Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Morality and its Opposite

Spring 2003


After The Terror. By Ted Honderich. Edinburgh University Press, 2002. Vii + 160 pgs.


As all readers of The Mises Review know, I always endeavor to avoid saying something bad about a book. But I cannot forbear from stating that Professor Honderich's book is a cheap and tawdry affair. Honderich has for many years peddled an implausible view of morality, that he terms, with becoming modesty, the morality of humanity. His system rests on a peculiar equation, so far as morality is concerned, of acts and omissions.


To the obvious criticisms of his system, Honderich has no reply; but this has not stopped him from repeating his views, in numerous books and articles, again and again. Seldom in philosophy has so erroneous a position been reiterated with so little attention to objections.


Even if what I have just said is right, this hardly justifies the severe strictures directed against this book in my initial sally. Honderich may be obdurate, but what is cheap and tawdry about continual repetition? The answer, in my view, is this. He has used the sad events of September 11 as an excuse to dress up his warmed-over position as a newly relevant approach to present problems. In fact, his theory gives us little guidance on the morality of terrorism; and what little he has to say about terrorism is ethically repellent.


In order for readers to get a taste of Honderich's methods of argument, let us begin with his criticism of libertarianism. He asks us to imagine a perfectly just society, constituted according to libertarian principles. Is it not possible that there exist starving people in such a society? If so, then "in this perfectly just society they have no claim to food, no moral right to it. No one and nothing does wrong in letting them starve to death. There is no obligation in this society, on the state or anything else, to save them from starving to death. It is not true of anyone that he or she ought to have helped them. This is vicious."(p.44)


It is hardly necessary to say that Honderich's remarks are a travesty of the facts. To say that someone has a right to food is to say that he, or the state acting on his behalf, may use force to compel others to provide him with food. It is this that libertarians oppose. But their position is perfectly consistent with holding that people have very strict moral obligations to help the starving.


True enough, libertarianism leaves open the question of whether people have such obligations. As Rothbard again and again insisted, libertarianism is strictly confined to the political realm: it tells us when force may justifiably be used.


 Honderich, one is pleased to note, shows some familiarity with this response, but he distorts it. He states: "In order to contend that libertarianism is a possible shaping of our natural morality, it may have added to it that there is room in the just society as conceived for charity. . . the contemplated charity in libertarianism is no significant recommendation, being cheap and optional, these being its real recommendations."(p.44) Perhaps in Honderich's world, whatever is immune from state violence ranks as unimportant. But, to those accustomed to a more normal idiom than his, "morally optional" and "immune from state compulsion" are not synonyms.


In his response to the libertarian, Honderich reveals his near total lack of knowledge of his intended target; and his comments on capitalism are no better. Contrary to its advocates, capitalism cannot be the most efficient economic system. In this system, people earn large profits. Surely profits constitute waste: would not a system without them be to that extent more efficient than capitalism? "If there are two ways of getting some valuable thing, some large means to well-being, and the second way involves not only the costs of getting it. . . but also profits of millions or billions of dollars or pounds, then before anything else is said , the second way is patently and tremendously less efficient."(pp.137-138) It appears never to have occurred to our author that profits arise through the alertness of entrepreneurs: they are not arbitrary additions to a sum of fixed costs.


Honderich has a quick and easy way with dissenters. He rejects moral views that hold that we have stricter obligations to some people, e.g., the members of our family, than to others. (This view is consistent with libertarianism, so long as the special obligations do not require one to violate anyone's libertarian rights.)  His objection to this class of views, which he terms moralities of special relationship, is straightforward: "it is hard to avoid the idea that there is a strain of selfishness in the moralities of special obligation, most plainly in the moralities of relationship.. .they can involve a mixture of motivations, but the main one of these is looking out for yourself and people you identify with, people whose desires you share. This self-interest is different from the collaborative self-interest of ordinary morality."(p.67)


Honderich's comment blatantly begs the question. If one assumes that we have equal obligations to everyone, whether stranger or kinsman, then of course a morality of special relationship is "selfish". But this is just the point at issue between defenders of a morality of special relationship and Honderich. His objection amounts to no more than the banal point that his opponents disagree with him. As to his identification of his own doctrine with ordinary morality, we shall see at once that his claim is the reverse of the truth.


What, then, is the unselfish position that Honderich so anxiously urges on us?  He begins in a promising fashion. Is it not obvious that, other things being equal, a long life is better than a short one? Further, is it not equally apparent that a life with goods such as health and a high level of material comfort is better than a blighted, disease-ridden life?


Given these truths, must we not go on to confront a disturbing fact? The world is split in two groups, one far inferior to the other in length and quality of life. As an example, "[t]he worst-off tenth of the population in . . . four African countries . . . have average lifetimes of about thirty years. Thus they live for an average of something like fifty years less than the average of the best-off tenth in the wealthy countries."(p.18)


The basic principle of morality at once emerges from this dire state of affairs. We must help those with bad lives to better conditions. If possible this should be done without making those with good lives worse off, but if necessary the better off must be willing to make sacrifices. "The first policy is to rescue the badly-off by means that do not significantly affect the well-being of the better-off. . . [the] second policy is transferring means from the better-off that do significantly affect their well-beingówithout making them badly off. Real redistribution. In the world as we have it, this is fundamental."(p.54)


The response of someone inclined to libertarianism is obvious: "It is clear," he will say to Honderich, "that you want to involve the state in the redistribution you favor. By what right do you propose to take away my property? Is it not up to me to decide how much I wish to aid those with bad lives? After all, it isn't as if I caused them to have bad lives."


Here we arrive at the most basic element of Honderich's theory: he holds that those with good lives have caused the unfortunate position of the badly off. He does not have principally in mind a Marxist narrative, according to which the wealthy have exploited the poor. Though he does not exclude this view, he intends a philosophical point that does not depend on particular theories of history.


The rich cause the poor to be badly off by omitting to give them enough of their money to allow them to lead good lives. If a rich man donated substantial funds to a poor man, he would cease to be poor. If so, then the omission to give the poor man money counts as a cause of his being poor. The common view that sharply distinguishes between acts and omissions must be rejected: omissions are just as much causes as acts are.


Honderich states the essence of his position in this way: "My not giving the $1200 to Oxfam [a British charity] which is definitely something I do. . . has the effect of some  lives being lost, the same effect as the possible action of ordering your armed forces to stop the food convoys [to impoverished nations] from getting through for a while."(p.75)


Can anything be sillier? By buying a book, I am guilty of murder. Had I spent the money on aid to the African poor, I could have saved some lives. My failure to do so, then, counts as murdering these people. (I hope readers to do not rush to turn me over to the police. If they do, I shall be compelled to point out that by subscribing to The Mises Review, they also are murderers)


Suppose, though, chastened by Honderich's argument, I decide to contribute $1000 to aid for Bangladesh. Can I now say that, whatever my other failings, I am at least on this occasion not a murderer?  Not at all. By giving to money to Bangladesh relief, I am omitting to give money to relieve starvation in Africa. Honderich's peculiar view of omissions makes all of us murderers, all of the time. Not surprisingly, his view has not fared well among his fellow philosophers. As Philippa Foot among others has pointed out, an omission normally counts as a cause only in special circumstances. If a lifeguard at the beach ignores the cries of a drowning man, he bears partial responsibility for his death. It was part of his job to rescue imperiled swimmers, and he failed to do so. But someone who just happens to be present has not killed the swimmer by omitting to rescue him.


Perhaps wisely, Honderich here offers no extended defense of his odd position. Such niceties would hardly win for him the popular audience he obviously craves. Instead, he has decided to "jazz up" his theory by showing its relevance to the events of September 11 and their aftermath. He thinks that people are correct to condemn the pilots who destroyed the World Trade Center, but most of us have got the reasons wrong.


Honderich's "morality of humanity" does not condemn mass murder as such. Faced with an act of terrorism, we must always weigh the bad effects it causes against its good results. In the present case, "[t]he killers. . . could not know that that the killers of several thousand people would in due course serve the end of the principle of humanity, saving people from bad lives. They could have no such rational confidence."(p.119) You will be relieved to find out that even if the pilots had aimed explicitly to draw attention to the plight of those leading bad lives, Honderich would still condemn their act. Again, they could not have reasonable cause to believe their murders would have good results. Honderich's morality of humanity makes us all murderers, yet refuses to condemn murder as intrinsically wrong. Honderich sneers at Hayek, "sometimes taken as a part-time philosopher"(p.134), for daring to write on philosophical topics; but this experienced professional has given us a farrago of nonsense.



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