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Open for Debate

Extremism and the Good Life – Part 1

30 October 2023

“Want to live the good life? Join an extremist group!” This odd piece of advice flies in the face of thousands of years of ethical theorizing, not to mention common sense. In ancient Greece, Aristotle famously identified the flourishing life with a virtuous life that avoids extremes. Not long after, the Stoics fundamentally agreed. Centuries later, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Madame Germaine de Stael listed moderation, along with time and wisdom, as the only means for achieving key virtues. For Friedrich Nietzsche, extremism in the form of fanaticism was a sign not of flourishing or genuine prosperity, but of weakness and insecurity. But we don’t really need to consult major intellectual figures to find grounds for doubting the idea that extremism is a path to the good life. Extremists, terrorists, fanatics, and some conspiracy theorists are often vicious people living an immoral life deluded into thinking they alone are paragons of righteousness and justice. Vice. Immorality. Ignorance. It takes little reflection to know these are not among the ingredients of the good life.

And yet, anyone worried about extremism – in particular, anyone interested in deradicalizing extremists – would do well to examine the surprising kernel of truth in this advice. No: living the extremist life is not living the good life.[1] But elements of the good life often accompany extremism. And, more to the point, abandoning extremism usually requires paying what philosopher Jennifer Morton calls “ethical costs”: it requires sacrificing meaningful and valuable aspects of a good life.[2]

To be absolutely clear, deradicalization of extremists is a worthy goal and it’s good for society. No need to deny that. But the point is that thinking seriously about how to achieve deradicalization requires an honest accounting of what we are asking extremists to sacrifice for the sake of truth and morality. We need to consider the barriers these sacrifices pose to deradicalization efforts.

Thinkers studying extremism have not been blind to the benefits of joining extremist groups. In his 1951 book The True Believer, a classic study of mass movements including extremist and fanatical groups, Eric Hoffer defends what I call the “escape thesis.” The idea is that often a person who joins a movement like an extremist group does so because he sees himself as spoiled and worthless and joining the group enables him to escape his unwanted self. “A mass movement,” Hoffer writes, “attracts and holds a following not because it can satisfy the desire for self-advancement, but because it can satisfy the passion for self-renunciation.”[3] On Hoffer’s view, people join these groups, not because of anything inherent to the group’s ideology or cause, but largely because joining offers substitutes: something valuable to replace their worthless selves. Faith in a holy cause substitutes for lost faith in oneself. Excellence of nation, religion, or race substitutes for inexcellence of the self.

More recently, it has been argued that people participate in cults, conspiracy theories, and other extremist groups because doing so enables them to act out fantasies of “secret knowledge.”[4] There is pleasure in imagining one is part of a group that possesses a special channel to the truth which outsiders lack. After acting out these fantasies for long enough or in the right ways, fantasies of secret knowledge turn into illusions: no longer a mere imagining but a belief that one possesses this knowledge. In this way, pleasure associated with extremism leads to authentic acceptance of extremism.

Accounts like these – the escape thesis and what we might call the (unconscious) “fake it till you make it” thesis – circle the kernel of truth about the connection between extremism and the good life, but I think they also obscure an important distinction between why people join extremist groups and what extremist groups offer. Both accounts ultimately appeal to practically motivated cognition to explain why people join extremist groups. People become extremists because extremism does something good for them. However, this explanation oversimplifies extremists, reducing them down to mere egoists pursuing only what advances their self-directed practical aims, unencumbered by a need to be responsive to truth. That is, it ignores the intellectual side of extremism. Rather than being passively drawn into extremism for essentially practical reasons, individuals are often convinced of the truth of extremist ideologies; their endorsement of these ideologies is an expression not only or not always of their practical agency but of their intellectual agency as well.[5]

That being said, we need to avoid falling into the opposite trap of overly intellectualizing extremism. We cannot assume people always join extremist groups only for practical benefits. That’s true. But neither can we ignore those benefits when we attempt to understand the deradicalization process. Even if reason got them into this mess – that is, even when individuals do adopt extremist ideologies through an unfettered exercise of reason – we cannot assume reason alone will get them out of it.

The Author would like to thank Majo Buteler, Marcello Cabral, Quassim Cassam, Thi Nguyen, Luis Oliveira, and the students in my extremism seminar for discussion of these issues.

Photo by Marianna Smiley on Unsplash


[1] Saying what exactly extremism is turns out to be a tricky business, one I will not engage in here. For recent insightful attempts, see Berger (2018), Cassam (2022), and Battaly (2023). There are a host of traits associated with extremism, e.g., intolerance, rigidity and inflexibility, feelings of victimization, hate and anger towards particular outgroups, displeasure and fear about the state of the world or the direction it is headed, willingness to sacrifice oneself or others in the name of one’s ideals. Of course, having any or even all of these traits to some degree needn’t make one an extremist; you could simply be principled and your grievances legitimate (see Cassam (2022: ch. 4) for discussion). Typically, we think of an extremist as someone who has many of these traits to a very high degree, significantly disproportionately to the actual state of the world or to their grievances, and, indeed, as someone who is obsessed with, and perhaps possessed by, their grievances. One thing I do not want to say is that one is an extremist simply for deviating from so-called “mainstream” beliefs, even radically so. Some are happy to employ this thin notion of extremism. But when I say things like “living the extremist life is not living the good life,” I intend to be referring to a more robust, more clearly negative form of extremism.

[2] Morton (2019).

[3] Hoffer (1951: 12).

[4] Munro (2023).

[5] For a defense and exploration of this corrective, see Cassam (2022).



Battaly, H. (2023) Can Fanaticism be a Liberatory Virtue? Synthese 201: 1-27.

Berger, J.M. (2018) Extremism. MIT Press.

Cassam, Q. (2022) Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis. Routledge.

Hoffer, E. (1951) The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Harper & Row Publishers.

Katsafanas, P. (2022) Philosophy of Devotion: The Longing for Invulnerable ideals. Oxford University Press.

Llanera, T. (2023) The Misogyny Paradox and the Alt-Right. Hypatia 1-20. doi:10.1017/hyp.2023.4

Morton, J. (2019) Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Princeton University Press.

Munro, D. (2023) Cults, Conspiracies, and Fantasies of Knowledge. Episteme 1-22. doi:10.1017/epi.2022.55

Nietzsche, F. (1974) The Gay Science. Trans. W. Kaufmann. Vintage.

Phelps-Roper, M. (2019) Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church. Farrar, Strous, and Giroux.

Nguyen, C. T. (MS) Value Capture.

Sartre, J. (1943/2018) Being and Nothingness. Routledge.

Saslow, E. (2018) Rising out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist. Doubleday.