honderich is a consequentialist of sorts) to consider, that terrorism will help the Palestinian cause – which Honderich doesn’t do. Instead he just says it is possible to think so.

But, as philosophy markers often say, that wasn’t the question. It is possible to think all sorts of silly things, it is possible not to doubt them, even not to doubt them seriously. It is possible to have great confidence in them, to be convinced by them. More: it is possible to write them down, and sometimes, quite often, sadly, it is possible to get them published. That doesn’t stop them being silly.

No. It doesn’t. There’s quite a lot of evidence of that scattered around B&W.

At first sight, it seems that Honderich thinks that it is the strength with which he holds his view that makes a difference. He tells us that he hasn’t changed his mind, that he is unrueful, that he is more convinced than ever. It seems that he thinks this ought, in some way, to be persuasive. Perhaps his uncertain reader just needs to be convinced – ‘well, Ted, if you’re sure…’

Uh oh.

But, since not even the first year undergraduate sees anything in truth by conviction, perhaps there is something else going on. Perhaps it’s not the strength of convictions themselves that matters, but the fact that they are Honderich’s convictions. Honderich is a Philosopher, after all, and an eminent one at that. He used to be the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at UCL. He has thought about these things a lot, (as if time, on its own, mattered) and his conclusions are controversial. But he is an Authority, so perhaps the persuasive force is supposed to come from some strange mix of truth by conviction and truth by authority. It’s an odd conclusion to come to, because the very basis of doing philosophy, especially critical political philosophy is a rejection of all of these notions. In order to do serious critical political philosophy, you shouldn’t care about someone’s credentials, or the strength of his or her convictions.


Michael Walzer’s judgement of this sort of view can’t be bettered: in Just and Unjust Wars he compares people like Honderich unfavourably to early IRA volunteers and to the Stern gang, who drew lines between combatants and non-combatants.

That’s worth knowing, because I have seen at least one philosopher who is not Honderich cite Walzer and just war theory as justification for intimidation tactics against civilians – for arguably terrorist tactics.

And then Pike winds up.

Here is my own, somewhat rueful postscript. I’ve argued here that Honderich’s book is terrible, not simply because it is an apology for suicide bombing, but because it presents a sloppy, lazy, dishonest argument that fails in its own terms. There is, to my mind, a lot wrong with those terms, and we should remember what is at stake, in these calls to understand ‘their’ hatred, and ‘our’ guilt, ‘their’ necessary terror and ‘our’ complicity.

We should remember what is at stake.

On the 7th July this year, after hearing about the London bombings, my first thoughts, like those of many others, were for friends, family and acquaintances living and working in London. First, my brother, on his way to give a lecture at Imperial College, then a friend who works for the Aristotelian Society, people at the London Review of Books, in Tavistock Square, and philosophers at UCL. I heard soon from my brother. Brian Leiter’s blog and Crooked Timber quickly contained news that the UCL philosophers were safe, and people were able to make one or two black jokes about the chances of catching a philosopher on a tube train in the rush hour. It looked as if UCL, close to the scene of the bombings had escaped unscathed.

Same here, same with a lot of us.

Over the next few days, though, it became clear that an employee of UCL was killed in the suicide bombings that day. Gladys Wundowa, a Ghanaian cleaner at Honderich’s college, a charity worker and a student of housing management at Hackney College was blown up on the Bus in Tavistock Square. The logic of Honderich’s position is, I think (though it’s hard to be absolutely certain) that the 7th July bombings are to be condemned. But I wonder how much truth the Emeritus Professor thinks there is in the answer that Gladys Wundowa had it coming?

I posted the news about Gladys Wundowa at Brian’s blog on that thread about UCL – not because everyone else had been callous, just because the news had just come out and I was the one who saw it and posted it. Brian thanked me for the tragic update. Gladys Wundowa made me lose it. She had worked all night at the cleaning job, you may remember, and was on the bus because she was on her way to Hackney College for that housing management course. Did those four stupid infatuated self-admiring men have Gladys Wundowa in mind? Probably not. But that’s where ‘sloppy, lazy’ arguments about collective guilt get you.

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