Question for the day: Is courage a moral quality?

Mainstream media and bloggers finally agree on something:  Sunday’s elections in Iraq are a historic, consequential event.  Politically, the elections are the start of a long journey, the end of which is impossible to predict with any certainty.  But morally they mark an irreversible turning point.  Millions of Iraqis risked their lives in an act of faith.  About those millions we now know two things:  they wish to take control over their own destinies, and they have the courage to make it possible.  Whether or not they have the statecraft is another question – one which I’ll gladly leave for others to answer.

I’m more interested in measuring the moral value of courage of the kind displayed by the Iraqis.  Does morality in fact enter into it at all?  Aristotle thought so.  Virtue for Aristotle meant nobility of character; the courageous man faced death with confidence and so behaved nobly, whereas the coward was craven and base.

This was the world of the city-state and the citizen soldier, where the loss of a single battle could anihilate one’s country and the last memory of one’s way of life.  The moralization of courage wasn’t a matter of male chest-thumping.  It wasn’t the equivalent of a warrior code like the samurai’s or the medieval knight’s.  Rather, it was a cold assessment of the kind of person the community needed to produce if it wished to survive.

From our perch 2,000 years later, we can summon two objections to Aristotle’s idea.  The first is that courage depends on biology, on one’s testosterone levels.  As such, it is available to the good and evil person alike.  In a New Yorker article shortly after 9/11, Susan Sontag caused a stir by praising the courage of the hijackers:

And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Hitler was very likely a courageous man.  Mafiosi and street gangsters often face death with confidence, as Aristotle would have wished.  Yet these are not noble persons; these are moral monsters.  So is courage a “morally neutral virtue”?

I don’t know what Sontag meant by that phrase.  But courage is a requisite virtue to the peaceful, and the law-abiding, and the kindly, precisely because brutes and bullies will challenge their dominion to the death.  If Hitler had been a weakling and a coward, no courage would have been needed to stop him.  If terrorists terrorized themselves, the rest of us would be safe.  As it happens, the land of the free must be the home of the brave, or it will be neither.

The second objection is that we no longer live in city-states, and aren’t in imminent danger of anihilation.  Even after 9/11, we can afford to indulge in the more homely virtues, such as industriousness and generosity.  We can leave courage to the military and the police.  I think this objection is mistaken in its premises.  There’s no virtue so plain that it can’t be defeated by cowardice.  If I am generous but afraid to act, what good is my generosity?  If I work hard but live in terror, to what end is my industriousness?  Fear undermines every aspect of an individual’s character.

But this objection is also fundamentally confused about the place of courage in the moral universe.  Courage is a function of value.  Mothers risk death to protect their children, because they value their children’s lives more than their own.  Honest men lose their jobs rather than commit fraud, because they value their integrity more than prosperity.  Iraqis risk their lives to cast a piece of paper into a box, because they value self-government greatly.

I don’t wish to downplay the importance of physical courage, but to ennoble courage in any form must look to the community, to one’s neighbors, to something beyond self-assertion:  courage in Aristotle’s sense of the word is moral courage, a virtue that is never morally neutral, of which Hitler and terrorists and mafiosi were entirely devoid.

We abdicate courage to the military and the police at the peril of losing control over them, and some day finding them our lords and masters.  That is equally true if we abdicate moral responsibility to our bosses in the workplace, or to our rulers here in Washington.  Freedom requires courage, usually at some risk, sometimes to the death.  We may consider this a sad commentary on the human condition – but if we consider, instead, those brave Iraqis, we may legitimately feel thankful to be part of a species that is, on occasion, noble.

COMMENT: From Adam:

The suicide tactics of the Japanese during World War II has always been a subject of some thought for me. You could certainly say that they were no cowards; they went into the cockpits knowing that they were going to die in battle; either by being shot down or by killing themselves. Yet, I think that it is not exactly what I would call courage, either. When you set out to battle assured of your death, it takes a measure of personal strength to go at all, but… I think that the people who set out to battle and passionately want to stay alive are far more courageous, because they are risking a lot more by going to battle. If death is assured, then going to battle is not a risk–it is an elaborate suicide. Say what you will about suicides, they are not acts of courage. If you want to stay alive, but believe in something enough to brave great risk…well, I just find that to be a more courageous act. Just a related (though somewhat wordy) thought.


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