“Strength is granted to us all when we are needed to serve great causes.”
— Winston Churchill
What is courage? Is it a selfless act that’s offered for the benefit of others? Is there a higher form than this?
There are acts of bravery that are clearly in the name of self-preservation. There are true accounts of those who have freed themselves from traps by cutting limbs from their bodies. That takes the proverbial guts to accomplish, but what I want to examine transcends personal gain—the selfless courage that’s offered on behalf of others. Where does this come from, and what is it?
If fear is largely about being abandoned, then perhaps the social side of that anxiety cultivates and perpetuates the idea of selfless courage. Perhaps it arises from some deeper sense or urge than socialization. Are we wired to admire and foster selflessness?
Movies portraying such courage move me in very emotional ways. In fact, I don’t know anyone who, watching a well-acted film telling a story of selfless courage, isn’t moved by the portrayal. Why is that? What does that mean?
Is it possible that selfless courage, expressed in an act that offers life or limb for others, is taught to us in the same way that we learn our other values? Do you think that extremist Muslims can watch a suicide bomber and find themselves as moved by this act of courage as an American viewing a fictional character saving the planet by sacrificing himself? Is courage a matter of cultural relevance?
Some things seem universal, such as laughter, crying, and a parent who runs into a burning house to rescue a child. People going to the aid of others in natural disasters fall into this category as well. Is courage universal but guided by local morality? Apparently not all life everywhere is universally held to be sacred. How can that be?
In all parts of the world, children are taught something called ethnocentricity. This is the notion that they were born into the best country, have the best system of government, and so forth. Thus the notion of national loyalty is fostered. Young people are equally enculturated with a system of values that supports the social group into which they’re born and raised. Religion plays its role and further deepens the “truth” of life. So in aggregate, individuals know little about who or what they might have been and believed if they’d been born somewhere else. Morality then becomes totally culture dependent—right?
Are there any values that should transcend all others and be universal? Obviously, preservation of life is one such moral imperative, for without it we’d be left with just the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest. Our civilized world at least pretends to believe in the value of life or there would be no charges of crimes against humanity, nor would there be the charitable actions of governments when major tragedies hit other nations. Is this all just a matter of reciprocity? In other words, do I give you the right to life so that you’ll do the same for me? Or is there truly a moral imperative that moves the human psyche to offer this right to everyone unilaterally?
One would think that religion and government, which are the tools society uses to teach values, would insist on basic, universal moral principles. What does it suggest when our institutions promote different standards? What does it mean when the life of someone who practices a particular religious faith is valued more than that of someone who doesn’t? How can that be called holy?
Theories in penology (the study of prison management and the treatment of offenders) insist that at least one element underlying punishment is the need or right for society to exact a sort of revenge, to see justice carried out. Following from this, victims’ families weigh in on death-penalty cases, and their needs (desires) are taken into consideration. This is a form of getting even—or “evener.” Is it a healthy way for society to practice justice? Is this another form of differentiation between the relative values of comparable lives?
What if you learned that capital punishment didn’t deter crime? What if you knew that it cost much more to execute criminals than to warehouse them in solitary confinement for life? What if you discovered that lifelong isolation was more of a deterrent than being put to death? What if it was revealed that a statistical error rate existed in death-penalty cases, showing that a certain number of innocent individuals were found guilty and their lives taken by society for crimes they didn’t commit? At what point would you decide that capital punishment was inappropriate—or would you?
You may think that you share the moral imperative that all life is sacred until you reflect on your views regarding capital punishment, or perhaps you already oppose it and nothing has changed for you. How do you feel about the worst criminal you can bring to mind? Is there anything within you that would cause you to take up arms and use them with the intent to kill?
The Value of a Life
It seems that for all of us there’s some mitigation regarding the relative value of life. A boat is sinking and only six out of eight people can survive. Two are old, in their 80s, and the rest are young (30 and younger). Whom do you save? Oh, but wait a minute—one of the older people is a genius with the answer to a significant world problem in his head, just waiting to arrive at his destination and present the material to the right people. One of the younger children is dying of cancer and has only a week or less to live. Now whom do you pick?
What if you’re among the passengers, only one of whom can’t be saved. The others are all fearful and willing to push and shove to be among the survivors. You have two small children and a spouse, and the other remaining passengers are all big burly men, none of whom will be left behind. What do you do? Is this courage?
When we see courage, we know it—or do we? Does our culture teach this response? Is there an innate definition or root for courage per se? Does self-sacrifice count? If so, doesn’t that mean that acts of altruism are also courageous? Indeed, wouldn’t that mean that Mother Teresa’s life was an act not just of charity and love, but of supreme courage?
If fear is all about pain or abandonment, is courage the opposite? Is it the absence of fear? We can easily see through this shallow question, for many so-called acts of valor have taken place in the midst of the hero’s or heroine’s deeply felt fear.
As we inquire into the nature of courage, it becomes evident that it isn’t just some bold act, such as rushing into a burning building. In reality, it includes many softer versions, if you will. Sometimes an act of terrorism may be disguised as courage—or is this quality not a universal moral imperative? Does it have any natural root in the makeup of being human? What does that mean? Are there any values that aren’t culture dependent, culturally trained, or quid pro quo in nature? What does that say about being human?
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