By David Swanson
With Jimmy Carter’s book a best seller and the Iraq War a top political concern, many Americans may have an interest right now in thinking about Israel and Palestine. I’d like to recommend to anyone with that interest picking up a copy of a short and brilliant book by the British philosopher Ted Honderich called “Right and Wrong and Palestine, 9-11, Iraq, 7-7.”
“7-7,” for Americans who haven’t memorized that number, is the date of the terrorist attack in London’s subway. Honderich addresses ethical questions raised by the four topics in his title, but does so after laying out a general understanding of the philosophy of ethics. In fact, it is on page 114 of a 247-page book that he finally gets around to a preliminary discussion of the definition of terrorism and on page 131 that he first touches on the four topics named. The preceding pages may, however, be the most valuable portion of his book.
Honderich provides a compelling overview of the place of philosophy in ethical inquiry, of the standards of human rights, just war theory, conservatism and liberalism, and democracy. He gives a powerful defense of consequentialist and non-utilitarian ethics (and explains what that means). And he sets out in the place of utilitarianism or any other past system of ethics something he calls “The Principle of Humanity.” Humans, Honderich writes, desire a decent length of life, the means to support a quality of life, freedom and power, relationships with others, respect and self-respect, and the goods of culture. A bad life is one deprived of some or all of these things. The principle of humanity is that the right thing to do is aimed at getting and keeping people out of bad lives.
I’ve grossly oversimplified and recommend reading Honderich’s position in the original. I think it outdoes the ethical positions of the vast majority of philosophy professors. I also think the rest of the book demonstrates the limited usefulness of having done so. That is to say, my reaction to Honderich’s book is one that he has pre-interpreted in his conclusion as based on fear and inconsistency: I accept his ethical premises and then reject one of his conclusions. Of course I do so under the belief that I am not lacking courage, and rather that Honderich is lacking sufficient imagination.
I recently published an article praising members of the U.S. military who publicly refuse to serve in Iraq or simply go AWOL from an illegal and immoral war. To ask every member of the military to take that step is to ask them to be heroes, to set aside their particular concerns of family and friendship about which I know nothing, to encourage the taking of risks that I have never taken, and to do so from a position that I have been privileged to avoid. I cannot ask for such heroism or criticize those who lack it. But I can praise it where it exists and encourage it. In fact I am happy to both endorse and incite it (see below).
I find myself in a similar position toward Palestinians. If you follow Honderich’s careful reasoning you end up facing one of two options: either accept his conclusion that Palestinian terrorism against Israel is ethically right and good, or defend a proposal that Honderich fails to even imagine, namely that there are other possible ways by which Palestinians might attempt to secure their freedom and end their oppression. To make such a defense is to ask people being terrorized by Israel not to engage in terrorism in return. It is to ask Palestinians, in the particular sense of loving one’s enemies, to be Christians, to be Gandhi, to be Martin Luther King Jr. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. In fact, tellingly, it is more than Honderich is willing to ask of himself.
After endorsing Palestinian violence, Honderich draws a ludicrous distinction between “endorsing” and “inciting”, and explicitly admits that he is doing so in order to avoid the possibility of going to jail for inciting violence. He then lists other things that British and other Western readers of his book can do to oppose Israel’s attempts to seize more Palestinian land: demand withdrawal to the territory of Israel in 1948 (territory Honderich argues Israel was right to seize and is right to keep), urge divestment from the company that makes the caterpillar bulldozers used to destroy Palestinians’ homes, boycott retail stores and other businesses dealing with Israel, and use civil disobedience and symbolic public acts.
I’m less concerned that Honderich eschews such civil disobedience himself in drawing his absurd distinction between “endorsing” and “inciting” actions he deems right, than I am that he denies the possibility of such civil disobedience to the Palestinians themselves, reserving it only for well-fed Brits. Here’s the lead sentence from an article in November 2006 in the Christian Science Monitor:
“In perhaps the most effective act of nonviolent protest in the six-year Palestinian uprising, hundreds of Gazans forced Israel over the weekend to call off airstrikes on the residence of a militant leader by swarming the house as human shields.”
Here is civil disobedience by Palestinians in defense of Palestine, and it’s effective. That’s something suicide bombing appears doomed to fail at: being effective.
So, why do I recommend Honderich’s book so strongly if I disagree with his conclusion? Well, I disagree with one of his four sets of conclusions. I think he gets 9-11, 7-7, and Iraq exactly right. I think he draws the connections between his four topics in exactly the right way. And I think he provides one of the most compelling possible rigorous arguments against a vast array of positions on Palestine that are even more wrong than his own. Until you understand the Palestinians as engaged in self-defense, and understand that as a position that is not anti-Semitic, you cannot even get to the debate over whether the tools employed should be violent ones. Honderich is an author who can guide you to this understanding, and to an understanding of ethics that may be useful in other areas as well.