Friday, May 27, 2011

Moral Courage and Facing Others (Draft)

Here's a draft of a short paper on some of the thinking I've been doing about moral courage. The thesis:
Rather than seeking to place direct constraints on the content of those convictions and commitments that can be served with moral courage, I suggest that, whatever one’s convictions and causes, moral courage requires facing one’s adversaries in a manner that does not objectify the other. This account allows us to recognize moral courage even in those whose causes we do not share, but does not go so far as to imply that any sort of action taken in the service of one’s cause reflects moral courage.
Comments (and counterexamples) greatly appreciated.

(Note: I just realized that the final footnote is incomplete. I'll post an amended draft shortly. Update 5/29/11: footnote fixed. Update 5/31/11: some further revisions and notes included.)


  1. I like the paper, but since you have asked for objections, here's one.

    One thing that people sometimes discuss is whether a Nazi, or other racist, could be courageous. You seem to suggest not, but I wonder whether you have enough argument to defend this view. I see how shelling others from a distance might not seem courageous, but what if a Nazi fought hand-to-hand, perhaps with the odds not at all in his favor, against people he considered to be less than fully human? Wouldn't this show that he had the courage of his convictions? Calling it moral courage doesn't seem quite right in this case, but he isn't necessarily fleeing anything, is he? Or if he is, I think it would take some work to prove it. That is to say, I wonder whether perhaps the paper ends a little too soon, before the hardest thing has been completely demonstrated.

  2. I agree that the "hardest thing" needs to be further addressed. (This was as much as I could do in 3000 words, but an expanded version is in the works, which will more or less pick up where this paper leaves off. A primary item of business will be to incorporate into the paper-proper some of the considerations in the last two lengthy footnotes, and to consider some other possible counterexamples.)

    I think the "less than fully human" remark above points to something important. Suppose I am a knight who slays a dragon. A dragon is a monster, as it were, not a person. Slaying it might be courageous, but this is physical courage; I don't think moral courage figures in so much here, if at all. The dragon does not pose the same kind of threat to one's values as a moral agent does. The dragon is not, as it were, trying to impose its values on me, and so the stand I take against it is not a moral stand.

    So, I might then say that to battle with persons who are regarded as "less than fully human" is to see them in a category like that of the dragon (or perhaps in this case as vermin rather than as a monster). Thus, going along with my effort to build some relational components into moral courage, I should suggest that moral courage is a matter of standing up for one's values in the face of resistance from other moral agents. So, then, if a Nazi does not see his adversaries as possessing that kind of agency, then he cannot be doing something morally courageous, by his own lights.

    (This raises interesting questions on the other end: should we then say that resisting Hitler was not morally courageous because Hitler was a "monster"? Some might be ok with that, seeing it rather as a matter of "dragon-slaying." This takes us back to that objectifying feature of "traditional courage" which alarms A.O. Rorty.)

    Thanks for the comments. It was good for me to think about this, as I'm letting the paper, and my thoughts, gestate a bit before trying to write further.

  3. Yes, I don't think there's much wrong with the paper as it is. It's just that you pack a lot in to the last few pages.

    I think this response works pretty well to the objection I raised, so here's another one. What if a Nazi/communist regards it as a moral duty to fight communists/Nazis (so that conviction is involved) in order to stop them imposing their values on him and others (so that this isn't like the dragon case), but still thinks of them as communists/Nazis (or the fascists that Orwell perhaps saw when they weren't pulling their pants up), rather than as (fully) fellow human beings? I'm not saying this is a huge problem for your position, but it might be worth addressing somehow.

  4. Good question. A few thoughts:

    1) I've planned to read some relevant things by Orwell more carefully, particularly his essay on Gandhi. So perhaps more on that later/soon.

    2) Opposing a group to stop them from imposing their values on oneself or others is a kind of self-defense. So far, so good, and the appropriateness of such self-defense is one reason why courage (not just moral, but also physical) is valuable. This can all get rather tricky when, for example, you have different factions who take their values to be THE values of their culture/society (as in the "culture wars" in the US), and so the line between a kind of self-defense and a more expansive kind of ideological struggle may become blurry. Indeed, some might intentionally blur the line for the purposes of propaganda which recasts an agenda of imposition as one of self-defense. And where the truth is that one is not simply defending one's values, but imposing them on others, then questions may arise as to whether this is courageous or rash. Obviously, in such contexts, courage gets politicized (as too does the distinction between defending and imposing). If it turns out that projects of imposing values on others tend to fail--because you can't compel a genuine conversion--then it might be hard to see such projects a morally courageous (rather than foolish and often cruel).

    3) I'm not entirely sure I get the point about seeing "them as communists/Nazis...rather than as (fully) fellow human beings." Is it just that the person sees them as agents whose "moral agency" is so degraded that, while not "monsters," there is a problem making sense of them as fellow humans just because their values are so diametrically opposed to one's own? I suppose if the point is that somehow this perception doesn't lead to a total "demonization" of them, then one might still see them as "moral patients," which is to see them as still capable of suffering and so forth. And thereby, some duties would still be owed to them. And this gets back to the earlier point that while defending oneself against such people could be courageous, doing certain things in the process would not be, but would simply be cruel.

  5. Yes, that's what I meant. Doesn't Orwell say something like "I had come to shoot at 'fascists' but this was no fascist," when he sees the man pulling on his trousers? Seeing him as a human being is not seeing him as a "fascist," even though fascists still are human beings. Basically I think I want to suggest that it isn't an all or nothing deal where one sees another either as a monster or else as a human being. I imagine you agree with this, but it might be worth spelling this out more (as I think you have in these comments) than you do in the paper as it is, just in case anyone thinks you are oversimplifying.

  6. Yeah, that's roughly what Orwell says: "I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at 'Fascists'; but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a 'Fascist', he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at him."

    So, I guess a fascist as such isn't "visibly a fellow-creature"...yes, I agree it's not all-or-nothing. (But Orwell's passage also helps bring to attention how categorization can involve a kind of objectification.) Gaita is good, I think, on the reasons to try to see the "common humanity" even in the terrible cases. (I have to remind myself of this when I encounter bad drivers on the road who, in the heat of the moment, are certainly not my fellow creatures, especially when I'm on my motorcycle.)