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)Nagel:
...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.