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Humanity: The Moral History

June 22, 2010

I’ve just finished reading Humanity: The Moral History of the Twentieth Century by Jonathan Glover.  It’s excellent, and well worth a read.

Early on in the book, Glover describes three things that can lead us to act in a “moral” way: a sense of moral identity, respect for others and sympathy for others (these last two are grouped under the heading “moral resources”). He argues that is only by breaking down these things that we are capable of immoral acts. However, as he shows, it isn’t necessarily that simple.

The book uses examples from the twentieth century to show how people have ended up in situations where they are capable of committing acts that are often terrifyingly immoral. In the majority, Glover shows how the moral identity and moral resources were broken down, allowing people to act as they did. The most important example is reserved for last though: the Nazis. For the most part, Nazis who committed atrocities had a very strong moral identity. The problem was that it was a moral identity hewn from a model similar to that put forward by Nietzsche, in which compassion is a weakness, and a moral system must be built up by the strong. This moral identity served to increase the effects generated by the erosion of respect and sympathy for the victims of Nazi atrocities.

The moral resources therefore seem to take a primacy over the moral identity, but it is clear from the Nazi example that if we are to act in a moral way we must start from a position of a strong moral identity predicated on respect and sympathy for everyone, not just the people that we consider “strong”.

All in all, this book provides a great viewpoint to start thinking about morality in a broader context (it’s already got me thinking about other examples from history, such as the French Revolution, or the history of the American west, as described by the wonderful Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, a book everyone should read). I can’t recommend it enough.

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