Ethics and Extremism

(With Kunaal Sharma)

Do ethical systems drive violent extremism? We investigate two prominent theories: deontology and teleology. Deontology prioritizes principles over outcomes, while teleology prioritizes outcomes over principles. We argue that deontological reasoning can create situations where individuals feel obliged to defend ethical principles using violence despite its immediate repercussions. In contrast, teleological reasoning makes it unlikely that individuals justify violence when defending a principle, chiefly because defending principles per se yields little utility. Problematically, such violent deontology arises despite the fact that many principles espouse peace: principles are human constructs and susceptible to elite manipulation. Deontologically-inclined individuals are therefore bound to face situations where, principles come under attack to which some individuals respond with violence. We apply this argument to religious extremism in particular. Using a micro-level, data set from a Kenyan neighborhood with significant Christian-Muslim tensions, we establish a firm link between ethical systems and individuals’ propensity to endorse extremist views.

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