Friday, May 27, 2011

Moral Courage and Facing Others (Draft)

Here's a draft of a short paper on some of the thinking I've been doing about moral courage. The thesis:
Rather than seeking to place direct constraints on the content of those convictions and commitments that can be served with moral courage, I suggest that, whatever one’s convictions and causes, moral courage requires facing one’s adversaries in a manner that does not objectify the other. This account allows us to recognize moral courage even in those whose causes we do not share, but does not go so far as to imply that any sort of action taken in the service of one’s cause reflects moral courage.
Comments (and counterexamples) greatly appreciated.

(Note: I just realized that the final footnote is incomplete. I'll post an amended draft shortly. Update 5/29/11: footnote fixed. Update 5/31/11: some further revisions and notes included.)

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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sneaking Around

I've been trying to write a little bit about courage. (Some initial thoughts here and here.) It's a messy topic. The puzzle of the moment has to do with the relationship between fear, danger (and risk), and action. In particular, it would seem that a courageous act is one knowingly performed in the face of some risk or danger to oneself. Often, this involves confronting the source of the risk or danger (and thus, the possible cause of fear), as in the case of confronting a bully.

Suppose instead that I tie the bully's shoelaces together while he's napping, and then he gets his comeuppance later on when I'm not around (or am watching in the bushes). This doesn't strike me as a courageous act. It's certainly not as courageous as directly confronting the bully (assuming I could at least make my point, with fists or words, before he pummels me). But on the other hand, the sneaky act does involve some risk and danger. The bully could wake up. I could get caught.

There are plenty of other cases where the element of sneakiness might seem to problematize attributions of courage. Terrorist acts, for example. Or, by contrast, the killing of bin Laden. Now, in both those cases, there is no doubt a great deal of risk to the operatives (and in the case of suicide bombing, one knows in advance that one is making the ultimate self-sacrifice). A recent point made by Jean Kazez about how we should feel about the bin Laden deal--that we are happy about things only under some particular description or other--might be relevant here, too. Participating in the raid on the compound where bin Laden was hiding might have required some courage, but the actual killing of him might not have been. (I'm not thinking here about whether killing him was the right, or best, thing to do, just where to locate the courage of the Navy Seals, if anywhere.)

The bully and bin Laden cases share, I think, at least that the object of one's action was a direct and specific adversary. Terrorism cases lack that feature, insofar as the targets are non-specific. They are also themselves not a direct threat to the agent who acts (if we think of terror bombings on civilian populations). But all three share the element of sneakiness (and, if you want, guile and opportunism). And being sneaky means that you are, as it were, going behind your adversary's back, not giving that person (or group) a fighting chance. Of course, I don't think bin Laden was owed a fighting chance. (Whether he should have been killed is not a question I'm prepared to address.) I also don't think a terror bombing would be more courageous if the civilians were warned ahead of time (however that might work).

Somewhere in his (good) book on courage William Ian Miller talks about the style of courage, and perhaps my gut feeling here is that sneaky acts lack the right kind of style. Even if they involve taking great risks, they don't involve the kind of direct confrontation with the other, as a subject, that an old-fashioned fight involves. And in the case of terrorism, the object(s) of one's would-be brave act usually aren't themselves the source of one's fear (which would be the fear of being caught, or of dying, etc., though they might be very abstractly linked to some larger fear, say, of an "evil empire" of which they are anonymous citizens).

What I'm trying to work out is how to express the dependency of courage--particularly, courageous acts--on the nature of the object (or recipient) of one's acts and of what one does to that object. Some of this is obvious: kicking a person who is already down is not courageous (even if one had fought courageously up to that point). Similarly, then, killing innocent people is not courageous, even if the preparations required what Aristotle would have called a semblance of courage. Then: storming the compound where bin Laden hid took courage, but killing him was not itself courageous. (I.e. that is not what makes what the Navy Seals did courageous, if it was courageous.)

Of course, we could just say in some cases, "What they did took courage, but it was also horrible," and I sort of get that. An act may be other things in addition to courageous. But there are certain things that one might be able to do by sneaking around which, even if risky, seem too underhanded to count as courageous. (Again, in the bin Laden case, I would just say that the issue of courage is mostly irrelevant to the particular description--the killing of bin Laden--that is of most interest to most people.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

In Print: Speaking for Oneself: Wittgenstein on Ethics

As some have already noted, my paper on Wittgenstein on ethics has been published by Inquiry. (An unofficial version is here; if you need help acquiring the official pdf, let me know.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"They're mine!"

Faulkner's The Bear has a puzzling end. [spoiler alert] Isaac McCaslin has gone back to the woods for perhaps his final hunt in the woods where much of this story takes place. (The land has been leased out to loggers.) He goes to meet Boon Hogganbeck at a tree that sits in a clearing, such that if one sneaks up on it fast enough, one can trap the squirrels in the tree, and pick them off at one's pleasure. Isaac finds Boon sitting beneath the tree, his reliably unreliable pump-action gun in pieces, and Boon beating on the barrel with the stock, trying to fix it. Without looking up, he shouts, "Get away! Get away! Don't touch a one of them! They're mine! They're mine!" This is how the story ends.

I may have to re-read the whole story to make sense of this, but my initial interpretation connects this scene to the long, difficult fourth section of the story, in which Isaac rationalizes his refusal of his inheritance, rejects the notion of ownership. Boon's situation seems desperate and pathetic. (But we should also remember that while Boon's gun has always failed him, he is also the person who killed the bear, Old Ben, with nothing but a knife.) I saw the ending as a commentary on ownership of the wild, and as one participant in a seminar with Faulkner put it,
as a warning to man that he can not in the end conquer nature, that in the end nature will win out, and that in order to lead a good life a man must be at peace with nature rather than trying to constantly conquer it.
Prior to this question, Faulkner had responded to a different question about the ending (concerning what appeared to be Boon's inability to cope with modern machinery):
No, that, to me, was a—a promise of optimism, a belief of mine that—that man, no matter how frail he is, is tougher than anything, that he can stand anything, that Boon, having served his purpose in this—the old bear's saga and Sam Father's finish, was still going on, he was still Boon. If he were needed again by another Old Ben, another Sam Fathers, he would have served again. That he was—that, to me, is a—a sign of—of optimism, that man is pretty good after all, that even his moments of heroism don't necessarily need to destroy.
He then responded to the suggestion that the end contains a warning as follows:
Well, I'm not too certain that man could—can be at peace with nature because nature ain't very peaceful itself. I think, in—in this instance, Boon—he did everything full out. If it was something worthwhile, and he could be convinced by someone he believed in that he should go full out at it, he would. Just as he—he went at the bear and just as he helped Sam Fathers to die. He was hunting squirrels, and he had got the squirrels up that tree, and the gun, as usual, let him down. If anything, that's a—a contemptive commentary on the machine that man thinks he can depend on when he can't. It lets him down. And Boon's machine let him down. But that hadn't frightened Boon. He could fix that thing just as long as somebody else didn't come along with a machine that did work and kill all his squirrels.
These are interesting points about the failure of "the machine that man thinks he can depend on," as well as on the stability of Boon's character (Boon continues to be Boon, as it were). But I'm still not sure about the optimism Faulkner saw in this ending. At least, it would seem that the "contemptive commentary on the machine" cannot avoid also being a commentary on the men who rely upon those machines, and who thereby, perhaps, fall prey to an illusion of control, which seemed to be the concern of the speaker above. The squirrels, as it were, don't belong to Boon (and never did).

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Double the Fun

Mike Austin, meet Mike Austin.

(I found Mike #2 via this, and I thought: when did my office neighbor get into speculative realism?...)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Socrates, Know-it-alls, and Underachievers

A colleague of mine told me roughly the following yesterday:
When I taught at [large private research university] I spent a lot of time convincing the students that they weren't as smart as they thought they were. Here, I spend a lot of time convincing them that they're smarter than they think they are. And I'd rather do the latter.
I've never taught anywhere where the sense of entitlement was overly high, but I certainly do find the students at EKU different. Perhaps some of it is, as suggested above, a kind of lack of self-confidence. There are lots of reasons for that: growing up surrounded by poverty (10 of the 20 poorest counties in the US are in EKU's service region) and in many cases (so I'm told) without much strong family support for going off to college. A lot of first generation college students, so often a lot of uncertainty about what exactly is going on. (And the amount of drama in my student's lives, again compared to other places I've been--real drama, not dorm room drama--speaks to much of this.)

This made me wonder whether I should be starting my Beginning Philosophy courses with Socrates (and soon after Descartes), where one of the messages is that we don't know much of anything . In a way, students who lack confidence in their own intelligence don't need to be told (or reminded of) that. They don't need modesty or humility, but a boost of confidence, a bit of pride. (This is a point well-made in connection with minorities by Michael Eric Dyson at a Chautauqua Lecture he gave at EKU this year on what Black Pride is about.)

But on another level, Socrates is still the best place to start, because even if he knows little or nothing, at least he knows it. And maybe those students who need a confidence boost, who are smart and capable, but surrounded by a culture not particularly friendly to intellectual inquiry (I've been told stories of pastors coming to biology classes to find out whether the children are being indoctrinated)...well, maybe Socrates is the kind of hero they could use. But I think for a lot of them, they need more than Socrates, too, but a positive sense of direction. Philosophy, I think, is probably less good at this (and better at ruling things out), but more on that another time.

(Apologies for being so cliché in my romantic views of Socrates...but hey, if it works, it works.)