Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover. Yale University Press, 464 pages, $29.95.
October 22, 2000        

In 1900 there were grounds for optimism about the coming century. Apart from bloody but brief contests between Prussia and Austria and Prussia and France, Europe had been at peace since Napoleon. The first great age of industrialization had vastly increased national wealth and standards of living throughout Western Europe and North America. A moderate and humane liberalism, leavened by social-democratic stirrings, seemed the common political destiny. The arts, sciences, and crafts were flourishing; the graces and amenities of bourgeois civilization were gradually spreading. Among the educated, satisfaction prevailed and continued progress was the universal expectation.

The actual history of the 20th century was, as we know, hideous beyond imagining. A world war begun by accident, unexpectedly and unprecedentedly destructive, dragged on for no adequate strategic or political reason, embittering an entire generation. The peace settlement was vindictive, creating lasting resentment among the losers. Statist parties took power in several countries with weak democratic traditions – notably Russia, Germany, and Italy – and ruled by indoctrination and terror, culminating in mass murder. Another world war, twice as destructive as the first, ended with the use of a new class of weapon, capable of obliterating cities in a few minutes. All this in the first half of the century. The second half was a little quieter, but still wracked by war, political murder and torture, and the novel threat of instantaneous global nuclear annihilation.

We have a lot of reflecting to do. There ought to be a book a week – or a month, at most – rehearsing the ghastly history of the 20th century and inquiring into our species’ astonishing capacity for cruelty and cowardice. “Humanity,” by the British philosopher Jonathan Glover, is a good start.

“Humanity” combines episodic historical narration with philosophical commentary. The case studies include most of the century’s moral horror stories, recounted in condensed but vivid and compelling form and assayed by means of one or another of Glover’s analytical categories. These categories are straightforward and practical, not abstruse or over-elaborate: Glover is not, thank goodness, engaged in retelling so much harrowing anguish merely in order to display some new theoretical wares. Despite the occasional academic concept-mongering, he usually sounds not like a visiting lecturer but like a wise and literate citizen speaking to fellow citizens.

How, then, could humans have behaved so badly in the 20th century? Well, to begin with, Glover asks, why do we ever behave morally? Sometimes, he points out, it is a matter of self-interest. As modern game theory demonstrates, and as most traditional moral codes have assumed, cooperation and mutual restraint are usually functional: i.e., they are highly efficient ways of maximizing individual and social well-being. So conventional moral rules, reinforced by social pressures, have sufficed in most situations to point out one’s duty and elicit conformity to it. When they don’t suffice, then character is required, or what Glover calls “moral resources: certain human needs and psychological tendencies which work against narrowly selfish behavior.”

One of the moral resources is mutual respect, a sense of other people’s dignity or equality. Another is sympathy, the capacity to feel other people’s pain or joy. (A pity Bill Clinton has spoiled this formerly useful expression.) Still another is a person’s moral identity: i.e., a commitment to some ideal or virtue or self-image that dictates certain actions and forbids others.

In the 20th century, historical circumstances have blunted or distorted these moral influences in various ways. The distinctive characteristic of 20th-century violence is distance. The discipline that created professional armies and navies distanced their members psychologically from civilians. Ideologies of nationalism, racialism, and class struggle distanced members of each nation, race, and class emotionally from all others. Perhaps most important, long-range weaponry distanced combatants physically from one another and from noncombatants, while wireless communications distanced commanders and policy-makers from combat altogether. As a result, victims were increasingly either invisible or alien. Either they could not be seen at all, or they could not be identified with. A vast increase in destructive capacity combined with a drastic weakening of moral restraints to produce atrocities on a new scale.

In this respect, there is perhaps once more grounds for hope. Television has brought atrocities into everyone’s living room. International tourism and the export of movies, sitcoms, and pop music have greatly lessened the cultural distance between nations. Prosperity has, for the first time in history, made a majority of the population in the developed countries blessedly fat and lazy. Weapons keep getting more awful, but people keep getting nicer, or at least more bland. With luck, capitalism and mass culture will continue to enervate, corrupt, homogenize, and stultify more and more people throughout the world until peace is reasonably secure.

“Distancing” helps explain how some morally doubtful acts came to be performed. Another of Glover’s categories, the “moral slide,” helps explain how some morally doubtful decisions came to be taken and justified. Glover traces “the twentieth century’s slide towards mass killing of civilians far away” through a series of policies, from the British blockade of Germany in World War I through the area bombing of Europe in World War II to the use of atomic weapons. Each of these measures was a morally troubling innovation, and each was invoked by decision-makers to justify subsequent ones. “The blockade made it easier to embark on area bombing. In turn, the raids on Hamburg, Darmstadt, and Dresden meant there was relatively little outcry when the American Air Force embarked on the fire-bombing of Tokyo. And that in turn eased the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Glover also shows distancing, the moral slide, and other mechanisms at work in Vietnam, Bosnia, Rwanda, and in Nazi, Soviet, and Maoist totalitarianism, among other cases.

“Humanity” is a modest book, a small contribution to the immense labor of understanding some of the worst experiences humankind has ever had. But everyone who says, or feels, that such things must never happen again should read it and help keep the conversation alive.