Honderich: sloppy, lazy, dishonest

Read Jon Pike’s review of After the Terror in this month’s Democratiya:

The core of the second argument of the book is Honderich’s justification of Palestinian terrorism, and suicide bombing in particular. Here is what he says in the key paragraph:

“I myself have no serious doubt, to take the outstanding case, that the Palestinians have exercised a moral right in their terrorism against the Israelis. They have had a moral right to terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say, of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves. This seems to me a terrible truth, a truth that overcomes what we must remember about all terrorism and also overcomes the thought of hideousness and monstrosity (p.151).”

Honderich asserts that the Principle of Humanity justifies Palestinian terrorism ‘of course by way of various additional propositions of fact, some of them historical’ (p.166). There needs to be something to back that ‘necessary,’ – and its horrible resonance with Auden’s Stalinist invocation of the ‘necessary murder.’ The backing needs to be certain sorts of facts – about alternatives, about consequences, about probabilities and about counterfactuals.

Those additional propositions of fact must be to do with the effectiveness of terrorism as a means to securing the end of ‘ending the violation of the Palestinian people and their homeland.’ One obvious outstanding counter-example is the case of the Netanya bombing in 2002 which instantly derailed US sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So we should expect to hear something about this. Honderich is, after all, some sort of consequentialist who justifies acts and omissions by reference to their consequences, and he is explicit that historical propositions of fact need to be entertained in the argument. It would seem then that some general principles about the success of suicide bombings might be adduced at this point, or even some specific considerations about specific suicide attacks: there are enough of them.

What has Honderich to say about this? He calls Blair a liar. He cites Finkelstein. Then he cites the increase in the Jewish population of Palestine after 1876 (though he endorses the formation of the state of Israel) He cites various other very partial features of Israeli history in a way that had his referee Habermas scratching his head: ‘The one-sided sketch of the history of that conflict … is a long way from satisfying the claim to historical accuracy.’ [5] But these facts cannot possibly enter into a justification of terror and suicide bombing as a tactic. They can conceivably enter into a justification of the claim that an injustice has been done to the Palestinian people, though very much more would need to be said. They cannot conceivably enter into a justification of terrorism or suicide bombing, because that would require facts of an entirely different order – facts about political effectiveness, facts about the absence, or weakness of alternatives, facts about the persuasive nature of the alternative under description. But here Honderich’s consequentialism is abandoned. Instead, Honderich who has already told us that he has ‘no serious doubt about the claim that Palestinians have a moral right to terrorism’, adds that ‘It is also my conviction that there is a possibility of rightness with respect to …Palestinian terrorism’ (p.175 italics inserted). He seems worried that we will be in a state of confusion about the strength of his epistemological commitment, because he later states that ‘With respect to the moral rights of the Palestinians, I myself have greater confidence in it than before the war on Iraq’ (p.184). On this very question, in the unrueful postscript, Honderich’s argument is ‘Nothing has change my mind about that’ (p.184) In Counterpunch, he tries to respond to the criticism that Palestinian suicide bombing is counterproductive. ‘It is possible to think, as I do, that this course of action, and only this course of action, will secure the freedom and power of a people in their homeland.’[6]

But, as philosophy markers often say, that wasn’t the question. It is possible to think all sorts of silly things, it is possible not to doubt them, even not to doubt them seriously. It is possible to have great confidence in them, to be convinced by them. More: it is possible to write them down, and sometimes, quite often, sadly, it is possible to get them published. That doesn’t stop them being silly. Where are the historical and contingent facts? Where is the assessment of counterfactuals, of probabilities, where is the careful consequentialist judgement, based on contingencies? In their absence, what is going on here?

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

Honderich is, of course, well known for “taking the moral high ground” on questions of moral responsibility:

He speaks at one point of the sexual temptation presented by undergraduates, which he did not always resist. Sex with students, as he tells it, resembled gravity, something that happened to him rather than something he made happen. At one point he actually says, “I fell into two small affairs, one after another, with undergraduates.” Considering that the author has written often on free will and determinism, the verb “fell” seems spectacularly inappropriate.

He calculates that he has had more women than Bertrand Russell but not so many as A.J. Ayer, an example of the competitive spirit that makes British philosophy what it is today. Honderich has seldom been overly prudent. In the 1970s, while part of an open marriage, he was involved with an undergraduate who was romantically connected to a lecturer elsewhere, with presumably the same freedom from bourgeois convention. She sometimes accompanied him to other cities where he would lecture and they would stay with a local professor. “Was it wise, when I had been pressing myself forward for promotion … to be courting some degree of notoriety? It did not go well with taking the high moral ground.” Apparently it didn’t harm his career.

via Normblog