Ours is an era increasingly characterized by the intrusion of humanitarian and human rights concerns into the business of politics and the business of business. It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to look at world affairs through the amoral lens of Realpolitik, to study the actions of states impervious to the well-being of the people in whose name they act. Violations of human rights by governments, rebel groups and corporations are part of the quotidian concerns of anyone dealing with public policy. We are all more conscious than ever before of the moral standards by which anyone in a position of authority must be judged and of the international laws underpinning those standards. And if we forget, there are powerful incentives from bodies like the now-venerable Amnesty International and the feisty Human Rights Watch to remind us of what we can no longer afford to ignore.
The body of literature that seeks to examine the moral dimensions of these widening concerns grows larger with time. Four recent books and a report by Human Rights Watch, while providing no common theme or overriding conclusion, help us examine the landscape where politics, history, business, society and ethics collide. Nonetheless, taken together, these books suggest that as fast we run toward our future, we can never elude the past. More important, we should never try.
"The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy," wrote the British philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood, "is to reckon with twentieth-century history." Collingwood's autobiographical apercu forms the epigraph to Jonathan Glover's monumental, though flawed, "Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century."
Glover, a philosopher who is director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at King's College, London, has attempted "to give ethics an empirical dimension. It uses ethics to pose questions to history and it uses history to give a picture of the parts of human potentiality which are relevant to ethics." He has filled out an "idea of humanity" on the assumption "that a central part of morality should be concerned with avoiding repetition of man-made disasters of the kind the Nazis brought about."
History, albeit selective history, is the book's strength. His argument is wide-ranging, from My Lai to Hiroshima (rather than the other way around), tribal conflict, war again (the two World Wars and the Cuban Missile Crisis), the horrors of Stalinism (with briefer disquisitions on Mao and Pol Pot), all climaxed by an unsparing section on Nazism.
He sets out by laying bare the intellectual sins of Nietzsche (whose mantra "Become hard!" corrupted a generation of Germans), then moves on to discussing warfare. War takes up a substantial portion of his narrative. The numbers of deaths are chilling: A million people killed in the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, 2 million in Vietnam, 3 million in the Korean War. Glover estimates that war killed 86 million people in the first nine decades of the century, about two-thirds (58 million) of them in the two world wars. It is a fair guess that the figure went up by another 8 to 10 million in the 1990s. But if "war killed an average of over a hundred people an hour through the twentieth century," totalitarianism was not far behind: "The numbers of people murdered by Stalin's tyranny far surpass those killed in Nazi camps. The numbers of Mao's victims are yet greater. Pol Pot killed a far higher proportion of the population than Hitler did."
How are war and hatred sustained? Glover extensively discusses the role played by racist demonization of the enemy, and the complicity of the media in perpetuating such images ("You Americans would become nationalists and racists too," a Serb journalist says, "if your media were totally in the hands of the Ku Klux Klan"). This is essential for cruelty to flourish: "A central part of the torturer's craft is to make his job easier by stripping the victim of protective dignity."
While his discussion of Nazism covers familiar ground in analyzing obedience and conformity as factors that permitted barbarism, Glover is particularly interesting on "the erosion of moral identity" that led ordinary people, not just psychopaths, to participate in mass murder. Not only did the Nazis deny any moral standing to their victims, they convinced themselves that their victims had no human dignity to respect: that was what made the killings possible. When the commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, was asked, "Why, if they were going to kill them anyway, what was the point of all the humiliation? Why the cruelty?" his answer was, "[t]o condition those who actually had to carry out the policies. To make it possible for them to do what they did."