Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Centuryby Jonathan Glover
The twentieth century was the most brutal in human history, featuring a litany of shameful events that includes the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Stalinist era, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. This important book looks at the politics of our times and the roots of human nature to discover why so many atrocities were perpetuated and how we can create a social environment to prevent their recurrence.
Jonathan Glover finds similarities in the psychology of those who perpetuate, collaborate in, and are complicit with atrocities, uncovering some disturbing common elementstribal hatred, blind adherence to ideology, diminished personal responsibilityas well as characteristics unique to each situation. Acknowledging that human nature has a dark and destructive side, he proposes that we encourage the development of a political and personal moral imagination that will compel us to refrain from and protest all acts of cruelty.
New York Review of Books
- Yale University Press
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Read an Excerpt
Never Such Innocence Again
In Europe at the start of the twentieth century most people accepted the authority of morality. They thought there was a moral law, which was self-evidently to be obeyed. Immanuel Kant had written of the two things which fill the mind with admiration and awe, `the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me'. In Cambridge in 1895, a century after Kant, Lord Acton still had no doubts: `Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity.' At the start of the twentieth century, reflective Europeans were also able to believe in moral progress, and to see human viciousness and barbarism as in retreat. At the end of the century, it is hard to be confident either about the moral law or about moral progress.
Some, however, are still unwavering about the moral law. In a letter to a newspaper about the Gulf War, Father Denis Geraghty wrote, `The use of weapons of mass destruction is a crime against God and man and remains a crime even if they are used in retaliation or for what is regarded as a morally justified end. It is forbidden to do evil that good may come of it.' Many other people, including some who are sympathetic to his opinions, will view Father Geraghty's tone with a mixture of envy and scepticism. Confidence such as his was easier a century ago. Since Acton, the writing on the tablets of eternity has faded a little.
The challenge to the moral law is intellectual: to find good reasons for thinking that it exists and that it has any claimon us. The problem is hardly new; Plato wrote about it. But the collapse of the authority of religion and decline in belief in God are reasons for it now being a problem for many who are not philosophers. There is a further challenge to religious ethics, one which Dostoyevsky put into the mouth of Ivan Karamazov.
Pointing to features of the world which God is said to have created, Karamazov questions God's credentials for the role of a moral authority. He first concedes much of the religious picture. He believes in a wise God with a purpose unknown to us, and in an ultimate harmony: `something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men'.
This ultimate harmony is not something Ivan Karamazov can accept. It will be the culmination of a universe which includes what the Turks did in Bulgaria, where they burnt, killed and raped women and children. They hanged prisoners after first making them spend their last night nailed by the ear to a fence. (`No animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.') They used daggers to cut babies out of women's wombs. They tossed nursing infants in the air, catching them on bayonets: `the main delight comes from doing it before their mothers' eyes'. What claim can the creator of a harmony, of which all this is a part, have to be a moral authority?
The other belief, in moral progress, has also been undermined. The problems have come from events. The twentieth-century history of large-scale cruelty and killing is only too familiar: the mutual slaughter of the First World War, the terror-famine of the Ukraine, the Gulag, Auschwitz, Dresden, the Burma Railway, Hiroshima, Vietnam, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Cambodia, Rwanda, the collapse of Yugoslavia. These names will conjure up others. Because of this history, it is (or should be) hard for thinking about ethics to carry on just as before.
This book is an attempt to bring ethics and this history together. The title, Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century, needs some explanation. The topic is the twentieth-century moral history of the human race. But `humanity' is also being used in a different sense, in which it is contrasted with inhumanity. One of the book's aims is to fill out this idea of humanity.
The project of discussing the recent moral history of the human race may strike the reader (as it strikes me) as rather grandiose. It is worth indicating at once some limitations of scope. The history is highly selective in the episodes discussed. Some places (India, and many others) are either hardly mentioned or quite unmentioned. This does not reflect a view that the history of some parts of humanity is unimportant, but rather the limitations of what is well or availably documented. It also reflects the much more severe limitations of my own knowledge.
There is more to our recent moral history than the ethical debates and the man-made horrors discussed here. A more generous conception would also include changes in the family, in the way children are treated, and in the relations between men and women. Among much else, it would also include attitudes to poverty, religious changes, the impact of science on our thinking about how to live, attitudes to sex and to death, the relations between different cultures, and attitudes towards animals, to the natural world and to the environment. No single discussion could hope to cover all this without superficiality any serious discussion has to be selective. These other aspects repay study; but perhaps no apology is needed for giving the twentieth-century atrocities a central place in our recent moral history.
To bring out the links between ethics and twentieth-century history it is worth saying something about the approach first to history and then to ethics.
To talk of the twentieth-century atrocities is in one way misleading. It is a myth that barbarism is unique to the twentieth century: the whole of human history includes wars, massacres, and every kind of torture and cruelty: there are grounds for thinking that over much of the world the changes of the last hundred years or so have been towards a psychological climate more humane than at any previous time.
But it is still right that much of twentieth-century history has been a very unpleasant surprise. Technology has made a difference. The decisions of a few people can mean horror and death for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of other people.
These events shock us not only by their scale. They also contrast with the expectations, at least in Europe, with which the twentieth century began. One hundred years of largely unbroken European peace between the defeat of Napoleon and the First World War made it plausible to think that the human race was growing out of its warlike past. In 1915 the poet Charles Sorley, writing home a few months before being killed in battle, found it natural to say, `After all, war in this century is inexcusable: and all parties engaged in it must take an equal share in the blame of its occurrence.' More recently, some of those going to fight in the Gulf may also have felt war to be inexcusable, but they are less likely to have found it particularly so in the twentieth century. In `MCMXIV' Philip Larkin describes the queues to enlist at the start of the First World War:
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark.
His late-century comment was `Never such innocence again'.
The thoughts developed here on twentieth-century history are an attempt to see some of the century's events in an appropriate human perspective. We have an incessant flow of information about the unfolding story of our times, so many facts that it is hard to stand back and think about their meaning and their relative importance. Milan Kundera described one of the effects of the flow of news:
The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.
In retrieving some of these events, there are many ways in which they could be grouped and interpreted. This is not a narrative history, but a discussion, an attempt at analysis. Immanuel Kant, talking of how the mind does not passively receive knowledge, but actively interprets the world in terms of its concepts and categories, said that we should interrogate nature, not like a pupil, but like a judge. This applies to history too. Here I use ethics to pose questions in the interrogation of history.
There has been much philosophical discussion about what factors restrain people from ruthlessly selfish treatment of others, and what reasons there are for accepting moral restraints on conduct. These `moral resources' will be central. There are questions about what happened to them when the First World War started, when the atomic bomb was dropped, in Stalin's Russia, in Nazi Germany, or, more recently, in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The aim in using ethics to interrogate history is to help understand a side of human nature often left in darkness.
It will also be argued that, in understanding the history, philosophical questions about ethics cannot be ignored. Poor answers to these questions have contributed to a climate in which some of the disasters were made possible.
One problem about trying to see these events in perspective comes from not having experienced them. I am acutely aware that, being lucky in where and when I have lived, I lack first-hand knowledge of the events that I am discussing. I write about war having not fought in one. I write about Nazism and Stalinism, about dictatorships in Latin America and elsewhere, having not lived under any of them. Readers who have experienced these things will at times notice my limitations. In a different field, medical ethics, philosophers sometimes write with an over-confidence which betrays that they have not experienced the human reality of the dilemmas. The same must be true many times over of someone who, without having experienced them, writes of Vietnam or Auschwitz.
All the same, while it would be better to write from experience, there are reasons for an attempt even by an inexperienced person.
No one can have experienced more than a small number of these episodes. To be daunted by inexperience might result in no one trying to see as a whole events from Which so much can be learnt. Towards the end of the Second World War, the philosopher Glenn Gray was in an American division in Germany which overran a concentration camp, and he spent a day with the survivors: `The whole range of human character seemed to be exhibited there by these few hundred survivors during the first day of their liberation, and I was conscious of having stumbled onto an hour of truth that would hardly be repeated, even by them, in later days.' Glenn Gray published his reflections on this and other experiences, but those who record what seem to be important war experiences are at the time often too preoccupied to reflect on them. Sometimes they express the hope that others, in time of peace, will extract from their experiences some help towards saving future people from having to repeat them.
Some atrocities are not past but present. Those of us who are lucky in living elsewhere should not be inhibited from thinking about them. Journalists risk their lives to let us know the terrible things that are being done while we live in relative security. Victims painfully narrate their experiences so that we may understand. Often they do this in the belief that, if the world hears, there will be an outcry and something will be done.
Journalists can be disappointed by the response. Ed Vulliamy, who reported the war in Bosnia, wrote:
Most of us thought we could make a difference, at first. It seemed incredible that the world could watch, read and hear about what was happening to the victim people of this war, and yet do nothing and worse. As it turned out, we went unheeded by the diplomats and on occasions were even cursed by the political leaders.
The victims and those close to them also note the response. Selma Hecimovic looked after Bosnian women who had been raped:
At the end, I get a bit tired of constantly having to prove. We had to prove genocide, we had to prove that our women are being raped, that our children have been killed. Every time I take a statement from these women, and you journalists want to interview them, I imagine those people, disinterested, sitting in a nice house with a hamburger and beer, switching channels on TV. I really don't know what else has to happen here, what further suffering the Muslims have to undergo ... to make the so-called civilised world react.
Those of us who think about these episodes at a distance will sometimes get things wrong. And, of course, understanding is not enough to stop the horrors. But the alternative, the passive response, helps keep them going.
Next, ethics, which could be more empirical than it is.
There has been a shift of emphasis in philosophical discussion of ethics, away from purely abstract questions to more practical ones. Discussions of the right and the good, or of the analysis of moral judgements, have given some ground. Now there are discussions of the just war, moral dilemmas in medicine, social justice, human rights, feminism, nuclear deterrence, genetic engineering, animal rights and environmental issues. This shift of concern towards `applied ethics' has been beneficial. What is humanly most important has been moved from the margins to the centre.
Even in applied ethics awareness is often missing. The tone of much writing suggests that John Stuart Mill is still alive and that none of the twentieth century has happened. (`Never such innocence again' has not been applied to ethics.) I hope to help change this by encouraging an idea of ethics as a more empirical subject.
It is possible to assume too readily that a set of moral principles simply needs to be `applied'. The result can be the mechanical application of some form of utilitarianism, or list of precepts about justice, autonomy, benevolence and so on. When this happens, the direction of thought is all one way. The principles are taken for granted, or `derived' in a perfunctory way, and practical conclusions are deduced from them. What is missing is the sense of two-way interaction. The principles themselves may need modifying if their practical conclusions are too Procrustean, if they require us to ignore or deny things we find we care about when faced with the practical dilemmas.
Many philosophers are sympathetic to a more pragmatic form of ethics, where principles are put forward tentatively, in the expectation that they will be shaped and modified by our responses to practical problems. The mutual adjustment between principles and our intuitive responses is the process leading to what John Rawls has called, perhaps optimistically, `reflective equilibrium'.
But the pragmatism could be taken further, to encompass the idea that our ethical beliefs should also be revisable in the light of an empirical understanding of people and what they do. If, for instance, the great atrocities teach lessons about our psychology, this should affect our picture of what kinds of actions and character traits are good or bad.
Some intellectual disciplines are highly abstract, and perhaps understanding people is unimportant in those fields, but ethics is not one of them. I hope this book will help to bring closer to the centre of ethics some questions about people and what they are like. This project of bringing ethics and psychology closer to each other involves thinking about the implications of some of the things we now know civilized people are capable of doing to each other.
At the start of the century there was optimism, coming from the Enlightenment, that the spread of a humane and scientific outlook would lead to the fading away, not only of war, but also of other forms of cruelty and barbarism. They would fill the chamber of horrors in the museum of our primitive past. In the light of these expectations, the century of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein was likely to be a surprise. Volcanoes thought extinct turned out not to be.
Now we tend to see the Enlightenment view of human psychology as thin and mechanical, and Enlightenment hopes of social progress through the spread of humanitarianism and the scientific outlook as naïve. John Maynard Keynes said of Bertrand Russell, a follower of the Enlightenment, that his comments about life and affairs were `brittle' because there was `no solid diagnosis of human nature underlying them'.
Opponents of the Enlightenment can seem to grasp truths which elude its followers, and repudiation of the Enlightenment is now fashionable among philosophers.
One of this book's aims is to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality. A consequence of this is to produce a darker account. But another aim of the book is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and more humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. I have qualified optimism that this hope is well founded. There are more things, darker things, to understand about ourselves than those who share this hope have generally allowed. Yet, although this book contains much that is exceptionally dark, the message is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.
What People are Saying About This
(Peter Singer, DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University)
(Robert Conquest, author of Reflecting on a Ravaged Century
(Norman Davies, author of Europe: A History and The Isles: A History)
Meet the Author
Jonathan Glover is director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, and a fellow of the Hastings Center.
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