The Role of Philosophy in Combating Extremism


Published in the Philosophical Review, 2017


According to Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, philosophy has an important role it can play in combating extremism:

“Young people today are constantly at risk of indoctrination – whether deliberate or inadvertent. This can be by advertisers, politicians, religious extremists or the media – and can make it hard for young people to get a handle on the world around them.  But in this age of contradictory images and constant messages, I believe the teaching of philosophy can help young people think for themselves, challenge misinformation and resist attempts to indoctrinate them.  This concept was touched upon by the British Council in its 2015 working paper which concluded: ‘Young people need to be taught how to think, to immunise their minds against ideologies that seek to teach them what to think’.

The Department for Education’s own research in 2010 also suggested a link between philosophy for children and protection against indoctrination”. (1)

The research refers to the necessity of ‘reward’ or ‘benefit’ as the way children would perceive from engaging in the subject of philosophy:

“Philosophy, with its rich history of arguments and ideas, allows young people to reflect on what constitutes a flourishing life – for both individuals and communities. A life in which potential is realised in a way that benefits all”(2)

The value of “benefit for self and others” - can resonate in pupil’s mind to imagine a beneficial future with the spirit of flourishing together - with others.  The abovementioned link between philosophy and the value of benefit is quite direct.  In other indirect reference to the value of benefit, philosophy is defined as an activity to make us think in the “best way”:

“I think that philosophy is the activity of working out the best way to think about things”.(3)

But what is the “best way” of thinking?  What is the reference we should employ in order to judge our thinking to make it “better”?  In science, when a scientist presents a theory (which is the result of the scientist’s thinking), then evaluation of the scientists' given way of thinking about reality can be determined through experiments in the physical reality.  Similarly, a certain way of thinking in the realm of philosophy can bring tangible results upon application.  The tangible results are the test of our way of thinking.

All ways of thinking are generated by their “values”.  What are the basic values in Western philosophy, and would teaching them to children facilitate the desired goal of combating extremism?

The Question of the Criterion: how to judge an action?

In Western philosophy, the perspective of acquiring knowledge through the actual experience emerged during the Enlightenment with studies of Francis Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and others.  In the Eastern philosophical debates, the question of how to judge the value of certain teachings was a hot subject in thirteenth century Japan.  

A remarkable definition of a criterion for evaluation of a certain theory - was suggested by Nichiren, a Mahayana scholar:

“In judging the relative merit of Buddhist doctrines, I, Nichiren, believe that the best standards are those of reason and documentary proof. And even more valuable than reason and documentary proof is the proof of actual fact”. (4)

Nichiren’s views – that a theory must be judged according to its proof of application in the reality of life – were met with a strong opposition from other schools of thought, which teachings promise good results for their practitioners, to be received, however, after death (such as the promise of rebirth in a Pure Land existing far from this world of sufferings).

Action is the oneness of cause and effect

For an action to take place, there must be inner motivation, a so-called ‘internal cause’ is required as necessary but not sufficient (for the action to take place). The ‘internal cause’ must engage with elements within the physical reality by attracting conducive conditions (for the action to take place).  There can be no separation between the internal cause and the external conditions - both integrate in an event or action, which can be known to us through observing its effect.

Judging or evaluating an action based on what it brings as a result in the actual reality - is acknowledged in all studies of social psychology and behaviour, but not in philosophy.  Under the influence of Kant, a branch of evaluators developed a perspective called deontology - which focuses evaluation only on the cause of action, regardless of its effect.

“Kant’s theory is an example of a deontological moral theory–according to these theories, the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfil our duty”. (5)

What could have Kant been thinking?  Perhaps that because we can control our will, but we cannot control the external conditions, so something ‘absolutely good’ can be in one place only: in one’s ‘good will’.  In this reasoning, the answer to the question ‘how to behave?’ cannot be based on the external factors, but only by ‘my true intention’ or good will.

“Something’s goodness is limited when it depends upon external conditions. For example, medicine is good, though not if taken in a dose that is excessive, considering the age, weight or other condition of the patient. Wealth and power are good, though not in the hands of those who use them only for selfish purposes, or who use them for evil. Something is good without limitation, therefore, if it is good no matter what its external circumstances. It is good without limitation if it is good and cannot under any circumstances be bad”. (6)

This reasoning is based on the view that because external conditions (medicine or wealth) can be good or bad, depending of their usage, then their value is relative, while one’s will can be just good by definition (good is goodwill).  However, this thinking does not consider the principle of interconnectedness of one’s actions with other people.  It does not consider also the possibility of ignorance in the process of deciding on a “goodwill of action”.  The danger is that one can be confident having a very goodwill, such as serving God, but the effect of his/her service manifests into disasters in other people’s lives.

“Good intention” which created Destruction and Sufferings

In Kant’s perspective, ‘The greatest moral perfection of man is to do his duty, and that from duty’, as he states in the Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics.  In reality, however, fulfilling one’s duty does not guarantee an outcome of goodness:

“Many of the worst crimes in history have been committed by men who had a strong sense of duty just because their sense of duty was so strong”“ (7)

History provides various examples of people committing acts of evil believing that they were doing the “good cause” of fulfilling their duty.  Among them is the example of the European settlement and the Australian Aborigines, a case clearly illustrating the destructive impact of “goodwill ethics” on people’s lives.

After about 200 years from the start of the tragedy inflicted on the indigenous people, the Prime Minister of Australia (2008), Mr Kevin Rudd, formally apologised to the indigenous generations in the name of the government, and part of his speech revealed the historical connection between morality, government and religion.  The speech focused on the ‘Stolen Generation’ where Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families by the ‘welfare men’ and given to the custody of churches.  He cited the story of an Aboriginal woman, who was taken from her mother when she was four years of age:

“She stayed at the mission until after the war, when she was allowed to leave for a prearranged job as a domestic in Darwin.  She was 16.  Nanna Fejo never saw her mum again.  After she left the mission, her brother let her know that her mum had died years before, a broken woman fretting for the children that had literally been ripped away from her.  Nanna Fejo’s is just one story.  There are thousands, tens of thousands of them: stories of forced separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their mums and dads over the better part of a century”. (8)

The ‘welfare men’ were honest in fulfilling their duty, and the whole plan of action for removing children from their families was based on “goodwill”.  Both religious and government authorities at that time were honestly fulfilling what they regarded as their ‘duty’.  Their goal was educating the forcefully removed (almost kidnapped) children the principles of a ‘better civilisation’ and ‘Christianity, as a higher spirituality’.  The case of the ‘Stolen Generation’ in Australian history was in Kantian terms ‘morally justified’.  Needless to say, such a way of thinking leads to absurdity, because what was considered as ‘good action’ led to harm and to destruction of tens of thousands of families.

Jihadists' ‘System of Goodness’

Terror groups and jihadists have a very strong belief that it is their duty to act in the way they do: perceiving jihad as a divine task, which cannot be paralleled.  They fulfil the condition of having ‘sincere will’ to fulfil their duty before God - and nothing for them can be more ‘good’ than that.  A jihadist can argue that the will to obey God is a good will.  How then to judge one’s fulfilment of duty as being good?  ‘Good’ – for whom? If goodwill prompts to action, then each action has two components: the acting and the acted upon.  Can an action, considered as good to someone, result in evil consequences?

Another manifestation of the tendency for separating the morality of an action from its consequences is the phenomenon of revenge – deeply ingrained in the Middle Eastern mind (Eye for the Eye) – and revenge is regarded as fulfilling one’s ‘moral duty’.  Revenge is practiced also in various societies.  According to Kant, actions of duty do not have to be pleasurable, and revenge – viewed as a duty to act – is not pleasurable in its consequences.

Can the future situation in the Middle East witness something similar to what took place in Australia and other countries, which reached reconciliation?  Reconciliation between any two or more fighting parties in the Middle East can bring benefit to all sides.  A simple logic would say - as the Dalai Lama mentioned - that it is better to have more friends than enemies.  It is possible to expand one’s circle of humanity to include others, and people are very good at that, as evolution tells us.  The Australian reconciliation brought about huge social benefits in various aspects, cultural and economical, so what prevents people from the Middle East from being open to mutual benefit and reconciliation?  Again, it is the system of values which dominate people’s mind.

“Truth of God” vs “Benefit to Humanity”?

Shared among Middle Eastern beliefs is the Neo-Kantian system of values, based on the three values of Beauty, Goodness and Truth.  In the Middle Eastern mind the value of Goodness to do one’s duty is the practical expression of the goodwill to serve the Truth, which is God.  Consequences of one’s actions do not count as far as one has “goodwill”.

In contrast to this logic , in the Australian example of reconciliation, the highest value which was considered was not ‘truth of God; but ‘shared Humanity’, and shared benefit to enjoy a state of social harmony.  In the Middle Eastern ethics, however, humanity does not play any role; more important is the ‘Truth of Religion’, and each party claims possession of the Truth, patenting God for themselves.

But the Australian example of making a shift from past values – towards mutual benefit and sharing humanity – brings an inspiring potential, and people do not have to wait 200 years to say let’s work together. There is a need for revolutionary philosophers who can explain that ‘benefit to humanity’ does not contradict one’s ‘personally believed Truth’.

Such questions in classes of philosophy for youth would be vital in the debate about extremist views based on ‘personally believed truth’ – which can take various manifestations in all countries, as recent news  - all tragic - bring to our TV screens.

The Modern System of Value

The Neo-Kantian system suggests three basic values as what essentially influences and motivates people.  In his book Truth, Beauty and Goodness, Howard Gardner of Harvard University explains that although ‘…our conceptions of these three virtues have shifted over time ..…these virtues remain the crucial bedrock of our existence - even in light of postmodern scepticism and the side effects of technological advances on our attention spans and ways of thinking”(9).

Generally speaking, the neo-Kantian system of the three values remains dominant in Western philosophy, despite the problem of the lack of a comprehensive definition of Goodness (and the incoherence between the subjective values of Beauty and Goodness and the objective nature of the Truth).  Some philosopher, such as Hermann Cohen and Bertrand Russell, preferred differentiating “Value” from “Truth:

When we assert that this or that has ‘value’’, says Russell, ‘we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different.’ (Russell 1949, 230). (10)

The widely accepted Neo-Kantian system of values was questioned by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (11), a Japanese educator who was deeply concerned about the values employed within the Educational System in Japan prior to the Second World War, and carefully examined the relationship between ‘knowledge’ and ‘value’.  Makiguchi argued that the word ‘value’ characterises human activity, and that it has impact on people’s lives.  Action of ‘Goodness’ and artistic products of ‘Beauty’ can be created by people, and therefore can be considered as essential values.  ‘Truth’, however, cannot be ‘produced’ or ‘made’ by human activity.

‘Truth’ reveals objective facts, while ‘Value’ - on the other hand - relates to a subjective human dimension. For example, a statement of fact - such as ‘this is a flower’ describes an objective ‘truth’ or ‘fact’ while a statement of value, that ‘this flower is beautiful’ describes a subjective impression.

Makiguchi’s contribution to the system of values was in clarifying that: truth becomes valuable only when we employ it to create benefit - or to create a shared gain - in our human reality.  In Makiguchi’s system of values (Beauty, Goodness and Benefit), coherence is maintained by making a clear distinction between the words ‘truth’ and ‘value’:

“In confusing truth with value and treating them as being alike and equal, Western pragmatism [Makiguchi] contended] makes the false assumption that if a thing is true it is beneficial to man.  Experience does not support such an assumption.  On the contrary, experience tells us that some things that have no usefulness to human life are true. (12)

In Makiguchi’s system of values (Beauty, Goodness, and Benefit), one’s behaviour is based on the awareness of interconnectedness (self and others).  One’s good intention is tested by the actual proof of the result of action in one’s and others’ lives, because both ‘individual’ and ‘others’ are inseparable.

In this perspective of creating mutual benefit, the direction of connection of one’s life with society is towards making stronger bonds, neither based on ego nor express naïve sacrifice – rather a balanced position for enjoying a balanced life in society.



1/ Hobbs, Angie, ‘Why teaching Philosophy could help combat Extremism’:

2/ ibid

3/ Ward, David.  Introduction to Philosophy, / Coursea:

4/ Nichiren, Daishonin.  Three Tripitaka Masters Praying for Rain.   The Writings of Nichiren Daishonion vol1 p 599, published by Soka Gakkai 1999,

5/ Kantian Ethics.

6/ McCarty, Richard.  ‘The Good Will’, Department of Philosophy, East Carolina University

7/ Nowell-Smith, P.H**.**  (1954)  *Ethics*, page 247, Penguin – quoted in “Two Kinds of Values”, L.M. Loring p. 51

8/ Rudd, Kevin  (2008)  Transcript of former Prime Minister of Australia, on 13 February 2008, speech of apology to Indigenous Australians:

/9  Gardner, Howard  (2011)  Truth, Beauty, Goodness; Harvard gazette, 2011,

10/ Russell, Bertrand, ‘Ethics’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

11/ Makiguchi, Tsunesaburo, ‘Value Creation Society’:

12/ Makiguchi,  Philosophy of Value, p. 20.  Quoted in “The Value Creator”- p.55 -56,  Dayle M. Bethel.  Published by Weatherhill Inc New York, Tokyo. 1994.