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.
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 Quillette, National Review, and other outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @SpencerJayCase
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.