West London Humanists and Secularists

"The Role of Courage in Morality - Meeting 21/06/12"

This meeting was organised by Philip Veasey (Chairman of WLHS) as part of the Secular Morality Project. Courage is widely accepted as an important issue for moral philosophy but is of particular interest to Philip as it is one of the three vertices of his Triax. He had long hoped to set up a meeting where questions on courage could be asked of someone who had a serious professional interest in it. Philip was joined by Richard Norman (Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, founder-member of the Humanist Philosophers' Group, and a Vice-President of the BHA) and by Major Ben Aumônier of the Royal Logistics Corps. Ben is the Commanding Officer of the group responsible for the disarming and disposal of bombs in the UK. He has extensive experience of having to exhibit the bravery required to disarm explosive devices and of training and commanding others who would have to show the same qualities - so clearly a serious professional interest.

The plan was for Philip and then Richard to each present their thoughts on Courage and to pose some questions to Ben. Ben's answers were to be followed by general discussion by all present. This was an extraordinary evening and contained enough in itself, and subsequent discussions, to fill a book. In the absence of that, what follows is an account of what happened on the night. A PowerPoint file containing the slides used by Philip and Richard can be found here and the thoughts of the following people, subsequent to the event, can be found by clicking on their names:

Philip Veasey on Courage
Why is it important?
Philip started by saying that he was not alone in thinking courage was important. It is referred to in the mottos of numerous institutions and in famous sayings such as:
  • "Who dares wins" - SAS
  • "There is nothing to fear but fear itself" - credited to Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • "Dae Richt - Fear Nocht" - motto of the town of Kelso

It is also one of the three "axioms" of the Triax, his own moral code:
  • Have Integrity (not lying to yourself)
  • Be Kind
  • Have Courage

And the quality that underpins all the others;
"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point" - C.S. Lewis.

What is Courage?
He distinguished courage from bravado (foolish or feigned fearlessness) and defined it as being fearful but not letting fear stop us doing what we do in its absence. He suggested that some kind of analysis of courage might be attempted by looking at fear and a classification of the human needs, threats to which were the cause of fear. To do this he used Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs ("A Theory of Human Motivation." 1943) shown below.

Physical Courage was described as being required when Maslow's Physiological and Safety needs were threatened. Moral Courage was most likely to be needed when we found ourselves at odds with those around us about what was the "right" thing to do, i.e. when our Belonging needs or need for the esteem of others were under threat. Intellectual Courage is needed to accept what our intellects tell us is the truth even if this means abandoning the ideas that have propped up our self-esteem or given us a sense of identity.

People also have a concept of "everyday" courage; whatever it is that keeps us going against the odds. Philip suggested that in some cases people have little choice but to go on and that there doing so might just be a fear of death that would come as a result of giving up. On the other hand, this sort of courage is frequently exhibited by people who could give up but would be letting down the those they love if they did. Extreme courage, of the type that gives some people the strength to withstand torture, also requires explanation. Despite having known people who had exhibited this level of courage, Philip said that he found it almost unbelievable. Although he could not see how he could ever have such courage, he noted that most people who had shown it had no idea they were capable of it.

An interesting observation was made about how repeated demands on physical courage could use it up. Many of those who showed great bravery in the trenches of WW1 eventually succumbed to shellshock. In contrast, people who show moral courage appear to find it easier as time goes by, but this could be partly because it becomes part of their identity and because in fact they make a place for themselves in society as rebels and then find comfort in the company of other rebels.

What Can Increase Courage?
If courage is something that we should aspire to, surely we should look at ways in which we can increase it in ourselves. Philip suggested that we all have a duty to do this and that it consists partly in increasing our knowledge of what makes risky situations safer and partly of desensitising ourselves to fear. Perhaps everyone should be given some training in martial arts and rock climbing.

Why is Courage a Problem?
Philip believes that most people find it difficult to be honest about courage and are at best confused. We are exhorted in books and films to show great courage; many men grow up in societies where they are expected to demonstrate absurd levels of machismo. And yet, at least here in UK, we are advised by the police not to get involved when people around us are subjected to violent and dangerous attacks. Most people are happy to stand back and hope that someone else takes the risks for them. Clearly there is an evolutionary niche for the coward, however He feels it is very important that we resist this and that the greatest duty we owe to society is to resist bullies. Resisting them while they are small is low risk. If we fail to do this, they grow bigger and bigger and the risks become daunting.

Philip believes that we should all make a clear decision about how far we should let things go before being ready to fight and risk all. Most of those who walked without resistance into the gas chambers of the Third Reich had got there through a process of saying "Well things will get better and I'd better hang on to what I have got" as more and more was taken from them - a process wonderfully described by Bruno Bettleheim in his book, "The Informed Heart". Although he says he has no appetite for martyrdom, he does try to take heed of what Meg Cabot wrote in The Princess Diaries, "The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all".

Richard Norman on Courage
Richard sought to bring some academic depth to the subject and was able to tell us about the history of courage in moral philosophy. It appears early on in two classic philosophical discussions of courage and the other virtues in Plato's "Laches" and "Protagoras" in which Socrates debates with Laches and Nicias, and "Can goodness be taught?" with Protagoras. The Virtues were defined as:
  • Sophia - moral wisdom
  • Sophrosuné - 'temperance', moderation, self-control
  • Dikaiosuné - 'justice' - fulfilling our obligations to others
  • Andreia - courage
  • Hosiotes - piety (later dropped)

While acknowledging that there were similarities in scope between these virtues and Philip's Triax, Richard said that their expression as virtues, rather than rules, was superior. Telling people to "Be Courageous" did not make them courageous and begs questions of what actually to do courageously. He pointed out that with "courage" as defined by Philip, someone could lack the other virtues, but still be courageous - the brave Nazi, the brave criminal. This was not how most people understood courage.

Richard said that the virtues were more unified than suggested by the Triax, giving as an example the idea of someone having the courage to tell an unpalatable truth. If it is hurtful and inconsiderate, is it really courage? Isn't it mere insensitivity? Similarly with the courage to speak up in a meeting. If someone has no inhibitions about making his voice heard, isn't it simply arrogance? Maybe it's not really courage without right judgement about whether you have something to say? He agreed more with Plato according to whom courage like all the other virtues, is one aspect of moral knowledge - knowing the value of things.

Questions for Ben Aumônier
So what do you count as courage?
  • Do all types of courage ultimately depend on physical courage?
  • Going back into a burning building to save your child is courage? Instinct? Any kind of indicator?
  • Can courage exist, or have value, without other virtues?
Duty of courage: How do we develop courage?
  • Should we all be trained to fight? How do we reduce the risk of such skills being misused?
  • Should we always oppose a bully? Are all bullies ultimately cowards?
  • Should we wait for the police?
  • Are there limits to how courageous we can be expected to be?

Ben's Response
Ben stressed that a major part of reducing fear in bomb disposal is acquiring the necessary skills so that the risks can be understood and minimised. There remains a risk, but awareness of this is somewhat akin to being aware of the risk of an accident when driving. Confidence, whether justified or not, helps fear to be handled. He observed that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs implies than there is no clear division between physical and moral courage, but rather a spectrum, with more physical courage being needed when more basic needs are put at risk and more moral courage when the threat relates to needs further up the hierarchy.

He agreed that running into a burning building to save your child constituted courage but used this to introduce the idea of "instinctive" courage. This was contrasted with the sustained courage needed in the face of a continuing threat, or maybe a future threat than can only be appreciated intellectually. Ben felt it had taken more courage for him to volunteer for his term of duty in Afghanistan than he needed at a moment of being confronted by an explosive device. However, he also suggested that apparently "instinctive" bravery could also be a very rapidly processed conscious decision. Where the burning building contains a loved one, for example, what we call "courage" can be a measure of the strength of motivation rather than fear-handling ability. The motivation may even displace the fear.

Ben suggested a further important difference between impersonal threats, such as defusing an unexploded WW2 bomb today, and those involving confrontation with a hostile will such as hand-to-hand combat or dealing with a current IED in Afghanistan where you are conscious that someone is trying to harm you. This distinction interested Philip greatly as he could think of many people whose embarrassment at their lack of confrontational courage had led them to develop extremes of other forms of physical courage.

Ben concluded that although courage probably cannot be created from nothing, it can be shaped - and if not increased, it can at least be applied more effectively.

Subsequent Discussion
The question of whether all types of courage ultimately depend on physical courage proved controversial. Many thought that it was possible to have great moral courage without much physical courage. Philip was unconvinced and maintained that this could be just an appearance of courage in people with low belonging needs or, as above, that the person had found their niche as a rebel. If you really need to belong, the first time you display disagreement with the group is likely to have consequences that can quickly turn physical.

One of the issues that came up in discussion was whether it was possible to display courage in the absence of other people. It was suggested that someone caught in a bear trap who cut off their own leg to escape would be displaying courage and that this act was morally neutral. Was this courage or just one fear outweighing another?

With regard to training to fight, Philip said that he often wished he could "fight better" and be more effective in combatting bullies. The consensus, however, was that wider education in fighting skills was not quite the right reaction because of the dangers of abuse and escalation. There was a better case for the wider dissemination of "aggression neutralising" skills, both verbal and physical, such as those taught to the police.

With limited time many questions were left unasked or unanswered but everyone felt it had been very worthwhile. We concluded by expressing thanks to those soldiers like Ben who continue to risk their lives for our safety and frequently pay the ultimate price.

Philip Veasey & Roger Haines 12 December 2012
The slides used during the presentations can be seen here