Jonathan Glover’s “Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century”

Sorry it’s been so long since the last Picket Line update — I’ve been spending the holidays with family and old friends in the town where I grew up and I haven’t been on-line much.

I’ve also been reading an interesting book — Humanity: A Moral History of by Jonathan Glover.

The book tries to examine some of the worst wars and atrocities of with an eye toward finding some sort of strategy for making them less likely or not as awful in the next century. He explores these events from a number of angles — asking how the people who advocated them came to have their views and how those views became influential, how the people who participated in them overcame any aversion they might have had to becoming monsters, and how the way society was structured encouraged or failed to inhibit the atrocities.

At the same time it tries to uncover examples of people who did take risks to go against the tide — and to discover what sort of stuff these people were made of, how they were formed, and what triggered their brave and sadly unusual acts.

Glover is a philosopher of ethics — and he sees the history of the last century as a call for ethicists to leave the ivory tower and turn their sights on practical matters. For this reason, he also asks along the way through his recounting of bloody history: “what did the philosophers say about all this?”

Which can make for interesting reading. Glover acknowledges that the solutions to his problem, if there are any, will run the gamut from personal strategies for fortifying individual conscience through social techniques for encouraging humane behavior up to methods for preventing large-scale social institutions like governments from turning psychotic. He is much stronger when talking about individual ethical decision-making, and fairly weak when discussing political reform (for instance he can say in the course of a single paragraph that history teaches that “[t]here is a need for proper policing of the world, with a legitimate and properly backed international authority to keep the peace and to protect human rights” and also that “[t]here is a need to avoid large-scale utopian political projects,” which strikes me as obviously contradictory — that he doesn’t feel the need to argue otherwise suggests to me that he hasn’t given enough thought to these political problems.)

But this sort of meaty reading has kept me from scanning the web for yet another “year end tax advice” article or “government official does something evil and boneheaded” exposé. There’s been no shortage of either, but you’ll have to search ’em out yourself, at least until I get back into the flow here come .