Moral Maze, What I Didn't Get To Say In One
by Ted Honderich
7 August 2014

Being of a benighted or maybe privileged minority who had never heard a word of a programme called The Moral Maze, or hardly ever turned on BBC Radio 4 in place of Radio 3, and having newly strong feelings about Palestine as a result of Gaza, I agreed when rung up by the BBC to be on the programme of 23 July. All I knew of the The Moral Maze was that the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton used to be a guest in it, maybe a regular one.

That was part of what led me to think it was a discussion programme. This wasn't disturbed by a first phone call from a producer of the programme. Participants, I assumed from what I heard, would sit around a table with a chairman. There would be four of them -- the other three being a British colonel who was a friend of Israel but presumably capable of thought and whose name escaped me, the Oxford academic Hugo Slim who has written about the just war, and Mehdi Hasan, a former New Statesman editor now of the Huffington Post. We would each in turn, I assumed, make a presentation and defend it, after which, no doubt, there would be general discussion. Familiar enough on radio and television, and something like events in universities. I would be a decent success, wouldn't I, having had a lot of experience of seminars?

The programme would turn out to be very different. Something else again.

According to my notes completed in the taxi on the way to the BBC, I would in my presentation first take the small safeguarding step of reporting yet again that I am a Zionist in the or in an original sense, now in need of disambiguation. In short, I steadily support the existence of Israel within its 1948-1967 borders and whatever future defence of it is in actual fact necessary. The creation of it, to stick to that, was then right. Not to have created it would have been wrong. Several secondary reasons were the Holocaust and the general belief, not then unreasonable, that the Palestinians were not, as I wrote in several books, a fully separate people. They lacked a certain identity such that there was something they would not lose by the establishing of Israel.

I would report early on the Moral Maze, too, that I am not a neo-Zionist. A neo-Zionist, in a past usage of mine recently discovered by me to be in independent use among some Palestinians, is one who defends as right the taking from the Palestinians of at least their autonomy or liberty within the last fifth of the whole homeland of which they alone are the indigenous people. The continuing taking of the land of another people, the building of Jewish 'settlements' on it, is a main part of this neo-Zionism.

Support for Zionism and judgement against neo-Zionism, I would say on The Moral Maze, is and remains arguably the most widely shared moral attitude in the world to Palestine. No doubt in another setting, maybe a book or other publication, it would be a good idea to try to be more precise about the total of persons of whom a majority are Zionists but not neo-Zionists. No doubt the total would be better described in terms of a minimum awareness of Palestinian history since 1967, maybe also in terms of education.
Certainly there are honourable Jews who are Zionists but not neo-Zionists. They condemn or resist neo-Zionism -- the one who comes to mind again today is Prof. Avi Shlaim of Oxford. They condemn or resist rather than opine that Palestine and Israel are a hard question.

I would mainly go on to say on the programme that among good or intelligent discussions of such matters as Palestine, the parties to the discussions need to attempt a certain thing: to bring into a general summation the reasons or grounds for what they defend or propose. That would be my essential contribution in the discussion. Obviously it is no good trading bits and pieces of stuff, maybe of history, without an effective general basis of a position.

This is not just a matter of the fact that the whole thing of a moral stand has to be got into a focus. It is not just the proposition that it is hopeless to be unable to see the wood -- the forest -- for the trees. Rather, to come to the main point, it is arguably only by coming to a general summation that one can attempt to do the minimum thing of being consistent, which is itself a necessary condition of actually having something to say, and, quite as important, an essential safeguard against cheating on one's own behalf, being blindly or unfairly on the side of one's own people, going in for self-deception, often terrible self-deception.   

Therefore I would say my Zionism and my condemnation of Neo-Zionism are cases or consequences of a certain general truth or attitude -- that of Humanity. They are at least a consequence of, and rest on at bottom, the Principle of Humanity, which must be the primary or fundamental reason for any conclusion as to right and wrong. That principle and outlook would be got into three sentences for The Maze. All we humans have six fundamental goods, share certain desires of human nature -- for a decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedoms and powers, goods of relationships, respect and self-respect, goods of culture. In general what is right, then, is what are rational means of securing those great goods for people. The principle is that we must take all but only rational steps to get and all keep people out of bad lives, those deprived in terms of the fundamental goods.

In short, Zionism is humanity, neo-Zionism is not. It is denial of humanity.

I could in passing on the programme get in the sentence that the Principle of Humanity in its clarity etc stands in contrast to the political verbiage in which we live, about the free society, our hierarchic democracy, mere equality itself rather than bad lives let alone 'social mobility' -- also the verbiage of manipulable human rights, conservatism, liberalism, legalism, patriotism/chauvinism, conventional morality. And such trivial inanities on the part of Cameron, Clegg and Co. as the purposeful ambiguity of talk of the 'acceptable' and the 'unacceptable', not to mention 'the Big Society' and the other stuff at the level of lower advertising.

Those things would be my general contribution to the proceedings, but I could probably fit in a subordinate thing or two or maybe more. Of course you need more than a generality to come to a moral view on Gaza or anything else. You need factual premises, propositions about the past and present. If they are actually harder to deal with than the question of principle, they can be clear and obvious enough.

One thing I could say about Gaza is that it is not neo-Zionism's principal aim to save Jewish lives -- save them from the Gaza rockets or from Hamas incursions by way of tunnels. The aim is not principally to protect its citizens now, to whom there is no large or significant danger.

The aim of the attack on Gaza is what you can best call a political one. It is to secure for neo-Zionism more of what you can call the respect of silence, the respect of inactivity, more defeat of spirit -- first and in particular from the violated Palestinians, and hence a reduction in what it is near enough to true to call the moral contempt of most of the rest of the world for neo-Zionism. To be held in contempt is not a pleasure, no matter the brazenness of the persons concerned. To escape contempt is wanted for itself, if also as a means of reducing the probability of actual large or significant threat to Jewish lives and neo-Zionism in the future.

So the killing in Gaza, what in the absence of any relevant legitimation whatever it is perfectly proper to call the murdering of children, the tearing-apart and frying of children, war crimes by a state and most of its people -- in those several necessary departures from sanctioned speech, several of so many departures required of intellectuals as much as politicians -- the killing in Gaza is in fact a political project, a project of realpolitik, not mainly what is called for by any real and present danger to Israelis. Danger to a nation and people for whom the holiness of the kibbutz has been dragged down into the technology of savagery and the bribery and something like the purchase of the American political system.

Maybe on The Maze I could get in the simplicity that neo-Zionism, the project now led and personified by the ludicrously unctuous Netanyahu, what you might call inspirer on the telly of the book After the Terror, does fully intend to kill women, children and other innocents or non-combatants. Neo-Zionism does so in virtue of the fundamental truth about intentional action recognized in all intelligent contexts, certainly including all developed legal systems. To intend a thing is to do something in the knowledge or reasonable belief that the action will have that thing as an effect. No one denies it except in dimness or propaganda or both.

I could also remark on something else. In terms of deaths, each of them awful, each horrible, the amount or number of them suffered by neo-Zionists or other Jews consists in pin-pricks -- since what is on the other side is numbers by the hundreds, a pile of numbers in an ongoing massacre, almost all of it massacre of the innocents.

I could remark too that there is entire reason for a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against neo-Zionist Israel. Certainly, for a start, none of us should go through the doors of a supermarket or other store believed or suspected of selling anything by neo-Zionism from outside the Zionist or 1948-67 borders of Israel. There should indeed be the boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel that had an effect on the previous racist and apartheid state, that of South Africa. Might I mention on the BBC that John Lewis once informed me of a policy of not revealing to customers where the products or whatever it sells come from? Say the avocados.

And might I get in something else on the programme? That any call for both sides to stop fighting, to the extent that both sides are fighting, and to talk, to negotiate, must necessarily be judged and taken forward by way of knowledge of a proven history on one side of real intransigence, of fake negotiation, of lying about it, of taking a people's land while engaging in mere pretence of negotiation, while building what were appallingly and transparently called those facts on the ground.

There are situations of extremity, of several kinds. When the Holocaust was underway, who in the death camps asked for the Russian tanks to stop while a conference was called in Geneva instead?

I could say in passing on the programme, too, that my own justification of Zionism and my rejection of neo-Zionism cannot be what has got me personal attention for my moral and political books, and of course the libel of anti-semitism, the honour of being one victim of that libel, shared with many, not excluding such as popes. The explanation has to be different given that the justification and rejection are indeed the majority view among humankind generally.

What has got me attention is something else, a clarity and force in expression of support for the Palestinians in terms of their moral right to their struggle. That clarity and force is nothing more than the nature of decent odinary philosophy, my calling. What has got me attention, further, is the trivial fact of people being intrigued by the subject and calling of philosophy and by philosophers, not only in France.

Oh yes, one more related thing for the programme as anticipated in the taxicab. A big thing. I could easily point out that my assigning to the Palestinians a moral right to resistance against their violation, a moral right to killing, has been far from unique, not even unusual. It is not at all unusual in exactly the present context. We hear indubitably from Netanyahu daily in BBC television interviews that he and neo-Zionism have a moral right to the killing of Palestinians, some 700 of them in Gaza at the moment. That neither he nor a fellow neo-Zionist nor a neo-Zionist philosopher has actually used just the term 'moral right' or an equivalent is wholly unlikely, but that is nothing much to the point.

What is certain is that they continually assert what is exactly the contradictory of my proposition. This is fundamental, salient and pervasive in their self-justifications of various kinds. It is not merely below the surface but on the surface of their own cheap language of public relations. What else could they be taken as maintaining? What lesser thing could possibly work for them? They are not saying they're only half-right or that they have no basis for what they say is right. What is missing is only explicitness and argument, argument they cannot produce.

To repeat, the difference between us is not that they do not claim a moral right but only that they cannot conceivably supply an alternative principle of right and wrong that actually establishes a right on their side and denies a right on the side of the Palestinians. That is the consequence of whatever attempts they have made and also of critical reflection on general inquiry into right and wrong over decades and centuries. They could find out about what legal and moral rights are from my useful Oxford Companion to Philosophy but they wouldn't find a principle of right and wrong useful to them, not even from the contributors of a conservative kind.

So much for my intentions for the programme on the way to the BBC. What happened was not what I expected, not a discussion programme. What happened was what explained something that  had been surprising, a later phone call from the producer of the programme. He mentioned a different lot of other names than those of the four participants already listed -- me, the colonel from Jerusalem, Hugo Slim from Oxford, the editor
Mehdi Hasan.

I had thought in the second phone conversation that there had been some considerable rethinking about personnel, seemingly radical. Now there were to be two Conservative women on the show, one of them a columnist for the newspaper The Daily Mail. Also Giles Fraser, the brave Anglican priest who distinguished himself in connection with the occupation at St. Paul's Cathedral, and has since, while remaining a priest, become a Guardian columnist of character, judgement and nerve. No doubt I should have concentrated more on the phone call.

What happened, entirely unexpected by me until another producer turned up in the anteroom to the BBC studio, and chatted to me and 
Hugo Slim and Mehdi Hasan, was that the programme did not consist in a discussion at all, either in organization or in proper procedure and level.

It consisted in an ongoing panel of four individuals, rather like a bench of four judges, and a chairman, and each week four of what I think were called witnesses, different ones -- one of the four of them this week being me. The witnesses appeared one by one and alone before the judges.

The judges, in my case mainly or only the two Conservative women, engaged in what it is polite to call cross-examinations. Then there was some kind of summing up by the judges at the end.

Was I in the right place? Was it worth being there? Should I just piss off? What about being true to Noam Chomsky on The Responsibility of the Intellectuals, the social failure of American and other academics? Was all this too close to a general subject to which my mind is turning, the managed level of public intelligence in our hierarchic democracy? Was this something that someone who aspires to be a real philosopher and thinker should be part of? Well, I stayed. Weakness of will? Undefeated low desire for attention? As became clearer, I should never have been there.

The chairman, Michael Buerk, was apprehensive not only about my giving a 4-minute lecture, since, as he said sharply and impolitely, we didn't have all day, but maybe he was yet more apprehensive about what might be in the lecture. The cross-examination of me by one Melanie Phillips, the newspaper columnist of evolved convictions, consisted merely in her repetition  of neo-Zionist stuff, mainly the repetition of the proposition that the only real aim of Hamas is to efface Israel from the face of the earth, murder all Jews, drive Israel into the sea etc, easily supposed to be proved repeatedly by her by her simply ignoring the familiar fact of what is no more than Arab and other rhetoric, including rhetoric in various forms. It was dismal stuff. Less than undergraduate, made no better by venom.

I did not do well in my response to cross-examination by her. I seem to recall speaking perspicuously of drivel. I did not overcome my bad temper and eventually my rage with the proceedings, in particular with the level of the loaded questioning. Silence would have been a rational response, or, what crossed my mind, walking out. I wish I had. The fact was that I would never have been there at all, never darkened the door of the new BBC in the first place if I had had the sense of find about about the show in advance.

It crossed my mind that the proceedings of The Moral Maze, certainly on this occasion or in my part of this occasion, was a kind of grim counterpart of Strictly Come Dancing. Here the programme bore only as much relation to proper discussion, to intelligence, to a decent level of public inquiry, as Strictly bears, say, to grown-up real culture.
I like Strictly a lot more. It does not have pretentions.

I don't have much recollection of what happened in the case of two of the other four witnesses -- even though the sound was piped into the anteroom -- except that the colonel of Jerusalem went on or was allowed to go on pretty boringly and pompously, aided only by the fact that the neo-Zionist army could murder even more civilians if it wanted -- and that Mehdi Hasan, despite condemning both Israel and Hamas, was as acute in some of his logic as he was in perfect command of one paralysing line of facts. I had shaken the dust off the corridors of the BBC and was in a taxi before the last of the four witnesses, the Oxford man, Hugo Slim, had his minutes in court.

He, by the way, in retrospect, made the whole junket to Broadcasting House worth it. As I discovered in conversation with him before the show, there is a clear and strong connection between my Principle of Humanity and humanitarianism and its tradition, something on which he has written or is writing. I will look into that.

It is agreeable that you have no need to rely on me at all in this report. Don't. You can listen to the whole show. A show it was for me, not a place for a working philosopher. In my case, not a place for any thinking. You can listen to it by turning on your computer and finding your way to BBC Radio 4.

I have now done so myself, and am pleased to give you my opinion that while indeed I did not do well, I was not a disgrace. What can you do if you find yourself in a pit with a small she-bear with a persistence that amounts to a disability? A small she-bear with special needs? A little Netanyahu of the BBC? A journalist who forces on me the problem of which there can be a profession that includes both her and, say, those in another world who are Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Seumas Milne, and Polly Toynbee?

Do you reproach me for those utterances? Well, I say in my defence that conventions of discourse are no easy question. Parliamentary language, academic restraint, avoidance of personal abuse and so on play roles in our lives that need consideration, like some other large conventions. Also, it is not every day that I hear a public figure describe me, in her summation of my attempted speech, as 'morally depraved'.  Something like paedophilia? I see from Wikipedia that Melanie Phillips read English at St. Anne's College, Oxford. Evidently, her education didn't take. I know a Jewish sister or two, indeed an ex-wife, who would not have been loyal to her performance.

By comparison her fellow-judge Giles Fraser was a tower of perception, judgement, feeling, and restraint. That seemed to me true before the end of the programme where he was carefully and cautiously and independently speaking up with respect to me against the small bear of proof by repetition, indeed truth by repetition. He gives religion a good name. Matthew Taylor, earlier or later, perhaps representing New Labour, despite his party affiliation knew something of what can be done in place of verbiage devoted to a cause of selfishness, in part a people's selfishness.

One of the judges, very differently, perhaps the other Conservative, told the listening audience repeatedly that she had seen through my morality of humanity and it was the simple monstrosity that if people have 'a grievance', 'a grievance', something greater but along the lines of what you might have against a football referee or a noisy neighbour, they can kill other people. Also that I was unique in having no morality at all. Mine was a bestiality beyond bears. Did some nitwit purveyor of realism among the judges say or imply that Gaza's resistance to neo-Zionism was nothing local, nothing much about neo-Zionism, not really about Gaza in particular, but just part of the wider Islamic plot against civilization? I won't be listening again to confirm it.

Was I and am I now an absurd innocent abroad, or anyway an absurd innocent in the BBC? Yes. Too true. Too much concentration on writing a book about the nature of consciousness for years, being out of the world. Still, I had things to say on the BBC, things that could have been said very quickly, more quickly than they have been here, and they were never heard. There can be an absurd innocence that has some logic and fact in it.