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What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?

In this post, Spencer Case discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the problem of moral extremism.

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.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.



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  1. Lin Atnip

    Great article! It seems like a common version of moral extremism is “one-issue morality.”

  2. Thank you for these insights, Dr. Case! They inspired these applications in this blog post:


    Moral Extremism and Abortion: On Pro-Choice “Extremists”

    There are “extremists” about many issues: big, important issues and even small, trivial issues.

    About abortion, the “extremists” most of us are familiar with are “pro-life extremists” who have sometimes used, or encourage, lethal violence against abortion providers. And there are, of course, many less extreme anti-abortion extremists.

    But there are pro-choice extremists also. Knowing what their extremism is like, and why it’s a problem, would be good to know about. This short post explains the issues and offers some suggestions for how to address their extremism.


    The common rhetoric of “extremism” is that it’s bad to be an extremist, and that seems correct: at least sometimes it’s bad to be an extremist.

    Philosopher Spencer Case has a recent blog post “What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?” His post gives an overview of his recent academic article on moral extremism from the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

    So, what is an extremist, according to Case?

    “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” (emphasis added).

    Case doesn’t discuss abortion in the blog post, but, given his definition, it seems clear that some pro-choice people are extremists about abortion.

    Why’s that? Because some of them not-infrequently say things like this:

    “We shouldn’t have to discuss this issue.”
    “Abortion isn’t up for debate.”
    “Anti-abortion people, especially men, want to control women with this issue.”
    “There’s no way to change the minds of people who oppose abortion.”
    “Every possible abortion must be legal, and no abortion could ever be wrong.”

    These are all things that people would say when, as Case puts it, “intense moral conviction blinds [them] to competing moral considerations.”


    So claims 1 and 2 suggest that the person thinks that there’s just nothing semi-plausible to say against abortions and so immediate, complete dismissal of any objection, and even questions, is appropriate.

    Now, while I argue that abortions are usually permissible and should be legal, I do not think that many of the considerations and concerns raised against abortion are just absurd or ridiculous, as pro-choice extremists seem to think. I think that the concerns of abortion critics are usually based on misunderstanding the issues, misinformation, and a generally inadequate understanding of how moral arguments work (which is not surprising, since [unfortunately!] most people are not very interested in learning how to better think about complex philosophy, ethical and scientific issues.) Also, this is an issue that people are especially inclined to “make up their mind” on—for initially adequate reasons—and then seek out rationalizations of those beliefs.

    This outlook, however, is not that we should not discuss or debate the issues: it’s that we should, since if we do this in good will, we might come to better understand each other and our minds and hearts might change, for the better: we will learn that at least some of our arguments are bad, and we might find some good arguments, and we might recognize this and change our views. For anyone who has never tried this, they might not know that this is possible; and, of course, some people might try this without much insight into how to do this more productively and effectively and so come to think that positive outcomes are impossible to very unlikely. So that takes us to saying 4 above and the false, inadequately supported general assumption that minds can’t be changed on the issues: they can, and they often are, and people can learn how to better do that.

    Saying 3 suggests something like a conspiracy by men to control women on this issue. So it assumes that it just couldn’t be that people at least believe (even mistakenly or falsely) they have a good reason to oppose abortion. (Also, why would men seek to control women on this issue but not many others?). Again, intense moral conviction blinds people to potential competing moral considerations. It also seems to blind people to just the basic facts that many women oppose abortion (and many men are pro-choice!), an observation that is sometimes met with the charge that these women are brainwashed against their own interests (which appears to be disrespectful to these women: they might be mistaken, but surely they can genuinely think for themselves). Again, another possibility is just that these women believe they have good reasons to think abortion is wrong, which the pro-choice extremist dismisses, without reason or engagement.

    Finally, saying 5 suggests that no “compromise” is ever warranted on these issues: abortion is either always OK or not; there’s nothing ever “grey” about any of it. Of course, “politically” there are concerns that if you give in one area, you’ll wind up giving away everything. But, isn’t it just true that very late abortions, if they were to affect a fetus that can feel pain, would raise some serious moral concerns? Causing pain is bad for anyone (or anything) who can feel pain, so that would make later abortions potentially troubling (which isn’t to say that or when they would be wrong or not; if pain is caused, that pain could be justified by other concerns: acknowledging a serious concern doesn’t mean it trumps everything). But pro-choice extremists often dismiss fetal pain as not even potentially morally relevant, just as extremists against abortion dismiss everything said in defense of even very early abortions. Both forms of unwillingness to “compromise” or concede that the “other side” has a potentially good case are problematic: both are dogmatic and unresponsive to the facts and moral arguments.


    So why is extremism problematic?

    Ultimately, because extremists refuse to engage in giving reasons and seeking productive discussions on important issues when the issues are complex and so there are plausible concerns on contrary sides of the issues.

    Extremism in this sense is always a problem, and at least in the case of many pro-choice people, extremism is often contrary to their values—for science, for scientific thinking (and systematic thinking about ethical issues is part of that), for diversity, for respectful dialogue.

    For these reasons, and to better seek pro-choice goals, pro-choice extremism should be recognized and reformed into positive and productive forms of engagement, communication, and education.

    P.S. Another question is when and whether people are blameworthy for their extremism. It’s possible that some people are not blameworthy for being extremists: e.g., perhaps they’ve had traumatic experiences with an issue that prevents them from being anything other than extremists. If so, perhaps these people should not be involved in (much, or certain types of) public engagement on the issues. Also, if some people are even blamelessly extremist doesn’t mean that extremism is ever good or part of an overall effective strategy for making or keeping social change.

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