Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Facing Others

Moral courage is the form of courage exhibited by someone who acts well, in the face of danger, in the service of one's convictions--the "courage of conviction." We can distinguish moral courage from the merely physical courage of someone who enters into dangerous action (while aware of the risks and perhaps fearful, but not uncontrollably so, of them) in that the morally courageous person acts in defense or pursuit of something of central value to him or herself. (At the same time, moral courage may often involve significant physical courage.)

It is easy to praise moral courage (and courage in general) when its manifestations square with our own expectations and values. Thus, Socrates, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., are for us obvious exemplars of moral courage. But then we turn to cases like the 9/11 hijackers, suicide bombers, Scott Roeder (the man who murdered Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider), and other "fanatics," and it becomes clear that if these individuals are also morally courageous--they seem to have had the "courage of conviction"--then moral courage can motivate behavior that we feel ought to be condemned.

In a previous post I raised some questions about whether "sneaking around" or otherwise attacking one's foes at moments of ordinary human vulnerability can be reasonably described as courageous. I want now to frame this more specifically in terms of moral courage. If Socrates, Gandhi, and King are to be taken as paradigms of moral courage, then I would suggest that an important feature of their actions has to do with the manner in which they each faced their adversaries. Namely, they faced them as one subject to another subject. They did not objectify, or otherwise circumvent a direct confrontation with the will of the other. This was not a matter of giving their adversaries a "fighting chance," but rather a matter of acknowledging the subjectivity of those who would oppose their values and convictions. The following is part of what I say about this in an essay I'm working on:

When one acts for the sake of a cause, one expresses value to others; one’s actions are addressed to others as an expression of that value. But if one objectifies the other, then one treats that other as something unable to receive that expression of value. Objectification precludes the possibility of facing the other, because objects do not have a face (in this sense). The person who refuses to acknowledge the reality and subjectivity of the other, and refuses out of fear, or who circumvents an open confrontation with those others, as subjects, is thus a kind of coward.

If this is right, then it indicates why "fanatics" who treat their foes as dispensable (as mere means) cannot be regarded as morally courageous. Such individuals incur danger in the service of their causes, but they fail to "act well" in the service of those causes because they act against their foes in ways which seem, to me at least, to be incompatible with an honest facing up to those others whom they harm and often destroy. Thus, as above, in one sense, their actions may involve cowardice. In another sense, their actions are reckless.


  1. That feature you call attention to as necessary for moral courage Nietzsche appears to regard as necessary for greatness.

  2. I don't know. How about Georg Elser, a non-suicide bomber (no compound-storming, much less trigger-pulling), who tried to assassinate that clichéd paradigm of evil, Hitler? It seems vaguely uncomfortable not to be completely impressed because Elser and his act were "sneaky" and didn't have "the right kind of style". (Perhaps in something like the way people feel uncomfortable about Amish forgiveness in the way which you discuss in your new paper, which I read and liked.)

    I thought of this case because many have been impressed with Elser precisely because he is viewed as having had the right kind of style - not in the doing of the deed, but in the motivational background of the deed; i.e., he didn't do it in the name of a competing ideology such as communism or a religion, but because he was simply disgusted with Nazism.

    Here in Finland, we have the idiom väärin sammutettu. The story goes that once upon a time, a volunteer fire department was late in arriving, and the residents of the house on fire had managed to extinguish the fire themselves. The first words of the fire chief in hearing about it were väärin sammutettu - 'extinguished wrong'. Assassinated wrong?

  3. Rob: thanks. That passage from GS perhaps focuses the issue even more starkly, in that I imagine there is a very fine line between the person who has greatness in this sense, and a psychopath. (Ted Bundy, for example, faced his victims, faced their suffering...)

    Tommi: welcome, and thanks for your kind remarks about the paper. I'm not sure what to make of Elser. The analogy with "extinguished wrong" breaks down since Elser's plot was unsuccessful in killing Hitler, but did kill and injure many others. However, you appeal not so much to his deed as to his motivational background, and I agree it's in his favor that his judgments about Hitler are right (and ahead of the times, as it were). And while he's perhaps to be credited for his gumption in taking on the task and his dedication to the plot, its failure and the collateral damage (which he perhaps saw as insignificant) leave me unsure about the case. But I agree that the motivational background is significant, and that moral courage requires only a reasonable chance of success (not actual success), and I'm glad you brought up the case. I'll definitely think more about it. (And sorry if this seems like a non-response.)

  4. Thanks. And no, it doesn't seem like a non-response at all.

    On "extinguished wrong" - I was thinking more of a hypothetical Elser who had succeeded, perhaps with the same amount of collateral damage - and the fact that there would undoubtedly been room for moral disagreement about his successful deed, even if it had managed to put an end to Nazi Germany. Of course I should have spelled this out explicitly.

    I just read your Inquiry paper a second time. I found myself nodding in assent to most of it, but there were one or two considerations about which I found myself having some misgivings. Perhaps I'll write another comment on those, who knows.

  5. Tommi: ok. Yeah, I don't think (moral) courage requires actual success--though in the real world ascriptions of courage do seem to involve moral luck. Something I'm just starting to think about is, as it were, the means of courageous action, and how this connects to thinking about, and perhaps preserving, courage as a virtue to be praised and fostered. In that respect, the means Elser selects perhaps fail to set a good example--that is, I don't want to praise the use of bombs by citizens aiming to eliminate (even bad) dictators. Going along with a word Duncan suggested earlier--daring--I might suggest that there was certainly audacity in what Elser set out to do, and that comes pretty close to courage in a lot of ways.