Barrington Moore, Jr., was born into a wealthy family. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and he was raised by his maternal grandparents. As a boy, he loved mountain climbing during his European summer vacations, but was bullied by classmates at his boarding school. He earned his B.A. in classics at Williams College, and then his Ph.D. in sociology at Yale. He learned multiple languages, including Greek, Latin, and Russian. After graduate school, he served in World War II as a civilian analyst in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. During this period, he met Elizabeth Ito, a Japanese-American woman whom he married in 1944, much to the disappointment of his upper-class family. His academic career began at the University of Chicago, and in 1948, he joined Harvard University’s Russian Research Center, where he taught and did research until his retirement in 1979.
He was a co-founder and early tutor in Harvard's Social Studies program. Moore published his first book, Soviet Politics in 1950, and Terror and Progress, USSR in 1954. He became famous with the publication of his 1966 book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World, which explored the ways in which landed upper classes, peasants, and monarchs set the stage for revolutions that pushed their nations toward fascism, communism, or liberal democracy. His many other works included Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery (1972), Injustice: the Social Basis of Obedience and Revolt (1978), and Moral Purity and Persecution in History (2000). In 1965, Moore and his friends Herbert Marcuse and Robert Paul Wolff each authored an essay on the concept of tolerance and the three essays were collected in the book A Critique of Pure Tolerance -- a play on Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.