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I cannot conceive of a more difficult intellectual task than to "reckon with," as R.G. Collingwood is quoted as saying in the book's epigraph, twentieth century history. There have been moral musings on the century's atrocities in various historical treatments or memoirs, but I am not aware of a single volume that takes on what Jonathan Glover undertakes in Humanity. Specifically, the book attempts to make moral sense out of twentieth century atrocities such as "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" (2).
Humanity, a hefty book (464 pages), is part history, part philosophy, part psychology. Glover's examination of our history is in part a response to Nietzsche's challenge, introduced in Part One: Ethics Without the Moral Law. Now that God is dead, and traditional morality has thereby lost its authority, what could or should restrain our darker motivations. Glover's response is to suggest that decent behavior has its roots in what he calls the "moral resources, certain human needs and psychological tendencies which work against narrowly selfish behaviour
making it unlikely that 'morality' in a broad sense will perish, despite the fading of belief in a moral law" (22).
Glover claims that the distinctive psychological responses we have to different things people do, for example, "acts of cruelty may arouse our revulsion; we may respond to some mean swindle with contempt; courage or generosity may win our respect or admiration," are linked to our sense of our own 'moral identity'" (22). Other moral resources Glover calls the 'human responses'. One is the tendency to respond to people with certain kinds of respect. "The other human response is sympathy: caring about the miseries and the happiness of others, and perhaps feeling a degree of identification with them" (22). But these moral resources, says Glover, can be "neutralized" (33). That is, our learned and our natural sense of moral restraint can be overcome. Thus, Glover examines both how these moral resources are systematically overcome by the intentional practices of civilian and military authorities and how the moral resources nonetheless seem to crop up form time to time in spite of those efforts.
For example, in Part Two: The Moral Psychology of Waging War, Glover discusses the massacre at My Lai, the intentional targeting civilians through the use of blockades and bombing, and the decision to drop the first atom bomb on Hiroshima. Killing other people requires that we overcome our natural revulsion to such a thing, particularly in close combat. Glover reveals how field commanders in World War I repeatedly had to repress the moral resources in their men such that they could continue to kill. Anything that brought enemy troops closer together and revealed their common humanity, such as holiday fraternization, made it more difficult for them to kill one another. One way to overcome this restraint is with distance. Thus, bombing at a distance is psychologically easier than killing close combat.
In Part Three: Tribalism, Glover uses the cases of Rwanda and Yugoslavia to illustrate the phenomenon of tribalism, whose roots go very deep in our psychology. But, he believes, "tribal hostility can be transcended by a sense of moral identity rooted in other commitments, such as to religion or a profession, with its own values and standards of conduct. Or it may be rooted in a humanism which looks through tribal membership to the person behind it" (152). In Part Four: War as a Trap, Glover eschews the traditional explanation of war as simple aggression, in favor of the concept of entrapment. Political leaders "find themselves trapped by the implications of policies they have embarked on. And whole groups can be trapped in a spiral of hostility leading to war" (155-56). But Glover shows how enlightened political leaders, JFK and Krushchev, and some insightful advisors, saw the trap of war during the Cuban missile crisis and avoided it.
Glover gives the Hitler and Stalin phenomena the most sustained historical discussions in the next two parts of the book. In Part Five: Belief and Error: Stalin and His Heirs, according to Glover, what distinguishes the Soviet terror from its predecessors is the role of an ideology, or system of beliefs. "The system of beliefs had its own resources to discredit the values once central to people's moral identity" (260). This phenomenon took hold in China and Cambodia, as well as the Soviet Union, says Glover. In the case of Nazi Germany in Part Six: The Will to Create Mankind Anew: The Nazi Experiment, says Glover, the Nazi's stripped their victims of protective dignity. This was done through the wearing of the yellow star, or through the use of the cold joke. "The cold joke is a display of power over its victims. It is also a way of easing the conscience, both by making light of what is being done and by a flaunting display of the joker's own hardness in the face of the claims of compassion" (341). Glover quotes the influential Nazi leader Alber Speer as saying he was "relieved of having to think, particularly about unpleasant facts, [which] assured the success of the National Socialist system" (361). "People immersed in bureaucratic rules easily forget what is at stake" (393).
In Part Seven: On The Recent Moral History of Humanity Glover reprises his call for a morality that is "humanized." This means that we must focus our attention not only on psychology and ethical theories, but on our political and social environments. "The causes of these catastrophes are partly political and social. Solutions to them cannot be purely in the realm of psychology or ethics: the political dimension has to be central" (401).
Thus, how do we keep the moral resources alive and nurture them? How do we avoid the mass killings and cruelty of the sort examined in Humanity? For that matter, how do we avoid the sort of school violence exemplified by the "Columbine shootings"? There are lessons to be learned from Glover's study. Glover is a philosopher and perhaps that sensitizes him to the role that education and a culture of skepticism can play in society. "People have a disposition to believe what they are told, especially when they are told it by someone in authority. There is also a disposition towards skepticism, but this depends on education or experiences which correct credulity" (362). In other words, according to Glover, "the public intellectual climate matters" (364).
Does Glover's book help us nurture the moral resources? Is his book more than an empty call for increased moral sensitivity? Epicurus wrote, "Empty is that philosopher's argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul" (quoted by Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire, 13). I suggest that taking the lessons of Glover's book seriously, doing what one can to integrate them into our cultural lives, and teaching them to our children, may well go a long way toward reducing the suffering in the world. Through Humanity, Glover's aim 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" (7). Humanity is a step in that direction.
Copyright Ben Mulvey 2001. Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of Liberal Arts at Nova Southeastern University. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University with a specialization in political theory and applied ethics. He teaches biomedical ethics at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.