A Slithy Tove

Twentieth-century atrocities receive an unrewarding spin for the television age.

Issue: Spring 2001

Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

Humanity? A moral history? These are ambitious terms. Can this really be an account of the ethical forces that shaped or misshaped the lives of the entire human race through an entire century, from sexual mores and medical ethics to the morality of politics and international affairs? The scope of Jonathan Glover's Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century turns out to be more modest--largely a discussion of twentieth-century atrocities and criminal regimes from an ethical point of view.

We are, then, dealing not with the quotidian inhumanity of man to man, or his humanity for that matter, but with public policy that resulted in wars, massacres and repression. These we are invited retrospectively to condemn--a not insuperable challenge--while the author discusses how such aberrant behavior could possibly have come about. The targets are largely unmissable, and apart from one or two still controversial issues, such as Hiroshima, this is a highly consensual book. Once you place yourself on the side of humanity, sever the link between public and private morality, and see public policy as operating in a largely distinct realm, it is amazing how wide the consensus can become.

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