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No action can be said to be good or bad in the intrinsic sense—what makes an action good or bad is the degree.

This is why extremism is considered to be bad—to be extreme leads to evil (even extreme moderation can lead to evil).

Aeschylus: “Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise, has established his fixed law—wisdom comes through suffering. Trouble, with its memories of pain, drips in our hearts as we try to sleep, so men against their will learn to practice moderation.”

So the idea is that pain teaches a man to be moderate—immoderate action is evil, some men have to be sent to prison because they require more pain than others in order to be taught to be moderate.

It is easy to establish a moderate action in some dimensions.

Physical chastisement:

1. “Oh, just stop that” (extreme weakness, evil)

2. <Stern> “Stop that right now!” (moderate, just)

3. “Stop that right now, or you’ll go to your room!” (moderate, just)

4. “Stop that right now, or you’ll get a spank!” <persists, spank> (moderate, just)

5. “You better stop that right now or…” <beats black and blue with a belt> (extreme strength, evil)

So we can say that the extremes are evil in these cases—extreme strength and extreme weakness are related.

So it must be the same with politics—surely political extremism is always wrong, always evil?

The problem with politics and religion—both intertwined—is that unlike physical chastisement these involve values.

So there’s no objective and agreed continuum as to what constitutes “extreme” behaviour or an “extreme” view—there’s just a relative extremism.

Politics and religion occur within history—hence an “extreme right-wing opinion” today would be a moderate Conservative policy in 1950.

Conversely, “left-wing extremism” today centres around the right for children to take puberty blockers, barely recognisable as left-wing politics when compared to, say, Stalin.

Religion and politics involve the yardstick itself—it’s your general worldview that causes you to see some actions as “moderate, justified” or “extreme, evil”.

Unlike with corporal punishment we cannot speak about “extremism” so easily in politics—although states use the concept to delegitimise people who oppose the state.

Yet though we can have some intuition as to whether a religious or political belief is extreme, our categories are not as absolute as in other spheres.

Barry Goldwater famously dealt with the objection he was an “extremist” through this rhetorical flourish, “Extremism in defence of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue.”

We will leave aside the fact that this statement is basically meaningless, because it is meant as rhetoric to repel rhetoric and as such it works—although it is a bit wordy if someone says, “You’re an extremist!”.

You need a one-word riposte.

Goldwater also had the slogan, “In your hearts, you know he’s right.”

To which the Democrats appended, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

That corollary sums the situation up quite neatly—with the psychological truth, as ever, being both statements run together.

In politics and religion, there isn’t an agreement about what an “extreme” view or action really is.

For example, all shades of political opinion agree that governments can become illegitimate, turn into tyrannies, and that it is legitimate to overthrow tyrannies.

However, there is no objective criteria as to what a tyranny is or when it is legitimate to act against it—and so while we know there is such a thing, and that it is legitimate to overthrow it, it is difficult identify and agree when that action is permissible.

This isn’t the case in other areas—for example, extreme violence, which means extreme coercion, ends in death; extreme violence is when you kill someone—which is murder, if you do it as an individual.

There’s a consensus around that—although when it comes to the state, when it comes to when you may wage war or defend yourself, agreement breaks down again.

Hence the term “extremism” in politics and religion is largely rhetorical and not a useful guide to good and evil.


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