Vice, Extremism and Liberation: An Interview with Professor Quassim Cassam

What follows is an interview with Warwick’s own Professor Quassim Cassam. The discussion was inspired by Professor Cassam’s inaugural Christmas Philosophy lecture on extremism (based upon his latest book Extremism: A Philosophical Analysis) and his earlier work on vice epistemology.

Here, Professor Cassam explains his account of extremism in terms of an extremist mindset and how this differs from predominant models of radicalisation in the literature. Comparisons are also drawn to his earlier work on vice epistemology as a new way of understanding how we attain knowledge. We discuss the implications of this analysis, especially as they pertain to counter-terrorism efforts and how we should view philosophy as a discipline.

We also discuss Professor Cassam’s philosophical development, from his time at Oxford with Peter Strawson as well as his work on Kant. The following interview is full of interesting philosophical and biographical insights, which we hope the reader will enjoy.

Cecilia: We’re going to start with asking about your journey into philosophy. We know that you studied PPE at university, so why was it philosophy that you ended up specialising in?

Quassim: It began as a kind of accident. When I went to university, I thought I would be concentrating on Politics and Economics. I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy, other than some rudiments of political philosophy. When I started engaging in it, however, I discovered two things. Firstly, philosophy was actually really interesting! I liked it, somewhat to my surprise. The other was that I found economics to be rather uninteresting. To become a good or great economist, you needed at the same time to be an excellent mathematician. I certainly wasn’t, and I didn’t find it interesting. So, in essence, that’s how it worked out.

My initial interests were in political philosophy. I was attending university around the time that Robert Nozick’s book ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ came out. Although I disagreed with almost everything that Nozick said, I found it thought-provoking. I thought, this is great; this is what I want to do: to become a political philosopher or a political theorist. I remember going to a lecture that was given by Charles Taylor, the famous Hegelian scholar. Taylor was presenting a class on Nozick’s book. I just thought to myself that this was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen, and I sat there in absolute awe of him. He was criticising Nozick at the time. That took me to the end of my second year, which is when I became determined to intensify my inquiries. When I think about why I did so, it was a kind of adolescent act. I had just decided that I would ask the others – third years, ‘Ok, so which are the hardest options in philosophy?’ They said to me, ‘Well, Kant’. Kant’s really hard, the hardest of hard drugs.

Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, was another difficult mission. I thought, ‘Ok, I’m going to do those solely to prove that I can do them’, rather than any other reason. When I think back, I imagine there were better options to choose from! But that’s what I did.

C: It’s very lucky that you enjoyed them then.

Q: Yeah, it was. Then I was down that path, and I began to think again – ‘this is just so foolish.’ Yet, I started to think that political philosophy, though very interesting and very important, was rather a bit soft. It wasn’t the real thing, you know? I had graduated from, as it were, soft drugs to hard drugs, and I wanted to take the hardest philosophical drug that one could take – and that was Kant, as far as I could tell.

C: And with your work, your early works at least, you carried on writing about Kant, correct?

Q: Exactly. Truthfully, I was more or less hooked at that point. But the other crucial thing is that, as a graduate student, my supervisor was Peter Strawson. Now, Peter Strawson was one of the greatest 20th-century philosophers and also the author of a book on Kant called ‘The Bounds of Sense’, which I hugely admired. Having him as my supervisor was magical. In every supervision, I felt that I was in the presence of greatness. It became clear to me that I was writing my essays for him. I was writing my essays for his approval, and I had him as my supervisor for two and a half consecutive years. He was in his 60s at the time, and he had his room at the back of Magdalen College. You climbed up quite steep stairs to get there. The image that we students had was that you were ascending the steps of Mount Olympus and that he was at the top. He’d always be sitting there, wearing a suit everywhere he went. He always had a cigarette too, and it was one he smoked so elegantly. I always thought that if I were to ever smoke a cigarette, that would be the way to do it. He would sit there and talk about my essay every two weeks, and he would smoke, before offering me a glass of sherry after half an hour. I was doing it in the end, not just in a Kantian way, but in a Strawsonian way, and he was my intellectual parent. It’s how I came to think of him.

C: You carried on writing with Kant, and then you started writing your own type of philosophy, right? What helped you with that transition?

Q: I did this Kantian stuff for a long time, actually. Around 2015 and 2016, my interest started to shift. There were a number of reasons: one was just boredom and the feeling that I had said my piece about Kant. I didn’t want to just keep plugging away and saying the same thing. Secondly, the world was changing in quite dramatic ways, and it started to feel to me, as a philosopher, that I wanted to engage with things that were happening in the world. 2016 was a big deal for all for obvious reasons, so that was my second reason. I think the third thing was the influence of my wife, from the time that I met her. I met her when I was in my late 40s, and she was in her mid-40s. She never really understood why I was so engaged with these very abstract questions in philosophy that were of no possible relevance outside of one’s academic interest. She always used to say to me, ‘why don’t you, you know, use your talents even more constructively by engaging with real-world issues?’ She was a social scientist. She set up a number of Policy Research centres, and she specialised in healthcare and child welfare policy.

I don’t like to admit this to her, but I think that I was heavily influenced by her advice. I wanted to make a contribution, and not just a contribution to a tiny little fragment of academia, but to the world. I started to feel quite strongly about this, actually – to care not so much about being published in philosophy journals, but to care much more about public engagements. Writing for the New York Times or the New Statesman, for example. That is when you talk to far more people and start to address concerns that ordinary people have – not merely the concerns that you might have as a professional academic.

C: We can see that with your philosophy and when you introduce the label ‘vice epistemology’, which, for one thing, congratulations! That’s a very impressive thing to talk about. And you wrote a text on this as well. Could you explain briefly what that is about?

Q: Yes, the book is about intellectual or epistemic vices. Epistemic or intellectual vices are either character traits, or ways of thinking or attitudes that human beings have, which make it harder for them to know about the world they live in or to understand it. So, these will be things like close-mindedness, dogmatism, prejudice, and wishful thinking. These are all intellectual failures that all human beings have to some extent or another. What makes them vices of the mind, and not mere defects, is that they are failings which reflect badly on us or for which we are in some way blameworthy. If you are very old and you’re very forgetful because you’re very old; when your forgetfulness gets in the way of your ability to retain knowledge, no one would think that you’re blameworthy. But if you engage in a lot of wishful thinking, or if you have very strong prejudices, it’s not just that having strong prejudices is epistemically undesirable, but it’s also wrong in a personal sense. That’s why I wanted to use the label ‘vice’.

The book was about giving a general characterization of an epistemic vice and exploring what makes them vicious. To what extent are we responsible for our vices? What can we do about our vices? And then, one can begin to frame political phenomena in terms of these vices. For instance, this might involve thinking about a character like Boris Johnson, who I became somewhat obsessed with, and wondering, what is with this guy? He just seemed to me to exemplify so many of these intellectual vices which I was concerned about, and so indeed did Trump for that matter. Then I thought, ‘Well, actually, these vices are intellectual vices, but they’re also political vices.’ Their vices play a really big part in the political world that we live in, and in a way, political culture today seems to encourage politicians to cultivate these vices, rather than cultivate the contrary and opposing virtues that we need to obtain in order to understand what’s going on.

That was the basic idea. And I thought, ‘well, what am I going to call this? I need a label.’ And you may know, at that time, there was an area of philosophy already in existence called virtue epistemology, the study of intellectual virtues like open-mindedness and careful listening. So, I remember thinking, ‘Well, I’d like to call it vice epistemology, but someone must have used that. I mean, it’s so obvious that if there is virtue epistemology, there must be vice epistemology’. I remember excitedly Googling ‘vice epistemology’, expecting to witness a million hits, and then discovering that no one had ever used that label. So, I decided to publish a paper called ‘Vice Epistemology’. It came out in 2016, and although I didn’t invent the field, since it existed as a normal and ongoing concern, I can claim to have named it.

And now, there are actually young philosophers all over the world who describe themselves as ‘doing vice epistemology’ or as ‘vice epistemologists’. It’s rather cool that it’s become a thing, and they all regard themselves as members of something that they have called ‘The Vice Squad’.

C: And have you made any developments with The Vice Squad? Have you collaborated on works with them?

Q: Yeah, the edited edition of ‘Vice Epistemology’ came out last year, edited by me and two other members of the Vice Squad, and there are several papers that we will have all published. I think what’s happened though, is a consequence of my very low boredom threshold. What happened with that is that I published the book, the edited volume, and a few papers before I thought, ‘OK, I’m done with this now; time to move on’. Whereas I think that the Vice Squad is still hard at it, wrestling with vices. I often think, ‘Good on you!’, but I need to move on.

C: What did you move onto?

Q: Well, there’s my book that came out at the same time, ‘Conspiracy Theories’, which doesn’t really talk much about vices. It’s more about the role of conspiracy theories in extremist ideologies. But the next thing that happened was that I was approached by a publisher and was commissioned to write a book. Normally, academics have their ideas, which they pitch to publishers and then hope that a publisher will take it. But this was a rather strange case, as a philosophy editor of one of the larger publishing houses wrote to me. He asked, ‘Would you like to write a book on extremism?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve never really even thought about it’. He replied, ‘Well, I’ll come and talk to you’. So, he came to Warwick and said to me, ‘Do you realise that there isn’t a single philosophy monograph on extremism? Do you know that there are books on extremism in Politics and Sociology, but there aren’t any philosophical texts on extremism? I feel that there should be one. I hear that you’re interested in terrorism and conspiracy theories, so will you write it?’ So, I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this, so let me do some reading and thinking, and if I feel that I can come up with anything, we’ll take it from there.’ I wrote and sent him a five or six-page outline of the book, which he liked, and they gave me a contract.

Then, I was in the position of actually having to write this wretched thing, essentially knowing nothing about it. It was like writing an undergraduate essay on a tremendous scale. This coincided with the pandemic, so I had plenty of time, and I believe it came out really well. I’m actually quite proud of that book, and it is starting to have the effect of interesting philosophers in the topic of extremism. There’s a conference now, coming up just outside Los Angeles in April, which is a conference on the philosophy of extremism. I’m going to be there with a bunch of young philosophers based in America who are going to be there talking about extremism. There’s also a big project at The Free University in Amsterdam, which is mainly focusing on fundamentalism. So, there’s a real sense that it’s starting to take off and is something that people are working on. Although, as always with me, my own feeling is, ‘well, I’ve written the book now’, but this is just me. I have become rather addicted to just moving on and keep moving forward. Just say what you have to say, don’t strive for perfection, don’t strive to say the last word because you never will. At least drive to say something interesting, that will encourage other people, particularly young people, to get involved. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted.

Ben: Within your philosophical analysis of extremism, you talk about an extremist mindset. In this extremist mindset, which has several characteristics, are these characteristics any unique forms of epistemic character vices, or is the mindset itself sort of a composite bundle of individual vices?

Q: When I talk about the extremist mindset, I don’t tend to frame it in terms of vices at all. It may be that they are vices, but I don’t think of it in that way. Part of the extremist mindset is a set of attitudes, so I say that extremists are, for example, very hostile to compromise – so that’s part of the extremist mindset. There are other attitudes that they have that are part of an extremist mindset. They may be epistemically vicious or not, but I’m more interested in the political effects of these traits.

Another aspect of this is preoccupation. I talk about the purity preoccupation, so extremists tend to be very preoccupied with ideological purity, racial/ethnic purity, or religious purity. These are classic drivers of extremism, all no doubt epistemically vicious but, more importantly, extremely dangerous. If you think about the Nazis, they had a racial purity preoccupation. If somebody wants to talk to me about the racial purity laws, I’m not that interested in discussing ‘do you think you think a preoccupation with racial purity is epistemically vicious?’. Sure it is, but that is way down the scale of what really matters. What really matters is that you start off with a racial purity preoccupation, and you end up with the Holocaust!

B: With this conception of extremism, could you explain how it fits into the other models of terrorism and extremism in the literature? I know you’ve written about the rational agent model and a radicalisation model, how does your conception fit in?

Q: Most definitions of radicalisation say that radicalisation is the process of becoming an extremist. Okay, but then they don’t have that much to say about what’s involved in being an extremist – so instead, they say ‘well, an extremist is someone who has an extreme ideology’. I tried to address this by arguing that when you talk about extremism, you are talking about three different things. Firstly, you are talking about extremism as a mindset – including preoccupations, attitudes, and various other things. Then, you’re talking about extremism as a feature of people’s ideologies. And finally, you’re talking about people who support the use of extreme methods in pursuit of their ideological objectives. The most extreme method being certain kinds of violence, so these are the three kinds of varieties of extremism: methods, mindset and ideology. Therefore, radicalisation is fundamentally a process of becoming an ideological, psychological, and/or methodological extremist.

The tricky question here is, where does the mindset come in? Is it that you are initially radicalised because you have an extremist mindset, or do you acquire an extremist mindset as a result of being ideologically radicalised? My view is that it’s a mutual dependence – that ideological radicalisation strengthens aspects of having an extremist mindset but is also, to some extent, enabled by extremist preoccupations.

There are some things that I didn’t talk about in the book which are quite important. There is this idea that a lot of people who are ideologically radicalised are people who really see

themselves as moral beings trying to correct an injustice. The sense that so many extremists have of themselves is as the virtuous ones, who are doing the right thing, and acting in those ways because that’s what morality demands. That’s one of the most disturbing aspects of extremism, I think.

A classic example is Robespierre. He was obsessed with the idea of moral virtue and his own purity. This was a man who was responsible for the Great Terror, which involved the beheading by guillotine of thousands of people, but all in the name of virtue. This is what makes it so difficult to counter what extremists do because saying to them “don’t do this” is equivalent to saying, “don’t do what your morality and religion require you to do”.

C: Would you not also say a way to counter this extremism is to not give them a reason to feel like that in the first phase? For example, the US with the Middle East. They have been very brutal to the Middle East in the past, so you can almost see, from their end, why they’re so brutal. I’ve watched this documentary on Netflix that I would recommend, I think you’d enjoy it. It’s called ‘Ghosts of Sugarland’. It’s about a 20-minute documentary about a friend of a group of Muslims who converted to Islam because of this group. When he converted to Islam, he was trying to understand the Muslim tradition and culture, as people who convert often do. He saw how the US treated Islam and how his friends were being ‘fake Muslims’, drinking, partying and relaxing. He thought this was a completely terrible injustice, so then he went to join ISIS to combat the wrongs he perceived and their Islamophobia. So, do you not think that also plays a part? Not justifiable in any means, but a part.

Q: US policy in the Middle East over the decades has been controversial, but it has certainly antagonized a lot of people there. Some people blame the United States for its support of Israel, but also, possibly more importantly, for its support of corrupt political regimes throughout their countries including the state of monarchy. This has given a lot of people a burning sense of injustice and the need to do something to correct it. So, you’re actually right that to counter this, you need to not do anything that’s going to give them grounds for feeling wronged or persecuted. There’s a book called ‘Why People Radicalize’, which came out three years ago by a Dutch researcher, and his basic thesis is that people are radicalised because they have a perception of unfairness. They think that they and their people have been treated unfairly, and so they are going to do something about it. One thing is, if there’s actual unfairness, you need to avoid that because that’s part of the story. Because whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of American foreign policy, there just is no excuse for the completely repugnant, inexcusable terrorist acts like 9/11.

So, you also have to look at it from the perspective of the people who carried out those attacks – as in, who were they? Why did they do it? What was in it for them? And then you have to really confront what you know from their point of view, what was in it for them, and how they saw it. And this is deeply troubling – you know, this idea that someone can do something like that, something so terrible, but believe they’re doing it in the interest of morality. That’s the challenge, I think. I’m talking about the gulf between extremists perceiving themselves to be these moral people versus the quite obvious fact to everyone else that these are horrific acts.

B: Based on your approach, do you think we can reach these normative conclusions through the analysis of the concept of extremism?

Q: I think the answer is yes, but that’s because the analysis of extremism is itself normative. Some people think that when you’re analysing concepts (like fanaticism, extremism and fundamentalism), you should give a value-neutral analysis. In the analysis that I offer, the evilness of these things is written into it. Once you’ve got as far as classifying someone as an extremist, there isn’t usually then a further question about their normative status.

However, I think the critique of extremism mustn’t turn into a critique of radicalism. The suffragettes were radicals; the abolitionists were radicals. The motto of radicalism is, I think, beautifully stated by Greta Thunberg. She says in many of her speeches something like this: “Everything has got to change, and it has to change now”. That’s radicalism; it’s the need for immediate, fundamental change. I think you can perfectly well be a radical (in that sense) for good causes. Environmental radicalism is absolutely fine, and I think that’s what she is defending.

However, there’s a difference between that and what I’m calling extremism, as there’s no commitment on the side of the radical or radicalism to violence. There’s a terrific book that came out quite recently by Erica Chenoweth, called Why Civil Resistance Works, and it is a great account of the effectiveness of violent versus non-violent methods in the pursuit of political objectives. She puts forward a really strong case that, as a matter of historical fact, non-violent civil resistance has been much more effective at securing lasting change than violence has.

Violence was a strategic disaster for Al Qaeda, and they killed all these people (which is a horrible thing to do), and it didn’t achieve anything. All Bin Laden did was invite the Americans into Afghanistan, and he was finally killed 10 years later.

B: To circle back to what you said earlier about bringing Philosophy into the real world, what are some of the applications of your work?

Q: I believe that if you want to try and counter extremism, you really need to understand what’s driving these people. For example, if you accept the idea that their motivations are framed ethically, then you need to deal with them on that basis. You need to challenge their motive, and it’s just no good merely saying to them, “what you’re doing is evil” because that is precisely the opposite of what they believe. If you want to understand how to de-radicalise someone, you need to understand the process of radicalisation in itself. What I’m hoping for is that this work that I’m doing will ultimately contribute to the development of more effective counter-extremism policies – and to do that, I need to work with people who are not just philosophers.

I’m writing a book at the moment called Terrorism and Philosophy, and my co-author is an eminent terrorism scholar. He has, over the course of his career, worked with numerous people outside academia, and that’s the kind of person (as a philosopher) I need to be working with. He wrote the definitive history of the provisional IRA, published in 2003, and in writing that book, he spoke at great length to many senior figures in the provisional IRA, including some figures who were responsible for atrocious acts of violence. Now as a philosopher sitting in my ivory tower, I haven’t in fact spoken to a real-life terrorist, and it’s incredibly useful to collaborate with people who’ve done that. They have insights that, as a mere academic, I’m never going to have. So, one of the challenges of working in this area is to make it interdisciplinary.

C: Do you believe that’s the type of thing we should be doing with philosophy in general?

Q: There’s a concept called liberation theology, which raises one of the questions I’m kind of interested in now. Can philosophy contribute to human emancipation from oppression and injustice in the way that liberation theologians thought that theology could? In the Academy that view of philosophy has been – to put it mildly – in a very small minority, and is partly because people think it is not the business of academics to do that. Other people think it would be good for us to do, but that we can’t.

However, there’s a different philosophical tradition based in Latin America, where they take far more seriously the idea of philosophy as contributing to human emancipation; this is understandable because these are philosophers who grew up under military dictatorships. For them, philosophy couldn’t just be an ivory tower exercise, and they had to engage with the massive exploitation and murder of the peasants, the inequality and injustice in military dictatorships. Living in Europe, we don’t face those pressing issues, but I think the way the world is going, philosophy will have to step up. After the book on terrorism, what I intend to be my last book is actually going to be called Liberation Philosophy.

C: The first thing I need to do is to read lots of Latin American philosophy because I studied that for A Levels, and I remember the incorporation of Christianity and talking about how Jesus didn’t only speak for them because there now is that kind of a temporal element to it. I think that’s something that philosophy has been missing for a while because it’s always been seen as a type of art, you know, rich people’s habit where they sit down and think. It should be used to analyse civilisation and harbour progression.

Q: Yes. I think that one thing that people ask is, ‘does philosophy really address human problems?’ Yes, it does, but it needs to address problems, questions and concerns that all of us have, not just an elite class. It mustn’t be a subject practised by and directed at a socially exclusive, section of the population. I think philosophy needs to be far more diverse. I don’t just mean so in the obvious ways, but also just intellectually diverse. It needs to be a far more hospitable environment to people who actually care about the world, and it shouldn’t be an assemblage of questions that are merely interesting for their own sake. There’s an example that somebody has, in which he imagines a philosopher asking, ‘are persons events?’. What’s wrong with wanting to discern whether a person is an event? I want to ask – who is that a problem for? Which of us is really exercised by that question? I would say very few. What’s wrong with it is the idea very intelligent people with tremendous intellectual horsepower trying to answer the question ‘are people events’. Why can’t we use our skills as philosophers to answer some other questions that are of greater concern outside the Academy? That would make academic philosophy much more diverse in every sense than it is at the moment. It’s one-dimensional from a social perspective, and it shouldn’t be. It should be more varied and considerate in terms of its personnel, methods and concerns.

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