Some reformers have embraced the label “extremist” as a badge of courage. In 1964, Republican presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater famously said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” The grain of truth here is that some reasonable views are labeled “extreme” for being outside of mainstream opinion. Nevertheless, I think that genuine moral extremism really is a bad thing. In my new article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, I give an account of moral extremism as a vice. Roughly, a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should. Pace Goldwater, it’s plausible that intense devotion to justice – as fallible humans understand it – might cause us to miss nuances, or to demonize people who disagree with us.
Being a moral extremist doesn’t boil down to having badly mistaken moral views. On this account, a genuine animal rights extremist – as opposed to someone who’s called that simply because he’s concerned about animal welfare – could be advocating for a good cause. However, if we knew he is an extremist, then we’d have good reason to doubt his judgment in certain domains (e.g., in evaluating an article that concludes that strict veganism poses health risks to a certain portion of the population). To be clear, though the best reason to be interested in moral extremism isn’t the hope that identifying instances of it can help us discover true moral positions (or avoid false ones). Extremism is philosophically interesting in its own right; beyond this, understanding extremism can alert us to an insidious aspect of moral psychology: excessive devotion to morality is morally dangerous. This last point has unsettling political ramifications, some of which I spell out in the article.
The excesses of the anti-alcohol Temperance Movement in the U.S. provide a good illustration. In the early twentieth century, anti-alcohol crusader Carry Nation gained notoriety for attacking Kansas saloons with rocks, bricks and three hatchets affectionately named “Faith,” “Hope” and “Charity.” When alcohol prohibition was written into the U.S. Constitution by the 18th Amendment (1920–33), the U.S. government required that poisonous “denaturants” like formaldehyde, iodine, and sulphuric acid be added to alcohol produced for industrial purposes in order to deter people from drinking it, or selling it to others for consumption. This resulted in thousands of deaths. Some supporters of Prohibition remained unmoved. After receiving the news that several New Yorkers had died and hundreds had been sickened by poisoned alcohol, Wayne Wheeler, de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League, said: “The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it…. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide.” A 1927 editorial in the Chicago Tribune on the poisoning incidents says: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business. … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”
It’s important to bear in mind that opponents of alcohol consumption were no mere haters of merriment. Nation’s first husband died of alcohol-related causes at 29. Through her involvement with the Temperance Movement, Nation came into contact with women whose alcoholic husbands became wastrels, or abusive, at a time when the state offered far less protection to women and children. Saloons were associated with gambling, which could be financially ruinous, and extramarital sex, through which men could spread incurable diseases to their wives. Nation was motivated by sincere concern about these social problems. It’s also unlikely that Wheeler wanted anyone to die from drinking poisoned alcohol; he wanted the suffering that alcohol caused to end. It’s thus plausible that the intensity of Nation’s and Wheeler’s convictions in the justice of their cause prevented them from being able to perceive, or appropriately weigh, competing moral considerations.
Understanding moral extremism can help us understand totalitarian atrocities in a new light. One dominant narrative about Nazi atrocities, which gains support from Hannah Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem and Stanley Milgram’s notorious obedience experiments, emphasizes the role of pedestrian motives and ordinary biases behind seemingly inhuman evil. This narrative is, however, incomplete. It would be a mistake to overlook the complementary role of ideology and extremism in producing these outcomes. Ordinary citizens don’t become cogs in machines until people like the Bolsheviks and the early Nazis, who were true believers in their respective ideologies, establish those machines in the first place. Although many evildoers seem “banal” – Arendt’s famous description of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann – others are arrogant and full of zeal. The rhetoric that such people employ is often fanatically moral. This surely includes some rationalization of ugly ulterior motives, but I think a lot of it sincerely reflects adherence to extremely misguided, though still recognizably moral, ideals.
I end by contrasting two American opponents of slavery: John Brown and John Quincy Adams. Brown, who is best known for the raid on Harpers Ferry intended to spark a massive slave rebellion, was certainly a radical. I argue that he was also probably an extremist (his involvement in the Potawatomie Massacre in particular suggests fanaticism). Adams was far more conservative. He avoided Brown’s extremism, but had difficulty achieving epistemic and emotional consistency on the issue of slavery. On which side is it better to err, then? I don’t answer this question, but I think we can understand the complexity of human moral psychology by reflecting on it. I speculate that it’s better for a society to have both kinds of imperfect people than too many of either type. Adams’s conservatism is a bulwark against extremism and can aid with incremental progress. On the other hand, perhaps a society sometimes needs a moral madman like John Brown to reawaken its moral sensibilities.