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Sunday, September 15, 2002

Book Reviews

Axes of Good and Evil

After the Terror by Ted Honderich. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2002, 160 pages, $22.50.

This is an unusual book, certainly the most unusual of the many I’ve read during the last year on September 11 and its meta-issues (terrorism, clash of civilizations, Islam, and so on). Ted Honderich was Grote professor of philosophy at University College, London, and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. He is the author, most recently, of Philosopher: A Kind of Life. He knows the United States well, having taught here as a visiting professor, most notably at Yale. He is, in a word, a “professional” philosopher (that is, an academic one) who, however, has written a book that is anything but arcane or composed for a tiny and elite group of initiates. Quite the opposite, this is the kind of philosophy that was written once upon a time when people actually took philosophy – and philosophers – seriously.

The argument
As such, it positively resonates with wisdom. It is not your standard quick-off-the-press, quick-onto-the-shelf instant punditry that passes for intellectual discourse nowadays and in which the United States, the global model in this as in so many other recent cultural diminishments, excels. After the Terror is in fact a closely argued repositing, in the best tradition of moral philosophy, of what is arguably the oldest question in the Western philosophical canon, famously posed first by Socrates/Plato: “What is a good life?” (p. 1) That is actually the first line of Honderich’s inquiry. More to the point, Honderich seeks to reveal the connection(s) between the world as it exists today and the good life – or, more accurately, the absence of any possibility of a good life for so many of the world’s present (and past and, unfortunately, future) inhabitants.

In a devastating opening chapter, entitled “Good Lives, Bad Lives,” Honderich quickly dispatches the various myths (distortions, fabrications, and lies) that have inundated us since the fall of the Berlin Wall about the new world order. As a philosopher, Honderich understands the importance of semantic precision, and he wants to ensure that we all understand precisely what we are talking about when we talk about a “good life.”

Honderich’s immediate answer to the question of what constitutes a good life is self-evident enough: “a…life that goes on long enough” (p. 1). He continues: “A short life may be good while it lasts, may be a sweet thing in the memory of others. But if it is only half the length it should have been, if it is cut down to that [emphases added], it is not a good life” (p. 1). Nevertheless, it is equally obvious that “how long a life goes on does not by itself make it a good one” (p. 1). A long life is what Honderich calls a “great good” (p. 2), but to genuinely constitute a good life, this great good of (reasonable) longevity is “itself a means to other things – to things that make for a good life” (p. 4). Specifically:

A good life is also one that has in it what living longer gives us more of – well-being, happiness, fulfillment, contentment, or something on the way to these. A good life involves, more particularly, great goods in addition to living longer. For you, these are things possessed by yourself and those who are close to you. They are satisfactions different from the elementary one of existing. These too are intrinsic goods, whatever further use they also are.

One is a quality of life…that can be secured by, and more or less defined by, the possession of familiar material means. It is physical well-being tied to certain material goods. Some…are nearly as old as our kind, say a private place to live, and more and different food than is necessary to sustain life. Something to drink other than water. Other things are means of alleviating pain, or some of it, and help in dealing with disability, and protection from common dangers, and maybe the means of travelling a bit. There are also the well-advertised means that now have the name of being consumer-goods. They can come to seem necessities. They are easier to be superior about if you have a lot of them. (pp. 4-5)

So, a good life is, first of all, a long one and, second, one that possesses a generally agreed-upon “physical well-being based on certain material goods” (p. 5). There are, however, according to Honderich, four additional “great goods” for which a long life is the means.

One…has to do with freedom and power of various kinds, to which can be added safety. There is also respect and self-respect, and private and public relationships with others, and the satisfactions of culture, including religion and diversion….More of these five great goods is better than fewer of them, and more of each one is better than less. That is so, at any rate, for the overwhelming majority of us who have not reached real satiety. (p. 5)

This is essentially the argument: concise, modest, judicious, and, above all, realistic. I think (and, I suspect, Honderich does also) that most reasonable people on the planet (that is, those not overly afflicted either by secular or religious ideologies) would find little from which to dissent in this lucid description. Indeed, two critical elements of this definition – or, more exactly, encapsulation – of the “good life” make it unusually pragmatic. On the one hand, while it is not based on any impossibly exalted, invariably religious (or, what amounts to the same thing, St. Justian) notion(s) of moral rectitude, it nevertheless allows for that moral sense that most of us have and, more important, believe that we need in our lives. Honderich’s enumeration of the “great goods” of “respect and self-respect…private and public relationships with others, and the satisfactions of culture” speaks precisely to this fundamentally human moral need. On the other hand, Honderich’s moral articulation of the good life does not preclude or, worse, repudiate what all of us instinctively understand to be true: namely, that it is hopeless – in fact, cruel – to speak of any kind of good life without a material basis that actually makes it, in an irreducible sense, good. It is this integration of the ethical with the materially exigent that not only makes Honderich’s work persuasive, but allows him to proceed to a caustic critique of “civilization” as we know it (both “ours” and “theirs”).

The sociological basis of the philosophical inquiry
Having provided us with a philosophical abstract of the good life, Honderich now gives us a sociological portrait of how bad many people’s lives actually are in the imperium, starkly illustrating his argument with data contained in a table (p. 8) with information from 32 countries. While, with Switzerland’s recent decision to enter the world of the living, the United Nations currently has 190 members, this sampling is fairly representative and, therefore, fair in itself. The nations are divided into seven unities (some of them are anything but blocs and, in two cases, a country stands alone): the United States and select proconsular administrations (Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and Japan); four sub-Saharan African countries (Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Sierra Leone); seven Islamic nations (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates); Israel and Palestine; India; Russia, Poland, China, Cuba, and Libya; Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina; and Australia. (Honderich doesn’t explain his divisions, although, with the exception of Australia, the criteria are pretty obvious, and even Australia could be a case of Antipodean distinction, if not quite exceptionalism. In the event, Honderich’s central concern is with the first and second groups, for reasons that quickly become clear.)

There are six columns in Honderich’s table for each nation, with the relevant figures under each column. These columns are: “average lifetimes in years”; “average healthy lifetimes in years”; “children dying under five, per 1,000 live births”; “GNP per person in US dollars”; “worst-off tenth of population: percentage of total income or consumption”; and “best-off tenth of population: percentage of total income or consumption.” All of these data are for the year 2000 and derive from the World Bank, UNICEF, or the World Health Organization (p. 9). Needless to say, the chasm between Groups One and Two is not simply yawning, it is continental.

The average life expectancy in the first group is almost 78 years; in the second, it is just over 40. The average healthy lifetime in the first group is 71.8 years, a loss of roughly eight percent from the average lifetime, whereas it is 30 years in the second group; this means that the women and men in the second group can expect to spend on average a full quarter of their lives – which are profoundly abbreviated in any case – in ill health. It is when we get to the number of children under five dying for every 1,000 live births, however, that we begin to pass over existential and social frontiers into a nightmarish parallel universe that, in its degradation, is the negative image of our own felicity.

The average number of children under five dying for every 1,000 live births in the “privileged” group, if I may call it that, is 5.55. (It is more than interesting to note that the US has the highest rate of deaths in its group, at 7 per 1,000, and Japan the lowest, at 4, while all the other countries report either 5 or 6 per 1,000. It is even more notable that, despite almost 40 years of pitiless American economic warfare and social sabotage that has decimated its infrastructure, Cuba’s exemplary record of 8 deaths per 1,000 live births is in most cases far better than that of any other nation in the table, including the plutocracy of the United Arab Emirates, with the singular exception of Australia, which records 5 deaths per 1,000 live births – which, however, is also significantly better than the US record.) And what about the African nations? Their average number of deaths of children under the age of five per 1,000 live births is a genuinely grotesque 234, or 42 times the average of the privileged group!

(Since Bush the younger seems ready to “complete” the geostrategic “vision thing” of Bush the elder, at least in Iraq, this is probably the place to mention that, according to the most reliable, and conservative, estimates of Western non-governmental organizations and the UN itself, 500,000 children under the age of five have died in that country in the decade of UN-imposed but US-determined sanctions. By all accounts, Saddam Hussein is in more than passable health; unfortunately, one cannot say the same for Iraqi children. This helps to explain why, over the years, UN officials appointed to oversee the sanctions have resigned in protest against the social decimation, once again, of a country whose infrastructure was, before it was struck by a Desert Storm, one of the most advanced in the region, but whose citizens have now become the “collateral damage” of a perverse contest between their own fiendish ruler and a US policy about which the kindest thing that one can say is that it is mindlessly callous.)

I’ll mention only one more set of data, GNP per person. The average for Group One is roughly $24,500, while that for Group Two is just over $220, or about 111 times less than the former! It is sickeningly clear at this juncture that what we are dealing with here are two utterly different worlds, thoroughly separate and monstrously unequal. (And, once again, there are some unusually telling differences within the privileged group itself. The highest GNP per person is not that of the deregulated-to-the-nth-degree US, which stands at $29,240, but of social democratic Denmark, at $33,040, followed by highly regulated – and, for that reason, severely chastised by the US – Japan, at $32,350. There is another, deeper conundrum lurking in these Group One data, however. The country with the second lowest GNP per person is, surprisingly, Canada, whose $19,170 comes in at a full third below that of the US. How is it, then, that Canada consistently scores near the top – if not the top – in all quality-of-living surveys conducted by the UN and other international bodies? Is it possible that, in fact, even among our “peer group” – some would say our vassals – the US has managed to create a singularly dysfunctional social system, despite its unequaled wealth? We actually all know the answers to these questions, whether we care to admit it or not.)

The price of rice
I can easily anticipate the two primary objections to Honderich’s method. The first is the classic one of “lies, lies, and damned statistics.” In fact, the data that Honderich uses are generally recognized as the most basic quantifiers, and irreproachable indicators, of a society’s well-being. There’s no “funny math” here; he has not taken obscure and rarely used data and manipulated them to serve his “agenda.” GNP, longevity, infant mortality, as well as the other categories are the most universally accepted measurements of social progress (and therefore cohesion). These are not damned statistics, but damning ones.

The more relevant objection is surely the one about relevance itself. In short, what does any of this have to do with the attacks on September 11, 2001? That this question is still asked (even by many on the left, for whom the only issue is “Islamofascism”) tells us more about the questioners than it does about the question. I’ll let Honderich answer for himself:

...[I]t is no good trying to pretend that our relation to the bad lives arises only among philosophers and vicars. But that is not all. It is not as if political realism in itself is an escape from anything like morality, the whole neighbourhood. There is a way in which our countries when they engage in political realism are engaged in something like morality.

To have this policy of political realism is of course to have it as a reason for actions and policies. In the case of President Bush, the reason is that something is good or profitable for Americans, or anyway some Americans. Even if this self-interest is not explicitly given as a reason by an unusually innocent president, it will be plain enough to see. But then the government of another country can feel more permitted to do the same – it can take the line that in consistency it can more vigorously or singlemindedly pursue its non-collaborative self-interest. This government can feel licensed and therefore go further in realpolitik or machtpolitik.

Not only the government. Entirely self-appointed representatives or agents of another country can do this. They can follow suit. They may take themselves to be doing so by flying airplanes full of ordinary people into skyscrapers…. (pp. 60-61)

I would only add one other – I would think self-evident – point. The site of the great death and destruction on September 11, and the name given to those twin towers that imploded in two brief horrible moments, was the World Trade Center. World. Trade. Center. The center, in other words, of a network whose function was trade, and whose field of operations was the world. Who are we kidding? (Only ourselves certainly.) How can we (ethically dare to) assert that the attack on those two buildings had nothing to do with any of the issues plaguing the unequal development in the world today – and with our central role in it? Are we insane, or just pretending to be? What, exactly, is the point we are trying to make, other than a grotesque flight from responsibility and an inability to face the painful reality of the choices we have made – and continue to make in ugly disregard for the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” to quote a Founding Father who would have known better?

One final, and very minor, clarification. For those who are quick to suspicion, and who doubt the motives of any critic of this best of all possible worlds: No, Ted Honderich is not a Marxist. Quite the contrary, according to Honderich, the “best of British philosophers, possibly of philosophers” was David Hume. Yes, David Hume, he of the profound friendship with and influence on Adam Smith, both of them moralists in the best sense of the word. (Poor Smith, if he could only see the unremitting evil perpetrated in his name. He has suffered even more than Marx from the epigones.) What Honderich is, of course, is a serious – and refreshingly plain-speaking – philosopher, and, above all, lucid and a man of conscience. I leave the conclusion to him:

A last word, implicit in everything so far….What we need more than anything is a kind of intelligence. Moral intelligence. What we all need above all from Americans, on account of their power, is moral intelligence. We and they should see the need for escape from a lot of junk, a lot of morality with too many distinctions in it. We and they need to see how bad things are, and, in particular, how much they are owed to those of us on top. (p. 154)

Pace George Bush, pere ou fils, this perspective, especially the last sentence, could easily have originated from Adam Smith himself.

Peter Pappas is co-founder of
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