HUMANITY, CONSERVATISM, DAVID AARONOVITCH, EDWINA CURRIE, TED HONDERICH
The following piece is about one of my contributions to and experiences at the 2015 How The Light Gets In festival at
Hay-on-Wye -- a piece first published on the distinguished American online website
CounterPunch. It brings back to
mind what I had nearly forgotten beforehand. That was a television programme ten
years ago made by David Aaronovitch in reply to my only one. It was from my
book Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist
War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (in America, Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9-11, Iraq, 7-7...). If you have
a taste for pieces of history, or if you are interested in the disagreement
between the Principle of Humanity and neo-Zionism as distinct from Zionism, proceed
from the piece below to the prehistory: The Real Friends of Terror, and
Justice Demands It, and Thoughts by Richard Ingrams.
To Hay-on-Wye the other day I went, to the more intellectual of the two
festivals, the one with music as well, the festival gnomically named How
The Light Gets In
by its creator and benefactor Hilary Lawson of the family Lawsons. Of
Nigel, once Chancellor of the Exchequer and Boom and Bust and latterly
led by his past in PPE in Oxford to be superior to the mere science of
Global Warming, Nigella cooking beautifully on the telly, and lovely
witty Vanessa married to A. J. Freddie Ayer of Language, Truth and
Having tired out myself and my temper at 10 am and thereafter in my
philosopher's report (http://tinyurl.com/pnfnmb7) to a large audience on what it was for them to be
conscious, unaided in my report by the audience lecture handout (http://tinyurl.com/pf9687o)
that did not find its way to the tent despite
having been sent to Hay in advance three times, I found myself in another
tent at 12 considering another subject, or anyway words. These words were as
"Once we paraded grand visions of the future, now such goals are more
typically left to the fanatical fringe. With economic and cultural growth in
the East, what vision does the West have to offer? Do we need new
fantasies to meet the challenges of the 21st Century or is our scepticism a
sign of wisdom rather than decline?"
The other panellists were two. Edwina Currie, the Conservative M.P. and
Junior Health Minister renowned some years ago for an episode having to do
with the hatchery industry and salmonella in eggs, and David Aaronovitch,
political columnist for The Times, The Times which is opened by
me only before occasional lunches at a gentleman's club, The Times
owned by the electioneering Rupert Murdoch of The Sun etc, The
Times of a fixed and recorded single-minded history of politics of the
Mr Aaronovitch distinguished himself principally by insisting that he is no
Conservative or conservative, since he was a Communist in his boyhood 40 or
45 years ago -- that he is no Conservative or conservative despite his
present employment and its conditions of employment. And, as he seemed at one point
to confess or imply, and as had occurred to me in advance, despite his having
himself proposed or inspired the subject of the discussion, including the
fanatical fringe. It had a journalistic ring to it, and was suggestive of
certain refrains in Conservatism.
Ms Currie distinguished herself principally by sitting on the platform giving
off sounds suggestive of a desire to lay something, which suggestion must
have occurred to many others many times in her career. A friendly mistress of
prate. Still, some sounds were approximate to the truth that she is indeed a
Conservative. Perhaps she too had been tired out giving an earlier
presentation at Hay, conceivably on what it is not to be conscious.
I set out to propound 14 fantasies, and got through some of them.
Fantasy 1 is that we do not live in an oligarchic democracy. We do.
One of those is one where the best-off 10th in society has 5,233 times the
political power and influence of the worst-off 10th. Wait for less inumerate
political theorists and scientists to confirm it.
Fantasy 2 is that we are making or anyway have an understanding of making
some progress towards equality, now more deeply understood as social
mobility. No, in place of progressing, we are reducing life-equality in the
name of austerity. Soak the poor.
Fantasy 3, usually concealed in No. 2, is that what is important about
inequality is the relational fact. It is not. What is important
is immiseration, the absolute condition of those at the bottom, people
made miserable by intention, by reasonable foresight, on the part of other
people among us who know, like, and know how to defend their own better
condition. They slide past the violation, the deprivation, of the lives of
the bottom tenth. Even The Guardian, save for such of its columnists
as Polly Toynbee and Seumas Milne, sometimes forgets about that absolute
Fantasy 4 is that we are a free society. That is more boyish
self-deception, particularly for any liberal who takes his party's
traditional line that equality is the or an enemy of freedom. I remind you,
for a small start, that if you and I are unequal in that I have a gun and you
do not, or in that I have men with guns on my side, you are unfree.
Fantasy 5 is about fairness. It is that fairness is cutting welfare benefits
rather than adding up who gets what in terms of total expenditure of the
oligarchic democracy, say for a start just in terms of the social institution
of the law.
6 This fantasy is that of the moral intelligence of conservatism, of which
the best that can be said is that it is the politics of desert, of people
getting what they deserve. But that something is right because it is deserved
boils down in 2 minutes, as Nigella might do it, to something is right
because it is right. Read a book on conservatism (http://tinyurl.com/nt68wuq)
equally validated by both the approval of Michael
Foot of the then Labour Party and, in The Times, by the denunciation
of Enoch Powell M.P., best known for rivers of blood -- the deunciation that
a philosopher's book is no good because Conservatism is 'a song', of which he
declined to sing any on that occasion.
7 There is also the fantasy of the moral intelligence of English liberalism.
Its intelligent credential comes from John Stuart Mill, who said in a right
society no one harms anyone else, but if they do they can be stopped by the
state. Mill then started progress towards liberalism's zenith in the
careerism of one Clegg by Mill's going on to fail to say what harm is. Just bumble
instead from him about quality as well as quantity of utility or satisfaction.
8 This is the fantasy that capitalism, and the form of it that is
profitization, occasionally known as privatization, is a kind of medical
ethics. It is what will save the National Health Service for us. Capitalism
cannot be detached from conservatism and indeed liberalism and of course New
Labour as we know it. What all of it amounts to is organized and in part
dim or self-deceived selfishness, degrees of greed. The fantasy more generally in
its inanity is that capitalism is necessary, including the delusion that it
is the only way to make the worst-off as well off as they are. Mr Aaronovitch
embraced or implied the delusion as personal truth in passing.
9 This further fantasy is one to which my two fellow panellists may have some
connection by family as well as by independent judgement, despite the
wonderful authority of Noam Chomsky and so many other honourable Jews in
Jewish history, including Miliband Senior -- Ralph. The fantasy is that the latest
rape of Gaza by neo-Zionism was honourable self-defence rather than dirty
international politics, the vile attempt to bring to an end the feeble
opposition that keeps all the neo-Zionist rapes in view or anyway memory. (http://tinyurl.com/ohuu6rw)
10 There is the fantasy too that we have nothing to do with Islamic State. We
only got Sykes and Picot to draw those lines in the sand after the First
World War, and we are friends with Saudi Arabia which is clean bedsheets
despite its connection with 9/11, and we only do humanitarian killing. More
precisely, we have nothing to do with Islamic State savagery despite
imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism, victimization, Palestine, oil, the
lying war on Iraq, a million dead, Blair sincere, etc. That is a waking
dream, worthy of more Freud merde. We have more and different to do with the
savages than our missionaries had about others a century ago. It is good that we
have two more journalists beyond the worth of books, Patrick Cockburn and
Robert Fisk in The Independent.
11 This fantasy is legalism. It is the calm or excited idea, dear to
dim magistrates, profitizers, dreamers about international law, and
oligarchic democracy, that what is right is what is legal. It forgets, among
so many other things, that there was a Nazi law about revealing the
whereabouts of Jews in hiding.
12 This is the fantasy that the fundamental moral truth is definitely
not something in particular -- it is definitely not a general
humanitarianism unattached to passing disasters. A general
humanitarianism that has nothing to do, of course, with our ideological
humanitarian air war on Libya and hence the destruction of a society,
even a people. This general humanitarianism is The Principle of
Humanity. It is this: Take all and only rational steps, all steps
rational in the means-end sense, to get people out of bad lives. Bad
lives defined in terms of deprivation of six fundamental human desires.
Decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedoms and powers, respect
and self-respect, the goods of relationship, the goods of culture
including religion. No prattle in that, no House of Commons braying, no
Clegg pointing out the good the liberals did in coalition with the
Conservatives and passing over his and their having been a necessary
condition of the bad. Moving his lips as he reads.
13 There may be a momentary fantasy, in this Hay-on-Wye tent and time,
about the choice between Verbiage, Salmonella, and Philosophy.
The fantasy is that here in Hay-on-Wye, even if you have been saved from the
condition of rural idiocy that the industrial revolution somewhat reduced,
you should still vote Salmonella or Verbiage. No, think instead.
14 There is a real problem that the liberal John Rawls of Harvard maybe
called the problem of mode of address, including language and style and
indeed respect. It is differently considered by Herbert Marcuse and others in
A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Should we, or more to the point should
I, in this darkening time, be governed by the restraint of parliamentary
language, or academic dignity, or respect for all views, or deference to all
adversaries, even jobbing journalists and elected runners-down of hatcheries? I am
not sure of a general solution to this question, let alone a particular one
for application to today. I am sure it is a moral fallacy that we should
unthinkingly join the constraints of any discourse that was brought into
being by adversaries of humanity -- or even just carelessly. You can think
about that even if you are also in my state of disgrace, that of having never
read a word of Marx -- despite having firm views (http://tinyurl.com/nzqk8tm) against Jerry Cohen's resurrection of his theory of history
You will want a summation of all this. Here it is. Despite the existence of
truth, and the beauty of this corner of Wales, and the endearing amateurism
of this festival with respect to audience handouts, our societies are such in their
fantasies that about the only thing they can be defended against by argument
and fact is the Islamic State.
Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, said 'Never apologise, never explain'. I
propose to you a longer piece of advice. 'Never restrict yourself to the
denial of inquiry and debate and truth that is the way of, say, the revolving
momentary enemy of the hatchery industry and the journalist who remains
somehow or other true to his boyhood Communism while finding fantasy on the
Left.' At the common table of that gentleman's club, they don't discern his
Many thanks for listening. More for thinking.
Ted Honderich is Grote
Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College
London and the author of various books on consciousness, determinism and
freedom, right and wrong, terrorism and Palestine, and philosophical life. Two edited books are
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Philosophers of Our Times.