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Jonathan Glover finds similarities in the psychology of those who perpetuate, ...
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Jonathan Glover finds similarities in the psychology of those who perpetuate, collaborate in, and are complicit with atrocities, uncovering some disturbing common elements—tribal hatred, blind adherence to ideology, diminished personal responsibility—as 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.
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.
Barnes & Noble.com: Professor Glover, could you provide a few facts about your formative intellectual influences? As a university student, for example, were you caught up in the turbulence of the late 1960s and early '70s? Was there a teacher who gave direction to your studies? Which authors or books were of greatest help in shaping the themes of Humanity?
Jonathan Glover: I was a university student in the early '60s before the great upheavals. But as a young university teacher I did take part in meetings and protests about the war in Vietnam. As a student at Oxford I studied philosophy and psychology. I found the psychology (which was highly behaviorist in those days) less interesting than the philosophy. I was very taken by the hope of intellectual progress given by what was then the modern analytical style of philosophy with its emphasis on clarity and on careful, precise analysis of questions, concepts, and arguments. As an undergraduate, I found A. J. Ayer's classes extremely stimulating. In a Socratic way, he drew us out, got us to express a view and then to defend it against his rapid-fire bombardment of argument. Philosophy was accessible, exhilarating, and fun. But I was also dissatisfied (especially in moral philosophy) with its lack of links to humanly important issues. I was very lucky to be taught ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre. I disagreed then with much of what he said, and as his views have evolved, I have probably disagreed with them even more. But I have never forgotten the stimulus of his tutorials and the pleasure of finding someone who saw philosophy in the context of much wider belief systems and of the societies in which they were expressed. The lectures of Isaiah Berlin generated a similar combination of intellectual excitement and the sense of a larger context than the merely academic.
As for books that have influenced me, in ways that I would like to feel are at least a little reflected in my work, there are too many to list. But I will mention three. My book Humanity follows Michael Walzer's fine Just and Unjust Wars in trying to link particular historical episodes with ethical issues. I wish I could aspire to the combination of clarity and moral seriousness that marks the more political end of the writings of Herbert Hart. And -- vastly further out of my range -- I hugely admire how in War and Peace Tolstoy manages the almost godlike vision that manages to encompass both great episodes of history and at the same time the lives, feelings and thoughts of individual people, without in either case losing sharpness of focus.
B&N.com: How would you characterize your relationship to the liberal tradition? Is it fair to describe Humanity as your attempt to move liberal thinking on morality beyond the thin, procedural conceptions that liberals fall back on when speaking of human rights and social justice? Is it accurate to describe your project as attempting to fashion a vision of human rights that draws inspiration from a deeper understanding of human identity and human responsibility?
JG: I am hesitant about this. The word "liberal" is used in so many different ways: as a contrast to "conservative" or to "socialist" or to "communitarian." In some European countries, to be liberal is to be a right-wing supporter of the free market. In the United States, to be liberal is close to being a European Social Democrat. In some senses, I am a liberal: I am in sympathy with a tradition that encompasses John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, E. M. Forster, and Isaiah Berlin. (I wish Isaiah Berlin had shown the independence and bravery over Vietnam that Bertrand Russell did over the First World War.) But this liberal tradition has sometimes, perhaps, been too optimistic, perhaps having not looked hard enough at the darker side of human nature. And I hope my book may interest people who are not liberals. You do not have to be a liberal to hope the world may start looking for a route away from genocide, war, and torture.
B&N.com: You propose the creation of a global force capable of fulfilling the role of Hobbes's Leviathan, a force that could capably preserve order by intervening against rogue aggressors. How could such a force hope to succeed unless it were informed by -- and had the support of -- nearly universal belief in a global order presumably committed to liberal ideals? Might the frustrating recent UN intervention in the Balkans suggest that hopes for a force of this sort and the unanimity of belief required to sustain it are misplaced?
JG: It is hard to be confident such a force can be established or that, if established, it would always or usually be effective. To be established, it needs -- among other things -- widespread support. This does not mean that everyone has to be a liberal, only that there has to be a sufficiently widespread belief that such things as war and genocide are sufficiently horrible to be worth preventing. National police forces draw on the support of those who believe that public order and peace should be preserved, despite having many other differences of political belief. Those of us who hope for an effective international police force hope it may draw on the same kind of support.
B&N.com: Are you persuaded that the 20th century witnessed a collapse of religious belief and belief in moral law? The last decades of the century were marked, after all, by the conspicuous presence of religious belief in the public life of the U.S. And the reemergence of Islamic fundamentalism and Protestant evangelical fundamentalism across the Middle East and Asia and in Latin America and South America has been impressive.
JG: In the book, I do make a claim about the erosion of religious belief and of the belief in an objective moral law. Your question is right in suggesting that there are strong forces pushing in the opposite direction. As a factual generalization my claim needs substantial qualification. But, interpreted in this way, the claim still has something to it. In Western societies, articulate unbelief -- especially among more educated people -- is widespread in a way it was not in 1900. Background presuppositions of a religious kind can no longer be taken for granted. And my own view is that this is linked to the difficulty religious belief has in standing up to serious intellectual scrutiny. The kind of religion that flourishes now is most often the kind that bothers least with serious argument. Reflective religious people may be no more cheered than I am by huge audiences for fundamentalist evangelists.
B&N.com: In Humanity you speak of using ethics to "interrogate" history. But do the questions of ethics truly stand to one side of our experience and our understanding of history as your metaphor hints? Or do the questions of ethics articulate the concerns of socially embedded moralities? (Moral philosophers -- of analytic training at least -- usually bristle at the suggestion that historical inquiries can serve to establish a philosophical point.) I suppose I am really asking you to clarify the relationship that you believe exists between philosophical ethics and the moralities embodied in the forms of social life.
JG: It would be necessary to write a book in answer to this huge question. Moral codes and other aspects of societies obviously interact in extremely complex ways. Moral codes can be influenced by such things as the development of contraceptives, the way television can bring home to people the horrors of war, the growth of the feminist movement, growing knowledge of threats to the environment, or the potentialities created by the Human Genome Project. But social changes can also be influenced by people's moral values. When television brings home the realities of war, this can be because of the moral commitment of reporters to tell the truth despite pressures not to do so. The feminist movement did not grow out of nothing, but was partly rooted in the role of equality in people's systems of values. The uses of the new biotechnology may be influenced not only by the technological imperative and by commercial interests, but also, if we are lucky, by the moral debate these possibilities have generated.
I agree with the analytical philosophers whom you describe as bristling at the idea that history can establish a philosophical point. Without interpretation, history is just "one damn thing after another" and establishes nothing. But, in the context of certain assumptions, history has a role to play. I bring to history presuppositions that I flag up. There is great disagreement about abstract ethical principles such as the Categorical Imperative or the Principle of Utility. But -- I hope -- there is widespread agreement on the appallingness of the Nazi genocide, the mass killings of communist regimes from Stalin to Pol Pot, or the more recent events in Rwanda and in what was once Yugoslavia. There is also -- I hope -- widespread agreement on the moral urgency of trying to reduce the incidence of such episodes. My claim is that ethics has a role to play in realizing this aim, because of the influence of people's moral outlook on what they do. But, for this to happen, our moral views may need to be modified or extended in various ways. The part played by the study of history in this is to look for common psychological patterns that contribute to the atrocities. If such common patterns can be found, we should bear them in mind when reflecting on the moral value of encouraging or discouraging various psychological dispositions.
B&N.com: Since the end of the 1960s, a distinguished and influential body of thought has emerged to subject Enlightenment liberalism and the claims of modernity to hard and sometimes damning scrutiny. I am thinking at the moment -- different as their critiques are -- of Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor in North America and Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida in France. Your introductory chapter makes its own allusion to the Enlightenment's "darker legacy" and shallow grasp of human psychology. I wonder to what extent, if at all, the themes of Humanity register encounters with those thinkers I've named here?
JG: The thinkers you mention are very different from each other, and each writes on a great variety of different issues. I mentioned before how difficult it is to pin down one clear sense of "liberalism." This is even more so with the word "modernity," which I find so protean as to be totally useless. When Oscar Wilde was asked if he was a patriot, he said that "patriotism" was not one of his words. "Modernity" is not one of mine.
I find some of Foucault's ideas interesting, though I wish he had learned to write clearly, rather than imbibing the writing style of the obscurantist Heideggerian tradition that in France in the second half of the 20th century unaccountably swept away the famous French lucidity. I hugely admire Charles Taylor's subtle arguments linking national and cultural identity with philosophical issues about human self-interpretation. This admiration survives his talk about modernity, and even his misplaced respect for Heidegger. I have said how my respect for my former teacher Alasdair MacIntyre transcends frequent disagreement. This disagreement has been with many of the various positions he has argued for in the course of his complicated journey to his current Catholicism. One consistent theme in his journey has been opposition to certain strands of the Enlightenment, notably liberalism and empiricism. Perhaps it is partly because I have always had inclinations toward (some versions of) both liberalism and empiricism that I found him such a stimulating teacher and find him such a stimulating thinker.
I am much more sympathetic to the Enlightenment than my book has led some to think (e.g., Amartya Sen's generous discussion of the book in a recent New York Review of Books). I am sympathetic to the hope that we can reshape the world to be a better place and that this is not separable from critical reflection on traditional values. I like the optimism of many Enlightenment thinkers about the possibility of nonreligious morality. My criticism of the Enlightenment is -- more than the criticisms of most of the thinkers you have mentioned -- from someone mainly on the same side. It is that there is a danger of the rational reconstruction of society being done too quickly and on too large a scale, as happened with the disastrous communist experiments. This is perhaps linked with too simple and too optimistic a view of human psychology. The dark side of our psychology, which the great recent atrocities bring out all too clearly, deserves far more attention than optimistic reformers have usually given it.
B&N.com: Your argument stakes a strong claim for the centrality of psychology in the evaluation of the root causes of, say, Hitler's campaign of genocide against the European Jews and Stalin's murderous purges. But should we hope to find the answers to the baffling questions of a public life -- the life of a Hitler or Stalin -- in the facts of that figure's private life? Doesn't that have the effect of ignoring political motives as causes? Were the purges of the 1930s, for instance, caused by the peculiar deformations of Stalin's character? Or were they driven by Stalin's political need to veil his real creation, a bureaucratic state governed by the party elite, by murdering a generation of socialists who knew perfectly well that Stalin had abandoned pursuit of the working-class state of their socialist ideals? Didn't Stalin choose to rewrite Marxism and the past by obliterating those who knew enough to say so?
JG: I did not mean to suggest that the genocide or the purges were just, or even mainly, the products of the individual psychology of Hitler or Stalin. Although I mention their psychological deformations, the psychology I am interested in is the one that made so many collaborate or acquiesce in their policies. This psychology includes obedience, conformity, fear, the willingness to believe in implausible ideologies, and the desire to expunge a national humiliation. These traits are more widely distributed than just among a few leaders. And, of course, other, nonpsychological factors of the kind you mention played a part. I emphasize the psychological side of the story because of its relevance to ethics.
B&N.com: In the chapters of Humanity that treat the terrors of Stalinism, you underscore the dangers to intellectual inquiry and to moral identity when truth is subordinated to the needs of ideology. You cite Orwell's testimony that he feared, above all, the loss of belief in "objective truth." But to a striking degree today, the loss of that belief is pervasive -- at least in intellectual circles. That fact accounts in large part for the furor that attaches to postmodern studies in the universities. Would you care to comment?
JG: "Postmodern" is also not one of my words. But I know what you are talking about. Some who talk about "postmodernism" seem to deny the possibility of objective truths about anything. This is characteristically ambiguous. It may mean that we can never be sure we have found the objective truth. Or it may mean that there are no objective truths about anything.
The first claim is in a way right: There is always the possibility of error. But the point is made far too much of, in a way that suggests there is no difference between beliefs supported by evidence and argument and those with no support.
The second claim arouses in me both disdain and fear. The reasons for disdain are obvious. The thought that there are no objective truths about anything is extremely obscure. (What does the claim mean? How could anyone know it to be true? If they could know it to be true, wouldn't it be a counter-example to itself?) If it means anything, it seems to suggest that the belief that New Zealand sheep farmers caused the Second World War is on an equal footing with all other accounts of its origins.
The fear may be more surprising than the disdain. The fear is linked to George Orwell's worry. If enough people come to think the search for objective truth is based on an illusion, they may stop bothering. One set of beliefs may seem as good as another. This outlook is a propaganda ministry's dream. I share this concern of Orwell's. I also think the search for objective truth that has characterized -- among other disciplines -- the sciences and philosophy is one of the glories of the human species.
B&N.com: Professor Glover, thank you.
JG: Thanks for this interview.