I am looking for a word that can be used to describe an effort or endeavour that is idealistic to the point of being dangerous and which is unwise to pursue. Perhaps, an example could be when people try to abstain from food for weeks and months in order to obtain a deeper spiritual consciousness but this act rather leads to near-death or emaciation.

The word would be different from quixotic as I believe quixotic represents a level of foolishness. And I want the word to convey danger or immoderation - something which is likely to lead to a collapse.

If this question has been asked before, I apologize!

Thank you!

EDIT: the word that I was thinking of might be used in a situation regardless of the possibility of self-denial. Another example: the word could represent the type of society which emphasizes maximal profits from work or optimal physical health but the pursuit of which would lead to eventual breakdown because people would lose time for other important things in life or become too narrowly focused on being fit.

*EDIT: thank you to all who contributed @davidblomstrom (special mention), @ermanen (great answer), @dcshannon (helpful research), @danbron (great follow-up), @edwin (the first to respond), @wayfaringstranger, @mystisinha, @ws2, @zibbobz, @nicole, @abathur, @peter, @bohica / @doorknob, @armen, @eatoin, @tessellatingheckler, @dafdarf and @eric! Hugs and Peace

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    Would Quixotic work? – Dan Bron Feb 26 '15 at 20:56
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    @DanBron I guess if there is no better word - I always thought quixotic connoted a sense of stupidity - or a luftmensch-like personality. – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:00
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    Maybe utopic would be good too? haven't read the book Utopia so not sure if that's the allusion I want to make. – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:04
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    I do think Utopian would be a good choice (and quixotic has the connotations of delusional rather than stupid). – Dan Bron Feb 26 '15 at 21:32
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    What about Hellbent ( 'Impetuously or recklessly determined to do or achieve something: was hell-bent on winning.' - thefreedictionary.com/hellbent )? (or just 'dangerously single-minded'?) – TessellatingHeckler Feb 26 '15 at 23:06

15 Answers 15


You can consider brinkmanship but it is usually used in political contexts.

the practice of causing or allowing a situation to become extremely dangerous in order to get the results that you want [MW]

However, this word can be used in other contexts as well and the below excerpt is about spiritual healing, similar to the first example you gave. (from the book Spiritual Development the Hard Way By Michael Maher):

Healing the deeper regions means submerging yourself into the psyche of another - seeing and feeling the world, and oneself, as they do. This is an art of brinkmanship, a spiritual adventure from which you will not emerge unchanged. At times the process of identification with the one you are helping becomes so strong that there is a real danger of losing yourself.

Additionally, idealism itself can become dangerous because it puts ideas over the material world and the fixed ideas of an idealist might bring harm to himself or others. Also, you can consider extreme idealism for a stronger term.

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    thanks @ermanen - that's probably the most unique response so far, so I like it! I thinks its usage in political contexts is also what I was looking for. :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:53
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    The cited definition of 'brinkmanship' at Merriam Webster could maybe support this usage, but it seems like a stretch to me. I always understood brinkmanship to imply two parties jockeying for advantage. The full definition at that MW link includes 'confrontation', and other sources 1 2 3 contain only definitions incompatible with this usage. – DCShannon Mar 1 '15 at 0:48
  • @DCShannon Thank you for posting all these links - you're right - the word does suggest a more confrontational / competitive usage. I appreciate your input! :-) – 0MM0 Mar 8 '15 at 11:12

Self-immolation is used for great personal sacrifice in the pursuit of a goal / cause.

It can involve the ultimate earthly sacrifice:

self-immolation: a deliberate and willing sacrifice of oneself often by fire [Merriam-Webster]

but need not be quite so drastic:

self-immolation: voluntary sacrifice or denial of oneself, as for an ideal or another person. [Dictionary.com]

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  • Thank you Edwin - that's a good suggestion. I was thinking of a word that could be applied even when personal sacrifice is not explicitly involved. I appreciate the input and quick answer though :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 20:29

I am not sure if this will entirely answer your question, but I think a word which may help is ascetic (adj) or asceticism (noun).

The ODO defines the former as "characterised by severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons: an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and manual labour"

Not directly implied in the word is any notion of 'danger', though danger there may be in some ascetic practices which are ill considered.

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  • Thanks! That kind of resembles Edwin's idea of abstention - I was hoping for something that does not have to include self-denial. I like your suggestion nonetheless :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 20:37

Sounds more like a fixation (fixated ideation or 'idee fixe') than idealism. Fixation carries the connotation of being blind to negative consequences.

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  • Thanks @Peter - fixation could work too. I appreciate your input :-) – 0MM0 Feb 27 '15 at 12:11

Great question; as a long-time political activist, it has me scratching my head.

I think Dan Bron's suggestion, "quixotic," is the best by far. The primary definition listed @ http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/quixotic is "hopeful or romantic in a way that is not practical," though there is another definition that includes the word "foolish." But when people sing the theme song from "Man of La Mancha," they treat it with great reverence. Quixotic is one of my favorite words.

A couple other words that might suit your purpose are "Promethean" and "revolutionary." Both suggest Herculean tasks with an element of idealism. (Prometheus gave mankind fire, while most revolutions seek to right wrongs.)

If you specifically want a word to describe a society that values profits above everything else, you could just use "capitalistic" or, probably better, "free-market," though they don't really suggest a spirit of idealism.

Other possibilities include "chimeran", or - if you want to go out on a limb - "Alice-in-Wonderland" or "Che-Guevaran."

EDIT: I just thought of another one - "faustian," as in "faustian bargain." It describes something made or done for present gain without regard for consequences.

Type "quixotic quest," "faustian quest" and "promethean quest" into Google and check some of the results. The first is the most popular by far.

  • Thank you for these @DavidBlomstrom - these are all amazing! I particularly like 'faustian' and 'promethean'. I ended up picking 'brinkmanship' as the best answer because it could be applied to political (and hopefully legal contexts) - but your suggestions will definitely be used! :-) Thank you! – 0MM0 Feb 27 '15 at 12:30

Foolhardy is often associated with danger, but may not imply it sufficiently. Too bad "fool" keeps rearing its goofy head when you want to convey seriousness.

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  • exactly - I'm trying to avoid saying the person's ideals are foolish but it seems that the implication can't be avoided. thanks for the comment :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:48

How about Zealous

This comes from Zeal and is related to Zealot - a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.

The act of being a Zealot is Zealotism or Zealotry

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A fool's errand is "a task or activity that has no hope of success" (Oxford Dictionaries).

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  • This just means that it's a waste of time, not that there is danger involved. And it's not specific to the idealistic purpose. – Barmar Feb 26 '15 at 20:35
  • I can see how that would work - I am hoping for more emphasis on danger. Thanks though :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 20:45
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    +1, This was the first thing to come to mind, though I suppose it might not imply danger strongly enough. – DCShannon Mar 1 '15 at 0:32

Someone who pursues the pinnacle of ideas, whithout considering the many ramifications and difficulties that it can have, is an idealist.

Notably, they seek the best possible situation, and see things as being unrealistically positive.

Though it lacks the assertation that it will eventually be self-destructive, it does carry the connotation that the person is being unrealistic about their expectations.

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  • thanks for that! I like idealist - perhaps, I could just add an adjective like destructive to make it more apposite. – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:46

Definition of Pyrrhic victory, from Wikipedia:

A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way; however, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit (another term for this would be "hollow victory").

For instance, the effort or endeavor "would only result in a Pyrrhic victory."

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  • I really like the historical reference which goes with your suggestion - and I think it does fit although perhaps it's a little too rhetorical rather than explicit - perfect for a debate :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 22:02

Not sure if this fits the bill, but maximalism comes to mind.

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  • Interesting suggestion - wouldn't have thought of that. Thanks! :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 20:31

It's a little irreverent, but there's an extent to which (in the vernacular) a task of varying severity will be (sometimes quite flippantly) called a suicide mission--but only by someone who can actually see the danger; the idealist themselves would never call it this.

I'm not sure this is an excellent fit, but your question does suggest the word includes this knowledge--and there is an implication that anyone on such a mission is either naive, idealistic, completely ignorant, or duty-bound (edit: or is crazy/has a death wish :).

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    That's an interesting perspective - I would have to use that carefully because it's so loaded but I like your thoughts on it :-) – 0MM0 Feb 26 '15 at 21:48

Sounds to me like you're describing the behavior of an extremist.
Try "extremism."

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  • that could work too! someone else suggested maximalism which sounds similar. thanks :-) – 0MM0 Feb 27 '15 at 19:08


adjective 1. extremely bold or daring; recklessly brave; fearless: an audacious explorer. 2. extremely original; without restriction to prior ideas; highly inventive: an audacious vision of the city's bright future. 3. recklessly bold in defiance of convention, propriety, law, or the like; insolent; brazen. 4. lively; unrestrained; uninhibited: an audacious interpretation of her role.

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This might not imply the sense of idealism you want, but perhaps self-destructive.

This might not imply the sense of danger to self you want, but perhaps a crusade.

Together you have a self-destructive crusade, which works perfectly but is a short phrase, not a word.

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