The Moral World of the Radical Right


To fully understand the rapid growth in the appeal of radical right politics to so many people, we also need to look at their moral and ethical worlds.

Most explanations for the recent growth of the radical right rely upon some combination of structural concerns, ideological positions and emotional desires. No single category works on its own, of course. Structural conditions like unemployment create grievances and emotional backlash, which, in turn, make individuals more vulnerable to ideological rhetoric.

But what if we are missing part of the story? What if structure, ideology and emotions — even in tandem — can’t fully explain the current rise of the radical right? To fully understand the rapid growth in the appeal of radical right politics to so many people, we also need to look at their moral and ethical worlds.

Individuals depart from moral and ethical worlds in order to help navigate everyday decisions. Learned through family and peer interactions and in a variety of institutional settings like schools, religious groups and scouting clubs, moral worlds define what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is wanted and what is worth fighting for. Such worlds shape how people both experience and express empathy and kindness, how willing they are to forgive others and how much gratitude they feel. These worlds, moreover, influence how we view others, structure our interpersonal relationships, shape the kinds of commitments we make and may well condition whether we are willing to help someone in need.

Moral worlds vary both cross-nationally and within nations. But there are also common global trends — most notably, a decline in empathy. The latter is attributed to phenomena like social media, which encourages narcissism and reduces compassion and empathy, but may also lead to growing polarization and media bubbles, leading individuals to interact less with people who are different from them.

A Lack of Meaning

Empathy isn’t the only thing missing though. People are also struggling to identify a sense of meaning and purpose. In the United States, nearly a quarter of Yale undergraduates now take a course on how to live a meaningful life, as Washington Post journalist Susan Svrluga reported, explaining that Professor Laurie Santos designed the course to counter what she perceived as students’ “crushing and joyless” daily experiences, alongside overwhelming anxiety and hopelessness.

It is impossible to separate the growing polarization, division, alienation and rising extremism from declines in compassion and empathy, or from the increased anxiety and hopelessness described above. These conditions create fertile ground for radical-right rhetoric that offers people clear explanations for their choices and values while offering membership to a group that defines status, prestige and esteem through adherence to those moral ideals, as scholars Corey Abramson and Darren Modzelewski have argued in related work with mixed martial arts cage fighters. For the radical right, however, those ideals build meaning through exclusion, often justify violence for a greater cause, prioritize “native-born” individuals’ rights over all others and oftentimes advocate policies that dehumanize migrants.

The radical right’s moral framework relies on binary, us/them thinking, viewing European heritage as urgently in need of defense or positioning white workers as victims of a system that prioritizes supposedly “less qualified” minority candidates. Radical-right morality views white supremacy as the “right” approach, typically arguing that re-migration is not only an ethically justifiable choice, but actually a morally preferable one.

Liberal and conservative citizens alike will find these positions morally reprehensible for how they contradict fundamental tenets of democracy, like the protection of minority rights. But that sense of revulsion should not obscure the fact that the radical right’s moral worldview draws upon many of the same ideals as those found in the mainstream — tenets like fairness and freedom, self-improvement and accountability, the quest for a sense of meaning and purpose, and a pathway to make a difference.

It is the interpretation of those ideals through a radical right lens that leads the latter to demarcate what is right and wrong through an exclusionary frame rather than a multicultural one, to privilege whiteness and so-called “European heritage” over all other ethnicities and to valorize violence as a legitimate means to achieve desired goals. Such principles are usually interpreted by outsiders as ideological positions. But it is critical to recognize these positions are not only ideological — they are also moral. Until we start to approach them as such, we can’t fully understand the appeal of the radical right.

What Can We Do?

These concerns motivated snack bar company KIND’s founder, Daniel Lubetsky, to invest $20 million in an educational initiative to teach empathy. Lubetsky isn’t alone. A global movement to build socio-emotional learning into educational reforms is underway, in work by American nonprofits like the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, and in global settings by large international agencies like UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Restoring a sense of empathy and meaning among young people won’t only help prevent radicalization from happening — it can also work to deradicalize and disengage individuals from racist and radical-right movements. Restoring empathy is one of the four key pathways out of hate, as Randy Blazek argues persuasively, combined with addressing emotional needs, addressing grievances and addressing social-status issues.

Research that aims to understand the moral worlds of the radical right has to start by viewing them with some empathy on our part — not a simple proposition in an era when social media memes like “Is it ok to punch a Nazi?” are common. We need to acknowledge that the radical right’s moral decisions are driven not only by simple emotional desires like anger or resentment, but also by complex yearnings such as feelings of nostalgia or a desire for order, as David Barnes has argued. We ought to therefore locate common ideals — like the desire to make a difference — and find ways to reorient those ideals away from exclusionary solutions.

Deradicalization initiatives that only focus on the triad of structure, ideology and emotion will fail if they do not account for the broader moral worlds in which people’s lives are embedded. Restoring empathy, in ourselves as well as the “other,” is surely a necessary place to start.

Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Head of Outreach at CARR, and Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University. See her profile at:


©Cynthia Miller Idriss. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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