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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Moral Extremism

Spencer Case
Wuhan University, Penultimate Draft for
Journal of Applied Philosophy


The word ‘extremist’ is often used pejoratively, but it’s not clear what, if anything, is wrong with extremism. My project is to give an account of moral extremism as a vice. It consists roughly in having moral convictions so intense that they cause a sort of moral tunnel vision, pushing salient competing considerations out of mind. We should be interested in moral extremism for several reasons: it’s consequential, it’s insidious – we don’t expect immorality to arise from excessive devotion to morality – and it’s yet to attract much philosophical attention. I give several examples of moral extremism from history and explore their social-political implications. I also consider how we should evaluate people who miss the mark, being either too extreme in the service of a good cause or inconsistent with their righteous convictions. I compare John Brown and John Quincy Adams, who fell on either side of this spectrum, as examples.


Accusations of extremism are often thrown around to discredit unpopular positions. It seems fair for the person accused of being an extremist to ask: “Who cares if I’m an extremist, or if the position I’m defending is extreme, if I’m right?” I began with quotes from three reformers who took this line of reply. I’ve argued, however, that we should worry about extremism in the service of good causes. Extremism on my account is a vice. What it consists in, roughly, is an intense moral conviction that prevents the agent from perceiving, or acting on, competing moral considerations when these are important. I’ve argued that this vice has had baleful consequences throughout history. The discussion of John Brown and John Adams introduced a wrinkle: perhaps in rare circumstances, extremists can also confer certain benefits on a society. A general lesson from this discussion is that we must occasionally look at our own moral convictions, especially the ones that generate the strongest emotions, with a degree of suspicion. Passion for some righteous cause doesn’t necessarily indicate that we are morally on the right track. Evil can be insidious, and even our strongest moral convictions can morally mislead.