welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Omissions & Terrorism

Ted Honderich explains why he thinks that we in the West are partly to blame for the terrorist attacks on September 11.

The poorest tenths of the populations of the African countries of Malawi, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Zambia want what we want. What they get is average lifetimes of about 30 years. They live an average of about 50 years less than the best-off tenths in wealthy countries. Bad lives. Mr Tony Blair, in some of his speeches, shows he is concerned. Many are moved. In fact we in the United States, Britain and so on could have changed the bad lives, and still could do something.

There are four million individuals in the worst-off African tenths. Suppose someone argues, rightly, that there is good evidence that we could have lengthened their lives by an average of five years – and concludes there is a loss of livingtime of 20 million years. Do you say that this is crazy stuff, unreal? It would be good to know what you mean. Certainly the conclusion is hard to face. But how could it be mistaken to think of it? They will say they are not flies.

The living-time lost to this sample of individuals is such as to make all deaths by terrorism, considered in terms of living-time lost, insignificant. This is not a congenial idea either. But it is an idea that some parties to a real inquiry into September 11 and thereafter will take to be relevant, as much as anything else.

It is also true that to be on an airliner and look around and see the passengers and be able to stick to the plan of flying it into a skyscraper is to do hideous wrong, and to persist in the plan if they come to know it is to be monstrous. Nothing can be thought that will take away from such judgements. The terms ‘hideous’ and ‘monstrous’, by their use in connection with the killings of September 11, are recalled from metaphor and loose talk to original meanings.

Some say that we need not be affected by the loss of the 20 million years. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche of the 19th Century was of their mind, and he gets more attention than he did. Certainly he disdained or would disdain a morality of humanity – as coming from and issuing in weakness, meekness, resentment and other insufficiently virile conditions.

Do you yourself think of the possibility of being superior to a certain condition, an excess of empathy? Do I invite you to feel too much about the bad lives? Is it also false feeling, hypocrisy? Is it a better idea to do as more sensible and realistic persons do? Feel that while it has to be admitted that a lot of Africans and others haven’t got what we have, that’s the luck of the draw, the way the world is?

Do you say it’s all subjective, that there are no moral facts? There is some recent philosophy with the name of Moral Realism. It begins from the premise that we make a subjective or personal contribution to the existence of colours by way of our perceptual apparatus – our eyes and visual cortexes – but that ‘Those roses are red’ can still be really true. The conclusion is that such a proposition as ‘Socialism is right’ can be just as objective and true, no more a matter of personal opinion. Who could believe it outside a seminar?

Yes, we do have self-doubts about empathy and hypocrisy and subjectivity, and imperfect moral confidence in general. But they have to come together with something else. Indeed, they are made to count for nothing much by something else.

I have in mind the flying of the airplanes full of people into the towers, doing that, with further unpredictable results, such as other people jumping out of the towers to their deaths, and then a few months later, more people being torn or burned or suffocated to death by bombs and missiles in another place, Afghanistan. Does the wrong of flying the airplanes into the towers become uncertain when I think of my having an excess of empathy or being subjective, or have any other sort of doubt about the natural fact and practice of morality?

No, I am pleased to say, despite the unbelievability of Moral Realism, flying the airplanes into the towers does not become only uncertainly wrong. There isn’t any doubt about it. It is, instead, something whose wrongfulness is somehow real. It was so wrong that it was something that some American men and women would have killed themselves to prevent.

And what about the 20 million years of living-time lost? Those years would have had human times in them, affection and desire, learning things, some satisfying work, kinds of success, seeing children grow up. Is this loss not really wrong? Is it also uncertain that it was wrong that on the day of September 11, if deaths by starvation for 2001 were evenly spread through the year, 24,000 persons died of hunger? Is it just my opinion?

No, those wrongs were certain and real too. I have to summon up the facts here, and think, and not be confused by the ordinariness of the facts. But that doesn’t make awful deprivations into something doubtful.

So if moral confidence can become less firm, it can also be recovered. It can be recovered more, too, in connection with the deprivations, by thinking more about those reasons noticed for giving it up, starting with the one about excessive empathy.

Some of us really are bleeding hearts. Maybe I’m one. As for hypocrisy, it exists – some of us do claim to have higher standards or beliefs in our lives than is really the case. But neither of those facts does anything at all to the truth that those who have bad lives lack what we claim for ourselves, and that therefore they claim what we must in consistency allow to them. The piece of logic, if as open to replies as almost all pieces of logic, does not work by empathy more than any other moral claim, does it? Moral consistency doesn’t get its validity and strength from hypocrisy, does it? It doesn’t have anything to do with hypocrisy, does it?

So we are indeed committed to a number of linked propositions, maybe facts.

One proposition is that we did wrong and do wrong by our omission in allowing almost unthinkable losses of livingtime. This is so whatever is also to be said of our wrongs by commission as against omission, as in our complicity in the moral crime against the Palestinians. The second proposition is that wrong was done against us on September 11.

The second wrong, that of the killers at the Twin Towers, was in some way owed to the first, our omissions with respect to the bad lives. The killers’ wrong was in a way owed to ours. Certainly that does not absolve them. It is a certainty that two wrongs do not make a right.

But, to be plainer, the atrocity at the Twin Towers did have a human necessary condition in what preceded it: our deadly treatment of those outside our circle of comfort, those with the bad lives. Without that deadly treatment by us, the atrocity at the Twin Towers would not have happened. Our omissions were a necessary context for the particular grievances on the part of the killers having to do with Palestine, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The grievances would not have been enough. The killers were given a necessary moral confidence, a horribly wrong one, by our own disgrace known to half the world.

Whether or not it can be qualified, it is hard to see how the implicit conclusion can be avoided. It is that we were partly responsible and can be held partly responsible for the 3,000 deaths at the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. We are rightly to be held responsible along with the killers. We share in the guilt, our leaders at our head. Those who condemn us have reason to do so. Did we bring the killing at the Twin Towers on ourselves? Did we have it coming? Did we ask for it? Those offensive questions, and their offensive answers yes, do contain a truth. We did play a part, our politicians at our head.

For the 3,000 deaths there are lines of responsibility into the past, as real as chains of command, containing earlier and later perpetrators. We in our merely hierarchic democracies are in them, and in particular those of us who have got themselves into our governments. We are there with those who aided the killers and Osama bin Laden. They are not alone. We need to escape the long illusion that those of us who are ordinary are innocent.

As for the future, there are two things about all of us on this earth. One is that we all have desires and needs. In my book, they are desires and needs for six great goods, a decent length of life being the first one. The second thing is that we’re not all ninnies. Hardly any of us are, in fact. We can see through things. Those with the bad lives, to speak just of them, can see through the shams of our morality. They can see our responsibility. So our question of what to do, and also their question of what to do – neither of these will ever go away.

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, owed to philosophical moralists and then political moralists. We and they need to see how bad things are, and, in particular, how much they are owed to those of us on top.

Suppose you make it to one of those cocktail parties that some dream about, with famous people at it. You are about to meet the man who may still be spoken of by the International Herald Tribune as Mr bin Laden. You are also about to meet Mr Blair, who has just announced again that he is about to change everything, six years after he was elected. You shouldn’t shake hands with Mr bin Laden. You could think about keeping your hand in your pocket with Mr Blair too.

© Prof. Ted Honderich 2002

Ted Honderich’s After The Terror has recently been published by Edinburgh University Press and Columbia University Press.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X