By STEVEN PINKER
A Moral History of the Twentieth
464 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press.
Barbarism was by no means unique to the
past 100 years, Jonathan Glover tells us, but ''it is still right that
much of 20th-century history has been a very unpleasant surprise.''
This was the century of Passchendaele, Dresden, Nanking, Nagasaki and
Rwanda; of the Final Solution, the gulag, the Great Leap Forward, Year
Zero and ethnic cleansing -- names that stand for killings in the six
and seven figures and for suffering beyond comprehension. The
technological progress that inspired the optimism of the Victorians
turned out also to multiply the effects of old-fashioned evil and
Glover is a moral philosopher, whose stock in trade is the
hypothetical moral dilemma. (A trolley is hurtling out of control.
Five workers down the track don't see it and will be killed if it
continues. You can throw the switch and save them, but it will cause
the death of one person standing on a spur. What should you do?) In
this ''moral history of the 20th century,'' Glover deftly analyzes
some of its real and terrible moral dilemmas. Is the bombing of
civilians ever justified if it would shorten a dreadful war? Should
the Allies have accepted Adolf Eichmann's offer to trade a million
Jews for 10,000 trucks? What kind of risk to self and family should a
moral person be expected to take in opposing a terrifying regime?
But when it comes to the choices made by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol
Pot, Milosevic and their henchmen, moral dilemmas are beside the
point. Glover wants his profession to help us understand how great
evils can happen and how they might be prevented. That requires not
just philosophy but history and psychology.
Most of ''Humanity'' is history: an account of the major atrocities
of the century. In novelistic detail, Glover describes the wrenching
realities behind the just wars and the utopian social projects. The
descriptions are heartbreaking, enraging, at times unbearable. No
matter how bad you thought the century was for human rights, Glover
will convince you that it was even worse. The following vignette,
though lacking the death and gore of the others, encapsulates for me
how the century's political movements could obliterate all that we
value in life:
''A French ethnologist captured by the Khmer Rouge . . . befriended
a girl of about 3 whose father was marched away to probable death. He
played with her and grew fond of her, but she was forced to attend
indoctrination classes. Her smiling response to him was replaced by
sullenness. One evening, looking him in the face, she tried to insert
her finger between his ankle and the rope that bound him. Finding that
she could, she called the guard to tighten the ropes.''
Glover's history is not original, of course, but his psychology is,
dramatically so. The prevailing wisdom among many intellectuals has
been that evil has nothing to do with human nature and must be
attributed to political institutions. The anthropologist Ashley
Montagu, at a time when the ashes of 35 million victims of World War
II were still warm (or radioactive), urged Unesco to declare that
''biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal
brotherhood.'' In 1986, Unesco and several scholarly societies
resolved that ''it is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any
other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human
nature.'' Scientists who have dissented from this saccharine view have
been picketed, smeared and likened to Nazis.
Glover does not let our species off so lightly. He shows that
distinctive patterns of cruelty and callousness pop up repeatedly in
history, cutting across times, places and political systems. He
insists that ''we need to look hard and clearly at some monsters
inside us,'' not to make us pessimists but as ''part of the project of
caging and taming them.'' For Glover argues that human nature
encompasses not just destructive impulses but ''moral resources'':
humane impulses that sometimes recoil from the intentions of the
monsters. The course of history, and our hopes for the future, are
shaped by struggles among these impulses inside countless minds.
The great contribution of ''Humanity'' is a dissection of these
motives. This is not, as some might fear, an attempt to reduce history
to psychology. Glover makes it clear that the motives are responses to
the larger community and manifest themselves in different ways in
different social and political contexts.
Here are some of the monsters. Pure, amoral self-interest. Sadism
and the thrill of the battlefield. Tribalism, which elevates the group
above the individual and turns personal enmity into feuding, war and
genocide. Ideology, which can convince people that a struggle between
groups -- races for the Nazis, classes for the Marxists -- is
inevitable and necessary for progress. The ''Hobbesian trap,'' in
which a nation is tempted to attack a neighbor out of fear that it
would otherwise attack first, like an armed homeowner who surprises an
armed burglar, tempting each to shoot first to avoid being shot.
Glover sees two countervailing moral resources. Human responses --
sympathy, empathy and respect -- occasionally break through in people
committing vicious acts. Sometimes they are triggered by the
intellect. A British World War II navigator, safely home after a
bombing raid, says to the pilot, ''What about those poor sods under
those fires?'' Entrenched soldiers say, ''We don't want to kill you,
and you don't want to kill us, so why shoot?'' At other times they are
triggered by tangible signs of a target's humanity. A soldier sees a
fleeing man holding up his trousers. The mundane detail turns him from
''fascist'' to ''person,'' and the soldier loses the will to fire. An
Afrikaner policeman chases a South African demonstrator, club in hand.
She loses her shoe, and chivalry makes him hand it back. Their eyes
meet, and he finds it impossible to club her.
The other resource is moral identity, or self-respect -- the answer
to the question ''Am I the kind of person who could do this?'' People
sometimes resist the pressure to harm others when it conflicts with
how they want to see themselves. A moral identity can come from a
religion, a culture, professional mores (like the Hippocratic oath), a
cosmopolitan humanism or sometimes just an insistent voice inside us.
In Glover's analysis, the horrors of the century took place when
the moral resources were deliberately or accidentally disabled. Again
and again he finds that atrocities are accompanied by tactics of
humiliation and dehumanization: pejorative nicknames, degrading
conditions, humiliating dress. They flip a mental switch and
reclassify another individual from ''person'' to ''nonperson,'' making
it as easy to torture or kill him as it is for us to boil a lobster
alive. Some of the most indelible images in ''Humanity'' are of the
''cold jokes'' that brutes all over the world have used to strip their
victims of dignity and make cruelty come easier. Those who poke fun at
''politically correct'' names for ethnic minorities will be reminded
that they originally had a humane rationale.
Sympathy can be turned off by physical distance from the victims,
as in aerial bombardment and remote-control warfare. It can also be
suppressed by sheer willpower. It is frightening to think that our
vaunted ability to subdue emotional urges through the force of
intellect and conscience (allowing us to defer gratification and
resist temptation) also allowed Nazi guards to overcome their visceral
horror at what they were doing and to persevere with distasteful acts
that they thought served a higher purpose.
Like sympathy, the moral resource of identity can be insidiously
eroded. No one is a saint, and most people calibrate their conscience
against a level of minimum decency expected of people in their peer
group or culture. When the level drifts downward, people can commit
horrible crimes with the confidence that comes from knowing that
''everyone does it.'' Euphemisms like ''resettlement to work camps,''
phased decisions (in which bombing targets might shift from isolated
factories to factories near neighborhoods to the neighborhoods
themselves) and the diffusion of responsibility within a bureaucracy
can lead conscientious people to cause appalling outcomes that no one
would ever willingly choose on his own.
GLOVER draws hope from the recurring breakthroughs of moral
resources and from the happy episodes in which they conspired to avert
disaster. During the Cuban missile crisis, Nikita Khrushchev and John
F. Kennedy were reminded of the human cost of the nuclear brink they
were approaching, Khrushchev by memories of two world wars fought on
his soil, Kennedy by a graphic briefing of the aftermath of an atomic
bomb. And each understood they were in a Hobbesian trap. Kennedy had
just read Barbara Tuchman's ''Guns of August'' and saw how the leaders
of great nations could sleepwalk into a pointless and awful war.
Khrushchev, thinking like a game theorist, wrote to Kennedy:
''You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which
you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the
tighter this knot will become. And a time may come when this knot is
tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of
untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut.''
By identifying the trap, they could set the shared goal of escaping
it. In the teeth of opposition from many of their advisers, both made
concessions that may have literally saved the world.
In discussing topics of such gravity many authors would be tempted
to flaunt a moral superiority, but Glover does not. Though
''Humanity'' is a passionate book, the voice is measured and elegant,
the arguments fair and carefully reasoned. There are also moments of
dark wit. Glover tells how the Bolshevik leaders cultivated a
reputation for hardness, down to their assumed names: Kamenev (man of
stone), Molotov (the hammer), Stalin (man of steel). He notes, ''A
democratic politician who changed his name to 'Man of Steel' would,
one hopes, have his political career finished by the laughter.'' A
mordant portrait of the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger should be
required reading for the many academics who continue to treat him
Glover took on a fearsome subject, and at times it got the better
of him. Topics come and go unpredictably; arguments sometimes dribble
off without resolution. Relevant literatures in moral and political
philosophy and social and evolutionary psychology are barely touched.
No matter. This is an extraordinary book: brilliant, haunting and
uniquely important. Almost 40 years ago a president read a best
seller, and the world avoided a holocaust. I like to think that some
of the leaders and followers of tomorrow will read ''Humanity.''
Steven Pinker is the Peter de Florez professor of psychology at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of ''How the Mind
Works'' and ''Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language.''
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