Saturday, August 06, 2011

Facing Others As Subjects (and failing to do so)

I have long been puzzled by the common cant about President Truman’s courage in making this decision [to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki]. Of course, I know that you can be cowardly without having reason to think you are in danger. But how can you be courageous? Light has come to me lately: the term is an acknowledgement of the truth. Mr. Truman was brave because, and only because, what he did was so bad. But I think the judgement unsound. Given the right circumstances (e.g. that no one whose opinion matters will disapprove), a quite mediocre person can do spectacularly wicked things without thereby becoming impressive. ("Mr. Truman's Degree," 1956)
...let me try to connect absolutist limitations with the possibility of justifying to the victim what is being done to him. If one abandons a person in the course of rescuing several others from a fire or a sinking ship, one could say to him, "You understand, I have to leave you to save the others." Similarly, if one subjects an unwilling child to a painful surgical procedure, one can say to him, "If you could understand, you would realize that I am doing this to help you." One could even say, as one bayonets an enemy soldier, "It's either you or me." But one cannot really say while torturing a prisoner, "You understand, I have to pull out your fingernails because it is absolutely essential that we have the names of your confederates"; nor can one say to the victims of Hiroshima, "You understand, we have to incinerate you to provide the Japanese government with an incentive to surrender." ("War and Massacre," 1972: 137)
And why could one not? I'm nearing completion of a full version of my thoughts on "moral courage," and the short of it is that where one shows moral courage by facing others in a moral struggle, one must face them as particular moral subjects. If I objectify those against whom I struggle, then they are no longer moral agents--and more importantly, particular persons--in my eyes. And so the idea that I might be engaged in a moral struggle against them no longer makes sense. We don't take moral stands against mere objects, or monsters. And where our justifications objectify the other, they could only accept our so-called justifications by objectifying themselves (that is, by seeing their own individuality as not mattering from the moral perspective).

This is not to say that dragon-slaying is not courageous. But that is what we might call physical courage. By moral courage I mean the courage of the person who takes a moral stand in the face of other moral subjects (or agents). What I am trying to track with this restricted, and somewhat technical construal of moral courage is that it can be hard to face others as moral subjects, because it is tempting and all-too-easy to demonize and objectify those who threaten our our sense of what is right and good. And with that comes both a risk of recklessness, in the form of easy justifications of violence against the objectified other, and of cowardice, in the form of a failure to fully face those particular others who, because they are scary, foreign, or threatening, we cover up with abstractions. When we objectify those we oppose, we flee from their particularity as individual subjects. It is often hard not to do this.


  1. Not if you're an Aristotelian about it. (Is that the thrust of your question?)

    But others seem happy to say that a person could be courageous while doing something immoral. I think this is off in various ways, but maybe not entirely. At least, I could recognize the courage of someone taking a controversial stand, even if I think they are on the wrong side of things. (I.e. I can recognize that they are following their conscience, at the risk of great personal cost, etc. etc.).

    Sorry, I realize the notion of "moral courage" is ambiguous between (a) courage in taking a moral stand and (b) courageous actions that are morally good. I'm talking about (a), which is to use it in a technical sense. ("Moral" is descriptive here of the type, not an evaluation of the action.)

  2. i'm not sure what my question is. i think what i'm wondering about is whether this courage is relative to the actor's morality or the other's. it seems it ought to be the actor's, since he's the one who does or does not take a moral stand. but the way you talk about objectifying other moral subjects gives me the impression that they bear moral claims against the agent under consideration as a matter of course, or in presenting the challenge to him, of facing them. in which case it seems more like the actor is somewhat irrelevant, and the measure of his courage is determined by the claim the other has upon him.

    i can imagine instances of 'moral courage' in which something bad happens to the other as a result of the actor's taking a moral stand (i.e. choosing in favor of some other good or principle than the claim the other makes on the actor), which would seem to me to be good examples of 'moral courage' because the risk involved is one that the actor faces internal to morality: not, be moral or be immoral, be moral or not be moral, but: take a moral stand despite the fact that doing so is not morally blameless or uncomplicated or consequence-free.

    i think i asked about immoral courage with the idea that it illustrates situations like that more clearly—the 'immoral' actor would just be acting on the basis of what he took to be good but the others took to be bad, and so the actor might face the difficulty of following through on his action without being swayed by the moral claims made by the others. (note, not 'without heeding' or 'without being aware', just not swayed.)

  3. j.,

    Thanks for elaborating. (I'm revising right now, so this is really helpful for me.) I think I agree with what you say about courage being relative to the actor's morality, but I also think I want to disagree with the interpretation that the other makes a moral claim on the actor which makes the actor "irrelevant." That is, it's not that "the measure of his courage is determined by the claim the other has upon him." Rather, part of the measure of courage (in this delimited sense) is whether he or she faces the other as a moral subject, or merely as an obstacle (or object, or monster, etc.). I think I put the point like this in a previous post: we cannot take a moral stand against a monster (or an animal). But we may sometimes see those who terrify or enrage us in that way, and so can forget that those "beasts" are humans. (They may be very bad humans, etc.)

    Orwell writes about not "feeling like" shooting a German soldier running from a trench with his pants around his legs because a man with his pants around his legs is not a "fascist" but rather "visibly a fellow-creature." And Orwell had come "to shoot fascists." I don't think courage has anything in particular to do with that case, but the awareness Orwell shows there of the other's particularity is the sort of thing I'm after, and the courage it takes not to ignore that particularity (out of blind anger) or flee from it (out of fear of what seeing that other as a person/moral subject/etc. rather than as a beast/etc. might mean).

  4. The cases you mention are like some of the examples I'm working with. One might think the Truman case is like that, too, pace Anscombe. But not knowing more about the history at the moment, I can't say. (You can look at some of the official documents here.) Leaning on the Nagel line above, I raise some questions about whether a Truman could honestly face the others he was prepared to bomb. Now one could say, sure, it's possible. (We might think of the Nietzsche lines about "greatness.") The official press release says of the Hiroshima bombing that, "The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold." Not exactly a moment of thinking the particular. I guess being an administrator of a war doesn't so much promote thinking that way.

  5. j., if you don't mind, will you shoot me an e-mail and let me know who you are (so that I can thank you in the acknowledgments of the paper; the point about where the "claim" comes from is important, and your comments above helped me see where and how I might clarify that. Thanks).

  6. no problem, it's great to be helpful even when you don't know what you're talking about.