Cutting through the bullshit.

Sunday 10 December 2006

'Justice demands it'

According to the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ site,

Ted Honderich is the Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic, University College London…He is presently chairman of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.’

Like, wow! So there must be something significant in there?

We cannot settle such fundamental questions of right and wrong as that of Palestine and so on by the common recourses to international law, UN resolutions, doctrines of human rights or our hierarchic democracy. Rather, for consistency and other reasons, we need a fundamental principle of right and wrong. This is the principle of humanity. It is, in short, that we must take actually rational steps, as distinct from political pretences and the like, to get and keep people out of bad lives, the latter being defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods.

Now, I don’t know about these ‘fundamental questions of right and wrong’ he’s on about, but I’m with him as far as rejecting the ‘international law’ nonsense. But I guess that’s where we part company. Doubtless he is assuming some well known corpus of philosophical reasoning that I have no familiarity with, but then, he’s writing for a lay audience. Frankly, in that or any other context, I’m surprised that a philosopher thinks he can get away with ‘consistency and other reasons’, especially without explaining what it is that consistency demands. International law is certainly full of inconsistency. But at least a codified system allows identification of the specific inconsistencies. For the sake of consistency, however, he prefers a vaguely defined ‘principle of right and wrong’ otherwise known as ‘the principle of humanity’?

So what is this principle? To ‘take actually rational steps…to get and keep people out of bad lives’. ‘Actually rational steps’ is a concept itself begging definition, although at least we know that they are ‘distinct from political pretences and the like’. As for ‘bad lives’, they are ‘defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods’. I didn’t realize that philosophers were supposed to be able to get away with this kind of slovenliness. To assert that red is defined in terms of the electromagnetic spectrum is not the same as to define red. To assert that bad lives are ‘defined in terms of lacks and denials of the great human goods’ not only fails to define bad lives but also deploys other undefined concepts.

The real question is where this gets us. And the answer is not long in coming.

This morality of humanity includes certain propositions. It justifies Zionism, not vaguely understood but taken as the founding and maintaining of Israel in roughly its original 1948 borders.

The impression you start to get at this point is that when you start out from vague, undefined, assumed principles, it can lead just about anywhere. And sure enough, the philosopher cuts right to the chase. ‘Actual rational steps…to get people out of bad lives’ logically entails espousing a particular view of Zionism. For Honderich, unlike the founders of Zionist thought and many other adherents and critics of Zionism, it means the colonial occupation of an ethno-religious sectarian state ‘roughly’ within its 1948 borders. I suppose we can leave aside the little problem that those borders of 1948 were never actually defined – the Green and Blue lines, as I recollect were just provisional ceasefire lines. Certainly Israel never accepted them as borders and still doesn’t. More to the point, when he says ‘roughly’, it becomes clear that he doesn’t accept them either. What counts as ‘rough’? Is the Litani River, for example, ‘roughly the Blue Line’? Is the Jordan River ‘roughly the Green Line’? We’re not talking about long distances here.

But I’m just having a go. Really, I know just what he means, although I can’t see any reason to let a prominent philosopher get away with ‘You know what I mean, dude’. What he means is that he wants Israel to withdraw to the Green Line, except for a few adjustments to take into consideration ‘facts on the ground’, like the huge settlements Israel has been establishing precisely and quite explicitly to create ‘facts on the ground’ that philosophers will later have to take into consideration when determining what is just and fair and ‘actually rational’. And like the famous Geneva initiative, the Palestinians will be compensated for the territory lost to the facts on the ground with ‘roughly’ equivalent areas within ‘Israel proper’. Sometimes this exchanged territory is supposed to be a bit of desert adjacent to Gaza. Sometimes areas with high concentrations of ‘Israeli Arabs’. Just to be fair, you understand. Never something actually useful, like sovereignty over a secure corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. That would undermine Israel’s territorial integrity! Absolutely out of the question!

But at a more fundamental level, what he’s really saying here is that colonizing 78% of Mandatory Palestine, notwithstanding irrelevancies like the UN partition plan of 1947, with all the ethnic cleansing, massacres, and terrorism that went along with that, satisfies the philosophical requirements of justice, fairness, ‘the morality of humanity’, but

The morality of humanity also condemns neo-Zionism, understood as the taking from the Palestinians at least their freedom in the last fifth of their homeland.

Insofar as this gibberish is intelligible at all, I think what he’s getting at is that he believes there is a separate ideology, distinct from what he has defined Zionism as, which covets the remaining 22% of Mandatory Palestine. In reality, of course, conventional Zionism has always had this property, but the point is not really to quibble over how Honderich defines terms. The point is to discern the philosophical principle that can make this distinction between colonizing and ethnically cleansing a particular tract of land, but not too particular, just roughly particular, remember, and colonizing and ethnically cleansing another, adjacent bit of land.

There are in fact arguments that make this distinction. The whole ‘two state solution’ school of thought depends on making it. But they always couch it in quite specific terms. UN General Assembly Resolution 273 effectively accepted Israel’s existence within the ‘1948 borders’, although it also called on Israel to implement certain obligations, such as compliance with Resolution 194 on the refugees’ right of return, which Israel agreed to at the time, but never actually implemented. That is the basis for believing that Israel within the 1948 ‘borders’ has a ‘right to exist’. UN Security Council Resolution 242, demanding that Israel withdraw from the territory acquired by conquest in the 1967 war provides the basis for excluding those territories from Israel. Professor Honderich is quite right, in my humble estimation, to reject making this distinction on so arbitrary a basis. After all, why should territory acquired by force in 1948 be sacrosanct, but not territory acquired by force in 1967? The conclusion I draw is that there is no distinction – it was never legitimate to turf the Palestinians out in the first place and no amount of UN resolutions is going to change that. But obviously I lack the subtlety of a distinguished philosophy professor who discerns that there is indeed a distinction which derives transparently from ‘the morality of humanity’.

In what looks suspiciously like a non sequitur, Professor Honderich proceeds to assert that

It [the morality of humanity] gives to them a moral right to their liberation-terrorism against neo-Zionism in historic Palestine, including Israel.

And yet

The morality of humanity judges 9/11 to have been monstrously wrong, an irrational means to ends that included resistance to neo-Zionism.

If I am following the argument correctly, the morality of humanity, which he has adopted in the interests of consistency, among other things, permits acts that he is willing to characterize as terrorism on those who are directly or indirectly responsible for the depredations of ‘neo-Zionism’. This morality also sanctions attacks on those, like small children, who are perceived to benefit from those depredations, or who may grow up to perpetrate them. It is ok to commit terrorist acts against these people if they happen to be located somewhere in historic Palestine. But if anyone commits such acts against similar targets in New York, the same moral principle condemns their acts as monstrously wrong and irrational. I suppose this geographical principle of morality is in some bizarre way consistent with the geographical or chronological distinction between the moral justification of the occupation of ‘roughly’ 1948 Israel and the moral condemnation of the occupation of the territory occupied in 1967.

This may not be the place for an exhaustive discussion of the rationality of terrorism. But I believe you can make a case that the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001 succeeded in drawing the US into military adventures which have weakened it. We have no way of knowing what the actual objectives of the perpetrators were, but it is certainly possible that they worked out the probable outcomes. I would characterize that as rational. Palestinian terrorism against Israeli targets of any kind may or may not be morally justified within Honderich’s or someone else’s framework. But there is little doubt that it is thoroughly irrational. Decades of experience have shown that it has never succeeded in driving the military occupation to retreat, or even in displacing settlers in significant numbers. What it has done is to provide the Israeli state with a pretext to exacerbate the oppression of ordinary Palestinians in ways that are amply documented everywhere daily. There are other factors involved, like residual Holocaust guilt and the diplomatic protection afforded by the US with its UN Security Council veto, but acts of individual terrorism are widely perceived as a valid excuse for Israel’s routine violations of such niceties as the laws of war and occupation. Like any small scale retail terrorism, by substituting the acts of courageous or foolhardy martyrs for the mass activity that can really bring changes about, all of these acts are ultimately counterproductive, and therefore irrational.

The balance of the article is no clearer than the first three paragraphs that I have been discussing. They appear to comprise an attempt to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism. After a couple of readings, it is not at all obvious that he succeeds in this endeavour. He does seem to make the point that Jews have a special responsibility to act against ‘neo-Zionism’, whatever you make of that, because, he alleges, ‘They can have a little more effect on it than others’. He also specifically recommends his colleague Professor Michael Neumann’s The case against Israel. I have been intending for some time to write a critique of Neumann, but will have to reread it first, a task so repugnant that I will probably defer it forever.

[written 2006 12 02]

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