While running on the Florida State University campus I ran over a chalked advertisement for the Young Republicans. The ad began with a paraphrase of Goldwater’s famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
After seeing this, I thought about it for the next six miles. Like most runners, I find that I think I think best when running. This blog post will provide an interesting test of that thought.
On the face of it, the claims made in the quote seem to be in error by definition. After all, extremism seems to entail going beyond what is actually needed to defend something and that justice, by its very nature, requires a balance between excess and deficiency.
To use an analogy, imagine a doctor who said “I would remind you that excessive medication in the defense of health is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of well being is no virtue!”
Obviously, excessive medication would be (by definition) too much and hence injurious rather than beneficial to health. As such, this claim would be in error. In the case of well being Aristotle seems to have established quite well that moderation (avoiding excess and deficiency) are the key to well being.
As such, while the claims might have a rhetorical o dramatic appeal they seem to be fundamentally in error.
It could, of course, be replied that I am begging the question against Goldwater by taking “extremism” as being on par with “excessive” and taking moderation to be the mean between excess and deficiency. It could be contended that Goldwater means something else by these terms. To be specific, the extremism he is referring to could be taken as what is seen as being extreme but is, in fact, just what is needed to defend liberty. In the case of moderation, he is not talking about the mean but rather by being a political moderate and willing to compromise and take a middle ground.
Interpreted in this way, what he would seem to be saying is something like “I would remind you that doing what it really takes to defend liberty, even though it might seem extreme to some, is no vice! And let me remind you also that taking the middle ground and compromising too much in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This seems reasonable enough.
Interestingly, if the quote is taken literally, then he seems to be simply wrong. Extremism is going beyond what is needed and moderation (neither excess nor deficiency) is what is required by justice (otherwise it is not just). If the quote is taken less literally, then it merely amounts to a rhetorical way of saying something that is true but not particularly controversial or interesting.
As a final point, I have noticed that people often use this quote in an “argument by quote/slogan” in an attempt to justify what actually are extreme and immoderate policies and rhetoric. Of course, merely quoting someone hardly serves to prove a claim (although it can be taken as an argument from authority)-though some folks seem to think that this does so with finality.