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The Two Faces of Courage

  • Amélie Oksenberg Rorty (a1)

Courage is dangerous. If it is defined in traditional ways, as a set of dispositions to overcome fear, to oppose obstacles, to perform difficult or dangerous actions, its claim to be a virtue is questionable. Unlike the virtue of justice, or a sense of proportion, traditional courage does not itself determine what is to be done, let alone assure that it is worth doing. If we retain the traditional conception of courage and its military connotations–overcoming and combat–we should be suspicious of it. Instead of automatically classifying it as a virtue, attempting to develop and exercise it, we should become alert to its dangers. And yet and yet. There is an aspect of traditional courage that serves us: we require the capacities and traits that enable us to persist in acting well under stress, to endure hardships when following our judgments about what is best is difficult or dangerous. If courage is checked, redefined as the virtue that enables virtue–the various sets of dispositions, whatever they may be, that make us resolute in worthy, difficult action–then we need not fear the dangers of courage. We need rather to reform it by diversifying it, as a heterogeneous variety of traits that enable us to act well under stress, against the natural movements of self-protection.

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1 Although the terminology of dispositions, character traits, and habits is meant to be neutral between competing analyses of the causal force of intentionality and the logic of dispositional terms, I believe that the account of psychological dispositions–as it finally emerges from the variety of specialists concentrating on those issues–will explain how some dispositions have a magnetizing and expansionist momentum: the more they are exercised, the more likely it is that they will be elicited. In Virtues and Vices (Cornell University Press, 1978) 78ff., James Wallace gives a typical formulation of the conditions that define traditional courage. An action, y, is courageous just when: (1) A believes that it is dangerous for him to do an action, y. (2) A believes that doing y is worth the risk it involves. (3) A believes that it is possible for him to do y. (4) The danger A sees in y is sufficiently formidable that most people would find it difficult to do y. This characterization has the consequence of making the attribution of courage comparative, set against a background of expectations about normal fears and desires. Moreover, without further modification, this definition does not assure that the exercise of courage is always beneficial, admirable or virtuous. An action need not be worth the risk the agent takes, even in her own system of priorities, just because she believes that it is.

2 See Philippa Foot, ‘Virtues and Vices’, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); John MacDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, The Monist 62 No. 3 (1979); Gary Watson, ‘Virtues in Excess’, Philosophical Studies 46 (1984); Iris Murdoch, ‘The Idea of Perfection’, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970).

3 See Kant, The Metaphysical Doctrine of Virtue (380): ‘Fortitude is the capacity and resolved purpose to resist a strong but unjust opponent; and with regard to the opponent of the moral disposition within us, such fortitude is virtue (fortitudo moralis)’.

4 Socrates' questioning of conventional definitions of andreia required courage, but it was his desire for truth, his wisdom, that prompted his questioning.

5 Charles Ferster and Skinner B. F., Schedules of Reinforcement (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957).

6 Cf. Gary Watson, op. cit.; Susan Wolf, ‘Moral Saints’, Journal of Philosophy 1 (1982). See Peter Railton, ‘Alienation, Consequentialism and the Demands of Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 13, Spring (1984).

7 See Aristotle's discussion of actions that appear to be courageous without really being so, and actions that are courageous without the agent being so (1116a, 16–1117a, 28); see also Aquinas on sham prudence (2nd 2ae.47.13).

8 Cf. Foot, ‘Virtues and Vices’, loc. cit., 17.

9 Cf. Henry More, An Account of the Virtues (1690; reprinted New York: Facsimile Text Society, 1930), Book II, 92. Cf. also Chaucer, ‘The Parson's Tale’, The Canterbury Tales; Summa Virtutum de Remediis Animae, S. Wenzel (ed.) (University of Chicago Press, 1984); Benjamin Schwarz, ‘On Polarity in Confucian Thought’, in Confucianism in Action, David Nivison and Arthur Wright (eds) (Stanford University Press, 1959); Arthur Wright (ed.), Studies in Chinese Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1953).

10 Ruth Marcus, ‘Moral Dilemmas and Consistency’, Journal of Philosophy 77, No. 3 (1980), and Philippa Foot, ‘Moral Realism and Moral Dilemma’, Journal of Philosophy 80, No. 7 (1983).

11 Michael Walzer, ‘Political Action: The Problem of Dirty HandsPhilosophy and Public Affairs 1, No. 2 (1972); Charles Taylor, ‘The Diversity of Goods’, in Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Stuart Hampshire, ‘Morality and Conflict’, Morality and Conflict (Harvard University Press, 1983); Bernard Williams, ‘Ethical Consistency’, Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1973).

12 Camus, The Fall, quoted by Bernard Williams in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana Press/Collins, 1985).

13 The best examples are always from literary and autobiographical sources. Emma Goldman, Living My Life; Sophocles, Antigone; Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope; Hugh Walpole, Fortitude; Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List. See Simone Weil, The Iliad: A Poem of Force for a discussion of Homeric criticisms of traditional andreia. For the debunking of courage, see Brecht, Mother Courage, and Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage.

14 Cf. Albert Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests (Princeton University Press, 1981).

15 Hobbes, Leviathan, A Review and Conclusion.

16 The amorphous character of this paper is the fault of the generosity of my friends, the variety of their interests and the richness of their suggestions. Many people contributed to this essay: Rudiger Bittner and Jens Kulenkampff; J errold Katz and Virginia Valian; Larry B lum, Owen Flanagan, Ruth Anna Putnam, Jennifer Radden, Margret Rhodes, Andreas Teuber, David Wong; Michael Martin and Paul Stern; Sissela Bok and Nancy Sherman. I also benefited from discussions at colloquia held at Mt Holyoke College, Union College and Yale University.

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