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Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century

27 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0300087154
ISBN-10: 0300087152
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Editorial Reviews Review

In Humanity, English ethicist Jonathan Glover begins with the now commonplace observation that the last 100 years were perhaps the most brutal in all history. But the problem wasn't that human nature suddenly took a sharp turn for the worse: "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," he writes. Technology has made a huge difference, but psychology has remained the same--and this is what Glover seeks to examine, through discussions of Nietzsche, the My Lai atrocity in Vietnam, Hiroshima, tribal genocide in Rwanda, Stalinism, Nazism, and so on.

There is much history here, but Humanity is fundamentally a book of philosophy. In his first chapter, for instance, Glover announces his goal "to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenment with something more complex, something closer to reality." But he also seeks "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." The result is an odd combination of darkness and light--darkness because the subject matter of the 20th century's moral failings is so bleak, light because of Glover's earnest optimism, which insists that "keeping the past alive may help to prevent atrocities." He cites Stalin's bracing comment, made while signing death warrants: "Who's going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years' time? No one." At one level, Humanity is a book of remembrance. But it's more than that: it's also an attempt to understand what it is in the human mind that makes moral disaster always loom--and a prayer that this aspect of our psychology might be better controlled. --John J. Miller --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

An ethics academic in Britain, Glover discourses on the dismantlement of absolute morality concepts synonymous with Friedrich Nietzsche, and explicitly put into effect by the twentieth century's terrible tyrants. To describe the release Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot granted themselves from ordinary morality's prohibitions against killing, Glover quotes their ideological justifications of creating a perfect human society. Having opened this book with Nietzsche's pronouncements that man creates his morals, Glover's linking of mass murder with that philosopher is direct, and, if not an original way of comprehending the sufferings inflicted by dictators, it is worthwhile revisiting for those vexed by the apparent meaninglessness of enormous crimes. Indeed, Glover is a direct writer, not given to the opacity that clouds many a discussion of ethics. For instance, he narrates specific atrocities, and describes the psychological "traps" the triggermen find themselves in as their rationales for their actions. The "trap" metaphor extends in Glover's view to events such as World War I, and whatever dispute diplomatic historians will make with that, ethicists will find profit in Glover's not totally bleak survey. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Yale Nota Bene
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300087152
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300087154
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #542,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

109 of 114 people found the following review helpful By C. J. Roberts on September 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is an important work written in a clear and accessible manner. It is anecdotal and interpretive in style. Typically, one or more chapters tell a war story including details which may not be generally known; then the end of each section develops lessons to be learned.
Glover's book is a terrible indictment of war and other atrocities in the 20th Century. It is sometimes a tough read but is much more focused on the "whys and wherefores" than on the gruesomeness of the underlying subject matter. In other words it examines the psychology, politics and philosophy of war. The book is not comprehensive. We can all think of history which is not covered here. I guess I still have not quite figured out what criteria Glover used to include or exclude material. However, his themes are rationally developed. Some wars are shown to have been tribal in nature, some based on a belief system. Sometimes objective truth was abandoned and a cycle of self-deception ensued.
Glover shows how one's moral identity can be systematically eroded allowing us to slide into participation. Tools may include innuendo, ambiguous intentions, the "cold joke", the imposition of belief systems, the abandonment of objective truth, the spiral of hate, the use of precedent, the confusing of ends and means, physical distance (frequently enabled by technology), and the fragmentation of responsibility. Rectitude and honor were part of the "innocence" (i.e. part of the trap) that led to the First World War trenches. These can all lead to the abandonment of objective truth and a cycle of self-deception can ensue. Sometimes bureaucracy together with distance and division of labor can shrivel human response.
To resist, we need to keep our humanity alive.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Parker Benchley VINE VOICE on July 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jonathan Glover has written an interesting and lively chronicle of the twentieth century using the prism of morality as his filter. Noting that the last 100 years were the most brutal in human history, Glover seeks the reasons why this became the case. In Europe at rhe start of the century, most people accepted the authority of morality. What happened to undermine that authority? Glover states that barbarism is not unique to the twentieth century: atrocities have always been with us throughout recorded time. Technology has made a difference; hyped as the answer for a better life, technology has also made it easier for programs such as genocide and biocide, not to mention the total destruction of humanity via nuclear weapons. Never before has the fate of so many been in the hands of so few.
Perhaps it has been that the view of human psychology developed during the Enlightenment has stagnated, failng to adjust to new developments and the outgrowths of those developments in the industrialized world. Glover tellingly quotes John Maynard Keynes's criticism of Bertrand Russell's comments about life and affairs as "brittle" because there was "no solid diagnosis of human nature underlying them."
But Glover errs by leading his book with a look at Nietzsche as a harbinger of the new type of thinking, concentrating on Nietzsche's values of "cruelty," which the philosopher had associated with the overman, the man who overcomes himself, creating new values in the process. Nietsche did not endorse his values of the ubermensch as values for the mass of humanity.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Adam J. Jones on September 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
Jonathan Glover's book is not quite like anything you've read on war, state terror, and genocide. The tour of twentieth-century horrors is thematic rather than chronological, organized according to the ethical issues Glover wants to explore. This takes a little getting used to, but it allows the author to jump, for example, from the First World War to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to see which lessons had been learned in the interim and which might be applied in the future. The cumulative power of Glover's pointillist technique is enormous. "Humanity" combines a clear-eyed (necessarily often gruesome) depiction of *in*humanity with an informed and enlightening discussion of how leaders and ordinary people can change things for the better. As an examination of the psychological and existential origins of mass murder and genocide, it marks an advance on Ervin Staub's classic "Roots of Evil," and should be of interest to any student of modern history and politics.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Put simply, this is a wonderful book. Jonathan Glover has written a book that everyone with an interest in recent history should read. While the ultimate focus is philosophical, it is a terrific book of history. Glover takes some of the most horrific events of the past century (WWI, Stalinism, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Bosnia), provides a clear analysis (he would hold his own with any historian), then further analyzes the events and how they might have been avoided in philosphical terms. But he doesn't let the philosophical discussions become either arcane or pedantic. For someone like me, who has more of a historical background, the philosophy was clear and enlightening. While he doesn't completely avoid abstractions, he addresses the abstractions is such a way that they engender practical understanding of many of the great horrors of the 20th century.
One can only hope that our national leaders will read and understand his message.
I was struck by the incisiveness of his analysis of Stalinist Russia, in particular the reasons why it was such a dismal failure (both in economic and human terms). I came away with a keener understanding of the principles by which to judge the viability of other "utopian" schemes.
A final point and a minor quibble. Glover concludes that religion has largely failed in creating the kind of moral authority that will prevent future Rwandas and Bosnias. That's true as far as it goes. But it doesn't mean that the religions are false. G. K. Chesterton said: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried." I believe that the moral authority of rational people of faith is still our greatest hope for a 21st century that is better than the 20th.
Enough of the quibbling. Glover has written an accessible, interesting and important book that demands a broad readership by people who would like to see a more humane world.
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