On Sectarianism and Universality

by James Petts

Essay originally from Counterweight.


Sectarianism is both the most extreme and one of the commonest forms of human evil. It manifests in many forms, including in diverse political movements that outwardly seem as opposed to one another as it is possible to be, from anti-immigration xenophobia to militant Islam, from colonial racism to the so-called identity politics of the “critical social justice” movement, and from regionalism to nationalism to the authoritarian supranationalism of institutions such as the European Union. Wherever it appears, it serves to divide, to oppress, to harm and to destroy.

To understand sectarianism is necessary in order to understand the destructive political divisions and conflicts of the past and present: to condemn and eradicate sectarianism and the extremism that almost universally accompanies it is necessary in order to prevent destructive political divisions and conflicts of the future.

Given the extreme consequences of politicised conflict, in the forms of wars, genocides, famines and mass destitution, addressing sectarianism is literally a matter of life or death, probably for millions, if not billions, of people worldwide over the next century and beyond. Even for those who may be fortunate enough to survive another century of rampant sectarianism, save for a lucky few who, by chance, happen to find themselves on the winning side of every possible political conflict that concerns them, eradicating sectarianism will be essential to their well-being, and it is a task from which no person with the means to contribute in any way, no matter how small, can in good conscience shirk.

The nature of sectarianism

Sectarianism exists wherever people prioritise the interests of a particular arbitrary subset of humanity over the interests of humanity generally.

“Arbitrary” is an important qualification: the interests of humanity generally are best served by allowing people freely to pursue self-interest to a limited extent, but also constraining the pursuit of self-interest to a limited extent. It is not sectarian for a person to pursue the exclusive interests of a particular group of which that person is a member (or even a group of people of which that person is not a member if that person so chooses) where doing so is within the boundary of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest: it is not an act of sectarianism to give a birthday present to one’s child rather than donate the money to a charity, nor to cheer on one’s favoured sports team rather than cheer for the best team to win.

Likewise, it is not sectarian to discount the interests of certain persons when making particular decisions if the interests of humanity as a whole are better served, over the long-term, by doing so, such as discounting the interests of murderers when deciding how murderers should be punished.

However, it is sectarian to pursue the interests of a particular group of people above humanity generally outside the limits of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest, or even to purport to define the limits of the legitimate pursuit of self-interest on the basis of what benefits a particular subset of humanity rather than what benefits humanity as a whole. This includes purporting to take account of the interests of humanity as a whole but weighing the interests of a subset more heavily than the interests of all.

Similarly, because the actions that lie within the legitimate boundaries of self-interest do not include compulsion of others against their will, compelling people to act in the interests of an arbitrary subset of humanity is always sectarian even when voluntarily favouring such a subset in many circumstances is not.

Thus, any political claim whose purported justification is a benefit only to some specific group of people, and which will or may cause harm, however indirectly, to some other people, is inherently sectarian except in so far as there is a genuine basis to conclude that acting on that claim would in fact maximise the benefit to humanity generally and weighed equally in the long-term. Any political claim to the effect that a particular action or inaction’s effects on some group of people is ultimately more important than its effects on all people weighed equally is inherently sectarian, and anyone acting on the basis of such a claim is pursuing a sectarian agenda.

Thus understood, it is not difficult to see how ideologies that appear fundamentally opposed to one another are in reality all examples of fundamentally the same sectarian ideology, differing only in the constitution of which groups are favoured and which disfavoured, and that the only meaningful opposition to a sectarian ideology is to oppose sectarianism generally, not to adopt sectarianism but differ over who should be favoured.

Sectarianism and collectivism

The pursuit of sectarian agendas usually entails invoking collectivist ideologies. Sectarian collectivism ultimately consists in the creation and homogenisation of “in-groups” and “out-groups”, the former of which is to have its interests favoured over the latter. Psychological research has consistently identified a phenomenon known as “in-group bias[1]”, in which people tend to favour members of what they perceive to be groups of which they are also members, i.e. the “in-group”.

Collectivist ideologies enable sectarianism by subjugating the divergent interests, beliefs and behaviours of the people making up any group whose interests its leaders demand be favoured to the interests of others to those claimed for it by the leaders of that group. By treating many distinct individuals, who can be conceived of, and can conceive of themselves, as members of a vast number of differently constituted groups, as predominantly or exclusively members of only one of those groups, the leaders of that group can more effectively prioritise the interests of people in so far as they are members of that group over the interests of humanity generally, even if there are many members of that group whose interests, overall, would be harmed by such measures (for a person’s interests as a member of a group are a subset of a person’s interests generally).

As set out in more detail here, collectivist ideologies are ones which tend to:

  1. treat all members of a group as if they were guilty of wrongdoing perpetrated by only some of them;
  2. ascribe to all members of a group characteristics in truth possessed by only some of them;
  3. ascribe characteristics to a group itself that can in truth only be possessed by individual people (e.g. having a particular attitude or belief or being culpable of something);
  4. conflate the interests of members of a group in their capacity as members of that group with the interests of those members of that group more generally; and
  5. entail members of a group treating themselves as entitled to speak for or represent the interests of the whole group even though not every member (and sometimes, not any other member) of that group has authorised the person to do so on their behalf.

Collectivism tends to – and is usually intended to – concentrate power in the hands of the leaders of that group, who usually claim to represent the interests of others in order to advance their own interests, often by underhanded and harmful means. Thus, collectivism will tend to entrench power in the hands of the already powerful, and further disempower those who already lack power, no matter how much leaders of sectarian movements dishonestly claim to the contrary in order to bolster their own support and thus their own personal power and wealth.

The evil of sectarianism

Evil ultimately consists in one person unjustifiably causing harm to another. The greater the harm to the greater the number of people, the greater the degree of evil. No form of evil other than sectarianism entails whole groups of people, who often accumulate among them enormous amounts of power, simultaneously being determined to harm the interests of the same other people (the “out-group”) in a co-ordinated fashion.

All war and all genocide in history is ultimately and necessarily a product of sectarianism, and that is to say nothing of the economic oppression of nationalist sectarianism and the less obvious but equally real human casualties that this entails.

That sectarianism is, to a large extent, enabled by a known cognitive bias is not capable of amounting to a reason to deny its malevolence: the idea that, because something is natural, it must be either good or inevitable is an example of the appeal to nature fallacy[2] and is thus fundamentally invalid.

As well as entrenching the power of group leaders (with all the abuse and thus harm that entrenched power brings), sectarianism tends to entrench destructive conflict and suppress and pervert human progress towards a happier and more prosperous future. Sectarianism also tends to be self-perpetuating, in that sectarian behaviour tends to encourage sectarian groups to organise themselves in order to oppose that behaviour and makes it easier for cynical sectarian leaders to garner support for measures to arrogate power and wealth to themselves.

Nobody has yet taken the trouble to collect global statistics on the harms of sectarianism (or even specifically on sectarian violence), so the precise scope of the consequences of the problems of sectarianism have yet to be accurately measured, but it is difficult to reach any other conclusion on the currently available evidence than that sectarianism is truly the ultimate in human evil and therefore that its eradication is among the highest of priorities for all humanity.


By contrast to sectarianism, universality, in its ethical dimension, is the principle that the ultimate justification for any decision must be that so deciding is ultimately beneficial to humanity generally, rather than any subset of it. It is, in other words, the precise opposite of sectarianism.

Ethical universality does not require, as naïve interpretations of the works of Jeremy Bentham[3] have suggested, that every decision be taken by calculating in isolation how that decision will affect everybody in the world: the ultimate justification for a decision should not be conflated with the practical method of taking such a decision. Whether taking a particular decision by a particular method (including a decision about how other sorts of decision should be taken) is the right thing to do is itself a question which should be answered by reference to what method of taking that decision will most benefit humanity as a whole. There are whole categories of decisions (e.g., what flavour of ice-cream to choose) where the greatest benefit to humanity generally comes from letting each individual favour her or his own interests or preferences in taking such decisions, and where, therefore, the only consideration that a person practically taking such a decision need to take into account is that person’s own interests or preferences. Similarly, there are large categories of decisions that are properly taken by reference to rules because those rules being in force, and effectively governing conduct, is ultimately to the greater benefit of humanity than there being no such rules and people doing whatever they believe will lead to the best outcome in the individual instances.

What it does require is that each decision be ultimately justifiable by reference to what is beneficial to humanity as a whole. Thus, the decision (for example) to choose vanilla flavoured ice-cream has as its immediate justification that the ice-cream eater in question prefers vanilla flavour, but is ultimately justifiable on the basis that ice-cream flavour choice is one of those matters where humanity generally is better off for letting people make the choice purely in their own interests and the exercise of the choice on the basis of personal preference in any given instance is an implementation of the more abstract decision.

Universality has a dimension beyond the purely ethical, however, which is relevant in this context, too. The epistemic[4] dimension of universality is no more or less than that there is a real world, that there are things about that world that are true, and the things about it that are true are as true for everyone as they are true for anyone – in other words, that truth exists and is universal. The opposite idea – that there is no universal truth – is inherently contradictory, since the claim that there is no universal truth is a statement that, by necessary implication, claims to be universally true (and must so claim in order to have any meaning at all). Thus, non-universality in the epistemic dimension is not only not true, it is so incoherent as to not even be an intelligible statement that could count as something that hypothetically might be true. In reality, denials of epistemic universality (for instance, by claiming that what is true “for” one person is not necessarily true “for” another, that truth is specific to particular groups of people rather than the world in general, or that what truth means about some kinds of things can somehow be different to what truth means about other kinds of things) are not a sincere attempt better to understand or describe the world, but an attempt to obfuscate scrutiny and stifle dissent, in just the same way as a trader who short-changes a customer and then claims that arithmetic is relative is simply being dishonest. This sort of logic denialism is one of the types of abuse discussed more generally in the following section.

In the context of political discourse, universality has an inherent advantage: an idea which ultimately can be justified by reference to the benefit of humanity as a whole is inherently more likely to benefit any given person at whom such an argument is aimed than an idea which cannot be so justified. People may or may not rationally defer their short-term self-interest to what they genuinely believe is the greater good but are very unlikely to subjugate their own self-interest to a political argument which does not credibly claim to be ultimately justifiable by reference to the greater good. Thus, universal ideas are more likely both to benefit and to persuade a wide range of people than sectarian ideas and are therefore inherently more likely to be widely accepted than non-universal ideas, all other things being equal.

Sectarianism and extremism

Those advancing sectarian agendas often well know the inherent disadvantage that such sectarian ideas have in comparison to universal ideas, which is why sectarianism almost inevitably tends to attract extremism.

Extremism, in a political context, consists in attempting to achieve political change by force, fear or fraud. Terrorism is the paradigm example of political extremism (consisting at its crudest of a form of blackmail), but most forms are subtler, and can consist of political intimidation and abuse, suppression of dissent (by prohibition, ostracism, obfuscation, intimidation, or any combination thereof), and the formulation of forms of purported argumentation that serve to deceive or manipulate rather than to persuade.

In general terms, any behaviour that seeks to change a person’s political view, or prevent it from being changed when it otherwise might be, in spite of rather than because of the merits of the political idea in question, is extremism, and is a form of abuse. Ethical deceit of this sort is discussed in more detail in an essay specifically on that topic.

Because sectarian ideas are fundamentally unpersuasive to the members of out-groups (virtually nobody would favour somebody else’s interests over her or his own without believing that doing so is for the benefit of the greater good), the only sectarian ideas that tend to have any success are ones which intimidate, manipulate and/or deceive members of out-groups into either supporting, or at least not opposing, a political agenda which is implacably opposed both to their interests and to the good of humanity generally, or ones which do not need the consent of out-groups at all. One of the commonest examples of the latter category are forms of nationalism, where national governments need not convince voters in foreign jurisdictions of the merits of their policies and can and regularly do trade off an arbitrarily large amount of harm to people who cannot vote them out of office against an arbitrarily small benefit to the people who can.

Thus, a necessary step in addressing sectarianism is not only addressing sectarian ideas themselves, but addressing and ultimately eradicating the abusive methods that cynical sectarians use to advance their agendas in spite of the fact that those agendas are, by their very nature, inherently unpersuasive to a majority of people. These abusive methodologies need to be systematically confounded wherever they arise by a combination of improving awareness of them, promulgating education as to critical thinking skills, and employing forms of argumentation that most efficiently expose the weaknesses of the arguments in favour of sectarian claims, on which topic I have written a short guide here.

The necessary ambition to restrain sectarianism

Addressing sectarianism and extremism is not a straightforward task, given their high prevalence and that of the cognitive bias that helps to enable them; but that it is not an easy task is not a reason to shirk attempts to do so; rather, it is a reason to redouble those attempts to ensure the greatest possible chance of success. Likewise, that success is not certain is not a reason to eschew any attempt to succeed and thus choose certainty of failure; very little that is worthwhile in human history would have been accomplished, from the achievement of universal suffrage to powered human flight, and much more besides, had people not been prepared to embark upon an enterprise whose success was uncertain but whose reward in the event of success was both virtually certain and enormous.

It is universal in human societies that people are expected to suppress their basal desires and instead do what is thought with good reason to be the right thing; to refrain from inflicting violence on those who anger one, to refrain from stealing that which one desires but does not own, to refrain from deceiving others for personal gain and to refrain from making unwanted sexual advances. In all societies, there are people who fail to exercise sufficient self-control and who behave contrary to these norms, and, at least in the more orderly, successful and sustainable societies, such people are rightly condemned and punished, and, by that condemnation and punishment, the greater good for all in minimising violence, theft, fraud and sexual assault is upheld.

These behaviours are all examples of local maximum problems: a particular example of theft, for instance, might enrich the thief (the local maximum), but even the thief is ultimately impoverished by a world where everybody steals with impunity by comparison to one in which theft is strictly prohibited and every thief punished severely, and where, therefore, theft is very uncommon (the global maximum).

Sectarianism is likewise a local maximum problem, at a higher level of abstraction: actions that promote the interests of a subset of humanity of which the promoter is a member[5] will in some sense enrich the promoter (the local maximum), but a world in which the interests of subsets of humanity are promoted above the interests of humanity as a whole with impunity is a much worse, and much more dangerous, world overall, even for this hypothetical promoter, than a world in which no political idea that cannot robustly be demonstrated to benefit humanity generally is taken seriously or put into effect (the global maximum).

The reward for honesty in a world in which some people are dishonest is that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably exposes and severely punishes instances of dishonesty, and the existence of such a system is one which ultimately makes the world a better place for humanity generally, including the people who sacrifice the chance of being dishonest and the (local maximum) rewards that such dishonesty might generate in order to perpetuate such a system. Likewise, the reward for universality in a world in which some people are sectarian is that it is safe to co-operate in a system that reliably exposes and severely punishes instances of sectarianism, and therefore reap the enormous benefits of the suppression of sectarianism that such a system would be almost certain to bring.

For the avoidance of doubt, the punishment of sectarianism does not entail or justify empowering states or other governance bodies to repress people’s right freely to express or criticise any political idea, claim or opinion, just as a prohibition on theft does not entail, practically require nor justify a prohibition on people publicly disagreeing with the prohibition on theft. Rather, punishment of sectarianism must consist in people exercising their own right of free expression robustly and unwaveringly to reject and condemn sectarian ideas and those who promote them, wherever and in whatever form that such ideas may be found. It must consist in opposing sectarianism in general rather than opposing one kind of sectarianism by promoting another and rejecting bad arguments even when they are arguments in favour of good ideas. It must consist in upholding the rule of law uncompromisingly against those who seek to undermine it for sectarian ends and disempowering politicians and others from ever being able to undermine the rule of law in any way by any means. It must consist in the reliable detection and severe punishment[6] of all forms of political extremism and abuse, the dissipation of political power so as to minimise the instances in which the interests of large numbers of people can safely be ignored by the powerful, and states or other governance bodies being constrained by robust and strictly enforced constitutional provisions from having the power to act on a sectarian basis or in any way undermining the rule of law (for example, by being constrained from taking certain sorts of action except by a large supermajority at a referendum).

Once the nature of sectarianism and extremism and the global maximum reward for eradicating them be widely understood, there is no reason to believe that they cannot be suppressed to at least the same extent as theft is suppressed in modern societies; their power to do harm would greatly be reduced if they were confined to a clandestine activity of a fringe minority, as militant Islamic terrorism has been so confined in much of the world. In 2005, for example, the number of people killed in the London bombings of that year (52[7]), the year with the highest number of terrorist casualties in the UK in the 21st century, was exactly a quarter of the reduction in the number of road casualty deaths between 2000 and 2005[8] (and road casualty deaths in the UK have been lower than they were in 2005 in every year since[9]). If the level of resources and determination dedicated to eradicating terrorism were employed in the eradication of sectarianism and extremism generally, the world would be a considerably better place for all its inhabitants, including those who currently profit from a sectarian local maximum. The goal of suppressing sectarianism will have been achieved to at least a significant extent when all forms of sectarianism attract the same level of public condemnation and the same sort of consequences for its perpetrators as overt expressions of racism (itself a form of sectarianism) have in many modern societies now.


There are many things now taken for granted in much of the world, from a prohibition on slavery to universal adult suffrage, that would, as little as a generation before they were realised, have seemed a distant and almost unachievable dream, but whose achievement has transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people in every generation since. But for those with the vision and intellectual courage to understand that fundamental change was not only desirable but possible, and the personal courage to dissent from the entrenched norms of their time to promote that change, the world may never have escaped the shackles of an oppressive past.

There is no reason that such achievement must be confined to history. Sectarianism and its inevitable bedfellow extremism are as much a scourge of the modern world as slavery and oligarchy were of the world of the 19th century, and wreak at least as much, if not more, harm on the modern world’s much enlarged population as the latter scourges did then.

Those who desire a future in which they can be beneficiaries of a world in which the benefit of all humanity is the common measure by which every conflict is resolved, and the vast benefit to all that such universality would bring, must work now to co-operate in creating and maintaining norms and systems that rigorously exclude the cynical self-interest of the local maximum from being a viable means for anyone ever to succeed in politics or in life.

As prominent U. S. abolitionist Wendell Phillips said as long ago as 1852[10],

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. The living sap of today outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit de corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

Those words from 1852 are as relevant now as ever they were, and no current nor future generation must be allowed to forget the principle there described, nor be dissuaded nor distracted from the unintermitted agitation and awakeness to principle for which Phillips called. Eternal vigilance may be the price of liberty, but it is a price that is more than worth paying.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-group_favoritism 
  2. https://www.logicalfallacies.org/appeal-to-nature.html 
  3. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095349257 
  4. i.e., that relating to knowledge 
  5. Or sometimes even of which the promoter is not a member, but where the promoter intends to acquire great wealth and/or power by purporting to act on behalf of a large number of others. 
  6. Legal punishment where appropriate, e.g., where the abuse takes the form of criminal harassment or blackmail; social punishment in the form of exposure, condemnation and ostracism in other cases. 
  7. https://www.themilitarytimes.co.uk/uncategorised/how-many-people-are-killed-by-terrorist-attacks-in-the-uk/ 
  8. https://roadtraffic.dft.gov.uk/custom-downloads/road-accidents/reports/4aca7ebc-e286-4f1e-b7c4-a96b505513f8 
  9. https://roadtraffic.dft.gov.uk/custom-downloads/road-accidents/reports/3017ceab-b058-4ad7-a052-43c64367176c 
  10. http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/01/eternal-vigilance-is-price-of-liberty.html 
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