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Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 227-229

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Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Jonathan's Glover's considerable reputation rests on the philosophical inquiry into the nature of human identity and on his critical deployment of consequentialist ethics to address a number of urgent issues regarding the beginning and end of life. In his latest book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (2001), he brings some of these themes together to try to make sense of the disturbing record of mass brutality and inhumanity that stretches through the last century. The deaths he addresses are those of countless millions of noncombatants, caught up in successive waves of atrocities that vary in their geographical location, scale, and duration, but not in their capacity to overwhelm the moral expectations and moral restraints in which we usually put our trust. Glover spares no feelings in his detailed and relentless charting of both the sociopolitical context of decline into moral chaos and the specificities of each torturous and murderous assault.

Drawing on a range of material—from contemporary documentation and eyewitness accounts to the subsequent reflections of historians, politicians, and social theorists—he attempts to find common explanatory threads for a catalogue of killing, rape, and mutilation that is the work not only of those given over to abandoned excess, but of those perpetrators who held fast to rational principles. A series of supposedly exceptional events, such as that at My Lai, is set against the enormities of Hiroshima, Rwanda, Stalinist show trials, the Gulag, and the Cultural Revolution in China, where state interests and state policy are expressly involved. Not surprisingly the atrocities of Nazi Germany, and particularly the holocaust, are given the deepest consideration, but Glover's wide-ranging approach makes clear that little distinguishes mid-century Germans as especially open to moral dereliction. The resolution that it must never happen again has been breached time and again in various places and in various forms.

Despite a plethora of endorsements from philosophers such as Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, it would appear that Humanity is intended primarily for the lay reader. Certainly at a time when Israelis and Palestinians remain in a murderous face-off, when the world's primary military power, the United States, appears unmoved by "collateral" killing, and when India and Pakistan ratchet up the possibility of nuclear attack, every one of us could benefit from a little more insight into the often unchallenged slide from threat to war to moral atrocity. Glover clearly lays bare the mechanics of such developments, and effectively traces the ways in which each person might feel him or herself morally blameless by failing to grasp the outcomes of discrete individual acts [End Page 227] .

In his extensive account of Nazi Germany, Glover unravels the effects of distancing, of mindless obedience to authority, of putting efficiency before feeling, and of turning away rather than intervening in obvious wrongs. The hatred felt for the Jews and other less-than-ideal Aryans, and the desire to create by whatever means a purified state are paralleled worldwide by other conflicts, driven by what Glover calls "tribalism," or by a ruthless consequentialism in pursuit of putative social utopias (144). As he remarks of the Pol Pot regime: "As so often with social engineering, those doing the calculations of happiness became so immersed in means ("the Revolution") that they lost their grip on ends" (305). And, one assumes, vice versa. But what does this really tell us that is not already apparent in the description? The drawback of Glover's straightforward approach is that it eschews any deep level of analysis, and relies for insight, for the most part, on our existing moral beliefs and intuitions in the face of an accumulation of horrifying evidence of individual and state brutality. To make, and offer empirical support to, similar points over and over again, albeit with some significant variations, did not enhance my comprehension of the moral enormities, but rather served to reinforce their seeming inevitability.

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pp. 227-229
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Archived 2009
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