Humanity, a Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London, 1999 and New Haven, 2000)

It is a bit staggering how easily most of us accept the cruelty and killings that fill so much of the news bulletins. Humanity started out with the idea that ethics should not carry on as though none of these horrors were relevant. Should not ethics have something to say about how to avoid them? Should not trying to understand why people did these things shape our thinking about ethics? The abstract philosophical battle between fundamental level ethical theories is like eternally inconclusive trench warfare, but there is wide and deep agreement about the moral enormity of the great atrocities. Some progress in ethics may be made if we start from this agreement. Understanding more about the psychology of wars, massacres, genocides and other atrocities may yield a map of some virtues and vices relevant to avoiding their repetition. It may also create some ethical agreement between people with deep disagreements at the level of fundamental theory. These were the hopes behind the book.

The approach was to start from the moral resources we have. What, in everyday life, restrains people from doing horrible things to each other? Obviously part of the answer is social pressures and the threat of legal punishment. But in Nazi Germany or Mao’s China, these pressures and threats operated against critics rather than against participants in atrocity. The book outlines some central moral restraints: sympathy, respect for people’s dignity, and the sense of one’s own moral identity: of not being the sort of person who murders or tortures. The central project of the book is an attempt to answer the questions about what happened to anaesthetize or to over-ride these moral resources when the great twentieth century atrocities took place. For evidence it sticks as closely as possible to things said and written by people who experienced these events. What, humanly, went wrong when the First World War broke out, or when the soldiers trapped in the trenches went on obeying orders to kill each other in such numbers? How could people bring themselves to create the firestorms that destroyed whole German cities, or to drop the atomic bomb? How could people to participate in the massacres of My Lai, Bosnia or Rwanda? How could people participate in the Nazi genocide, or in the huge communist killings under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot?

"One of this book's aims is to replace the thin, mechanical psychology of the Enlightenmment with something more complex, something closer to reality. A consequence of this is to produce a darker account. But another aim of the book is to defend the Enlightenment hope of a world that is more peaceful and more humane, the hope that by understanding more about ourselves we can do something to create a world with less misery. There are more things, darker things, to understand about ourselves than those who share this hope have generally allowed. Yet, although this book contains much that is exceptionally dark, the nessage is not one of simple pessimism. We need to look hard and clearly at some monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them."