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:
- If everything in Ted Honderich’s essay is correct, then the use of terrorist tactics to commit mass murder against civilians is sometimes acceptable.
- But the use of terrorist tactics to commit mass murder against civilians is never acceptable.
- 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.]
- I leave the identification of which parts of his essay are wrong as a matter for further discussion.
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 questionhere? 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 questionwould, 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 questionis 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 questionmeans—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
plausiblehere 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 intuitionsto the conclusion that one cannot know that
Here is one hand. But what’s more obvious? Some murky
philosophical intuitionsabout 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 wrongis 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.