Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century Hardcover – Aug 11 2000
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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
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
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Top Customer Reviews
Alienation from the moral resources contributes to the capacity for cruelty. Glover distinguishes between emotional insensibility conceived as a means to an end, that is, an aid to killing more efficiently (as in Stalinism and Maoism), and emotional insensibility conceived as an end in itself (as in Nazism, which conceived hardness as a hallmark of a new Nietzschean super-human.)
The book is a treasure trove of anecdotes and statistics about genocide. Among the most memorable anecdotes is George Orwell's story of holding his fire on an enemy who was holding up his trousers while running for safety, because the undressed enemy suddenly appeared to Orwell as a vulnerable human being who was capable of feeling indignity and fear. I learned a lot of important history and will probably use the book for reference.
My only complaints are that the philosophical discussion of pacifism, and its variants and alternatives, was not as advanced and complex as I'd hoped, and that in some places the book read more like a sensational encyclopedia of torture techniques rather than a political analysis.Read more ›
I think "Humanity" is a book everyone should read. Some of the issues and events discussed in "Humanity" may seem obvious to some. However, if necessary, it is important to revisit these topics again. Glover describes in particularly devastating, and at times graphic, fashion the horrendous consequences of unfettered nationalism, tribalism and religious extremism. Moreover, Glover goes into detail about how people who perpetrated some of the worse atrocities of the recent century often utilized "cold jokes" and a "hardened persona" to fend off any feelings of empathy toward the people they were victimizing. Inspite of the Glover's shortcomings, which are relatively minor, I think these are lessons all of humanity should learn from and I fully recommend "Humanity."
Indeed, the decline - of belief, I mean - appears to be complete in the mind of Mr. Glover, himself, who seems to fully share the theoretical outlook whose practical impact and philosophical meaning he aims to analyze, being personally both an atheist and a moral skeptic. But he clearly thinks these kinds of unbelief are actually all right, for him and for our age; and that morality may turn out to be "more defensible," anyway, when "seen to be a human creation" that we "can shape ...consciously to serve people's needs and interests, and to reflect the things we most care about."
And that is indeed what he does in this lucidly written, well documented and fascinating book: set to work at "creating" and "consciously shaping" morality in light of the great moral traumas of the last century, and partly with a hope of staving off more of them.
A word of criticism, not so much of the book as of the view:
As the reader will know, Mr.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Arrived almost 2 weeks after expected date. Very dis-satisfied. Took forever to get and shipper/Amazon could not track or give a valid excusePublished on Feb. 9 2012 by youngbowman
Readers who pick up this book probably think they are going to be reading a discussion centering on ethical thinking in the 20th century with some mention of historical events. Read morePublished on May 1 2002 by A reader
If you want to read a 400 page book that will state and re-state obvious truths that any thinking person has reached considering man's inhumanity to man, then buy this book! Read morePublished on April 10 2002 by Kenneth E. Wagner Jr.
This book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in moral philosophy, moral psychology, or moral *history*. Read morePublished on Feb. 5 2002 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Glover describes the ethical and moral absues of the 20th century by finding common themes - rather than chronological ones - to describe the process through which so many crimes... Read morePublished on Nov. 15 2001 by Alessandro Bruno
This book will simply give readers an idea of where and how violent, incomprehensible acts come to pass, how the perpetrators become capable of such things, and how best, as a... Read morePublished on Sept. 30 2001 by Taylor Kirk
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,... Read morePublished on Sept. 6 2001 by Adam J. Jones
Jonathan Glover has written an interesting and lively chronicle of the twentieth century using the prism of morality as his filter. Read morePublished on July 10 2001 by Parker Benchley
I should preface my review by mentioning that I am, at present and for all eternity, on page 131. This book contains encyclopedia entries on the major world figures and historic... Read morePublished on May 24 2001