Ethical Realism

July 16, 2010

Intellectual Virtues, Dogmatism, Fanaticism, & Terrorism

Fanaticism can be understood as a form of irrationality, and as the worst sort of intellectual vice. Intellectual virtues include an appropriate sort of open mindedness and skepticism. Lacking open mindedness and skepticism makes a person gullible or unwilling to correct their poorly formed beliefs. Fanaticism is related to dogmatism—an unwillingness to form beliefs based on good reason. However, the fanatic is the most extreme sort of dogmatist. In order to describe my position, I will explain good reasoning, the intellectual virtues, the intellectual vices, dogmatism, and fanaticism. I will then suggest that terrorism and other horrific crimes are what we should expect from fanaticism.

Good Reasoning

Good reasoning requires an understanding of argumentation, justification, and logic. This reasoning can, for a large part, be unconscious. Everyone knows that “1+1=2” despite not being able to fully explain how they can know such a thing. We aren’t required to verbalize justifications in order to actually hold justified beliefs.

Nonetheless, our automatic unconscious ability to reason is inadequate and often leads to fallacies (mistakes in reasoning). Consider the following argument:

  1. Either evolution is true or creationism is true.
  2. The theory of evolution is inadequate to explain all biological phenomena at this time.
  3. Therefore, the theory of evolution is false.
  4. Therefore, creationism is true.

This is the sort of argument made by many people, but it fails for many reasons. One, there might be an alternative to evolution and creationism that could also be true. Two, a theory is not false just because it is inadequate to explain all of the relevant phenomena. Three, even if evolution was an inadequate theory, that would not make creationism a superior theory. We have to assess the virtues of both theories to decide which is more plausible.

What’s the solution to relying solely on an unconscious ability to reason? Having a conscious one. You can learn about argumentation, justification, and logic. You can take philosophy courses, read books on these topics, etc.

The reason that good reasoning is so important is because good reasoning leads to well justified beliefs, and beliefs lead to action. We want people to have well justified beliefs because they lead to better sorts of actions. Consider the following:

  1. A person who thinks that Jews are evil could decide that killing Jews is a good idea.
  2. A person who believes that killing people isn’t such a big deal could decide that it’s not too hard to justify murder.
  3. A person who believes that homosexuality is wrong could try to make it illegal or stop gay marriage.
  4. A person who believes that evolution is false could try to take it out of our educational system.

The most dramatic sort of consequence to people having poorly formed beliefs is when it leads to violence, and that is pretty common. We have to wonder what would happen if potential school shooters, serial killers, and religious terrorists had well formed beliefs.

When we realize that beliefs should be well reasoned, we are less likely to try to hurt others. We can’t decide to hurt people just because we feel like it. We need to be pretty sure that violence is appropriate. People thinking about hurting others should be cautious and make sure to only do so when it is morally necessary.

Intellectual Virtues

We know of many moral virtues, such as courage, moderation, self-control, and so on. However, there are virtues of the mind as well, such as appropriate open mindedness and skepticism. These virtues are the sort required in order for people to demand that their beliefs be appropriately reasoned and justified.

Appropriate Open-Mindedness

To be appropriately open-minded means to look for good reasons to have beliefs and to reject your beliefs when we have good reason to. For example, scientists rejected Newtonian physics once Einstein’s theory of physics proved to be superior.

Appropriate Skepticism

Appropriate skepticism means to refuse to have a belief when it isn’t adequately justified. For example, there might be some evidence that ghosts exist, but we don’t currently have enough evidence to believe in ghosts. Some philosophers would argue that we should not only refuse to believe in ghosts, but we should believe ghosts don’t exist.

Open mindedness and skepticism are related. If you require your beliefs to be sufficiently justified, then you will be open to the possibility that some of your beliefs are false (and could be proven to be false), and you are skeptical insofar as you will refuse to believe something that lacks sufficient justification.

Intellectual Vices

Intellectual vices arise when we fail to have intellectual virtues. If we aren’t willing to have beliefs when and only when they are appropriately reasoned, then we will have the intellectual vices of gullibility and closed mindedness.

Closed Mindedness

Closed minded is a complete lack of being open minded. If you require too much evidence to believe something, then you are closed minded. For example, some Christians refused to believe that the Earth revolves around the sun even after proof was given. Additionally, some people still don’t believe in evolution despite the fact that evolution is so highly justified and it’s taken to be an uncontroversial fact by all respectable biologists.


Gullibility is the opposite of being appropriately skeptical. To be gullible is to easily believe things without appropriate evidence. For example, some people believe in the Loch Ness monster despite almost no evidence for its existence.

Closed mindedness and gullibility are highly related. If you are willing believe in something despite a lack of sufficient justification, then your belief is gullible insofar as it lacks evidence, and it is closed minded insofar as you are unwilling to believe it could be false.


A person is dogmatic that refuses to change their beliefs. Such a person is intellectually vicious by being both gullible and closed minded. Dogmatic people are gullible because they will keep their beliefs at all costs without requiring their personal beliefs to be adequately justified, and they are closed minded insofar as they are unwilling to consider the possibility that someone else has superior beliefs. They aren’t willing to give other people’s beliefs a chance.

Plato called dogmatists “philodoxers” or “lovers of their own opinions.” They are unwilling to love the truth and good reasoning and would prefer to keep their beliefs at the expense of their rationality and at the expense of knowing the truth. These sorts of people are the opposite of philosophers—people who love wisdom.

A person who believes that the Bible is infallible is in danger of being dogmatic. When confronted with a Bible passage that seems false, many people will conclude that the Bible is not infallible, and this response could be a good case of using reasoning to reject beliefs. In order to believe that the Bible is infallible without being dogmatic, a person has to show that the passage isn’t false after all. It might be a metaphor, over simplification, or require a certain context. This sort of behavior is rational as long as the “interpretation” of the Bible is sufficiently justified.

However, a person is clearly dogmatic when confronted with a potentially false part of the Bible and replies, “No, it must be true! Being in the Bible makes it true no matter what!”


A person is a fanatic when they are excessively dogmatic. A religious fanatic will find their religion to be infallible and perfect. Absolutely no mistakes can be corrected with this mind set. Any violence committed because of the religion will be considered to be justified without a second thought. We can define a person as being a fanatic when they are a dogmatic extremist – a person who is unwilling to admit that encouraging or committing violence (or oppression) requires a sufficient justification.

Most religious people will admit that the inquisition, acts of terrorism, and slaughtering children is “going too far.” Such actions are unjustified. Such people can be dogmatic without being fanatical as long as they admit that and make sure their beliefs don’t encourage, allow, or justify violence or oppression without a very good justification.

Avoiding fanaticism is morally necessary. It is morally wrong to be fanatical. We can’t think that we personally have the right to encourage, allow, or commit violence without a very good reason to do so, but then demand that no one else do so at our expense. If I decide one religion is morally repugnant for allowing unreasonable beliefs to encourage violence, then I must decide that all religions are morally repugnant that use unreasonable beliefs to encourage violence.

Of course, religious fanaticism isn’t the only source of fanaticism. It is quite possible that serial killers, school shooters, and other sorts of criminals fit into this category.


Now that terrorism is widely accepted as being an immoral activity of harming civilians without an appropriate justification to do so, I think we have good reason to want to be intellectually virtuous rather than vicious. Dogmatism and fanaticism can lead us to terrorism and other horrific actions. Well reasoned beliefs rarely lead to such horrific crimes.


We have a good reason to want to form good beliefs based on good reasoning. Such beliefs are likely to lead to good results. There is no better defense against the harms that can be caused from bad beliefs other than to be intellectually virtuous. To reject intellectual virtues is a good way to become fanatical, which encourages violence without an appropriate justification to do so. Fanaticism can lead to school shootings, terrorism, and other acts of violence.

One of the best ways to assure that we use good reasoning to form our beliefs is to learn more about argumentation, justification, and logic. We should be more like philosophers and less like philodoxers.


  1. I’ve stumbled across you before and I like what I’m reading. Keep it up!

    Comment by moriahbethany — July 16, 2010 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  2. […] magic and irrationally legitimize violence against wizards. To irrationally legitimize violence is fanatical and can lead to terrorist and criminal acts, such as the attacks on the world trade […]

    Pingback by Is Fantasy, such as Dungeons and Dragons or Harry Potter, Immoral? « Ethical Realism — August 13, 2010 @ 5:54 am | Reply

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