Moral Maze, What I Didn't Get To Say In One
by Ted Honderich
7 August 2014
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.
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.
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
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
belief, not then unreasonable, that the Palestinians were
not, as I wrote in several books, a fully separate people. They
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.
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.
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
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
which is itself a necessary condition of actually having something
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.
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.
is humanity, neo-Zionism is not. It is denial of humanity.
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.
would be my general contribution to the proceedings, but I could
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
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.
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
sanctioned speech, several of so many departures required of
intellectuals as much as politicians -- the killing in Gaza is in fact a
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
of the kibbutz has been dragged down into the technology of savagery
and the bribery and something like the purchase of the American
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.
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
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
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?
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,
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.
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
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
has actually used just the term 'moral right' or an equivalent is
wholly unlikely, but that is nothing much to
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
with the proceedings, in particular with the level of the
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
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
public inquiry, as Strictly bears, say, to grown-up real culture. I like Strictly a lot more. It does not have pretentions.
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
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
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.
have now done so myself, and am pleased to give you my opinion that
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.