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Why There Are No Arguments for Terrorism

Here's a pretty old legacy post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 21 years ago, in 2003, on the World Wide Web.

A link to Ted Honderich’s essay Terrorism for Humanity [sic] was recently forwarded to members of the Radical Philosophy Association listserv. Several members of the list wrote posts dismissing Honderich’s essay as nauseating–including one post wondering whether it was a hoax in the tradition of the Sokal affair. In response, Edward D’Angelo writes:

Ted Honderich is a respected contemporary British philosopher. He has contributed some important philosophical works in the latter part of the twentieth century. The remark that his paper Terrorism for Humanity, presented at the International Social Philosophy Conference, can be equated with the spoof on postmoderism is discounting the content of the paper. Additionally, saying that one can be nauseous about Honderich’s views is an emotive apppeal. I suggest that we examine the logical content of Honderich’s paper instead of using nonlogical devices to reject his viewpoint.

It seems to me that a flippant dismissal of the paper, or a feeling of nausea, is far from discounting the content of the paper–it is, rather, a very reasonable response to the content of the paper.

Nevertheless, D’Angelo’s suggestion that the logical content of the paper be examined is also a perfectly good one. Therefore, let’s do a bit of analysis, borrowing from the methods advanced by another respected British philosopher, Mr. G.E. Moore:

  1. If everything in Ted Honderich’s essay is correct, then the use of terrorist tactics to commit mass murder against civilians is sometimes acceptable.
  2. But the use of terrorist tactics to commit mass murder against civilians is never acceptable.
  3. Therefore, it is not the case that everything in Ted Honderich’s essay is correct. (M.T. 1, 2)

And thus, something in Ted Honderich’s essay is wrong. Q.E.D.

The form of argument that I have adapted here is, of course, Moore’s famous refutation of external world skepticism; I have, I think, conclusively shown that Honderich’s argument, like the skeptic’s, . . .">deserves nothing more than a certain gesture of the hands.

[This is a somewhat modified version of an e-mail response that I sent over the RPA listserv.]


  1. I leave the identification of which parts of his essay are wrong as a matter for further discussion.
  2. It may be objected against my argument, as it was against Moore’s here is one hand, that it merely begs the question. But what meaning is being given to the term begging the question here? Question-begging is a term of logical criticism; what is being claimed is that a fallacy has been committed. One common way to gloss the fallacy involved, which would seem clearly to indict my argument, is that your argument begs the question if it depends on one or more premises that your interlocuter does not accept. If that is a logical crime, then, since Honderich readily denies the crucial premise (2), I (and, mutatis mutandis, Moore) am certainly guilty. But then so is Honderich, whose argument proceeds from the denial of (2); the objection cannot rule my argument out-of-court without doing the same to Honderich’s.

    Indeed, it is much worse than that–a charge of begging the question would, on this account, rule out any argument whatsoever if only some sophist is willing to pick a premise to deny, and stick to it relentlessly until the dialectical game is left in a complete stalemate. (Karl Popper pointed out that a resolute partisan could defend any empirical hypothesis, at the last resort, by simply insisting that any putative counterexample you discover must be a hallucination.) Now I don’t want to deny that someone could use just such a strategem to stalemate any attempt at argument–indeed, sophists sometimes do just that. But the point here is that when they do, it is silly: a sophist who does this is not playing by the rules. The point of dialectical discourse is to hash out reasons for what is said; the point of doing that is to fit what we say as closely as possible to the truth. It’s obvious that it is the sophist who is frustrating this aim, not the person who is actually giving arguments. If begging the question is supposed to pick out a fallacy, then that means it is the question-begger’s fault that the argument gets nowhere. But here it is not your fault, even though your argument depends on premises that the sophist denies.

    A better gloss of what begging the question means—one which nicely solves this difficulty–might be: an argument begs the question when it is less plausible to affirm the premises than it is to deny the conclusion (the word plausible here has to indicate something like objective grounding, rather than the mere willingness to assert a proposition–otherwise this picture merely reformulates the one that we just rejected). Our new gloss is much better fitted to what we think charges of question-begging ought to do: you make an argument in the course of dialectic in order to give reasons for a particular conclusions, and inferring Q from P only counts as giving a reason for Q if there are stronger reasons for affirming P than there are for denying Q. Thus, consider Moore and the skeptic: the skeptic claims to have a deductive argument from philosophical intuitions to the conclusion that one cannot know that Here is one hand. But what’s more obvious? Some murky philosophical intuitions about evil deceivers and the immediate objects of perception? Or the hand in front of your face? It is the skeptic, not Moore, who begs the question: any argument against a Moorean proposition must depend upon something far less plausible than the mundane truisms that one is supposed to be attacking.

    What I maintain, then, is that the massacre of civilians is always and everywhere wrong is a Moorean truth. So, too, is there is no excuse for making shrapnel tear into the guts of little children. So, too, are many others. Honderich thinks he has an argument to show that these are not true, based upon his speculations about the nature of moral philosophy and the hegemonic structuring of ethical sentiments among those benighted souls who disagree with the slaughter of helpless civilians. But Honderich is wrong–he offers no reasons in support of terrorism, because there are no such reasons. All that he can offer is a logical demonstration of the urgent need to reject his premises.

2 replies to Why There Are No Arguments for Terrorism Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. John Game

    A brief point on your ‘begging the question’ argument. Only a sophist would deny that the mass murder of innocents is wrong. However many more people then sophists would deny, for example, that there can never be such a thing as a just war (which frequently results in the murder of innocents). At this point arguments will be raised about whether or not civilian deaths in the context of warfare can be considered ‘murder’ or whether this is not excessively emotional language. But of course a person (and there are many such people) who resisted the label of terrorist as emotive in the case of this or that insurgency would probably argue exactly the same thing. One criticism of Honderich from a pro-Palestinian point of view has been precisely that in ceding the term terrorism he falls into contradiction. However I am fascinated by a philosophical tradition which debates endlessly exactly the circumstances in which innocent civilians may be done to death but throws up its hands in horror when it comes to none-state actors. The fact that this is a philosophical tradition born in parts of the world which had states and faced resistance from those who did’nt is perhaps too historical as opposed to a philosophical argument to make in this context to make. But it perhaps does require some examination before we reject Ted Honderich’s argument out of hand as a logical fallacy. At least the logical fallacy may not be his but may be rooted in the philosophical tradition which you actually share with him.

— 2008 —

  1. Rad Geek


    I agree with you that if terrorism is wrong for the reasons I indicate here, then so is nearly all of modern warfare, including especially acts like the aerial bombardment of cities (or, for that matter, IDF missle attacks on apartment complexes).

    But I think that that conditional gives you a reason to reject nearly all of modern warfare, and the kind of pseudo-sophisticated just war theory used to compartmentalize and excuse it. It’s not a reason to reject the claim that terrorism is always and everywhere wrong. And I’d use a similar Moorean argument to make the point. The political theorizing and supposed moral intuitions that go into Just War theory are not privileged, in terms of either clarity or plausibility, over the conviction that it’s wrong to blow innocent people up. That much is perfectly obvious to just about anybody just from stopping and looking at the situation when an innocent person does get blown up–which is, I think, part of the reason why war photography tends to have such a searing effect when it is actually published. Just about nobody ever denies this except when they feel that they have a reason of partisan loyalty to start prevaricating and intellectualizing and making up excuses on behalf of powerful armed factions. I agree that Honderich’s fallacy is one that is widely shared amongst writers on war, but it’s not one that I share; it’s one that I’ve explicitly considered and rejected.

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