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Moral Zealotry and the Seductive Nature of Evil

A tempting fallacy about morality is to think that wickedness must arise from transparently abhorrent motives, and goodness from nice ones. Few explicitly endorse this crude dualism, but many breezily equate hatred with evil, love with goodness, or both. This way of thinking makes it difficult for us to see the dangers of moral zealotry, one of the most insidious motives for wicked behavior.

The notion of moral zealotry as a vice is somewhat puzzling. Shouldn’t we want people to be as moral as possible? Republican Presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater is often quoted as saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” That’s true of idealized people who have perfect knowledge of justice and how best to pursue it, and whose commitment to goodness is untainted by less saintly motives. The rest of us are at risk of having our minds hijacked by intense, but not necessarily reflective, moral passions.

Carrie Nation (1846–1911)

People so hijacked are moral zealots. A paradigmatic example is early twentieth century anti-alcohol crusader Carrie A. Nation. Believing that God wanted her to personally vanquish alcohol from the land, she attacked Kansas saloons with rocks and, emblematically, hatchets (affectionately named “faith,” “hope” and “charity”) in rampages she called “Hatchetations.” Kansas was an early adopter of prohibition, but the law was being widely ignored. Nation saw herself as a vigilante enforcer of the law. Saloon owners and patrons stood agog as she plied her instruments of God’s will on barrels of liquor and bar fixtures, thundering Biblical exhortations. As her reputation spread, saloons put up signs saying, “All Nations are Welcome Except Carrie.”

Nation was no mere hater of merriment. She had good reason to believe that alcohol was harmful. Her first husband had died of alcoholism at the age of 29, leaving her alone to raise a sickly child. Through her involvement in the temperance movement, she heard the testimonies of women whose husbands became abusive drunks and wastrels. Saloons were also associated with gambling and extramarital sex—at a time when syphilis was incurable and childbirth quite hazardous. Her hatred of saloons is understandable, even somewhat admirable, in light of these facts. Her sanctimonious vandalism was nonetheless wrong. Her moral passions blinded her to the fact that some of her means were inappropriate.

Moral zealotry is a social phenomenon. Nation probably wouldn’t have reached this degree of radicalism without her proximity to like-minded women (one suspects she didn’t have much exposure to responsible men who drank a moderate amount). In the 2008 movie, The Dark Knight, Alfred describes the Joker’s nihilistic motives: “Some people just want to watch the world burn.” Most people are not like this. For that reason, even the most reprehensible ideologies must appeal to the moral passions of potential converts. A few people want to watch the world burn; many more can be persuaded to put it through the refiner’s fire in order to make it better.

Soviet dissident and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recognized this. He found the villain in Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago, unbelievable because he self-consciously acted from evil motives. In The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Solzhenitsyn wrote that, “To do evil a human must first of all believe that what he is doing is good” and seek a justification for his actions. Shakespearean villains like Macbeth and Iago, “stopped short at a few dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.” The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of many other real-life pariahs:

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That is how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, civilization; the Nazis, by race; the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood and the happiness of future generations.

He could have added, “…jihadists, by the glory of a new Caliphate.”

Solzhenitsyn doesn’t specify here whether he thinks that these oppressors were driven by moral considerations, or merely appealed to them post hoc to rationalize their deeds. We are left to surmise that there was some element of both. Hungarian chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi took a stronger view. He thought that communism and Nazism were motivated primarily by moral passions, especially a desire to create a better world, that had become divorced from moral constraints, a state of mind he called “moral inversion.” In an essay entitled “Confronting the Minotaur,” D.M. Yeager summarizes this idea as follows:

Polanyi’s counterintuitive thesis with respect to the rise and dominion of totalitarian régimes (on the Right and the Left) is that the driving power behind these dehumanizing and violently oppressive governments has been essentially and fanatically moral. Whatever else the leaders of these movements may have been about, they understood themselves to be and, in fact, were (in Polanyi’s judgment) implementing utopian visions of the common good. Polanyi is probing, then, a moral paradox: namely, that the twentieth century’s unprecedented lake of blood had its springs, not in moral decay or complete amorality, but in pathological moralism. The demonic is not a force that opposes the moral; it is Western morality’s own deepest and, in ways, most seductive temptation. [emphasis added]

The case of Nazism deserves further reflection, since, unlike communism, it seems too driven by dark impulses to be called “utopian.” In her book Wickedness: A Philosophical Essay, philosopher Mary Midgely wrote that “It is particularly necessary to put the Nazis in perspective because they are, in a way, too good an example [of evil]. It is not often that a political movement is as meanly supplied with positive, constructive ideals as they were.” But they did have the some positive ideals, among them national pride and retribution for the injustices that they thought had been inflicted on Germany. They also yearned for a highly civilized, genetically pure future, a conceit that does sound more than a tad utopian.

The Nazi attraction to these ideals was arguably as powerful as their hatred of outgroups. Indeed, it’s hard to disentangle the two in their thinking. Heinrich Himmler, in his infamous speech to the SS, encouraged his audience to reconceptualize the guilt and trauma of murder as a burden that they nobly bore in the service of Something Bigger. He concluded: “But altogether we can say: We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people [i.e., the extermination of the Jewish people]. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, in our character.” An unabashed appeal to brutish motives would have been more palatable than this perversity.

We might worry that Solzhenitsyn’s and Polanyi’s views about totalitarianism leave too little place for ill-will. If evildoers genuinely believe that they are doing good, then does this mean that they are excused? The same worry can be raised about Socrates’s view that no one errs willingly. He found something puzzling about the idea that anyone would knowingly do what is bad, thereby harming his own soul. But it seems that any evildoer must know that his actions are wrong to be blameworthy. If all evil results from ignorance, then why isn’t the Nazi officer guilty only of an “honest mistake”?

The answer is that some ignorance is culpable. In “The Ethics of Belief,” W.K. Clifford famously described a ship owner who deliberately remains ignorant of his vessel’s decrepit shape, and, by diverting his attention away from evidence, convinces himself that it is seaworthy after all. When the ship sinks, killing everyone on board, he is responsible for their deaths, Clifford concludes: “the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation but by stifling his doubts.”

There must have been many Nazis, and fanatics of all stripes, who resembled Clifford’s ship-owner, at least in the early stages of their corruption. Allured by the promise of national greatness and a glorious future, as well as the hope for status and companionship, they directed their attention away from unsavory realities, stifled doubts about the moral narrative that they had adopted, and used jokes to put psychological distance between themselves and state-sanctioned horrors. Through a series of minute mental and verbal acts of avoidance, they became thoroughly zealous and totally evil. 

Most people of course never fall this far, though that may be due to lack of opportunity as much as anything else. The same psychological forces that lead people to commit genocide operate in far more mundane circumstances with less dramatic consequences. Would we acquit ourselves any better if we were to switch places with them? Are we any more fortified against the dangers of moral zealotry, groupthink and self-deception than they were? These are sobering thoughts. We are fortunate not to be put to the same test. But there are plenty of other tests we’re failing.

We aren’t learning the right lessons from history. We too often draw narrow conclusions, e.g., that the racism of white men is bad, over those features of human psychology that make totalitarianism a constant and evolving threat. Ironically, progressives remain fixated on traditional and easily recognizable forms of evil, which they presume to have been motivated by negative emotions like fear, callousness, and hatred. There are many more roads to hell than they suppose. Racism and sexism have been used to oppress and silence people, but unreasonable accusations of racism and sexism can also be so used.

The moral of the story is not that we should “call out” our political opponents for their zealotry. This is certain to be rhetorically ineffective. Your interlocutor will say, with justification, that you are begging the question and that if you really understood the issue, you’d see the rightness of his response. The point is rather that we should be watchful. We should on occasion ask ourselves: “What wouldn’t I do in the service of my favorite cause?” It doesn’t matter whether your cause is anti-racism, reproductive choice, veganism, or American greatness—if you can’t think of any realistic limits that you’d set on your behavior, then moral zealotry has probably tainted your thinking.

No political movement or cause is so righteous that it cannot become excessive or fanatical, often to the point of being self-defeating. That’s true even of anti-Nazism. Behold the former community college philosophy professor and “anti-fascist” activist who hit a Trump supporter, whom he thought was a fascist, over the head with a bike lock during a 2017 demonstration at Berkeley. You don’t need to be a fascist in order to abhor this behavior, any more than you need to favor alcohol abuse in order to oppose Nation’s “hatchetations” or prohibition.

It would be nice if evil always announced itself and evil people always looked malevolent. Evil, alas, sometimes wears a nicer face. Otherwise it could be fearsome, but not seductive. There is no human impulse or emotion that is immune to moral corruption. Our most benevolent instincts and intentions, untethered from reason, can lead us very far astray, indeed. Subtle are the ways of the devil.

 

Spencer Case has a PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder. He writes for QuilletteNational Review, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase

129 Comments

  1. Nakatomi Plaza says

    It took a while – the second to last paragraph – but we knew this was going to come down to blaming a presumably liberal academic for something horrible. A guy got bonked on the head with a bike lock, and for our sins we get to somehow imagine this eventually leads to Nazism and facism.

    We’ve got historically high-numbers of incarcerated Americans and a criminal justice system designed to perpetuate crime rather than treat it, but it’s a community-college philosophy professor with a bike lock we need to look out for. Seems reasonable.

    • Max says

      So what your really saying is
      B/c thing X is bad we can only talk about thing X, anybody who doesnt is suspect.
      Also case never said bike lock guy is leading to nazism. Just that the moral impulses and thought patterns are similar. Injustice on way different scales

    • xyz and such says

      so you ignored the wisdom in the piece and looked for the one thing that you feel epitomizes your view (“oh, it’s just this one guy…” when, in fact, this behavior is rampant and getting worse) and then went right to the ‘whataboutism’. Please consider that your perspective might actually be a rationalization to excuse the abuses that are happening in the name of the good causes you mentioned.

      • xyz and such says

        correction: “so you ignored the wisdom in the piece AND HOW IT ACTUALLY MIGHT APPLY TO YOU and looked for the one thing… “

    • @ Noodle,

      Were you incapable of understanding the article until the last two paragraphs ?

      Because your comment would suggest that you yourself lack the moral fortitude to separate ACTS, from ideology.

      Do you find it acceptable to physically harm someone because they believe something that you disagree with?

      A moral person, an introspective person, would come away chastened and humbled from the article, not immediately driven to defend an extreme ideology, merely because it is ideology that they follow, and therefore find more moral than the wisdom of others.

      I suggest you actually read the article, rather than skim it for something you understand and wish to defend. Ironically you have made yourself an example of the thesis.

    • ga gamba says

      We’ve got historically high-numbers of incarcerated Americans ,/i>

      You also have historically high-numbers of Americans. For a few reasons some Americans like to commit crime, especially violent crime; police appear to be successful in their investigations aided by highly competent forensic investigators; and prosecutors obtain convictions quite well – perhaps their discretion to choose the surest cases aids this.

      It’s approximately 2.2 million in jail and prison, which is 0.7% of the population. Fifty-five per cent of those imprisoned by the states (718,000) were convicted of violent crimes. About 43% (900,000) of those in jails and state and federal prisons are held on and were convicted of violent offences. Let’s assume you have a bit of sense and decide not to release them. Instead, you’ll release the non-violent ones; the stalkers, drunk drivers, burglars, muggers, tax cheats, pick pockets, embezzlers, hackers, identity thieves, drug traffickers, extortionists, blackmailers, flashers, car thieves, vandals, arsonists, possessors of child pornography, polluters, bomb threateners, animal abusers, etc. Reducing the population from 2.2 million to 900,000 moves the US from top of the list… to second, swapping places with China.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @ga gamba

        ” the stalkers, drunk drivers, burglars, muggers, tax cheats, pick pockets, embezzlers, hackers, identity thieves, drug traffickers, extortionists, blackmailers, flashers, car thieves, vandals, arsonists, possessors of child pornography, polluters, bomb threateners, animal abusers, etc”

        That, sir, is the most beautiful example of the power of a list that I’ve ever seen.

        Anyway, space will have to be made for the new violent crime of triggering. And all the phobes, they need to be locked up. And lookists and bad tricks and anyone who doesn’t give in to sexual extortion or blackmail. And, in Canada anyway, people who don’t use my made up pronouns. As a dolphin, my pronouns can’t even be voiced by you apes, so it is inevitable that my feelings are going to be hurt.

        • ga gamba says

          Thanks, Ray. I’m convinced some of these people are parroting info they read, such as the word ‘non-violent’ without considering what exactly that means. It’s a pattern they keep repeating, so it must have been drummed into their noggins somewhere and they just accepted it unthinkingly.

          Maybe they think all the non-violent ones are fellas convicted of shoplifting baby formula and possession of a single joint charges.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @ga gamba

            However much we may disagree on things, there are times when you skin the cat. I myself had been lulled into the ‘free the non-violent’ agenda, and I hafta say that your list shook me awake very quickly.

      • asdf says

        They also don’t consider that “drug offenders” are often not just people busted for a joint. Rather, even violent criminals are often convicted on drug chargers because it’s easier than trying to convict on the violent crime. So we don’t really know that non-violent drug offenders aren’t actually thugs.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @asdf

          That is such an excellent point. Al Capone, in Alcatraz for ‘non-violent’ tax evasion! Oh the injustice of it! Oh the humanity! Yeah, cop shakes down the worst thug in the neighborhood and finds a joint. Cop shakes down the nicest kid in the neighborhood — somewhat simple minded lad — and finds a joint. Maybe the first guy gets charged? Maybe the cop just shares the joint with the second?

    • George G says

      @ Nakatomi Plaza

      as the meaning of the article has soared miles above your head let me spell it out to you…

      …you are a moral zealot

    • Stephenitisok says

      Nakatomi, there is a lot more going on in that second to last paragraph than meets the eye at first reading.

    • @Nakatomi Plaza

      “A guy got bonked on the head with a bike lock …”

      You make it sound like the assailant just happened to be carrying an extra bike lock.

      No. He took it to the demonstration as a weapon with the intention of using it to cause serious physical harm to someone if he got the opportunity.

      “Bonked” sounds so much nicer than “cracked skull”, doesn’t it.

    • Suzanne says

      Interesting how you “just KNEW” some liberal was going to be targeted in this article – and that is what you fixate upon? Personally, the take-away line for me was “We should, on occasion, ask ourselves – “what wouldn’t I do in the service of my favorite cause?” THAT is the crux of the piece. Again = how can morality with good intent deviate into evil. By failure to ask the question repeatedly. Someone who has no compunction against “bonking” someone with a bike lock for their opinions and beliefs has pushed that boundary of “good morality” a little bit further towards evil.

    • Ruth Henriquez Lyon says

      You missed the point, which is about ideology causing people to go to extremes (and assault is an extreme) they would not ordinarily engage in. Once we suppose another person’s abhorrent ideology is reason for us to assault him/her or otherwise impinge on his/her rights, we have indeed set foot on a slippery slope.

      Constitutional democratic government is based on the tolerance of multiple and varying ideas. The key test of tolerance is when we can be tolerant of those whose beliefs are absolutely odious to us. It’s possible to be right and to also be an a@#hole.

    • Harrison Bergeron says

      Eric Clanton’s ( the “presumably liberal academic”) violent assault on a peaceful protestor needs to be placed in its proper context. One in which the author is obviously aware. Clanton’s assault is not some one off, random event. It is an example of a widespread violence that has errupted from left wing extremists. The day Trump won the 2016 election we have seen wave after wave of windows being smashed, fires being set and and people being beaten. So you don’t like pointing out Clanton? Well then take your pick there are any number of hundreds or even thousands of other examples.

    • Mike says

      @Nakatomi Plaza

      Your reading of the piece does not seem reasonable in the slightest.

    • scribblerg says

      Such a bizarre take. Next time, I hope you are one of the 7 people some leftie loon decides to bash in the head with a bike lock. It might wake you up.

    • peanut gallery says

      This will sound nuts, but you can dislike bike-lock bashing AND the US prison system. Weird, right? This is peak whataboutisim. I hate that term, but progs like it, so I’ll use it against them when I can. “What about the prison system?!” Ok, what does that have to do with this thing? Two things can be true at once. The prison issues don’t stem from moral purity. Many people in either party have been free to address this issue over the years, but have been silent. It took a reality star and various celebrities to actually do anything close to taking action on it at all or make it part of public discourse. Why doesn’t the media focus on it? I could take your indignation more seriously if you directed at all targets, but instead, it’s this. No politicians are running on it, yet it would affect a lot of people.

    • Tricia says

      The guy who did the bonking has deluded himself into thinking that he and his ilk are right, so that they are the only ones who deserve the first amendment, while the conservative evildoers are wrong, and so do not deserve it. So out the window went “ I hate what you have to say, but i’ll Defend it with my life” sort of ideal… can you see where we are now? Where people get “triggered” but whatever they decide this morning pisses them off, where they want equality and equal opportunity, but want to segregate themselves from the rest of the world, into “safe spaces” away from who ever they feel today that represses them, that they all want special consideration because by lack of anything else good and worthy they’re “victims”?

      Schools, especially universities seem to encourage this, and the doctors let the patients take over the asylum, so YES, bonkers and liberal academics who are raising a crop of whining clueless emotionally overwrought thugs.

      So yes, the writer proves his point on moral relativism …

  2. Saw file says

    Another grand essay.
    Thank you Quillette, for helping to bring reasonable/rational articles to the general public.

    • George G says

      @ Spencer Case

      second that very interesting article

  3. Saw file says

    Fyi…for anyone who doesn’t know, “Nakatomi Plaza” is the fictional name of the high rise in the movie “Die Hard”
    Fact, meet fiction.
    😂

  4. JFM says

    Congratulations to the author on a highly enjoyable and balanced essay on the nature of good vs evil.

  5. X. Citoyen says

    Is moderation the only safe course? I think not. We’ve followed the opposite of the first part of Goldwater’s thesis for years—that extremism in defence of liberty is a vice—and it hasn’t exactly served us well. Many of our institutions and many of our gov’ts are either run by or beholden to an intolerant ideology that brooks no dissent. Perhaps we should be thinking about things in a different way.

    • @ X. Citoyen

      I once read that just as we look at the decades before to understand events such as the French revolution and the Industrial Revolution. We would recognize the decades after 2000, as the reason of the next major revolution.

      • George G says

        @ Anita

        secure your future employment today, with our 1 week course in Guillotine Operation and Maintenance

        course contents include:

        raising guillotine blade
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        enroll now and we will include optional module “choosing the right executioners hood to complement your eyes” free of charge

  6. Great article, so much to ponder, and so much truth that is frequently hidden in modern times.

    Germany in the 30s and 40s, shows just how much dissonance the average person is capable of in the right circumstances.

    • david of Kirkland says

      And how much narcissism and lack of self-awareness does one have to possess to think in their few years (say 16-70 years) of life in one place under one culture how “best” to organize society, rejecting the lessons learned over millennia?

  7. Saw file says

    @Anita
    Agree.
    I have been there, but I am older and wiser now.

  8. Farris says

    “Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes even perceptibly worse than it was, before the crusade began.”
    Aldous Huxley

    Avenging angels are generally self serving, despite their protestations to the contrary.

    • jakesbrain says

      “The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’ — this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” –Aldous Huxley

  9. Serenity says

    Thank you for the article.

    Sacred ideals give rank and file meaning in life, a vision (or rather a delusion) worth fighting for. Meanwhile for the majority of spiritual leaders sacred values are the trump card, the indisputable narrative to call people to the holy war for the purpose of exercising and advancing their personal authority.

    Of course, not all the agitators and leaders of the fundamental public reforms are driven by the agenda of personal empowerment and engage in psychopathic behaviour to that end. However, integrity and devotion to the sacred cause are not the qualities which would see you through a murderous psychopathy’s takeover. Envy, rivalry and power struggle exterminate the brightest and the capable first.

    Thereafter the most ruthless and cunning betray and destroy each other racing to the top of the pecking order. And at the end – the winner of this psychopathy contest takes it all. Thus, holy wars and revolutions which begin with great promises and inspiration – tend to end up with the brutality of totalitarian regimes.

    Totalitarianism is a heyday of a sacred dogma. Government propagates the concept as a cover-up and an operational framework for grass-roots psychopathic behaviour which supports the regime. Pathological controlling and manipulation, harassment, backstabbing, snitching, lying – all sorts of psychopathic practices which underpin the dictatorship – intimidates and controls the population. These are all endorsed by the authorities as rightful means to sacred ends.

    Being “watchful” is not enough to stop growing totalitarianism.

    “…one time I asked my grandmother… who she voted for in 1933… She said – she didn’t answer, she asked a question. She said, ‘Who should I voted for, the Communists?!’” Tuvia Tenenbom. “I Sleep in Hitler’s Room.”

    ”43.91 per cent votes in German democratic elections 1933 secured Nazi Party a third of seats in the Reichstag. Within months, the Nazis banned all other parties and dissolved the Reichstag…” That was “demolition of democracy and restoration of an authoritarian political system emphasizing communal obligations over individual rights…” Hitler gained absolute power and effectively became the dictator of Germany.

    • Great comment. My teen daughter is a history nut and received a real life history lesson recently. She toured Europe last summer with a stop in Venice. She also cleans for our 90something neighbor who grew up in Northern Italy. So my daughter asked her if she had ever been to Venice. Oh yes, she replied casually. My school took us there to march for Mussolini and I was chosen as part of a delegation to meet him.

      Much to think about at 17. How history actually worked.

      • dirk says

        2Lydia: A film I particularly wanted to have you seen is -Un giornato particolare-, absolute masterpiece, with Mastroiani and Sophia Loren, the kids preparing for the march where Mussolini will appear, martial music all throughout this movie, only as background, and all just casual, the kids adjusting their clothes and the mother making the sandwiches, nothing special, but…………. Jesus if I think again on the scenes (the bird flying…, the sheet folding…….) I still feel the cold creeping in my veins.

        • Lydia says

          Thanks Dirk! It rings a faint bell but I’m going to look for it. My daughter would especially appreciate it. I can’t tell you how that statement from our neighbor freaked her out. She’s known that precious woman since she was a tiny girl.

          and I once had the surprising opportunity to ride an elevator with Sophia Loren in New York City in the 80’s– who shares the name with our neighbor. Lol.

      • Serenity says

        Thank you, Lydia. In my teens I was a great enthusiast of Libery, Equality, Fraternity. But I could not figure out how come all social movements to bring about this happiness for everyone inevitably ended up in terror and mass murders.

        Revelation came a few years ago when after work related conversation I suddenly realised that I could clearly see my work colleague efficiently running concentration camp – in the name of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or Diversity, Equality and Inclusion or whatever. I started to read about people with psychopathic behaviour. Remember Nurse Ratched in the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”?

  10. jakesbrain says

    “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

    Chesterton had it right, I think.

    • George G says

      @ jakesbrain

      interesting quote, I’ve not heard of Chesterton before.

      i wonder whether these SJW / woke activist types are sincerely practicing virtues though? for example whilst they frequently implore people to give jobs / resources / opportunities to people of colour etc they are not themselves so charitable that they give up their own positions or give away everything ( or anything) to their last penny and clothes off their own back to make these changes in the world.
      Their practicing of virtues are only a pose, or maybe camouflage to justify (to others and themselves) that whatever harm they want to commit to others is for the “good”.

      i wonder if the way of it is something like vice’s taken to excess are self destructive and virtues taken to excess are destructive to others? you’ve given me something to ponder whilst i wander around IKEA anyway

      • Stephanie says

        George, the way the SJW types treat women, LGBT, Muslims, blacks, and Hispanics who reject their ideology and side with conservatives suggests to me they are indeed covering up for some deep-seated hatred. When you define yourself by anti-racism, -sexism, ect, thou doth protest too much.

      • trash_muad'dib says

        Chesterton is a fantastic writer, highly recommend The Everlasting Man

    • “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals”

      C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”

      • Andrew Roddy says

        And the tyranny hiding behind the philosophical fig-leaf in Spencer Casey’s article is more that of sincerely intentioned than the Robber Barron. This may be to give it undeserved benefit of the doubt. If the piece is indeed sincere then that’s the best that be said for it.

  11. John says

    This site is very much about how self-serving “sacred” ideals became corrupted by its flirtation with obvious evil.
    http://www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

    The same toxic mindset was dramatized in very brutal terms by the Anton Pavelic and the Utasha in the Jasenovac extermination camp.
    Check out the Wikipedia item titled Catholic clergy involvement with Ustase

  12. Andre St-Laurent says

    Really good article. I found myself an old copy of 1984 to brush up on certain concepts. I know it is not an “How to” manual to totalitarianism but there have been too many similarities recently.

    I’m sad to say but for a little while, I was a vegetarian zealot. A long time ago. I felt really sure about my personal choice and after having met with derision one time too many, I started feeling there must have been something really wrong with those people if they did not see the logic in wanting to reduce needless suffering in the world. Factory farming is, after all, an exceptionally cruel situation. But I noticed it made me feel somehow morally superior. Douse them with pig blood, I say! It was a personnal thing though and I didn’t feel emboldened by legions of people that thought the same, this was pre-social media…and it was important to have an outdoor life.

    I recently rejoined social media and realized that some of my friends have started to slip into intersectional totalitarianism (IT in bloody letters). It took over their minds at times to varying degrees. Sharing an approved meme online will get you more attention then whatever content you could produce on your own, so why not share it? Needless to say these memes contain very few words of encouragement, kindness or understanding. Behavior becomes extreme to enact desired change but mangling and muzzling and distorting people is just not such a good idea in any time period.

    Any tips?

    • George G says

      @ Andre St-Laurent

      “I was a vegetarian zealot”

      just curious, what changed,did you just get older and wiser or was there some specific event?

      • Andre St-Laurent says

        Well, it never truly manifested with froth and bile, I only remember a handful of heated arguments with contrarians, which they usually started. Try making a different choice in a homogenous community and that happens a lot. I am a naturally quiet and respectful person, so in a way it was more to stand up for myself. But there was this sense of setting an example and in a way, I felt better then them. More like smugness? The behavior was interesting when I met another vegetarian, when I could speak much more freely and we could compare notes in our tiny echo chamber. What if I had met a PETA cell? Who knows.

        I didn’t want to feel like that. It was at odd with other values I was supposedly trying to cultivate (compassion for instance). You can’t feel superior and be in a state of love and acceptance of others. I started travelling to the “third world” for backpacking and humanitarian aid and my westernized ideals of how people should eat were not the reality of most people on this planet…you consume calories wherever you can in accordance with cultural norms. It would be silly to preach to them and they even treat their animals much better. I chose to not be vegetarian countless times when shown hospitality.

        I explained that to a few vegans as time went along…trying to change people against their will is wrong. You can make your case but leave them the freedom to decide.

        As an introverted type, I’d say I am not too receptive to group madness, (just solo madness). Not much societal power to be gained by being an extremist for animal rights but those I see online nowadays are addicted to power.

        At the very, very back of my mind though, a 17 year old me is screaming: How can they claim moral superiority when they aren’t even vegetarians!!!!

        As others have said, we must all be vigilant.

        • George G says

          @ Andre St-Laurent

          thanks for responding, Quilletes articles come too thick and fast for me to keep up with.
          sounds like traveling did you a lot of good. Think your spot on regarding vigilance, its easy to fall into circular reasoning that i’m always correct, that why I like coming hear and especially the comments to get some reasoned different points of view.

  13. Ryan Donoghue says

    “Mr. Worf, villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well camouflaged.” He concludes: “Vigilance, Mr. Worf. That is the price we have to continually pay.”

    • E. Olson says

      Besides the Lone Ranger and Zorro, its hard to think any cases where good people need to cover their faces to avoid being recognized when they perform their “good deeds”, whether they are Antifa or the KKK.

  14. E. Olson says

    Three rules that define and separate good from evil.

    Only things that are self-maintaining and/or self-correcting by the invisible hand of self-interested human interactions and the laws of science are inherently good and likely to achieve and maintain widespread popular support.
    Anything that requires widespread coercion to achieve and widespread coercion to maintain among normal functioning adults is evil, because anything that requires both must always violate basic human nature and/or the laws of science.
    Anything that requires growth in government bureaucracy is always going to be inherently evil, because government bureaucracies never accept victory as justification for their termination, and consequent mission-creep will always result in unjust loss of freedom and growing resistance among the populous. Growing resistance among the populous always leads to larger government bureaucracy, which is always a satisfying condition for any bureaucracy.

    Thus any zealots who support things that require or lead to 2 or 3 are evil.

    • “Anything that requires growth in government bureaucracy is always going to be inherently evil, because government bureaucracies never accept victory as justification for their termination, and consequent mission-creep will always result in unjust loss of freedom and growing resistance among the populous. Growing resistance among the populous always leads to larger government bureaucracy, which is always a satisfying condition for any bureaucracy.”

      Government is a necessary evil. It should be as small as possible.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @lydia00

        Why not leave out the moral absolute entirely? Government is necessary. However, government, eternally, has certain evil tendencies which are inevitably there and will flourish unless continually monitored. The same can be said of religion, of politics, of business of … any social structure. All have various uses and various vices particular to each one. We should not judge so much as we should manage each institution with full knowledge of what is liable to happen should we relax our vigilance. We see headlines: “CORRUPTION AT THE MINISTRY OF SILLY WALKS! PM SAYS SHE IS SHOCKED AND APPALLED!” Shocked? Why? All ministries will tend toward bloat and corruption unless monitored, this is to be expected.

        Government should be whatever size best converts taxes to services. Basically, if the government can spend a dollar in my pocket more effectively than I can, then that’s what the government should do. But most of my dollars should be spent by me because the government usually can’t spend it better than I can.

    • Edgar Williams says

      Perhaps ta good test for moral zealotry is the a lack of self-awareness demonstrated in the above post.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        Edgar Williams, I am taking you to be referring to Ray Andrews comment rather the featured article but either way I agree whole-heartedly.

      • Ray Andrews says

        @Edgar Williams

        Is that directed at me? If so please clarify. Moral zealotry? I think I’m rather a moral cynic.

    • chasbo says

      Therefore, according to your rule #3, Social Security, Medicare, public libraries, public schools, and highways, all of which increase government bureaucracy, are inherently evil. Perhaps you should look at your own tendency to demonize and indulge in easy over-generalization.

      • E. Olson says

        Chasbo – Social Security and Medicare are certainly popular, but they are bankrupting the US – how can that not be evil? On the other hand, tax advantaged private pensions and health savings accounts would offer far better returns and require virtually no bureaucracy (see Chile for pensions, and Singapore for health care as good free-market examples). Public libraries, public schools, and even many highways existed long before the growth of huge federal bureaucracies, and can be largely self-maintaining and hence good. Most serious problems in education have only occurred with the intrusion of the Federal government into higher education funding, forced busing, title IX, and other Dept. of Education “advancements”. Highway systems have only become problematic with great intrusion by government bureaucracy mandates that siphon gasoline tax revenues away from road building and maintenance that virtually everyone uses, and into funding mass transit and bike lanes that virtually no one uses.

        • Lydia says

          Ours is nicknamed, Mayor McBikelane. Rome is burning all around us and he is most proud of his bike Lanes, rental bikes /scooters, his new dept of global concerns and a city inclusion department both of which received 55mill while police and EMS received 13 million. It is, of course, racist to point out the problems.

          Our congressman publicly stated that maga hats should be forbidden to teens. Again, the left loves totalitarian censorship.

          Sane people are looking to move out of the urban area asap. Pretty soon, the tax base will consist of lotslof govt bureaucrats, college students, illegals, homeless and welfare recipients.

          • Jujucat says

            Haha @Lydia you must live in KCMO. 😉 Don’t forget the FREE trolly!

        • JohnLee says

          No, Empire is bankrupting the US, endless military adventurism is bankrupting the US, Soft Money is bankrupting the US. Lack of Humility is a sign of Moral Zealotry EO?

      • Lydia says

        “Social Security, Medicare, public libraries, public schools, and highways, all of which increase government bureaucracy, are inherently evil. ”

        Yes. Except for highways which is an infrastructure responsibility of government. Public libraries were started as public service by a robber Baron.

        Public Schools should be your first clue. Each community should make that decision. Just as they used to do with hospitals and religious groups.

        The bigger the govt, the smaller the citizen. maybe you can tell me why bureaucrats have better health insurance than I do?

    • K. Dershem says

      E., it sounds like you’re a moral zealot on behalf of libertarianism. From my perspective, that makes you part of the problem.

      • E. Olson says

        K – but what problems do I create? Am I advocating that any of your Constitutional Rights be limited or taken away? Am I advocating that the state take your wealth and give it to someone else? Am I telling you what to eat or not eat, or what form of transportation you must use? Am I threatening your job or family or your personal health because I dislike your political viewpoints?

        How can a zealot who advocates personal freedom and responsibility, and limited government ever be a threat or evil?

        • K. Dershem says

          I think your perspective is problematic because it presupposes a radically individualistic view of human nature. I’m not a collectivist, but I believe that we have obligations to other people that extend beyond our immediate family and circle of friends. I live in the U.S., which is (by some measures) the wealthiest country in the history of the world. I celebrate capitalism for encouraging innovation, investment and wealth creation, but I think that attempts to divide the world into “makers” and “takers” is incredibly simplistic. Some people work hard and are extremely successful. Others work equally hard and never get ahead, due to lack of aptitude, bad luck, etc. I was born into a middle-class family to parents who were highly educated and unfailingly supportive. I had competent and dedicated teachers in the public school I attended. I successfully completed college and graduate school and now have a satisfying career. Although nothing was given to me, I’m well aware that a child born to a impoverished, drug-addicted single mother in Appalachia would have to work much harder (and be much luckier) to achieve what I have. (John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance thought experiment is instructive here.) The world is not fair, and attempts to make it completely fair are both futile and dangerous; I’m not a socialist. If they’re too generous, social welfare programs can disincentivize work and create dependence. However, I think that people who have greatly benefited from the opportunities that society provides have a moral obligation to give back — both through charitable giving and through progressive taxation. I don’t think libertarianism is evil; I’m a libertarian myself on many issues. At the extreme, however, it strikes me as a self-serving justification for selfishness. Perhaps you’re a generous person who prefers to help others via voluntary charity rather than government programs. If so, good on you. But some libertarians genuinely don’t care about the well-being of others. They want to radically reduce or completely eliminate the social safety net, refusing to acknowledge that their success was made possible (in part) by others. None of us is completely self-made; we’re all the products of communities and institutions that provide us with opportunities. In my view, we’re not just isolated, atomistic individuals who engage in voluntary transactions with other individuals — that’s a deeply impoverished understanding of human nature. To a significant degree, we’re defined by our relationships with others. Although our obligations to people we know and love are far stronger than our obligations to strangers, that latter are still real. In a country as wealthy as ours, people who are poor (because of bad genes, bad parents, bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of those factors) should not be deprived of education, food, shelter, health care, and opportunities.

          I’m all for personal freedom and responsibility, and I think that the federal government is incredibly bloated. But I also recognize that some people in our society face serious obstacles to success; I believe that the government can and should play a role in expanding opportunities for individuals who were less fortunate than I am.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @K. Dershem

            That could hardly have been said better. Reasonable, prudent centrism. You know, I wonder how the doctrine of absolute selfishness might play out if one of my dystopias comes to pass and people have to have some sense of social cohesion. How many impoverished young men are going to fight and die for plutocrats who advertise the fact that they don’t give a damn about the former? It seems to me that in WWII men were willing to die for the country because they knew that their country gave a damn about them.

          • E. Olson says

            K – very thoughtful response, and I don’t disagree with much of what you write, but you make some assumptions that I don’t think are fair. The problem with the welfare state is that is causes so many distortions because government bureaucracies are never designed to solve problems. The Biblical story about teaching vs giving a man a fish is very illustrative, because almost all welfare programs are about giving people fish, and therefore not about teaching people how to fish so they can be self-supporting. Why? because self-supporting people don’t need a bureaucracy and bureaucracies never commit suicide. Private charities can also suffer from the same malady, but at least they tend to know their local cases well and can be more flexible in distributing aid, so that those that really need it, appreciate it, and utilize it productively are more likely to get aid, while those who are repeat offenders may get some “tough love”.

            I also think that government welfare tends to reduce private charity, as people who pay heavy taxes believe they have “already given at the office” when confronted by a charitable cause. I know from personal experience that this is true in Scandinavia, as the non-profit sector is tiny and citizens believe that their high taxes are also their charitable contribution to society, while research in the US consistently finds Leftists who advocate more government welfare spending also give less money and time to charity than those who lean Right. And of course high taxes do reduce the ability of many citizens to make charitable contributions, and perhaps more importantly it reduces the ability to buy products and services from people which creates jobs. Hiring someone to cut your hair, mow your lawn, paint your house, or service your car is certainly doing more for the economy and individual initiative and self-esteem than paying a would-be stylist, lawn mower, house painter, or mechanic to do nothing via a welfare check.

            There is no welfare program that is going to give that poor person in Appalachia good parents, good genes, or the desire to study hard in school, which have allowed you and I to have meaningful and productive lives, but what sort of program will take such a person the closest to their potential? I don’t think telling them they are victims and here is your check from the government is very effective, nor is giving them loans to go to college when they graduate high school with little academic ability or interest. On the other hand, the likelihood of getting a decent job cutting hair or servicing cars is likely to be much more motivating, especially if a welfare check is much more difficult to get. Thus the government bloat that you dislike (and I agree) needs a counteracting force, and the only natural predator of bloated government are people like me who distrust government, want to minimize government, and want to hold government accountable.

          • K. Dershem says

            Very interesting discussion – thanks.

            E., I agree with you about private charities working more efficiently (in general) than government bureaucracies, and I would support the idea of giving block grants to non-sectarian charities to either supplement or replace government services. However, I share Ray’s concern that private charity alone is unlikely to meet people’s needs, even if taxes are significantly reduced. The state of Utah may provide a counter-example to this concern, but I think the Mormon community is fairly unique in its high levels of religious commitment and social solidarity.

            Along those lines, this is an interesting article about charitable giving on the part of the wealthy: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/12/why-dont-rich-give-more-charity/548537/

            “There is no welfare program that is going to give that poor person in Appalachia good parents, good genes, or the desire to study hard in school, which have allowed you and I to have meaningful and productive lives, but what sort of program will take such a person the closest to their potential?” I agree that cash is not the answer, but I think that other programs can be effective. Many people living in or near poverty live incredibly precarious lives. (In addition to Hillbilly Elegy, which Ray mentioned, I would recommend the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond.) An illness, an accident, an arrest, a divorce, etc. can have devastating consequences. Families in the middle or upper-middle class usually have the resources to recover from these challenges; people who are impoverished often do not. I think a system of universal basic health care would make a tremendous difference in the lives of the poor (there are many different ways to achieve this goal besides a single-payer system), as would reforms to the criminal justice system along the lines of drug courts (less punitive, more rehabilitative). We could also reform the educational system to provide more emphasis on vocational training on the secondary level and seamless integration with post-secondary study (Germany provides an excellent example.) Finding safe and affordable child care is a huge challenge for many families. In many countries (and a few states) the government provides subsidies for working families. A stipend could also be paid to parents who chose to stay at home to honor their work and make their focus on child-rearing financially possible. These are just a few possibilities.

            “The government bloat that you dislike (and I agree) needs a counteracting force, and the only natural predator of bloated government are people like me who distrust government, want to minimize government, and want to hold government accountable.” I agree that libertarians serve a vital function in holding the government accountable, and I regret that the Republican Party has (with a few notable exceptions) apparently abandoned its commitment to small government and lower deficits. However, citizen groups also criticize corrupt and ineffective programs and, in contrast to anti-government activists, propose and support programs that actually work. I don’t think that the government is necessarily the enemy. In a well-functioning democracy, it can sometimes serve the common good. Obviously, our democracy is not functioning terribly well at the moment, but in other countries where the system does work better citizens have feel more confidence in the government and gratitude for the services it provides. This is a goal worth striving toward.

          • Charlie says

            The education and schemes to reduce poverty in the UK between the 1840s and 1914 worked because they were local and practical. Children were given a good basic education in English, Maths ( a large part of the school day ), Scripture, Science, History, Geography, Art, and wood work and sowing and cooking for the girls. Discipline was strict and old fashioned methods were used. It produced large numbers of literate, numerate and well behaved children by the age of 14 to 15 years. Dickens left school at 12- 13 years. The large number of Bible Schools on Sundays greatly increased literacy.

            If we combine the best of the schools and education system which existed pre 1914; the best of German vocational system: cheap evening school education offering degree level training in vocational subjects- engineering, science, law accountancy, we we can offer a route out of poverty. In Britain there is a tradition of wealthy people building schools and colleges at Oxford and Cambridge from their foundation in 1180. The massive expansion of schools from the early 1500s came about because either individuals or groups built schools , such as the grammar school built in Stratford by Shakespeare’s Father and his friends. Winchester College has been providing the World’s most rigorous education since 1380 without the need of state education bureaucrats.

            Historically in England and Wales there were the poor laws. each parish was responsible for providing food, shelter ,clothes and work . Rates were levied on house owners and the system was run by the local justices of the peace: there were no slackers. However, once there was massive urbanisation the system failed. Welfare systems work where the money is raised in the locality and administered by the people who provide the funds for the poor of who are born and bred locally. Welfare has become a system where Democrats/Labour buy votes.

            I think most modern methods of education do not work. People leave school at 18 years of age less educated than someone a hundred years ago from a far poorer background. Many of the great names of the Industrial Revolution, Brindley, Telford and G Stephenson, etc, came from poverty far worse than anything today and started work by the age of 14 years. The difference was that they were spiritually rich and had received good basic education. The actions of those who gave us the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions improved the quality of lives oft themselves and the rest of the World.

            Modern welfare keeps people reliant on the State, employs civil servants and votes for Democrat/Labour Party politicians: what is needed is a system which makes people self reliant.

            Schumacher said ” Give a man a fish and you fed him for a today. Teach him how to fish and he can feed himself”.

        • E. Olson says

          Ray – WWII soldiers (or any soldiers) don’t fight because their country cares about them, they fight because they care about their country, and more importantly they care about not disappointing their fellow soldiers, and they care about protecting their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children at home. Which is why military social engineering is so dangerous to unit cohesion and fighting spirit, because soldiers won’t fight effectively if they don’t trust the ability or motivation of the girl or trannie in the next foxhole, and they won’t fight effectively if they think they are fighting for uni-sex bathrooms, open borders, gun control, or any of the other Leftist nonsense rather than mom and apple pie.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @E. Olson

            Good morning E.: (what’s your name anyway?)

            You know I wish we could ‘finish’ these discussions, my final points always end up orphaned as a thread goes stale. We can have basically the same debate spread out over three articles at once. Very disorganized. Me, I’m not here to just write something and leave, it’s the pursuit of a thought down to bedrock that interests me.

            “K – very thoughtful response, and I don’t disagree with much of what you write”

            Now that’s what I call progress. K is center-left, I’m center (or to the right of K, anyway), and you’re classic hard-right, but we can find points of agreement and even respect each other. The three of us on some planet could cobble together some sort of workable compromise and have a democracy.

            “almost all welfare programs are about giving people fish, and therefore not about teaching people how to fish so they can be self-supporting”

            Often true, but is it necessarily true?

            “bureaucracies never commit suicide”

            No, and we’d not expect them to. It seems to me that the fundamental error is viewing bureaucracy as a moral entity. We want ‘good’ bureaucrats. We are shocked and appalled that, left to themselves, bureaucrats end up lazy, bloated, slow, wasteful, self-serving …. one could fill up several lines with the adjectives. This is exactly what we should expect, but at the same time, managed properly, bureaucracies can be lean, efficient and effective. Consider your bird dogs. Untrained, unminded, they quickly go wind and end up killing your chickens. Are we shocked and appalled? No, that’s their nature. But, trained and managed, they are fantastically useful.

            Consider the employees in any business: unmanaged they too end up useless. Bureaucrats in bureaucracies are just people who are not much different than employees in businesses. Yes, they get comfortable more easily due to working for the state, but there is no fundamental difference — demand efficiency from your bureaucracy and it is possible to have it. [My dad remembers when bureaucrats signed letters: ‘Your humble servant’]

            “Private charities”

            … have much to recommend them. However only the state can ‘blanket’ the whole of society. And, sorry, but I think that, as the plutocrats benefit from living in a prosperous society, they should be obliged to pay taxes, including taxes that go towards social programs.

            BTW is it a coincidence that somewhat egalitarian societies produce the most billionaires? I don’t think so. China raises a billion people out of poverty and at the same time produces a crop of billionaires. Western societies all have some level of welfare and all have produced very many billionaires. Maybe letting workers have some money to spend is actually good for billionaires! I call it ‘trickle-up economics’: workers who have money end up spending it on your product and you get rich. Mail has no social system, and also very few billionaires. Nope, prosperous workers produce prosperous societies and that floats all boats.

            “There is no welfare program that is going to give that poor person in Appalachia good parents, good genes,”

            True. But even then I myself would not let them starve. I’d have workfare for them and subsidized wages. And I would be vigilant to detect among them any who showed ability and desire to break free:

            https://www.harpercollins.ca/9780062300546/hillbilly-elegy/

            “nor is giving them loans to go to college when they graduate high school with little academic ability or interest”

            Agree.

            “and want to hold government accountable”

            Absolutely. There should be a Ministry of Accountability. Something like your GAO, which I understand, to this day, makes the knees of bureaucrats tremble. In Canada we have the Auditor General, who can likewise crack the whip. Expand the mandate to include reports on efficiency not just reports on misspending.

            Oh, and as a former state worker I can assure you that many workers would welcome this. It is demoralizing working for a bloated, wasteful bureaucracy. Being proud of who you work for is something that many workers would look forward to. Believe it.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @E. Olson

            I mostly agree. But:

            WWII soldiers (or any soldiers) don’t fight because their country cares about them, they fight because they care about their country:

            Surely that is a feedback loop? Why do I care about my country? Surely because my country is worth caring for? Possibly because I find my country to be a decent place not just a dog eat dog arena? It seems to me that WWII motivational propaganda appealed to more than The Free Market. And more than just the females back home. There was a sense of social cohesion, and that is impossible if the idea is that greed is good, and everyone is in it entirely for themselves.

  15. Wentworth Horton says

    Most people aren’t pure ideogues, rather they are a vessel into which ideology is poured. Ambition and status take over from there. The inclination to measure their ideology against civility and fairness does not exist or they have too much invested to risk being ostracized. This is a fitting description of Justin Trudeau.

  16. Debbie says

    To the Nazis’ utopian ideals, add the moral drive to reduce wealth inequality.

  17. Lightning Rose says

    The Carrie Nation analogy begs the question: Why on Earth did the saloon owners just stand by and watch her “hatchetations?” Where was the constable with the handcuffs to haul her away to the loony bin?

    The same question exactly needs to be asked about the crap we’re putting up with from today’s SJW’s and radical greens. What’s wrong with US if we keep allowing this to gather momentum?

    The only thing required for tyranny is for good men to stand by and do nothing.

    The biggest single thing we all can do is NOT give the MSM or the loons clicks, ad revenue, and eyeballs. Let ’em shriek ignored into a vacuum of darkness.

    It’s the same principle as “don’t feed energy to the trolls.”

    • Debbie says

      Same reason drug dealers — smart ones at least — don’t call the police when they are robbed.

    • Jujucat says

      Maybe the bar owners felt guilty. People need to stop feeling guilty for doing things that aren’t bad.

  18. ga gamba says

    Believing that God wanted her to personally vanquish alcohol from the land, she attacked Kansas saloons with rocks and, emblematically, hatchets (affectionately named “faith,” “hope” and “charity”) in rampages she called “Hatchetations.” . . . . Moral zealotry is a social phenomenon. Nation probably wouldn’t have reached this degree of radicalism without her proximity to like-minded women…

    I suspect that influence wasn’t limited solely to like-minded women. Nation and her cohort were carrying out what was called “propaganda by the deed,” conceived by Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane in 1857. Shocking acts intended by their very audacity to wake the masses from their slumber, inspiring further action by others, creating a knock-on effect.

    The question for Pisacane was not whether violence per se might be justified, but exactly how violence might be maximally effective.

    The late 19th century was the era of regicide during which more monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers of major world powers were assassinated than at any other time in history: Russian Tsar Alexander II (1881), French President Sadi Carnot (1894), Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Canovas (1897), Empress Elizabeth of Austria (1898), King Umberto of Italy (1900), and US President William McKinley (1901). Several assassinations were also attempted: Tsar Alexander II (1866, 1879, and 1880) King Umberto (1878 & 1897), King Leopold II of Belgium (1902), King Alfonso XIII of Spain (1906), and King Carlos I of Portugal (1908).

    That’s an incomplete list.

    The assassins and attempted assassins were anarchists.

    What had started as a mostly peaceful movement, for example America’s first anarchist Josiah Warren was editor of the periodical The Peaceful Revolutionist in the early 19th century, evolved to one of violence not only against its class enemies, such as the attempted assassination of American industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892, but also of less discriminate attacks, such as the bombing of Paris’s Chamber of Deputies in 1893 and the Cafe Terminus in 1894, and then, bloodily, the explosion at the Barcelona religious procession in 1906 that killed 23 people and the Wall Street bombing of 1920, which killed 38. Even violence against other anarchists deemed insufficiently zealous was acceptable.

    “The existing system will be quickest and most radically overthrown by the annihilation of its exponents. Therefore, massacres of the enemies of the people must be set in motion,” said German-American anarchist Johann Most, nicknamed “Dynamost” for his violent ways and love of dynamite. He’s credited with popularising Pisacane’s “propaganda by the deed.”

    The two shining lights of the movement were (and still are) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon of France and Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin of Russia.

    “Killing people is the worst method for combating principles. It’s only through ideas that we triumph over idea.” Proudhon announced in 1848. Bakunin, who didn’t reject violence out of hand thinking very limited violence was inevitable, nonetheless explained in 1869 that “kings, the oppressors, exploiters of all kinds are evildoers who are not guilty, since they, too, are involuntary products of the present social order.” (Italics mine.)

    Adherents and sympathisers would cite the two to argue anarchism was inherently peaceful whilst their comrades where perpetrating ever greater acts of violence. Bakunin’s “when one is carrying out a revolution for the liberation of humanity, one should respect the life and liberty of men” is frequently cited by anarchists to prove anarchy’s peaceful nature. So to is “we wish not to kill persons, but to abolish status and its perquisites” and anarchism “does not mean the death of the individuals who make up the bourgeoisie, but the death of the bourgeoisie as a political and social entity economically distinct from the working class.”

    Yet, an anarchist movement, of course, has little in the way of formal structure so the words of its recognised thinkers do not necessarily have any great influence over those who consider themselves to be anarchists.

    Anarchists became frustrated with the very gradual reform brought about through instruction and education as promoted by Proudhon. Bakunin was capricious and embraced propaganda by the deed. “Let us therefore trust the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life. The passion for destruction is a creative passion too!” He also wrote: “I await my…fiancée, revolution. We will be really happy – that is, we will become ourselves, only when the world is engulfed in fire.”

    Nation and her followers weren’t anarchists – far from it it – but lived in an era when the anarchists’ violent deed were making headlines around the world. (Mussolini, the creator of fascism, himself cited Pisacane as an influence.) Political violence was normal, and it was in this context they lived and operated.

    The temperance movement included other dry organisations such as the Anti-Saloon League, which was to overshadow the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which Nation belonged to. In addition to supporting prohibition, it allied with the KKK to battle Catholics and German immigrants, many of whom where brewers and belonged to organisations like the National German-American Alliance, which sought to promote and preserve German culture in America. Catholics, Jews, Italians, and Germans (both Catholic and Protestant) were deemed “wet”, and during the early 20th century the KKK shifted its target from blacks to these groups. The Anti-Saloon League and other dry organizations recognised the unique opportunity presented to them by anti-German sentiment in the lead up to America’s entry into WWI. To oppose prohibition was to risk being smeared a German sympathiser.

    In 1881, the International Anarchist Congress of London gave the propaganda by the deed its approval. The Women’s Social and Political Union, a suffrage organisation, adopted “deeds not words” in 1905, launching an era of militant action by perpetrating arson and chemical attacks as well as personal assaults such as setting upon Winston Churchill with a whip and throwing an axe at an MP.

    Wrote Christabel Pankhurst (the Pankhurst family was the most prominent suffragists in Britain) in 1913: “If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war [clearly referencing the anarchists], and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!”

  19. I’m surprised that the author didn’t mention the “T” in TULIP calvinism; the total depravity or inadequacy of man’s faculties.

    In a nut shell, the “T” reminds us that no matter how much we rationalize and imagine that we know God’s Word and Will, we don’t. So, no matter what our motives might be, the results of our actions are as likely to produce great suffering as they are to produce great happiness. Lord knows I’ve seen enough from Vietnam to the Financial Crisis of 2008 to know what happens when a purportedly white heart meets an obviously empty head in both religion and politics to finally appreciate the meaning of the “T” in TULIP calvinism.

    The early calvinist divines had problems simply because they imagined that they knew God’s Will; they didn’t then and we don’t now. There is good deal of Epictetus’ brand of stoicism baked into the English Reformation.

    • david of Kirkland says

      This is also the basis for the Enlightenment and Capitalism and Democracy. Anybody other than a narcissist knows that “good” and “bad” are not clear, not stable over time and place, nor even valid when applied to all.

    • The T in TULIP means “Total Inability” if one slogs through the Institutes. Calvin, the despotic lawyer, basically put a legal system of thinking to Augustine’s concept’s of Original sin, inherit d guilt and his unfortunate dualism merged to Christianity from his pagan Mani. Your problem is man’s agency. If it is so limited, you have described Nihlism. Hopelessness. (Calvinism also turns Jesus Christ into a two bit con man)

      I maintain Calvinism is a short walk to Islam because it’s about a determinist God. .

      I just hope you are of frozen chosen variety and not the more recent Puritanesque resurgence that split so many churches apart the last 20 years. I live at ground zero for that movement and couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a pimply faced “elder” seminary grad who had to save the ignorant because did not know the “true gospel”.

      After 20 years of their totalitarianism in churches, it was actually creating more atheists than followers. They switched to social justice a few years ago to attract this generation to ministry. They are no less insufferable. Now we are all racists and xenophobesl So much for TULIP. The new leader of these modern “Christian” SJW’s is Russell Moore. He does WaPo op Ed’s now and then.

  20. Jezza says

    Jihadists are the most active moral zealots today, Since openly declaring war three decades ago, between thirty and forty thousand people have been murdered by muslim thugs. More than 100,000 have been injured, some have been permanently maimed. ( there is a small girl living in a wheelchair in Manchester, UK, because some idiot thinks he is going to get to paradise.) Jihadists are willfully blind to any other doctrine. Their way is cut down those whose beliefs differ from their own sans mercy. Waverers within their ranks are ruthlessly killed – have you ever heard of a lapsed muslim? No country is immune to their violence. Jihadist attacks have occurred in fifty-two countries around the world, that I know of . . . Argentina, Sweden, Nigeria, Philippines, England. Germany, USA . . . the casualty figures differ in each case; sometimes the number is just one or two dead and a few injured; sometimes, as in the case of the Twin Towers in New York, there are thousands. The war has been joined for thirty-odd years but no-one seems particularly worried. Bearing in mind the thrust of this essay, how best may we counter this – yes, I shall use the word – evil?

    Evidence for these assertions is freely available on the internet.

    • @Jezza

      We’re not going to see a Quillette article advocating a full stop to emigration to the West from predominantly Muslim countries, and the expulsion of those who have already done so.

      Did you ever think you would live to see Nancy Pelosi backing down from a woman like Ilhan Omar?

      We don’t have the collective will to fight against the evil you describe.

  21. Pingback: “Moral Zealotry and the Seductive Nature of Evil” at Quillette – just a second…

  22. Writing about morality is problematic unless you understand what morality is. The author speaks of evil as if it were are real, objective thing, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter. Neither good nor evil are objective things. They are subjective manifestations of behavioral predispositions that exist by virtue of natural selection. Darwin pointed this out in Chapter 4 of his “The Descent of Man,” noting that if a different species ever became intelligent, its morality would be different as well. Given the time in which he wrote, it’s hard to imagine that he could have been more clear or explicit about it. In 1906 Edvard Westermarck elaborated Darwin’s ideas into a coherent theory about morality in his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas.” In 1948 Sir Arthur Keith added a critical piece to the puzzle, noting that human morality is dual in his “A New Theory of Evolution.” In other words, we apply different moral rules to others depending on whether we perceive them as ingroup or outgroup. He noted that Herbert Spencer was the first to devote significant attention to this aspect of human behavior in his “The Principles of Ethics,” although his theory of evolution was more akin to Lamarck’s than to Darwin’s, and that Prof. William Graham Sumner was the first to coin the terms “in group” and “out group” in 1906.

    If Darwin was right, then morality exists by virtue of the fact that it happened to increase the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. It exists for no other reason, and absent that reason, morality as we know it would not exist. It also evolved at times and in environments that are radically different from the present. As a result, one could cite many instances in which it has become deeply “dysfunctional,” accomplishing the opposite of what it did when it evolved. Given that natural selection takes place at the level of the individual, and perhaps of small groups, attempting to apply it willy-nilly to the massive human organizations we are familiar with today is not only problematic but, in many cases extremely dangerous.

    If one would understand why we have a problem with moral “zealots” and “fanatics,” it would be useful to first have an accurate idea of what morality is to begin with.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Different species creating different morality? We can’t even agree on morality among humans at the same time in history, much less history over time and place.
      Eugenics is not immoral in agriculture/husbandry/pets, yet we claim it is for humans, though the idea is the same: to promote the healthiest humans with the best traits. We just don’t know what “best” means or who gets to decide.

      • Yes, we can’t agree on morality at this time in history, and yet there are major similarities in the expression of morality across all human populations. That’s exactly what one would expect if Darwin had it right. In the first place evolution didn’t stop when human populations separated, so we can’t expect morality to be identical everywhere on the planet. In the second place, when creatures with large brains try to figure out what their moral emotions are trying to tell them, it’s hardly to be expected that they’ll all come to exactly the same conclusion. That is doubly true in an environment radically different from the one in which those emotions evolved. All this doesn’t alter the fact that morality is subjective, and would not exist if the moral emotions/predispositions that give rise to it didn’t exist. Arguing over what is “really good” and “really evil” is like arguing over whether a unicorn’s horn is two feet long or three. One is arguing over objects that are imaginary.

    • dirk says

      @ Helian: before writing The Wealth of Nation, Adam Smith wrote – On Moral Sentiments-. I wonder how many people have read it (no idea what it was all about) and whether it is taught in the academic courses of economy, trade and politics.

      • @dirk

        Yes, one didn’t necessarily have to be born after Darwin to say anything useful about morality. In particular, modern philosophers would do well to pay more attention to what the 18th century British/Scottish/Irish thinkers had to say about the subject. Smith, Hume, Shaftesbury, and many others were aware of the existence and importance of our “moral sense.” IMHO Francis Hutcheson was the best of them all at demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that one cannot account for the existence of morality in the absence of such a moral sense. In spite of that, Hume gets all the credit because he “secularized” Hutcheson’s thought, whereas Hutcheson imagined that our moral sense must have been put there by God.

    • scribblerg says

      @Helian – Did you just claim morality arises as survival strategy? If so, first off, it arises as a group survival strategy, which you actually can’t model via “evolution” strictly. Read E. O. Wilson if you don’t understand this.

      You brutish (intellectual brutish, not physically) comment also levels all morality, as though there aren’t distinctions between moral codes. Western Enlightenment Christian morality (not Judeo Christian) was quite unique and still is today. It encourages an individual morality that builds upon a rational and critical view of man and the self which stands outside the self. The ability to morally reason this way has encouraged both individual virtue beyond any other social order.

      The self-critical nature of Christianity is simply quite different from any other moral code offered. It also does not place the Christian group as supreme or its clerics as leaders of the world. In fact, Christian morality can be seen as promoting ideas that are not contributing to our survival due other moral codes having advantages in group behavior. Islam is a great example of this as the sole goal of Islam is the promotion of Islam until it has conquered the world. Any individual Muslim’s lot in life is seen as irrelevant to these larger aims.

      I know, the West is so reflexively self-loathing that one will rarely find commentary like mine about it, but that doesn’t make it not so. Be clear – Christendom (Christianity + the Enlightement) dominated the world due to its superior morality. But you will rarely hear this spoken today, so now I have to be lectured by post-Western morons like AOC and Islamic enemies like Omar and Tlaib lecture me about morality. Just notice the giddy glee in their eyes when they do so, cuz in their hearts, they cannot believe how weak and feckless we are, and how unwilling we are to defend our heritage and legacy in the West.

      • dirk says

        What you say here about Western superiority in morality, scribble, was what I still learned in school, church, my home, and it was the general and official teaching and preaching in the media and institutions, uptil about 1960. From then on, things really changed. It has an amusing aspect, if I just think and reflect about it, because, how can it be so completely different right now? Is this a Fellini like comedy??

  23. Charlie says

    if one examines the French and Russian Revolutions and the Nazis, spite, resentment and self pity are hidden under a cloak of morality. Some people have a savage cruel blood lust and a concocted morality provides justification for indulging in these base acts . How do we know Nation was not resentful and full of self pity that she married a drunk and was full of spite towards those who were happily married? Alcohol has been around for 5000 years and some people cannot handle it.

    All societies have murderers, rapists and sadistic thugs: political movements allow them to indulge in such practices and claim they are doing it for a higher purpose. Weak and cowardly people are often cruel, deceitful and cunning with grudges against their fellows. Joining a political party which advocates violence allows them to inflict pain and suffering on those to whom they hold a grudge.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Alcohol is entirely natural, though of course now produced by humans, just as plants and animals are natural, yet agriculture/husbandry now produces them. The immorality isn’t alcohol, it’s failing to care for your family or self as a result of gluttony. Food seems moral enough until it’s over-consumed and leads to poor care of animals and obese/sick humans.

  24. david of Kirkland says

    The real issue is that “morality” has no established meaning. Everyone should be moral, but whose morality are we compared against?
    We consider ourselves moral to put down a sick/injured animal that won’t be able to live a normal life anymore, but think it immoral to do that to a human, and even criminalize (in most places) a person trying to put themselves down.
    We say it is moral to “not feed the birds” or other wild critters in our parks and neighborhoods because it leads them to reproduce and create ever more problems, but immoral to suggest this with humans.
    We think charity is moral, yet many frown upon society providing the charity through taxation.
    We think killing is immoral, unless they are in a foreign country and not in our national interests.

    • dirk says

      Actually, this was the policy during the Irish potato famine, charity is bad, disasters should find their own way, and the wheat of the British landlords (wheat was not affected by the potato disease) was simply exported where tens of thousands were starving. Many fled to the US, more even died, and the lands that became free, got another destination.

  25. The origins of the Cosa Nostra (Italian mob) have their roots in the successive occupations of Sicily. Those who withdrew to the hills viewed themselves as resistance fighters, and the coastal (lowland) authorities basicly could not come up into the hills. Each clan had to become their own law enforcement and the official gov was the enemy. When some of them came here, they brought their code of honor and revenge, and a do-whatever-it-takes-to-survive mentality and became the mob.
    Likewise, gangbangers today view themselves as doing what they need to do to survive in a hostile world. Revenge is part of that.
    The problem I see is people who view themselves so highly when they are posting on social media trying to get people fired, or rioting and burning in the street. Not cool. It can bring the whole society crashing down.

  26. One of the interesting things about the current moral panic about “nazis” (ie Trump supporters) is that it is based on free-floating assumptions about people’s inner beliefs rather than any overt acts by them. The only thing they can point to is Trump’s desire to build a wall, but reasonable people can wonder how you can have a country without borders. We now see caravan after caravan marching north. Not a problem? And that is the only racism they can point to yet they call a red hat the equivalent of KKK robes. Pure hysteria in the service of moral superiority.

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  28. Jonathan Ellman says

    A brilliant essay. I was thinking about this idea after hearing Ocasio-Cortez’s comment that ” I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” The seed of evil is buried in this way of thinking. It really is incredibly dangerous.

    Spencer Case’s point that we all need to be ‘watchful’ is a poignant: “We should on occasion ask ourselves: “What wouldn’t I do in the service of my favorite cause?” It doesn’t matter whether your cause is anti-racism, reproductive choice, veganism, or American greatness—if you can’t think of any realistic limits that you’d set on your behavior, then moral zealotry has probably tainted your thinking.”

    I think there is no perfect solution to this, we all have the psychological trait that can lead us towards absolutism. The best we have to defending ourselves and others from this trait is democracy and a free media. Classics Lecturer Nick Denyer once described the Greek gods as the ‘eyeballs in the sky’ watching people’s behaviour. I think gods and religion perform this function of checking ourselves. But with secular ideologies, only democracy and openness to public scrutiny can replace this. It’s imperfect but the alternative has been shown to be murderously flawed on a cosmic scale.

    This is a very good interview with Bjorn Lomborg. Leaving aside reasonable scepticism about global warming, Lomborg’s point about how to promote his ideas for dealing with climate change to a democratic process are the best way to be watchful against totalitarianism in the name of ‘doing good’ (30minutes to 32.5). https://www.hoover.org/research/cost-effective-approaches-save-environment-bjorn-lomborg

  29. Serenity says

    HelianUnbound: “Writing about morality is problematic unless you understand what morality is. The author speaks of evil as if it were are real, objective thing…”

    Zealots and fanatics have behavioral predispositions of psychopaths – “real, objective” people without empathy and remorse – propensity for lying, denial of personal responsibility, shifting blame on others and claiming victimhood, mastery of manipulation, power-building, stirring and fuelling negative emotions, bullying people and turning them against each other, unreasonable, exaggerated sense of entitlement – “they take what they want and do as they please”.

    Psychopathy is evil.

    Morality – “Do not do unto others what you don’t want others do unto you.”

    • @Serenity

      The reality that good and evil are subjective categories does not imply moral nihilism, nor does it imply rejection of moral absolutism, nor does it imply that we are not allowed to resist psychopaths. Nothing that I or anyone else scribbles here on Quillette will suddenly result in the dissolution of our societies into moral anarchy for the simple reason that it is not our nature to be moral anarchists. We have an overpowering predisposition to imagine that good and evil are real objective things, not because they really are, but because that illusion was much more efficient in promoting our survival than the truth. I myself am a moral absolutist. I merely insist that we recognize that whatever moral “absolutes” we come up with are human creations, and always have been. They are not passed down to us by a God, nor are they objective things that somehow exist out there in the luminiferous aether, independent of what I or anyone else happens to think about them.

      Why do I suggest that it would behoove us to finally recognize morality for what it really is? Look at what you’ve written! “Claiming victimhood, mastery of manipulation, power-building, stirring and fueling negative emotions, bullying people and turning them against each other,” etc., are all examples of the exploitation of the mirage of objective morality. The exploiters can only thrive as long as we allow them to claim they act in the name of some nonexistent objective authority. Once we realize and insist on the truth that they are anything but the knights in shining armor they imagine themselves to be, defending “objective good” and fighting nobly against “objective evil,” their power over the rest of us will be greatly diminished. The truth is that the moral zealots among us are really acting blindly in response to subjective whims that long ago lost any connection to the reasons those whims exist to begin with. To put it in a form of shorthand, human morality has become “dysfunctional.”

      Psychopathy is not evil, nor is psychopathy good, because those categories simply don’t exist as things in themselves. That hardly means that we are not allowed to fight psychopaths, nor that we are prohibited from rendering them powerless to harm our societies.

  30. ANTONIO BENEDETTO says

    If a group of people were to approve laws in favor of killing children, would it be legitimate to fight against the killing of children? Or would it be “Moral Zealotry”? In my opinion this essay ignores the existence of Good and Evil, so it is nihilistic. Or, to put it as Jordan Peterson would say, it’s a post-modernist essay.

    (sorry if I’m not clear, I write from Italy)

  31. scribblerg says

    Apparently the author hasn’t ever really tried to understand the Third Reich and the Nazi party, and why it came to power. To reduce it to mere zealotry is to announce you really don’t know much.

    In 1920’s Germany, there were 10 nationalist movements vying for popularity and power. One might ask what they were fighting against? Oh, it was International Communism or variants of it, promoted by the wild-eyed Bolsheviks in the newly formed Soviet Union.

    The Socialists were the idealists run amok. Just as it is with today’s crop of socialists. In a way, Nazism can be understood as a way of building a national order that could defend itself against the onslaught of the post-national world order the socialists wanted to bring about.

    Sound familiar? See any parallels to today? Read Mein Kampf, you’ll see that Hitler posited National Socialism as opposing the international communism which threatened to overtake the world at the time. Another insight is that Jews were targeted, in part, due to their massive support for International Communism and softer forms of socialism. At the time, the Bolsheviks in the USSR were most Jews and much of that anti-jewish bigotry brought to the policies of the Third Reich were based on eradicating International Communists from their midst.

    Of course, someone here will think I’m sympathetic to Nazis, but I’m not. I’m just a guy who reads a lot of history. The truth of the past 120 years in the West is that the Left has arisen and seeks to overtake the nation-state and classical liberal order of the West, and supplant it with a global government and “Nation”.

    People rightly rise up against it. As is happening here and as has happened many times during that past century.

  32. The article is incomplete because it ignores psychopaths but if we exclude them then people need an ideology and justification to perform acts of evil and prsuade themeslve sthat the actions are good and/or necessary. Religion is perhaps the classic justification but political ideologies are just as acceptable.

    This is aided by a capability for rationalisation of our actions that is present in all of us but is paticularily powerful when reinforced by others. It can be seen as hypocrisy but I think is better characterised as self delusion.

    Racist remarks by anti-racism campaigners and sexist remarks by anti-sexism campaigners are ubiquitous. Those racists and sexists making these remarks doubtless regard themselves as virtuous for making them.

  33. Nate says

    If you have one value–history is quite clear that it does not matter what this value is–that always overrides all others, you will eventually be able to talk yourself into thinking that some bloodshed is regrettably necessary.

  34. While there are real limits, environmental and geopolitical, on the action of states, there are no moral limits on the state. The state acts as it will act. While there may be limits on individuals in individual office holders within the state, and even self-imposed moral limits, the state itself simply acts as it will, whether in response to the judicial branch, the legislative branch, or the executive branch.

    In contrast, private individuals and NGO’s are subject to both morality as well as law. In terms of behavior, what trumps law is morality. A person who breaks the law for selfish or self-interested reasons is beneath contempt. However, a law-breaker who claims to act morally may be viewed as justified, given a reduced sentence, or let off the hook completely.

    Force is the use of coercion by the state. Violence is the use of coercion by private individuals or NGO’s. Political violence, that is violence directed at a class of people on the basis of their being perceived enemies, is necessarily related to moral appeals. However, neither the law nor the disposition of the state is static, and moral arguments, as well as action, as well as crimes including political violence, are ultimately attempts to subvert the direction of the State. Hence, the need for blasphemy laws or limits on hate speech, etc., in order to prevent moral subversion of the status quo.

    One is either committed to maintaining the status quo, and the institutions and norms of the status quo, and this entails rejecting “extremism”, e.g. these dialogues of moral suasion and action that accompany moral subversion. In the alternative, one is committed to waging moral war on the status quo, and this entails war on conventional moral norms as well as more extreme action.

    However, there is no outside. One is either indifferent to politics, or one has a commitment to the status quo or subverting it. [It is not as if Solzhenitsyn wasn’t trying to subvert the moral order of the Soviet Union.] One doesn’t have clean hands sitting on the sidelines, you are implicated in the action of the state you belong to, and the moral norms encoded in its laws, which are invariably announced when it is necessary to deploy force.

    • To be clearer, the existence of the modern state (monopoly of force) creates on the positive, descriptive level a real distinction between might and right, or power and law. If the modern state exists, then there is a descriptive difference between a murder and an execution, and the execution is “right” because it is sanctioned by law.

      Once the modern state exists, and might is not per se right, then the normative question of right is opened up, and moral justifications of violence are possible. Further, moral justifications of violence are the only legitimate grounds for violence. These moral justifications are politically subversive in the sense that the actors claim to act with the same (or really higher) legitimacy as the state. Moreover, if groups advocating morally legitimate violence are allowed to persist, they essentially either take over the state or become the shadow state (as you can see with Hezbollah in Lebanon).

      My point is that if one rejects moral justifications for violence, one is de facto supporting the state’s exercise of force as right and lawful (there is no bifurcation between the normative and the descriptive), as much as a communist revolutionary caring out reprisals in the name of the Proletariat Revolution views the Party’s exercise of violence as right and moral legitimate on the normative level.

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  36. Andrew Worth says

    Evil:
    1. An imbalance of power.
    2. A lack of empathy amongst those with power towards those without.
    3. No system or other party to restrict the use of unbridled power by those who have it against those who do not.

    For those with unbridled power finding a greater moral justification isn’t very difficult when you see those whom you intend to use your power against as no better than cattle.

    This entire article can be summed up in the Simon Pegg movie Hot Fizz, it’s all for The Greater Good.

  37. ninjunc says

    I thought the article was well done as a thought provoking, self-reflecting piece. Of course it didn’t cover everything or give a shout-out to everyone’s favorite brand of moral philosophy. That wasn’t the point. After reading, I was pleased knowing I had another tool to keep my own moral zealotry in check. Then I read the comments…

    While the discussion spawned from this article is educational and even enjoyable at points (I’m a sucker for intellectual debate), I do believe it highlights a problem with philosophy for philosophy’s sake: no actionable intel.

    I am likely speaking high above my college-loan-debt-level, but…what good is it to have debates whether or not morality is subject, objective, divine, or socially constructed, if that’s where it stops? It might be a good place to start, but how does it translate to my current daily life? How does it enable the non-intellectuals (the majority of the population) to solve problems right in front of them? How do I take moral absolutism vs. moral nihilism to streets and affect change? At least Spencer Case’s article left me with a call to action: be watchful and ask myself “what wouldn’t I do in the service of my favorite cause?”.

    The subsequent comment-section discussion quickly derailed into a contest to see who could sound smarter and quote more obscurely. I briefly thought I was in the famous bar scene from Good Will Hunting.; The difference being I couldn’t tell who we were trying to impress, and I certainly don’t have the savant mind of Matt Damon’s character that would allow me to drop the mic on all of you.

    Ultimately, I’m impressed by the minds represented in the comments (especially when compared to the comments section of most websites). I would just urge you all to occasionally dispense possible solutions or suggested application. Take all that beautiful knowledge and distill it into ideas about what we, the laypeople, can do today, right now. You know, actually get the girl’s number.

    “Do you like apples?”

  38. @ninjunc

    What you’re asking for is an “ought” as opposed to an “is.” As you’ve noticed, some of the comments on this thread have come from those who believe that morality is objective, and others from those who, like me, claim it is subjective.

    If you agree with the former, the answer to your question is fairly straightforward. You just pick the flavor of objective morality you prefer. You can then find the answer to your “ought” question in the books of philosophy or religion appropriate for that flavor.

    If, however, you agree with me that morality is subjective, things are more complicated. In that case there will be no “ought” propped up on a hill illuminated with neon lights for you to discover. You will need to supply your own “ought,” not to mention your own meaning and purpose of life. Before doing so it would be useful for you to understand yourself – what kind of a creature you are, and what motivates you to do anything. I have suggested above that we are motivated by emotions and predispositions that are innate, and are a result of natural selection. In other words they exist because, in an environment radically different from the one we find ourselves in now, they happened to increase the odds that we (or the responsible genetic material if you will) would survive and reproduce. Answering the “ought” question, then, becomes a matter of deciding whether you want to act in harmony with the reasons your emotional “motivators” exist to begin with or not. The answer to that question is not supplied at the back of a textbook. You will have to find it on your own.

    • I am not convinced. First, morality is not “subjective”, it is intersubjective. If you live with a hunter-gatherer tribe, they will have customs, rituals, taboos, etc. which are shared intersubjective norms guiding group behavior. If you switch to a more cosmopolitan venue, you will discover different ethnic groups and religious groups with different norms, but those norms will be historically received, social, and culturally transmitted. Only if you come to the most extreme form of modern cosmopolitan environments will you discover people with “subjective” moralities, as people have lost any sense of social identity as a member of a collective, historical ethnic group and/or religious sect. I would contend that “subjective” morality is the opposite of any meaningful morality (as it is not historically received, social, or culturally transmitted).

      Second, morality is based upon reciprocal social obligations–I don’t steal from you, you don’t steal from me. Given that morality only works when everyone buys into the rules, and the rules are not easily negotiable, it can’t possible be subjective the way a favorite color is subjective. Morality amounts to a social covenant one is born into and socialized into, and which one follows in adulthood. Nothing subjective about that, its mostly an accident of birth and upbringing, although one’s style of justification might be subjective.

      While there are multiple and competing moralities (just as there are multiple and competing groups of humans), both groups and group behaviors are subject to the real world. Groups with moralities that promote social cohesion and growth generally fair better than moralities that undermine social cohesion and suppress health, posterity and lastly, prosperity. As history suggests, one group ends up on top, and the other groups end up on the bottom, or relocated or even eliminated altogether.

      So while morality is arbitrary (but not subjective), the consequences of morality and its absence are not arbitrary, but governed by objective features of reality, the same way that moving a piece in chess is both arbitrary, but constrained by the objectives of chess, the rules of chess, the chess board and other pieces. The main difference between chess and the morality game is that the morality game can play out over several generations. But there are “winning” moral strategies and there are “losing” moral strategies, and in this sense, morality is objective.

  39. @KD

    You are describing moralities that are not sanctioned by a God, nor by any other supernatural power. Your Goods and Evils have no authority whatsoever beyond what you, or some other individual, or some group of individuals (a “culture”) happens to want. In other words, you are describing what is quintessentially subjective morality. You just don’t realize it, because the illusion that Good and Evil are real things is so powerful. Of course moralities have to be perceived and treated as absolutes if they are to be effective at all. That’s the reason the illusion exists to begin with. Of course we need some version of morality to regulate our social interactions. We can’t exactly take the time to open a philosophy book and carefully reason about how we should deal with each person we happen to run into on the sidewalk. We’re just not that smart. You’re also correct when you say that, while morality must be treated as an absolute, it is also arbitrary. That is, for all practical purposes, the very definition of subjective morality.

    If you really want to support some objective morality, the first thing you need to do is explain to me how that morality gets the power to jump from your skull onto my back, and dictate to me what I ought or ought not do. If you can’t do that, you leave your “objective” morality floating in thin air with no visible support. If a morality is to be objective, it must have some normative power. Where is that normative power, or authority? In other words, you’re just describing your personal whims, not objective morality.

    • HelianUnbound:

      Your discussion strikes me as conceptually confused. “Subjective” as I understand it, means something which is immediate and private to the “subject”, such as the taste of coffee or a judgment that coffee tastes good. I would regard an assertion that “coffee tastes good” or “blue is my favorite color” as subjective assertions.

      I propose that the functional, probably evolutionary function, of morality is to ensure group survival, sometimes at the expense of individual survival, and generally at the expense of individual well being (e.g. morality dictates one act in a manner contrary to self-interest because it is moral). If morality is a group strategy that promotes survival (an anthropological hypothesis), then morality is as objective as a strategy in chess or in battle.

      The problem you seem to focus on is what binds the individual to a pattern of altruistic behavior that is contrary to his or her self-interest. I suggest that we look at how this is accomplished in the real world: by socialization from early childhood, e.g. something like brain-washing. Hence, the intense political concerns about the family, child rearing, and control over education, while no one seems concerned about what a child’s favorite color is, or whether they like vanilla ice cream. In addition, morality is often enforced by social violence (either by the state or by groups receiving a blind eye from the state), and in the absence of violence, is enforced by social shunning and social shaming.

      Why are people moral? Because they are taught from their earliest age to be moral, and they are taught to fear social ostracism (and possible violence) that occurs if they reject morality. Its no more “subjective” than criminal law. Formal lawbreaking results in formal punishment, violation of informal rules results in informal punishment.

      You seem to imply that “objective” morality requires a transcendent source of authority, and in the absence of such a source, morality is “subjective”. However, this same argument would apply to military strategy and chess strategy. But if we think of military strategy, it is clearer. People don’t want to die, and they don’t want to lose wars (this is an existential condition) and so they are usually keen to endorse a good military strategy that wins the war at minimal cost. Likewise, morality, if my hypothesis is correct, facilitates group survival (you could say it precedes military strategy) and most people don’t want their own group wiped out.

      Now you could argue that a people might arise who were actively suicidal, but the point is, such people would be a temporary aberration in the scheme of life, and would be replaced by people who were not similarly situated. Thus, morality and the existential conditions it rests upon, would survive, “objectively”, in the absence of a transcendent source of meaning or purpose.

      I don’t want to discount the importance of the “Noble Lie” in morality. Obviously, there is some benefit in getting people to commit to an altruistic pattern of behavior if you convince them of some higher, transcendent purpose to morality, beyond mere group survival. Of course, this only works if those persons are willing to consider such a possibility. Thus, beyond the sticks discussed above, moral systems often posit “carrots” in heaven as a reward. But in reality, sticks combined with existential intuitions (group survival is “carrot” that can be realized even in the vale of tears) are sufficient to guarantee morality on the whole. Napoleon quipped “Jails for the lower classes, morality for the middle classes”. If morality fails, society can always build more prisons.

      In sum, the ground of morality is an objective world that rewards groups with high levels of social cohesion, cooperation, and altruism and punishes groups lacking in those traits. The subjective question on why one adopts morality A or morality B only emerges when there is a failure of socialization, which is designed to avoid the possibility of the subjective question ever being asked. However, the answer is objective in the sense that people who are identified as defying social norms are subject to social shaming, ostracism, vigilante violence and sometimes imprisonment and execution. What ensures against the disappearance of morality is group competition, with groups that are incapable of cooperating and fighting effectively being dominated by groups that can do these things effectively. All these factors will continue so long as H. Sapien, the social animal, continues to exist, whether we believe in morality or not. In this sense, the laws of morality are as inexorable as the laws of physics.

    • In the positive existence of the modern state, there is an inherent distinction between might and right, power and law. Further, the fundamental purpose of the state is to oppose enemies both external and domestic. Intrinsic in the state is the notion that the use of force by the state is legitimate, but the use of violence by enemies of the state is illegitimate (terrorism, etc.).

      Thus, the question of right flows from the question of the the political, the friends/enemy distinction. Now, the friends/enemy distinction is arbitrary–America is in the process of trying to declare Russia an enemy, but obviously it could do otherwise. But it is not subjective, the demonization of Russia isn’t happening purely as a result of political whims, but rather geopolitical considerations.

      Likewise, if the state declared you a traitor or a Russian agent, they could lock you up or execute you, and you may or may not receive any due process. Furthermore, it would be perfectly legal and right, and you would deserve it. If you resist, you would be a terrorist and a criminal.

      Taking it to the normative sphere, someone with a different political conception (different friends/enemies) would feel justified in using violence against you because you were perceived to be a political enemy. And a group with this normative commitment might itself be identified as an enemy of the state, or might be used as an informal tool of the state (if you read civil rights history, you see the KKK operating with the tacit support and protection of state governments). Further, such a group can, over time, either take over the government or act as a shadow government. So there is a political change in the nature of the state.

      And this is simply a purely descriptive, e.g. objective, description of how the world really works. . .

  40. dirk says

    To feel mercy, to save the life of your enemy or of a criminal, is that moraly to defend or not? Depends on the culture and manners you have been grown in. In many cultures, mercy is bad and weak. Even in the Old Testament, mercy was often not seen as something positive.

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  44. Hannah Arendt spoke about Eichman and the banality of evil in her book Eichman in Jerusalem. The Nazis and all fanatical regimes know this detail. You cant do this with a bunch of crazy people flooding the streets it needs to be calculated and carefully managed. That you need a multi tiered system to carry out atrocities in such a massive scale. You need the philosophy at the top which gives everyone the excuse that they are doing good.

    At the next tier you need the management to organize it which is the Eichmans of the world who are essentially psychopaths. The developer of the psychopath diagnosis studied in prisons for many years thinking there would be many psychopaths there. He later lamented that he should have been studying in corporate America since he would have found so many more. The typical psychopath is well spoken well dressed and easy going and very very smooth. These are your managers to run the system and move the agenda forward at any cost.

    The final layer is the people that have to actually do the dirty work. They have to operate the gulags, and keep the ovens cooking, and the gas chambers gassing. Someone had to fill those killing fields in Cambodia or reeducate those victims in Mao’s China. For them you need to feed them this philosophy of doing the greater good. That everything is being done for a greater cause. This is the rub. And why this article is so important. Without this philosophy evil cannot be carried out.

    They need to believe in the greatness of the communist party, or the Aryan people, or defeating evil drug lords, or protecting the planet from global warming or global cooling or whatever the dangerous temperature happens to be in vogue this week. This is what the leftists professors know so well in our University. This is why they skip the logic and go straight to the emotion. Why have a rational debate when you can just destroy someone on social media or in the mainstream media with fanatical followers dog piling on?.

    The book “Ominous Parallels” by Dr. Leonard Piekoff spells this out very well. The goal of the Nazi regime was not to control the Jews. That was easy they just rounded them up and herded them into ghettos and camps. The Jews went quietly and very orderly. It was to control the German people. It was to take the ordinary postal worker or store clerk, or truck driver and pluck him out of normal society and months later having him dropping pills of Cyclon B into the gas chambers loaded with innocent people. That is the real power the Nazi’s sought. And they got very far with this.

    Excellent piece and excellent publication Quillett. Right up there with Reason magazine in quality of content. We so need more publications like this at this time. Bravo.

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