Duncan Richter raises worries about failure in connection with taking a morally courageous stand (here and here). For example:
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.I think it would weigh on me. Would it weigh on my conscience? Perhaps to the extent that I thought I had gone about things wrongly, e.g. taken the wrong route. But the difference between being a martyr and a laughing-stock may just be perspectival. (I have students who seem to think Socrates was a fool.) In my paper on moral courage, I talk about how the notion of a "lost cause" is vague, and that in some cases, the cause may be primarily internal. This might be connected with what Duncan says about being honest. Did Anscombe think that she could halt Oxford's awarding of the honorary degree to Truman? Perhaps she had to think that there was at least a chance. I'm not sure. The point of speaking out might just be to speak out, not to be a silent dissenting minority (though in part because one often doesn't know in advance what kinds of heart-stirrings speaking out might effect).
I was reading last night about Bob Taft (the President's son) (in JFK's Profiles in Courage). In 1946, with himself in position for a Presidential run in 1948, Taft made a speech at Kenyon College called "Equal Justice Under Law," in which he said the following about the war crimes trials in Europe, ten days before the convicted war criminals were to be hung:
I question whether the hanging of those, who, however despicable, were the leaders of the German people, will ever discourage the making of aggressive war, for no one makes aggressive war unless he expects to win. About this whole judgment there is the spirit of vengeance, and vengeance is seldom justice. The hanging of the eleven men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret.The constitutional basis for Taft's position was simple, that the war crimes trials "violate the fundamental principle of American law that a man cannot be tried under an ex post facto statute (viz., in this case, a crime against humanity). Whatever one makes of Taft's position (though I think he makes an important point), the timing of it was prudentially ludicrous (given his political aspirations), and there was no chance saying these things would halt the hangings. Why do it? Wasn't Taft destined to fail?
In these trials we have accepted the Russian idea of the purpose of trials--government policy and not justice--with little relation to Anglo-Saxon heritage. By clothing policy in the forms of legal procedure, we may discredit the whole idea of justice in Europe for years to come.
The [correction: Austrian-born] writer Jean Améry, who was tortured by the Nazis (and who chose the path of resentment over that of forgiveness), once said, "I'd rather be a witness than be convincing." I don't think he's saying that being convincing doesn't matter. Rather, the primary point is that of being a witness. I think we can only understand what Taft is doing (unless we think he was just some kind of raving egomaniac) in those terms. I think we could see politicians who vote their conscience, against all unpopularity and knowing in advance that they are on the losing side, in this way. (Some of them, at least.)
Still, what if I fail? It takes moral courage to stand up, but the "being heard" part is only partly something one controls. One cannot force others to hear. And so there will always be a chance of failure. When I first read Duncan's comments, I was inclined to say that too much concern about practical failure might reflect an excess of pride in the sense that the person who fears failure too much is perhaps not just afraid of failure, but too proud to risk looking like a fool. Or perhaps too self-conscious. But bearing witness isn't about oneself. It is, in some ways, about the world as a whole. And perhaps in some ways about taking the chance that one's witnessing will penetrate the public consciousness, perhaps only to be better understood by later generations. (So, then, one might bear witness for the sake of posterity.)
Per Bauhn, in The Value of Courage, talks about the "courage of creativity" as a form of optimism, bolstered by the acquisition of practical and creative skills, which allows one to overcome the fear of failure. So I think that Duncan is right to suggest that a wise person might have a greater chance of success in being heard than someone lacking in the wisdom of creativity. This is something important we might keep in mind as teachers, that we need to teach our students how to express themselves, how to have a voice which they can apply to their own projects and battles, so that they can come to know how to speak for themselves. I might then counter Duncan's worries by suggesting that if I have honestly and fully spoken for myself (and acted accordingly), then that is all I can do. The rest, as the Epictetus would say, is not up to me.