Taming the Monster Inside Us

From the Vision archive: British ethical and moral philosopher Jonathan Glover talks about what makes people treat each other so poorly and offers his thoughts on what we can do about it. (Republished in Spring 2022 from our Summer 2001 issue.)

Jonathan Glover is director of the Center of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London. His book, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, has received enthusiastic reviews. In it Glover strips bare the human proclivity for cruelty, in addition to putting forward some ideas for moral recovery. In this interview he expands on the book’s main themes with Vision publisher David Hulme.


DHIn your book you mention that we have to tame the monster within us. What is this monster?

JGIt’s a variety of things. I look at 20th-century atrocities, and I ask—as anyone who visits a place like Auschwitz must ask—How is it possible for human beings to treat each other this way? We can’t escape the rather depressing fact that most human beings probably have the potential for terrible cruelty as well as the potential for great good. What I tried to do is look at the psychological components that are on the dark side, the cruel side. We must look at what normally restrains us from cruelty in everyday life—sympathy for other people, respect for their dignity—and gain a sense of the sort of person we want to be. I don’t want to be a torturer or a mass murderer.

But how are these psychological restraints anesthetized or eroded in the great atrocities? First, it is much easier to kill people at a distance than it is close up. Modern technology means that you often can kill people at a distance, because the usual psychological inhibitions that prevent it aren’t aroused. The monster inside us, the beast of cruelty as Dostoyevsky once called it, is not usually raging sadism. It is the way in which the ordinary human responses to other people are deadened.

DHAre people morally deadened in other ways?

JGYes. Both society and technology are so complicated that many people are involved in the machinery needed for modern atrocities, and so nobody feels personally responsible for them. Nobody feels, “I am becoming the sort of person who kills lots of innocent men and women.”

The classic case of this may be the dropping of the atomic bomb. The scientists were able to say, “We’re not deciding to kill anyone. We’re simply providing society with the technology, and it is up to society to decide how to use it.” The airmen who dropped the bomb were only obeying orders that came from higher up. The military commanders higher up were really carrying out what they took to be political decisions from the president. So you might think, as President Truman famously said, “The buck stops here.” But I’m not sure he accepted that. I read his memoirs because I wanted to see what he thought about dropping the atomic bomb. He discussed it very briefly, saying that he had decided where and when it might be used, but that he had deferred to the Interim Committee as to whether it would be used.

So it looked to me as though the Interim Committee made the decision. One of the people advising that committee was Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist. Some years afterward, he was asked by a French newspaper about the thinking that led to the decision that the atomic bomb should be used, and he replied that they didn’t think they were deciding whether it would be used; they assumed the politicians had already decided.

Leaving aside whether it was justified, whether it shortened the war, whether there were other ways of doing it, what I find really disturbing is that it looks as though nobody felt this very important decision was their decision. As a result, nobody had to feel, “I personally am responsible for killing these vast numbers of innocent women and children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” In that way, the complexities of technology and society make it much easier to carry out atrocities, because this central restraint—“I don’t want to be the sort of person who does this”—gets disengaged from what people actually do.

DHEarly in the 20th century we had the First World War. At the end of the war Woodrow Wilson pushed for the League of Nations in an effort to end all war. It looked as though the psychological climate was going to be more humane than it had been. And yet soon after, the world was at war again. How do you account for the paradox?

JGI think the answer, in part, is that it was extremely humiliating for the people of Germany, first to be defeated in the war, and second to have to sign humiliating peace terms with reparations and war guilt clauses. It led to a huge sense of national humiliation and resentment. The German poet Schiller once said that nationalism is a bent-twig phenomenon. When you walk through the woods and push the thin branches of trees forward, they spring back, and so it is not very nice to be the second person walking through the woods. When a nation is humiliated, there is very often the spring-back phenomenon. This is the kind of thing that Hitler was able to ride.

DHSo would you say that the Germans are worse than anybody else?

JGI certainly don’t think that. That seems to me yet another racist stigmatization that we could do without.

DHThen was the 20th century populated by other people who were worse than previous generations?

JGI don’t believe that people in the 20th century—and we are not far enough away from the 20th century to exclude ourselves—are psychologically worse or more cruel than people were before. Part of the difference is technology. We are able to kill in vastly greater numbers than people were before the 20th century, so the appearance of the 20th century as an epoch of great cruelty and barbarism is a bit misleading.

DHWhere do these urges to torment and humiliate people come from?

JGI wish I knew. It is not at all clear that they are part of what evolution needed to equip us with in order to survive. It is clear that quite ordinary, decent people—both Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan and American soldiers in Vietnam, who were good, nonviolent people in private life—sometimes found themselves relishing the acts of cruelty they carried out in these terrible wars.

DH You use a marvelous quote from The Gulag Archipelago, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn mentions that the difference between right and wrong is a line that runs through the heart of every person.

JGYes, I think he says there is one picture according to which there are good people on the one side and bad people on the other. And he says he doesn’t think it is nearly so simple—that the line between good and evil runs through the heart of each of us. In my book I quote that, and then I pair it with something from Primo Levi. He says, “Whether or not we all have the potential to become executioners and torturers doesn’t much interest me. I know that I was a victim and that the Nazis were not. And it’s no service to truth to try to obliterate that distinction.”

I know that I was a victim and that the Nazis were not. And it’s no service to truth to try to obliterate that distinction.”

Jonathan Glover

What I tried to say is that in a sense both men have one aspect of the truth: Nobody is utterly perfect, nobody is utterly evil. In fact, both writers actually say they recognize the truth the other has. Solzhenitsyn says we were cut from the same cloth as the people who were executioners and prison guards. And Levi says it’s not that it doesn’t make a difference what sort of person you are; people who had a certain upbringing became camp guards. They often had no religious or moral upbringing, and as a result they were in various ways stunted and distorted.

DHYou say you are not willing to accept a religious basis for morality. Where do the resources come from then?

JG What I have said is that the dark side of human nature poses the problem. I think there is a better side of human nature, which is the best we can do as a solution to the problem. We have the resources in us, as we have seen all too often, for terrible cruelty, for killing vast numbers of people either closely or at a distance. But I also think that there are countervailing psychological forces in us. Whether they are planted by God, as a religious person might believe, or the result of evolution, as a secular person might believe, we do have the capacity to sympathize with other people. We have a sense of horror and disgust when someone is humiliated. We have a sense of wanting to be one kind of person rather than another. Quite a lot may come from evolution. Quite a lot may come from family traditions, from people bringing up their children to care about kindness. It seems to me we have to grab hold of all the positive side we can to help the good side defeat the bad side.

DH You talk about qualities of character making a difference, and you talk about moral identity, and about character being an element in that. Would you elaborate?

JGMost of us have some idea of the sort of person we would or wouldn’t like to be. We don’t often think of ourselves as the perfect person, but we usually have a set of values that makes us think, “I don’t want to be the sort of person who tortures other people or kills a lot of innocent civilians.”

DHWhat would you say to a young couple if they asked you how to raise a moral and ethical child?

JGWell, there is no one formula for it. I would certainly not say that they should build child rearing around avoiding great atrocities, because there is more to life than avoiding atrocities. One wants truthful, kind, generous people. Luckily, the psychology needed for the ethics that restrain these great atrocities is not really so different from the psychology needed for being an ethical person in everyday life.

One thing that I believe is important is to teach people that morality is based on reasons rather than on authority. Don’t say it is the right thing to do because I tell you, or even that it is the right thing to do because God tells you. It is important to encourage children to be sympathetic to other people. Two American psychologists, Samuel and Pearl Oliner, did a very interesting study on the altruistic personality. They compared people who rescued Jews from the Nazis in Poland with a closely matched group who didn’t. They found that the rescuers had had a much less authoritarian upbringing, much less obedience oriented, much more sympathy oriented, and a sense of thinking for yourself and being responsible for other people. This contrasts interestingly with the terribly authoritarian upbringings of the leading Nazis. Psychologist Alice Miller wrote somewhere that she looked at the childhood of many leading Nazis, and she didn’t find one that wasn’t extremely authoritarian.

DHIn many ways we entertain the same feelings as people did after the First World War: we seem to be in a period of enlightenment and peace at the beginning of the 21st century. Do we have good reason to feel this way?

JGI don’t think that the dawning of the year 2000 is a sudden transformation in human history. That is purely a calendar accident. But I am mildly optimistic. On the one hand, the last hundred years or so were pretty terrible and give some people very great grounds for pessimism, but we have to set against that the increasing sense that we are one global community. Because of television and other information sources, we are much more aware of atrocities as they happen, and we have the increasing sense that they are intolerable. We now have things like the UN and the various international charters associated with it. We also have the sense that it is legitimate to intervene in nation-states in a way that we didn’t before, even in the early days of the UN. But the birth of the consciousness of human rights and the outrage I see when people are tortured or killed give me some grounds for hope, though not for wild optimism.

The birth of the consciousness of human rights and the outrage I see when people are tortured or killed give me some grounds for hope, though not for wild optimism.” 

Jonathan Glover

DHOne of your recommendations is for a global government, or a loose affiliation of nations with an international police force. If the amoral forces could take over a nation like Germany, what stops them from taking over an international organization?

JGThere is no absolute guarantee that they wouldn’t.

First, I don’t believe in a total world government. My picture of world government isn’t one in which the government runs everything. Rather, as Immanuel Kant expressed at the end of the 18th century, it would be a loose federation of nation states with a kind of international police force to prevent wars and terrible acts of violence like genocide. Of course, there is no guarantee that any international body won’t be taken over by evil people. We would need to institute checks and balances, just as the people who drafted the Constitution of the United States did. Any federal government, in principle, could be taken over by some terrible people. We need to have as many checks and balances to guard against that as we can.

DHMore than 86 million people were killed in war in the 20th century. That’s about a hundred an hour. On what basis can we be optimistic that such calamities won’t be repeated in this century?

JGWe can’t be totally optimistic, and I expect that this century will include atrocities as well. There is no magic about the boundary between one century and another. What I hope for is the slow growth of human consciousness, which will increasingly find such acts of barbarism intolerable, together with the growth of international policing machinery.

People talk so much about the global village. In a way we are a global village, but there are villages that have a decent police force and villages that don’t. Those that don’t must contain violence by allowing more powerful neighbors to round up posses and stamp it out. Civilized communities have a police force that is strong enough to keep order. I hope our increasing consciousness that atrocities really are intolerable will lead people to build up the financial and other resources needed for a decent international police force that will prevent them.

To suppose there will be no more wars, torture, genocide, tribal conflicts—that seems wildly optimistic. But I am a qualified optimist. I am inclined to think that although we haven’t seen the end, we can take steps that will gradually reduce the level of violence.