by Ted Honderich

This is basically the paper given or spoken from at the beginning of 2005 to the Bath Literature Festival, to a meeting in Berlin launching the German translation of the book Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy, to the undergraduate Philosophy Society at the London School of Economics, and to the Kolloquium der Arbeitgemeinschaft fur Friedens- und Konflictforschung at Iserlohn in Germany. The paper has had several titles, including 'Injustice and the Legitimacy of Violence'. It goes together with and somewhat overlaps a lecture to the Edinburgh Festival, 'The Way Things Are and the Need for a New Disrespect'. An error about the 1967 Six Day War has been corrected.

    A sample of people now alive in Africa, the poorest tenths of population in four African countries, are still losing 20 million years of living time. [1] New Labour speeches also continue. In Iraq, there is more of what is arguably state-terrorism by the United States and the United Kingdom, and the awful resistance to it. In the United Kingdom, the democratic politician who lied us into a war, more for an ideological reason than any other, is being rehabilitated in time for the election. In America, it will be still worse in future to be poor, and there are now more than two million offenders in the profitable prisons, offenders who are mainly also victims. [2] The American government is again threatening other peoples, having been given a pretext in Damascus by someone or other. In Palestine and Israel, there is less neo-Zionist and Palestinian terrorism. But Sharon talks in the old way about keeping Palestinian homeland outside of Israel's

    How are we to think of this world, particularly the terrorism and yet more particularly the terrorism in Palestine and Israel, a paradigm case and the most consequential case? What is right and what is wrong, not just by assertion but arguably? Is what you have already heard from me of the world mistaken at least in its usages and implications?

    There is an intellectual division of labour with this question, between historians, political theorists, students of conflict and peace, good journalists, maybe even international lawyers, and so on. A philosopher can be asked to bring a general logic to bear -- clarity, consistency and validity, and completeness. He can also be asked to make some use of a history of detached thinking about right and wrong -- moral philosophy.


    Or is there no point in the exercise of asking what is right, what is decent, no point of some kind or other? Are we to guide ourselves instead by the politics of reality, known in the past as Realpolitik? It is often defined as politics based on realistic and practical considerations rather than moral or ideological ones. It certainly is a calculating self-interest. It is also cynicism about the stated or seeming positions of other parties, and a readiness to use violence. It is not easily separated from the politics of power, Machtpolitik, relating to other parties only in terms of their power.

    The politics of reality seems to go against decent moralities, one in particular of which you will be hearing. Partly for this reason, it can often enough be irrational. That is to say that it can not be an effective and economical means to its own end, but rather give rise to attacks and the like. To say what is surely indisputable, it must sometimes be that decency, however amoral in intention, is what serves a country's self-interest. So the politician of reality himself, and the rest of us, need to know what decency comes to, at any rate if there is some convergence on this, some agreement. The politician of reality cannot stay right out of morality.

    The point can be made, of course, in terms of dealing with unofficial terrorism as against official or state terrorism. The New Labour Party, in its collection of stuff from its Creative Department, used to have the line "Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime", about ordinary burglary and the like. The line hasn't been heard since 9/11, no doubt because of the prospect of a reply about the right policy on terrorism. But of course even our silent democratic politicians are aware that we need to think about the causes of terrorism. To do so necessarily is to get into the question of rightness or decency.

    There is another reason for getting into it, or pressure in that direction. The politics of reality starts by being patently inconsistent. It does not grant the legitimacy -- whatever that is supposed to mean -- of somebody else's self-interest. But then common rationality in another sense plays a part. We are all rational in the simple sense that we have and exchange reasons. So American politics of reality, say, adds to itself some moral or ethical proposition to try to distinguish itself consistently from other politics of reality. Or it makes the simpler addition that everybody, all countries and peoples, are engaged in the self-interest of the politics of reality. So it is fair and right that America should do so.

    This supposedly fair politics of reality is vulnerable to the proposition, among others, that all parties are not able to act on their self-interest to the same extent, and hence that the fair politics of reality is in fact unfair. But the main point here is again that the politician of reality needs to know what is decent.

    Leave the politics of reality. You might try to think of what is right and wrong in the world in terms of the international attitudes of the political tradition into which the New Labour Party and Bush Republicanism fall. That, to my mind, is the tradition of political conservatism. Is it a tradition of just of ramified self-interest, as many say? That is a mistake. Conservatism is no more self-interested than the Left in politics. It is different in another way. Conservatism, to my mind, has no moral rationale, no moral principle to support its self-interest. But for that story, you will have to take yourself elsewhere. [3] I abandon conservatism as the guide to what is right and wrong in the world.

    The tradition of liberalism then -- the broad tradition that includes some American history? It began with John Stuart Mill and then had John Rawls of Harvard as its most influential philosopher in the 20th Century? Mill said that the state and society are not to interfere with anyone's liberty so long as he or she does not harm anyone else. However, he failed to say what harm is. Rawls said that there should only be as much inequality in a society, maybe none, as is necessary to make the worst-off better off than they would otherwise be. However, he failed to say what was necessary. He left it open that the likes of Vice-President Cheney or Enron might be right about that. For more thoughts on liberalism, which appears to me to be a politics of some good intentions not carried into articulation, resolution or action, you will also have to go elsewhere. [4]


    Let us instead think of a more popular candidate, rightly or wrongly. Many say, all the time, that we should think of our world in terms of democracy.

    Would that be our democracy, our Western democracy as it is? Should we follow the judgements of our western democracy as to right and wrong -- its elections, policies and legislation, maybe its speeches on democracy and terrorism? Should we export this democracy, if necessary bombing and torturing those who need it?

       The recommendation of all the kinds of democracy is simply said to be freedom -- by those dim enough or calculating enough to think there is no need to say what this freedom is. For a start, presumably, it is political freedom -- kinds and degrees of voluntariness in the decision-making of a society with respect to its internal and external policies and practices. It is a voluntariness greater than under dictatorships, including actual rule by generals, or of course strong suggestions by somebody else's army.

    You need to ask, however, when you are actually thinking about any freedom whatever, rather than prating about it, what the good of it is. We English who depend on trains to go and see our families are not keen on the property-freedom that was the privatization of the railway. The American conservative libertarian philosopher Nozick did not like the social freedoms that went with ordinary taxation, which was regarded by him as forced labour. [5] There was not a lot of good in Hitler's freeing Germany of the Jews. There is not a lot of good in freeing the state of Israel from those of its inhabitants who are Palestinians, or freeing Israelis from the effect of Palestinian votes.

    Before going on with democracy, there is room for some general thinking about freedom here, starting with a refrain you used to hear a lot, and still do in some circles. The refrain is about freedom, also called liberty, and it is to the effect that freedom or liberty is inconsistent with equality. You can't have them both. I suggest this is not very clever. The refain does not take into account, to be brief, that freedom and equality, far from being inconsistent, are in an important sense one thing.

    Freedom is not an absolute but a relative good. That is, how much you have of it depends on how much I have of it. You have a lot less if I have a gun. That is pretty clear if often overlooked. Freedom then actually depends on our degree of equality in it. Furthermore, to look at the pair of things the other way on, all relevant equalities and inequalities are in  or of freedoms. They are not in or of anything else.

    In short, freedoms have to be something like equal in order to be freedoms of value.

    The supposed conflict between freedom and equality is really some or other conflict between one freedom, somehow or supposedly equal, and a different somehow or supposedly equal freedom. It can be the conflict between a freedom to do with health-care, or from poverty, and a freedom to do with private property. So, too, incidentally, was the supposed conflict between equality and rights just a conflict between various different rights, but let us not get into that.

    The point about all freedom being a relative good, and the connected point about freedom and equality being more or less one thing, is a way of introducing a fact about the good of the political freedom in a democracy. This freedom too and the good of it are of course a function of how equally it is shared. This supposed freedom, like any other, in fact, it shades off into unfreedom, indeed captivity or oppression, as the degrees of equality lessen. But let us forget about that for a couple of minutes. Let us think of a democracy where there is something like equal freedom. What is the good of it?

    There certainly are goods here.

    For a start, with respect to making the right decisions for a society, two heads are better than one, and a lot more heads still better. That will be the case, anyway, under conditions of something like equal knowledge and hence a knowledge-related capability of judgement. That line of thought does face some difficulties because it is a little optimistic. But there is a second and related one. Whether or not something like everybody's being heard issues in better decisions, it at least guarantees that more or less all wants or desires go into a decision-machine. You register a little effect, put in a little data.

    You can also say for a democracy of something like equal freedom, thirdly,  that the exercise of political freedom is in itself a satisfaction -- leaving aside the upshot of the exercise in terms of legislation or starting a war or whatever. Having a say is good in itself. Fourthly, you can think the political freedom goes with or is likely to issue in other freedoms, say with respect to operations of the society's law, maybe social freedoms, maybe economic freedoms. A large subject.

    So much for benefits of democracy when it involves something like equal freedom. Does our democracy do that?

    The question can be approached by thinking of an employment law as it affects men and women. Suppose this law secured that men were limited to having 100 times more opportunity of getting a relevant job than women. That would certainly not recommend the law. So with, say, educational opportunity for children -- who gets to a proper school. So with decision-making about what to do among survivors of an air crash in the desert. Or the members of a family deciding whether to sell the family house. So with any other context in which kinds and degrees of equality and hence freedom are taken as important. 100 to 1 is no good. It is inequality and unfreedom, not equality and freedom.

    Prof. Robert Dahl of Yale was the greatest political theorist and indeed scientist of American democracy. He wrote something about it half a century ago. It was that a university professor in such a democracy, himself a figure far from the bottom of any scale, might have 1/1000 or  1/10,000th of the political freedom and power of, say, the newspaper publishers Luce, Springer, Hearst or Murdoch. [6] Things are very certainly not different now.

    For this and related reasons, the largest having to do with income and wealth distributions, [7] it is in fact idiotic to say, as English and American politicians in effect do, that there is political freedom in our democracies where that implies an equality in political freedom. Another truth is that it is a matter of the conventions of stupidity that operate in our societies that an English university professor can say, as one once did, that there is "approximate equality" in our democracies, that the political influence of one citizen is "not wholly out of line with" the influence of another, that there exists "tolerably similar" influence. It was I who said it. [8]

    Those several propositions about idiocy and the like are also open to much other support. It is indeed a stupidity to suppose that our democracies have a recommendation having to do with equal freedom, and hence freedom, or something like equal freedom, and hence something like freedom. They are, in plain English, democracies of perfectly unequal freedom, which is to say a kind of unfreedom. They are just hierarchic democacies. There is not a lot of point in comparing them favourably to dictatorships. About as much, say, as in comparing a family of absurd and vicious inequality favourably to a still worse family where the elder brother rules by private whims and has no knowledge at all of the needs of his brothers and sisters, maybe that one is in a wheelchair.

    One conclusion about our hierarchic democracy is that no very sizeable argument for it can be based on the supposed freedom of it. A second conclusion is that we cannot really proceed by way of such an argument to the conclusion that our hierarchic democracy should be our guide as to right and wrong in the world. In fact those two conclusions are truistic, not interesting. What is interesting is the operation of convention in our society, the making of assent, whereby it is possible to think otherwise. [9]

    One last remark on democracy, any democracy. It is indeed a decision-procedure, like a procedure of contract-making. Can a decision-procedure be seen to have a recommendation, maybe having to do with the freedom that is internal to it, without reference to its principal upshots? That is a common idea in liberal political philosophy. It is also a wonderful idea. John Rawls himself was able to believe a lot in his theory of justice, but not that. It is a history of upshots recommends a decision-procedure. Nothing else could. It is anticipated upshots that recommend a new decision-procedure. Nothing else could.

       In which case there can be no possibility of relying on our hierarchic democracy without knowing what the recommendation is of its upshots, their decency. If nothing else whatever could be said against hierarchic democracy, there would be this to be said about trusting it -- that it cannot possibly be trusted without a knowledge of the recommendation of what it produces. That will include the reccomendation, presumably, of being the main cause of a loss of 20 million years of living time. To set out to rely on democracy as the way to think about our our world is just to be driven back to think about our world in terms of some principle of the rightness of actions, policies, societies and possible worlds.


    My principle is probably that that of most people in the world, and in a way the principle of all of us. It is the Principle of Humanity. It has to do with great things that all of us desire, great goods, and hence with good lives and bad lives.

    We all desire to go on existing, where that means 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. [10] 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. We crave a decent length of life. Say 75 rather than 35 years. [11]

    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 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, neighbourhood and place of work to the greatest setting, a homeland. It is no oddity that freedom from something is what is promised by every political or national tradition or movement without exception -- and secured to some extent if or when it is in control.

    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 considerable 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.

    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.

    A bad life, we take it, is to be defined in terms of the frustration of some or all of these desires for inter-related great goods. A good life is defined in terms of satisfaction of them. You can take a bad life to be one that lacks the first three great goods, for example. That means people can have a good life without the second three great goods. There is a need for decision here, as well as the registering of facts, which is what you would expect in the formulation or stating of a moral principle.

    The Principle of Humanity has to do with such lives. It is not well-expressed, indeed not expressed at all, as the truistic principle that we should rescue those with bad lives. It is the principle that we must actually take rational steps to the end of getting and keeping people over the line into good lives. That is, we should take steps that are not pieces of pretence or self-deception or speechifying, but steps that are effective, 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 of Humanity, to state it a bit more fully, is that 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 with respect to the end of saving people from bad lives. It covers not only commissions or positive acts, but also omissions.

    The end or goal of the principle, 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 urgent action on your part in a world where everyone had perfectly equally bad lives. So it is a principle of humanity, fellow-feeling or generosity rather than of equality, despite the great importance of certain equalities, notably in those political freedoms, as means to the end of the principle.

    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 means exist. 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 increasing 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 the incentive-rewards 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 incentive-rewards that issue in the bottom four-tenths taken together having 0.2% of the wealth -- not 2% but 0.2% -- and the top tenth 71%. [12]

    The fourth policy, implicit in the others, is against violence and near-violence. Like all such policies called realistic, it is not an absolute or completely general prohibition. 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 a distinction between official and non-official killing.

    There is something as important as the policies, and also certain practices of equality, in clarifying the Principle of Humanity. That is conveying what can be called its character. The principle is a literal one, not the sort of thing uttered in much the same words by Bill Clinton, as indeed it recently was, or conceivably by Gordon Brown. You can say the principle is a different speech-act. It is not meant to be some exhortation, understood as not in fact to be acted on, let alone understood to be an exhortation that cannot be acted on.

    It is also a principle of truth, in several ways. It is not deferential to convention, in fact to any of the kinds of convention. It is not deferential to the fact that some answers to questions have been proscribed as horrible and terrible. It does not accept a politician's edict with respect to certain moral judgements, say about killing, sometimes to the effect the that we are all to eschew them, sometimes to the effect that we leave to the politician a monopoly on somehow engaging in them.

    Nor does the Principle of Humanity call a thing by a name that suits some politics. It is plain-speaking, as may be clear already and will become clearer. It can tell the difference between civility and sucking-up. Also the difference between considering other views and pretending that all of them are worth respect. It asserts that Robert Nozick's picture of the perfectly just society, where people may starve to death without anyone or any thing having the slightest moral obligation to help them, is to be thought about with exactly contempt. [13]

    The principle, too, knows that abstention from judgement, and omissions in general, are ways of acting. It does not fall into the illusion that hesitance, silence and the like are without effect. They usually count on one side. The principle knows that uncertainty is the general condition under which we judge and act, under which we do necessarily judge and act. Finally, the Principle of Humanity is like others in being clarified by its consequences. You find out more of what the principle is, for example, by finding out what its consequences are for terrorism.


    The Principle of Humanity is of course what is called a consequentialism, a consequentialist principle. It judges the rightness of things by their anticipated consequences. It judges the rightness of actions, policies, practices, societies, possible worlds, by the anticipated consequences of those things, and, as it may be worth adding, in those things. There are a lot of kinds of resistance to consequentialism.

    The most common resistance is in the utterance that consequentialism takes the end to justify the means. In one way this is plainly true. A consequentialism commonly takes a desired end to make a price paid for it worthwhile. A satisfaction or achievement makes a dissatisfaction or pain worth putting up with or enduring. But innumerable cases of this kind are accepted by everybody. Going to the dentist is the usual example. It cannot be that there is a general objection to consequentialism on the ground that it takes ends to justify means.

    But then an objector to consequentialism must have in mind that some particular end does not justify some particular means. He will have to show that, provide an argument. Does he perhaps suppose instead that some means are so terrible that no possible end could justify them? Well, she will have to show that. In particular, she will face the difficulty that whatever she takes to be unthinkable about a means may be avoided to a greater extent in the end in question than in any other end.

    Another resistance to consequentialism is that it does not ask what is right, but as some say, turns to what can be gained by doing something, profit and loss. A consequentialist can make a jibe in reply, of course, perhaps that his opponent does not look at what will happen, the facts, but allows himself to be distracted. Maybe by the past, as in talk of desert, or ties of relationship, as in the case of an extent of loyalty to one's own child or one's own people, which things are at least morally dubious. The consequentialist can insist, of course, that he never turns away from the question of what is right, but answers it in a particular way. Clearly this kind of exchange of jibes settles nothing.

       You can suppose something lies behind or in the jibe that consequentialism does not ask what is right but turns to what can be gained. One thing is the idea that consequentialism just is or anyway is something like the English moral philosophy of utilitarianism. [14] The principle of utilitarianism or Greatest Happiness Principle, roughly, is that the right thing is what is likely to produce the greatest total or maximum of satisfaction -- usually the greatest balance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction. This it may do and be committed to doing, as is well known, in an intolerable way, an unfair or unjust way, including producing bad lives. What is called punishing the innocent is one way of doing so. [15] In recent philosophical jargon, what we need to do instead is protect rights, put what are called side-constraints on the aim of maximizing satisfaction.

    This third response to consequentialism, confusing it with utilitarianism, is not good at all. Consequentialism as we have understood it, and presumably as usually understood, is not utilitarianism. As you heard, consequentialism is judging the rightness of actions and the like by probable consequences. Consequentialism is the genus of which utilitarianism is a species. Nor are the other species close to or like utilitarianism. In fact, all are against it. Most certainly the Principle of Humanity is.

    There is also a fourth resistance to consequentialism that consists in the idea that there is some way of judging the rightness of actions that has nothing to do with their consequences. To say the least this is obscure. It is at least uncertain that we have any such reasons. Think of any right that utilitarianism is supposed, rightly or wrongly, to override, say the right of the innocent not to be punished. When you leave utilitarianism because it allows that, presumably you turn to the policy that that the right thing to do is never punish the innocent. That is, you go for certain consequences. The general fact is that any proposition or claim taken as overridden by utilitarianism, about any kind of rights, can be and perhaps must be stated as a consequentialism.

       A fifth and final resistance to consequentialism is what can indeed be attributed to any consequentialism, a commitment to maximizing, to totals. Of course there are consequentialisms that maximize the wrong stuff, utilitarianism being one. There are also what you can call consequentialisms of justice, John Rawls's being one. Rawls does indeed instruct us to pursue the state of affairs where his principle of socio-economic inequality is most fully realized, and also a certain principle of liberties. The Principle of Humanity is of course a maximizing principle. It takes more good lives to be better than fewer, which is to say fewer bad lives to be better than more.

    Is there something wrong with maximizing in general? It is hard to think so. Consider the special consequentialism that is a rule against abortion, a rule about respecting the rights of the unborn. Presumably it commits us to as much respect as possible, i.e. as few abortions as possible. Someone may say, of course, no one should engage personally in an abortion even if doing so increases the number of abortions. Here again we have a consequentialism, and, to the extent that it goes against the maximizing of other consequentialisms against abortion, it is certainly not obviously superior. It is, to say the least, odd, in need of explanation, suspect.


    Is there a general argument for the Principle of Humanity, even a proof, as I have sometimes been inclined to think? [16] It is or would be an argument from our human nature, having to do with our fundamental desires, our desires for the great goods, and also with our being rational in the minimal sense of our having reasons for things, sometimes moral reasons.

       Fundamentally it would be an argument from consistency. It could not stop people from being inconsistent, of course. No argument for anything, however good, can be a necessitating cause. But there is a price to be paid for inconsistency. It is that if you say something is right and somehow also say the same thing it is wrong, you claim nothing, and very likely indeed you do want to claim something. The possible argument from consistency for the Principle of Humanity would have a number of premises in it.

    Your nature is such, I put it to you, that if there is a choice between (1) your being got out of a bad life into a good one, and (2) somebody else already in a good life having it made better, you want and think it is right that the first thing be done. You give the reason that this is right. The reason is of its nature general. From here, arguably, you are on the way to, or at least faced in the direction of, the Principle of Humanity.

    By way of a fast example, you believe it is wrong for you to be tortured for a month if the alternative is just my having to go on getting to work by bus instead of having my own car. Your reason for what you desire, not to be tortured, becuse of that reason's general character, commits you to other propositions about other people with respect to great goods and evils as against lesser satisfactions and frustrations.

       But, it may be objected, there is a difficulty. Something else is also true. If there is a choice between your having your already good life improved, and somebody being got out of a bad life, maybe nearly a good one, you may want the first, and argue that there is some moral reason for this. You may talk of desert, or family lineage, or race, or ethnic group, or absurdly of ancient history. Let me leave this possibility of our nature undisputed, but add some other things.

       Suppose you contemplate two other people to whom you are not at all connected, even in terms of sympathy or identification. If the choice is between an escape from a bad life for one, and an improvement of an already good life for the other, you will want the first to happen and take it to be right.

       Finally, if the choice is between a possibility where you escape from a bad life and a possibility where your already good life is improved, you will opt for and justify the first. If there are some exceptions to this policy of what is called maximinning, they can perhaps be accomodated.

       It is not perfectly clear how to use this data in order to try to construct an argument for the Principle of Humanity. It would be to the effect that our natures are such that we give a precedence, if not a complete one, to reducing bad lives rather than improving good ones. Something else is also unclear. How good does a general argument for a principle have to be? I'm not sure. It does seem to me that these considerations of our human nature do better to support the Principle of Humanity than any other considerations, of human nature or anything else, support any other principle.


    Terrorism can be effectively defined as (1) killing and injuring aimed at social and political ends, (2) open to prima facie moral objection in being killing and wounding, (3) against national law and international law or norms, (4) smaller-scale than war.

    Plainly terrorism so defined can also be resistance to ethnic cleansing, a liberation-struggle, self-defence and so on. Plainly terrorism so defined also includes state-terrorism, of course including the terrorism of democratic states. Plainly nothing in the definition makes it more or less bad than war, which shares features (1) to (3). The definition, perhaps usefully, is like other definitions in being a little vague. That is on account of the vagueness, ambiguity, manipulability and indeed the openness-to-invention of international law.

    Of course there are other definitions of terrorism. There is the one that is the same as the one above but with the addition that the killing and wounding is indiscriminate, or else that it is 'directed' -- which will have to be explained -- at innocents or non-combatants. [17] If this is more motivated or loaded than what we have, and might rule out as terrorist the killing of the president of the United States, it too is or can be made into an effective definition -- one that does not complicate or obstruct inquiry.

    It needs to be remembered that definitions are not exactly descriptions, let alone complete descriptions. They are not aimed primarily at being true or false, but at fixing a subject-matter. They settle no questions by themselves. You can come to condemn an action by way of a definition of terrorism as what is necessarily evil and Palestinian or Islamic -- or evil and neo-Zionist. But you can also come to justify the action, partly by saying it is not terrorism so defined.

    In judging terrorism, I do of course depend on the Principle of Humanity, which most people do when their own interests are not somehow engaged. But in trying to decide about whether some terrorism has a justification, the hardest part is not the morality. What I mean is that the hardest part is not deciding on the Principle of Humanity, as against, say, reliance on our hierarchic democracy or some self-serving nonsense about freedom, or some morality of association, say the rule that our lives come first. The hardest part is questions of fact, in general the question of whether some terrorism will serve the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. In particular, what is the probability of some degree of success?

    That is not to say that all questions of fact are hard.

    To proceed in terms of the paradigm and most consequential case of terrorism, in Palestine and Israel, there is no significant difficulty about the fact of the Holocaust, that antecedent of the state of Israel, that categorical imperative. Exaggeration of the Holocaust makes for no significant difficulty. Here there was a unique horror, a unique manufacturing of what it is insufficient to call bad lives, to which some large response had to be made.

    It is as true, however, that in the last quarter of the 19th Century there had been about 50 times as many Palestinians as Jews in Palestine. It is as true that in 1948, when the state of Israel came into being, there were equal numbers of Palestinians and Jews in the part of Palestine that became Israel. And that there were 80 times as many Palestinians as Jews in the other part.

    The United Nations resolved, in 1948, that there be a national home for the Jews in the given part of Palestine. That, in my view, was right. It was in accord with the morality of humanity, the Principle of Humanity.

    But the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the achievement of Zionism, also required for its justification other things than the Holocaust. Other things than the Holocaust were needed in order to overcome the facts of population. In brief, one consisted in conceptions of the possible, the conceivable. These did not include what later became clear, that a state of Israel could and should have been formed not in Palestine at all but out of a part of Germany.

    The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 also required for its justification something else, more important than anything mentioned so far to a judgement to which we shall come. In 1948, the Palestinians had not and were not forming themselves into a state. Nor had they formed themselves into a nation. It was possible to judge, if offensively, that they were not fully a people. It could not be judged that they had the self-consciousness of a people. This was as crucial as anything else. It was possible to believe, as well, that they did not have a general will as a people. They could not, then, suffer a certain great injury, an injury that depends on a large human fact of relationship, the largest.

    None of that had to be confused in 1948, and does not need to be confused now, with a piece of vicious nonsense, never believed by the Zionists who used it. That was that there was a land without people waiting there, into which could come a people without land, the Jews.


    Let us pause in this history for a while. A general matter of morality or moral philosophy can do with consideration. We are considering a question or questions of right or wrong. Such a question is different, incidentally, from a question of personal moral responsibility for an action or policy or whatever, moral credit or discredit, but that, although it will have a little relevance, is not what can do with consideration now.

    It is that a question of of right or wrong at a time, as has been at least implicit in all you have heard, is always relative to the best information and judgement then available. As remarked earlier, what is right according to the Principle of Humanity is the course of action that is the rational one with respect to the end of saving people from bad lives -- what is the rational one according to the best information and judgement available.

    So what is right at any time depends on what can be found out and best weighed. Do you doubt this? Do you think rightness is somehow independent of these things? Well, suppose the very best knowledge and experience is utilized in a woman's decision to leave her money in her will to a particular institute of cancer research. This is the place that on all the evidence must be taken as the most promising, and maybe the most safe. It happens, however, in the course of time, because of the money, that the institute's research throws up some mutation or plague that takes many lives horribly, maybe a multitude of lives. Was the wrong thing done when the money was given to the institute? Surely not. The right thing was done, and it happened that the right decision  turned out badly, indeed catastrophically.

    Of course you can speak differently if you want. You can say if you want that from the later perspective, when things had turned out badly, the act of philanthropy was not right but wrong. That alternative exists but does not much matter. It marks only a decision as to the use of a word. It remains the case that the philanthropy was right in what is surely the fundamental sense. It was then the best thing that could happen in terms of all that was then known and best judged. The philanthopy was right too in the sense that carries an agent's moral credit rather than discredit with it. In the different way of speaking, you can be credited with moral responsibility for a wrong act, morally approved for it. You can be held responsible, disapproved of, for a right one.

    There is another point to be made. To stick to the fundamental way of talking, that a thing was right when it was done, but only on the basis of a kind of mistake, can be of importance to other later judgements. Another woman, knowing about the grim case, might think differently about her will.


    Let us now return to 1948 and thereafter. Zionism, as you will have understood, is to be taken as importantly the proposition that the founding of the state of Israel was right. Zionism is different from what came into existence after the Israeli attack and the Six Day War in 1967, which was neo-Zionism. This is the expansion of the state of Israel beyond its 1948 and 1967 borders, with all that this has entailed for the Palestinians. It has entailed the further violation of them and of their homeland.

    What is most important for the rest of what I have to say is that against that violation they have endured, claimed their rights, and died. Palestinians have died for their people, because of their people -- certainly not because of a supposed belief in immortality or martyrdom. Their struggle, a kind of struggle holy in a sense that does not have to do with religion, is, as I say, of crucial importance to something else to which we will come in a moment.

    It remains the case that Zionism as against neo-Zionism was right in the most important of senses. The founding of Israel was what ought to have happened. There was a moral obligation on all parties to forward it, in the state of things then. That is consistent, however, with another judgement made today. This judgement today, given the best knowledge and judgement now, is that the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong. This is because the Palestinians were not as we thought. They were more than that. They have proved that by their struggle.

    It was not, as was said earlier, that they were not fully a people, that they did not have the self-consciousness of a people. It was not that they lacked a general will as a people. They could suffer a certain injury owed to deep relationship. Their self-sacrifices, indeed a oneness with respect to self-sacrifices, have demonstrated that it was not true in 1948 that they were not fully a people. They must have been. They did not come out of a hat later. They were not created as a people by neo-Zionism. That they were fully a people was what gave rise to their resistance. The judgement in 1948 that they were not fully a people, although to the world an informed and reasonable judgement, was mistaken.

    That cannot be the end of our reflections now, however. A half-century has passed since 1948, and more than the state of Israel exists. That state is a nuclear power and violator pretending to be a victim. But it is also the state of what is now the homeland of a people, the Jews. That has come into being. The lives of Jews are in it, their past, identity, hopes, desires and expectations. What began wrongfully, from the perspective of 2005, could come to acquire a justification from that same perspective. It has. Time changes things. It has. Certainly that is my view.

    Let me summarize our progress so far baldly. (1) In 1948 Zionism was right. (2) In 2005, given history since 1948, given Jewish lives in a homeland, the existence of the state of Israel within its original 1948 borders requires our moral defence, as does its secure future. (3) Also from the perspective of 2005, the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong. It was wrong on account of the reality as a people of the Palestinians, only proved thereafter. (4) Neo-Zionism has been viciously wrong, a barbarism. It is correct that it should be led by a war criminal.

    To the summary in its four parts needs to be added a judgement on the terrorism of the Palestinians, if it is terrorism, and what indubitably has been the state-terrorism of neo-Zionism since 1967. That judgement is (5) that the terrorism of the Palestinians has been and remains their moral right.

    It is as true that the same thing, as truly described as their human and elevating resistance to ethnic cleansing, has been and remains their moral right. So too do they have a moral right to what is as truly their self-defence, their self-preservation, their preservation of their very existence as a people.

    To say they have a moral right, as in the case of all claims to moral rights, is to say that what is done is justified or right, and moreover that this judgement has the support of an entrenched or formidable moral principle. The principle in my case is of course that of Humanity. Of the other support for the conclusion of moral right, of which support you have already heard a good deal, the principal proposition is the rapacious violation since 1967 of what remains of the homeland of the Palestinians, the barbarism of neo-Zionism.

    A further fact of it has to do with the history of negotations, of which so much is made, and about relative positions in it. That history has been of a people of land, wealth and power organized into a state, a nuclear power supported by a super-power, and a poor and unarmed people, wretched and in refugee camps, lacking the benefit of a state. For the first  party not to have made effective concessions to the second has been intransigent rapaciousness.


    As always, more needs to be said, and cannot be here. In place of all that, a few reflections. The first has to do with the connection between (a) moral rights to things and (b) moral rights to certain means to those things.

     We need not concern ourselves with anyone who takes the view that the Palestinian people do not have a moral right to a viable state of their own, as against, say, a dog's breakfast of bantustans. Even the present president of the United States has lately come to that view, thereby vindicating the departure of Yassert Arafat from the negotiations at Camp David with Clinton in 2000. Let us take it, simply, that the Palestinians do have such a right to a viable state, whether or not you agree with me that this conclusion is best derived by way of the Principle of Humanity.

    In general, can you assert someone's moral right to something and deny that person's moral right to the only possible means to that thing, the necessary means? Can you, for example, assert a child's right to learn to read and deny it the only means to learning to read?

    If the answer to that general question is no, then there is the upshot that people who do accept the right of the Palestinians to a viable state but do not grant their right to the only means to that end are inconsistent. If they cannot give up the first claim of a right, to a state, they must also accept the second, to the necessary means to a state. Further, if the only means to a viable state has in fact been terrorism, those who grant the right to a state must grant the right to the terrorism. As you will have gathered, that the Palestinians' only means to a viable state has been and may still be terrorism is something about which I myself have no doubt. But evidently it is a factual proposition in need of support. It cannot have that here.

      What about the general question of whether granting a moral right to X entails granting a moral right to the only means to X? Each of these claims of a right, as you have heard, makes reference to an entrenched or formidable moral principle. It might be that the principle involved in the first claim is not the same principle as is involved in the second one. The first might be something about a people's freedom and power. The second might be about not taking innocent lives. When these principles conflict, as in the terrorism case, what is necessary is plainly a more fundamental and general principle, sometimes called an overriding or higher one, that adjudicates between the conflicting principles in the given case. For me, the Principle of Humanity does this. But the present point is that a single principle is needed, indeed that reflection drives us to one.

       If that is so, there is a certain upshot. The fundamental principle applies to both the issue of a right to a viable state and the right to the means to a viable state. Given this, there seems to be no possibility of according a moral right to a viable state but not a moral right to the means to it. You cannot do both.

      That line of thought is speculative. There is also a simpler appeal. What it is for you to accord a right to something, by way of another description, is also to for you to support or to back something. If there is only the one means to it, and you don't support that, you surely cannot support the thing in question. There is surely contradiction in your supporting X but your not supporting the only means to X.

    Another reflection in this postscript also has to do with the proposition that Palestinians have a moral right to their terrorism, their resistance to ethnic cleansing. The reflection has to do with the fact that the proposition is a horrible one. It gives moral support to awful actions. Something else needs saying. There is one thing about as bad as not seeing that the proposition is a horrible one. That is being selective in one's horror. That is choosing to see the dead children on one side rather than the larger number of dead children on the other, choosing to remember the Holocaust but passing by a hell for a people in their homeland now. Nor, as mentioned earlier, can you avoid acting. Not to speak against neo-Zionism is by omission to give your support to a thing like the Holocaust.

    Finally, a reflection on the libel and slander of anti-Semitism made against anyone who says such things. [18] One's main response to it, maybe, should be greater doubt about all the rest of what is claimed by those who engage in the libel and slander. Greater doubt about what is claimed by them about, say, the politics of reality, democracy, freedom, humanity, consequentialism, terrorism, Palestine, rightness, moral rights, and anti-Semitism.

    I thank you for listening, no doubt with forebearance. [19]

                                                                                            16 March 2005


1. After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press, revised edition with additional chapter, 2003).

2. Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Reconsidered (Pluto Press, forthcoming 2005)

3. Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? (Pluto Press, 2005)

4. On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press, 2003)

5. Anarchy, State and Utopia (Blackwell, 1974).

6. Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 211.

7. For a few details, see After the Terror, pp. 8-9, 112-113.

8. Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Routledge, 1989), pp. 147-8. Cf. the revised edition, Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Pluto Press, 2003), p. 151, p. 211, note 6.

9. An antidote to this nonsense see the work of Noam Chomsky, the great moral judge of this age, for a start Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Pluto Press, 1989).

10. Honderich, On Consciousness (Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

11. After the Terror, pp. 1-20.

12. After the Terror, pp. 8-9. [check]

13. Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?

14. R. A. Duff, Punishment, Communication and Community (Oxford University
Press, 2001).

15. Punishment: The Supposed Justifications Reconsidered.

16. On Political Means and Social Ends, pp. 166-9

17. On innocents, see After the Terror, pp. 158-62.

18. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, eds., The Politics of Anti-Semitism (CounterPunch, 2003).

19. For reflections additional to those in the publications in the notes above, see 'Palestinian Terrorism, Morality and Germany', Rechtsphilosophische Hefte, 2004, and other writings, including 'The Way Things Are and the Need for a New Disrespect', and 'The Fall and Rise of a Book in Germany', to be found at http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho.

I thank Prof. James Bowen for correcting a serious error in previous versions of this script, which spoke of an attack on Israel in 1967 actually beginning the Six Day War rather than an attack by Israel.

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