Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Moral Courage and Facing Others (Take Two)

Draft here. Abstract:
Moral courage involves acting in the service of one’s convictions, in spite of risks of social punishment. I suggest that moral courage also involves a capacity to face others as moral agents, and thus in a manner that does not objectify them. A moral stand can only be taken toward another moral agent. Often, we find ourselves unable to face others in this way, because to do so is frightening, or because we are consumed by blinding anger. But without facing others as moral subjects, we risk moral cowardice on the one hand and moral fanaticism on the other.
Comments appreciated, though several people who comment here have already helped a lot, so thanks for the ideas, examples, and references!

I've become increasingly interested in the question of revenge (there are a couple mostly passing references to this in the paper), so I might try to do some more thinking about courage and revenge soon. Stay tuned.

[UPDATE: Minor changes/fixes made 8.11.11. Thanks, DR.]


  1. Thanks for posting this. I was thinking about some of these issues this morning, and this gives me a chance to try out some thoughts. First a couple of little points. On p. 15 you might give some people the impression that Anscombe really thinks that no one whose opinion matters would disapprove of Truman's decision. But, of course, she disapproves, and probably thinks her opinion matters in some sense. Just not to Truman. God disapproves, too, she might have said. As, presumably, would many of the people of Japan, as you point out. I don't think you say anything wrong here, but you might want to make sure you aren't taken to be saying something wrong.

    On the same point, I'm not sure that it is a central part of Anscombe's point that Truman's victims were vulnerable. It seems to be the fact that he risked no significant (to him) disapproval (or anything else) that made his act unimpressive, in her view.

    My last small point: you refer to the fascist that Orwell didn't shoot at as a German, but wouldn't he be more likely to be Spanish? I don't think Orwell says the man was German, anyway. Perhaps I'm wrong.

    My big point is too big for me to get in good focus, but it has to do with what is at stake in acts of moral courage and this sentence of yours: "The whole point of taking a moral stand is to bring
    certain—in our view neglected or dishonored—values to attention." I wonder whether one reason why this takes courage is because of the danger of failure. Bad behavior brings a risk of punishment, and getting a fashionable haircut or asking someone out on a date bring risks of ridicule or humiliation, but there seems to be something special about the risk involved in moral courage. As the morally courageous person sees it, it is her job to make the moral truth clear to people. If she fails, she has in a sense failed morality (or justice, or whatever else we want to call it in the circumstances). If I protect someone from bullies I want to protect the victim, of course, but I also want the bullies (and others, perhaps, too) to see that such bullying is wrong. There is a danger then that the bullies will not recognize my humanity, that they will dismiss me as a mere do-gooder, say, and this will be bad not only for me and the original victim, I want to say, but for the world, or for the truth, or something like that. Getting the message across seems to require not only treating the bullies as people but also speaking as a person oneself, not getting self-righteous or being overly cliched or technical, for instance. You have to speak with complete sincerity and respect, I think, and somehow I am tempted to say that if you can do that it is inevitable that you will succeed. But I have no idea why I would think something so naive. Anyway, I hope this makes some sort of sense. The bottom line is: you might want to make it clearer what is risked in acts of moral courage, and I have a feeling that the answer might tie in with your main thesis.

  2. DR: thanks as always. (I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude for your reading of my work!)

    Small points duly noted.

    On the bigger consideration. I think I see your point: that what is "at risk" is something more than oneself but, in some sense, the world. I see that, though I'm not sure it is what the person who acts is risking. (But I'm not sure about this.) I agree with what you say about "speaking as a person oneself" and I would connect that to what I say at the end about valuing oneself (and not seeing oneself as a mere cause/instrument, etc.).

    About success: there was a point in editing where I was tempted to quote (again) Cavell from The Claim of Reason about giving an account of one's position even where there is disagreement, though there must at least be hope of agreement (or here, we might say, conversion). This seems related to what I say about the "lost cause." Perhaps I want to suggest that the morally courageous person might, given the way he or she is able to face others, less prone to see the cause as lost? That is, to see reason for hope (in taking a moral stand, and not simply resorting to actions that might require physical courage)?

  3. Yes, my point is obscure to me too, unfortunately, but let me have another stab at it. Let's say that injustice is being done and you are thinking about taking a stand against it. If you don't do anything you will be safer in various ways (physically perhaps, socially, etc.). But if you do stand up for what is right then you risk not only mockery, violence, and so on but also moral failure. That is, you might fail to stop the injustice. Now, someone might think that it is enough to try your hardest, but I'm not so sure about this. Wouldn't a saint or a genius (think of someone like Socrates) somehow know or see how to express the right way to view the situation, and hence to make the injustice manifest to everyone? At the very least such a person might become a martyr. What if your efforts are simply laughed off, or brushed aside? Isn't that a kind of moral failure on your part? Maybe not, but I think it might weigh on your conscience. If you don't even try to defend justice then you don't risk failing in this way and spending the rest of your life thinking that you could, and should, have done more. Of course, if you do nothing then you might wish you had done something later, but it probably wouldn't be too hard to convince yourself that there was really nothing you could do. You might even come to think you were wrong to see injustice in the situation. Acting acknowledges that there is a wrong to be righted, and that it is your job to do something about it. And that brings a risk of failure to succeed in doing what you yourself have acknowledged as your duty.

  4. Thanks, this all has me thinking really hard. Response here.