Opinions and actions are spread across continua. The ones at the ends are sometimes called ‘extremist’, ‘fanatical’, ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘zealous’. These are insults or invitations to treat the supporters without seriousness. Other times the far reaches of a continuum are admired as ‘sticking to one’s principles’, ‘consistent’, ‘loyal’, ‘dedicated’, ‘committed’. Claims of certainty and crossing your heart and hoping to die are also looked well upon. So what’s the difference? Obviously the correct answers to some questions are at the ends of spectrums while others, such as optimal trade-offs, tend to have more central values. Is this what determines our like or dislike for centrism and extremism? Lets look at some examples from my understanding of popular opinion.
Things you should be extremist on:
- What’s the worth of a human life?
- At what degree of temptation should you cheat on your partner? Break the law? Break a promise?
- How long should a marriage last?
- How much does average IQ differ across races?
- How much should a pedophile be willing to pay for you to let them have a child?
Things you should not be extremist on:
- How closely should we follow a single political principle, such as libertarianism or communism?
- What proportion of situations should you analyse in terms of a single theory?
- How much of your sacred text is literally true? How much should it influence your life?
- To what degree should one principle, such as utilitarianism, define your ethical views?
- To what degree should you rely on reasoned thought for opinions?
- How much of your time should you devote to a single activity (with the exception perhaps of looking after your family)?
I can’t see that the first list contains fewer trade offs than the second list. In fact it probably has more. So what’s the pattern?
The one I see is whether commitment is to an impersonal idea or to a group or person. If you take a centrist position on your personal and group loyalties you are something between flaky and treacherous. You are not supposed to trade off friends. On the other hand strong commitment to a policy position, theory, type of analysis, ethical standpoint, or other impersonal influence on behavior is unbalanced, biased, radical, dangerous, and consists of seeing everything as nails. It’s worse to belong to an edge political party than a central one, but worse to be undecided (central) on which group you belong to than to pick one and support it loyally.
This seems to make sense evolutionarily, as it is important for humans to have loyal associates, and not important for them to have associates who are committed above all else to something abstract that they might sacrifice your welfare for at any time. Ideas do not have babies with you or share their mammoth. Ideas are handy of course, but you want your associates to use them flexibly in the pursuit of upholding their social commitments, rather than using their social commitments flexibly in the pursuit of other principles.
What about sticking to one’s principles? That seems a praiseworthy non-human related extreme. Can you be praised for sticking to any principles though? No. Principles about loyalty, compassion, and honesty are good for instance, but principles like ‘always work when you can, regardless of what your wife thinks about it’, ‘always walk on the left hand side of telegraph poles’, and even committed utilitarianism impress few. Again it’s all about absolutes of reliability to others.