Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sneaking Around

I've been trying to write a little bit about courage. (Some initial thoughts here and here.) It's a messy topic. The puzzle of the moment has to do with the relationship between fear, danger (and risk), and action. In particular, it would seem that a courageous act is one knowingly performed in the face of some risk or danger to oneself. Often, this involves confronting the source of the risk or danger (and thus, the possible cause of fear), as in the case of confronting a bully.

Suppose instead that I tie the bully's shoelaces together while he's napping, and then he gets his comeuppance later on when I'm not around (or am watching in the bushes). This doesn't strike me as a courageous act. It's certainly not as courageous as directly confronting the bully (assuming I could at least make my point, with fists or words, before he pummels me). But on the other hand, the sneaky act does involve some risk and danger. The bully could wake up. I could get caught.

There are plenty of other cases where the element of sneakiness might seem to problematize attributions of courage. Terrorist acts, for example. Or, by contrast, the killing of bin Laden. Now, in both those cases, there is no doubt a great deal of risk to the operatives (and in the case of suicide bombing, one knows in advance that one is making the ultimate self-sacrifice). A recent point made by Jean Kazez about how we should feel about the bin Laden deal--that we are happy about things only under some particular description or other--might be relevant here, too. Participating in the raid on the compound where bin Laden was hiding might have required some courage, but the actual killing of him might not have been. (I'm not thinking here about whether killing him was the right, or best, thing to do, just where to locate the courage of the Navy Seals, if anywhere.)

The bully and bin Laden cases share, I think, at least that the object of one's action was a direct and specific adversary. Terrorism cases lack that feature, insofar as the targets are non-specific. They are also themselves not a direct threat to the agent who acts (if we think of terror bombings on civilian populations). But all three share the element of sneakiness (and, if you want, guile and opportunism). And being sneaky means that you are, as it were, going behind your adversary's back, not giving that person (or group) a fighting chance. Of course, I don't think bin Laden was owed a fighting chance. (Whether he should have been killed is not a question I'm prepared to address.) I also don't think a terror bombing would be more courageous if the civilians were warned ahead of time (however that might work).

Somewhere in his (good) book on courage William Ian Miller talks about the style of courage, and perhaps my gut feeling here is that sneaky acts lack the right kind of style. Even if they involve taking great risks, they don't involve the kind of direct confrontation with the other, as a subject, that an old-fashioned fight involves. And in the case of terrorism, the object(s) of one's would-be brave act usually aren't themselves the source of one's fear (which would be the fear of being caught, or of dying, etc., though they might be very abstractly linked to some larger fear, say, of an "evil empire" of which they are anonymous citizens).

What I'm trying to work out is how to express the dependency of courage--particularly, courageous acts--on the nature of the object (or recipient) of one's acts and of what one does to that object. Some of this is obvious: kicking a person who is already down is not courageous (even if one had fought courageously up to that point). Similarly, then, killing innocent people is not courageous, even if the preparations required what Aristotle would have called a semblance of courage. Then: storming the compound where bin Laden hid took courage, but killing him was not itself courageous. (I.e. that is not what makes what the Navy Seals did courageous, if it was courageous.)

Of course, we could just say in some cases, "What they did took courage, but it was also horrible," and I sort of get that. An act may be other things in addition to courageous. But there are certain things that one might be able to do by sneaking around which, even if risky, seem too underhanded to count as courageous. (Again, in the bin Laden case, I would just say that the issue of courage is mostly irrelevant to the particular description--the killing of bin Laden--that is of most interest to most people.)


  1. I wonder whether a distinction between bravery and courage would help here (I'm not saying that it would). Some sneaking around might require one to be very brave, but perhaps it wouldn't quite count as courage. I'm thinking of tying the bully's laces together, or cleverly escaping the Cyclops, or operating behind enemy lines. Then again, I wonder whether the difference you have in mind has to do with what is heroic. Heroes have been sneaky, but even very dangerous and good sneakiness might not seem exactly heroic. Or is nobility the relevant concept?

    I think I see the distinction you're trying to make, and it seems worth exploring. My fears are (1) that the concept of courage might just not be that well defined and (2) that I have in fact missed your point. (I don't think I get the bit about shooting bin Laden: would people disagree about whether the act of pulling the trigger was courageous? There surely isn't enough danger in that for it to count as courageous (which is not to deny, of course, that other elements of the raid might have taken great courage).)

  2. Thanks, DR. Sure, courage seems to be a rather loose concept. (See Miller.) Heroism or nobility might be on the right track. And maybe what you say about bravery might get it. (Bill Maher and Susan Sontag, for example, both said that, whatever one might say of the 9/11 attackers, they were not cowards. But then one must ask, what were they? And I take it that, for M & S, "mad" is not the right answer. And this seems to be what Silke (an article I discussed previously) was getting at, too.)

    I was thinking about the bin Laden example because Obama and others had praised the courage of the Seals, and the (perhaps obvious) point I was trying to pick up on was just that the courage (or bravery, etc.) had to do with the storming of the compound, not so much what they did once they got in and had control of the compound, as it were. Which is what you said.

  3. I see, thanks. Another idea that might help (or not) is that of steeling oneself. Normal people might have to steel themselves before shooting anyone (SEALs probably don't, unless they are somehow steeled all the time), but that doesn't necessarily make it a courageous act. The idea of steeling involves hardening, obviously, but also something like closing up, I think. As with gritting your teeth, you clench and shut out as much as you can while you get on with whatever it is you're doing. This might be almost second nature with some people, but otherwise it sounds like a conscious and necessarily temporary act.

    Confronting a bully is not likely to be like that, because you have a speech to make and can't do this with clenched teeth. Instead of closing oneself, tortoise-like, you stand up to a bully, which is an opposite kind of motion, involving stretching or puffing out one's chest. Some people might be like this all the time (and so less likely to be bullied in the first place). At least I think I can imagine someone who "walks tall" in this kind of way through their life. It might be quite hard to be sneaky successfully if you were like this. It involves pride, but of an admirable kind.

    Of course I'm talking in terms of metaphors, but they aren't ones that I have creatively dreamed up. They are standard, and so, I suspect, reflect standard intuitions about the nature of courage and related phenomena.