Did the Ted Honderich Show prove TV and philosophy can mix?
Earlier this year, the head of five, the UK terrestrial TV channel, Dan Chambers, told TPM about his commitment to putting more philosophy on the screen. (See issue 33.) In September, we had a chance to judge the value of his claim with the screening of the documentary “The Real Friends of Terror” in which Ted Honderich brought his controversial ideas about terrorism to the screen. Honderich argued that “The Palestinians have a moral right to their terror.” His justification for this derived from his “Principle of Humanity”, which he defined in the programme as: “We must take actually rational steps to getting and keeping people out of bad lives”. Such bad lives are ones “deprived of six fundamental human goods”, namely, “A decent length of life; bodily well-being; freedom and power; respect and self-respect; the goods of relationships; and the satisfactions of culture.” Honderich’s argument is that this moral imperative justifies Palestinian terrorism, because given the inability to mount any other kind of resistance to Israeli “neo-zionism”, terrorist acts are “actually rational steps” to getting Palestinians out of their often bad lives. So was this a good example of how philosophy could be brought to the masses via our most powerful medium? To answer this question, TPM invited four philosophers to a preview screening of the programme. Over wine afterwards, all agreed that, whatever the merits of the programme, the philosophical content was minimal. As Jonathan Webber put it, “He wheeled out the principle and drew conclusions from it, but he didn’t make much attempt to justify it.” Was this Honderich’s fault or is this just unfortunately a limitation of the medium? “If you’re going to make a 40-minute TV show you can’t
go into a lot of depth,” conceded Webber. And it was the lack of any real depth that really irked our panel of reviewers. “He objected to 9/11 on the grounds that it was an ineffective means to its end,” pointed out Chris Bertram, “which rather raises the question, what if it had been an effective means to its end?” Honderich made his opposition to the 9/11 attacks very clear. “The attack on America on 9/11 was monstrously wrong,” he said. “It was wrong, according to the Principle of Humanity, because it was a monstrously irrational means to an end that was partly defensible, I mean support of the Palestinians and resistance to neo-zionism.” But as Bertram said, that leaves open some troubling questions: “Would it be OK to deliberately kill a lot of innocent people to help bring about the fulfilment of the principle of humanity? He didn’t really deal with that question.” Without the detail that was lacking in the film, it is impossible for the viewer to know whether Honderich bites that bullet or has a good response to this. “I had a thought watching the film of a similarity between Honderich and someone like Alan Dershowitz and his ruminations on torture,” said Bertram, “that if we need to torture people to stop things happening, we ought to torture people. This is a very simple consequentialist calculation, and I think the same thing is going on with Honderich. If it were true that appalling terrorist acts such as blowing up innocents advanced the principle of humanity, it would be OK. “Various people said that in order to pursue their ends, which were quite unspecified, Palestinians had no choice but to engage in terrorist acts,” continued Bertram. “That raised a whole series of issues which weren’t addressed, namely: Are the ends worth pursuing? Is it in fact true
The Philosophers' Magazine /4th quarter 2006