Submission for presentation at
The Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics
Hilton Springfield Hotel,
Department of Leadership, Ethics, & Law
In service academies, in training, and in combat, much effort goes into imbuing military personnel with the excellent character trait of courage. But what exactly is this virtue at which such efforts aim? Consider any serious gut-check situation: a recon patrol in enemy-infested jungle; street-by-street urban warfare, cut off from one’s larger unit; charging up Omaha Beach on D-Day; flying into a buzz-saw of flak—what is the courage or bravery (I will use these terms interchangeably) that we hope for in such dire circumstances? Is the ultimate goal war-fighters who cope with and manage their fears, face the threats, and persevere in performing their duties? Or war-fighters who encounter such situations without experiencing fear, and hence without needing to handle it? Surely military training cannot be optimally effective without a clear picture of what end result it intends to produce.
According to the Classical View of character, bequeathed to us by Aristotle and still prevalent today, the virtue of courage involves at its heart the withstanding and overcoming of reasonably experienced fear. It is a disposition to surmount, conquer, or master one’s ongoing fear when confronting circumstances that are fearsome, that is, properly provoking of fear. On this standard conception, courage does not allow, let alone require, an absence of fear in the face of fearsome circumstances. One must face up to these circumstances and stay the (right) course despite the presence of fear. To lack fear altogether is to be mad, or at least rash or out of control.
I maintain, however, that this tradition of thinking about courage is mistaken—that the only persons properly regarded as unqualifiedly brave are those who experience no fear while handling fearsome circumstances. However much we praise, and are impressed by, those who overcome their fears, these persons are not exemplars of true courage, but occupy an imperfect state that is somewhat defective.
After some brief further ground clearing to get our terms straight, I will proceed by laying out the central reasons for subscribing to the Classical View of courage as fear overcoming, then present and explain the courage-as-fearlessness conception (“CAF”), and finally attempt to head off objections to this alternative approach to understanding courage.
I take fear to be the unpleasant, aversive apprehension of a danger that threatens us (or someone or something with which we strongly identify). The threat is to something that we care about, and so would not want to lose. (Thus, someone who longs for escape from life need not feel fear upon apprehending a threat to her life.) The full-blown experience of fear includes a cognitive component (the perception or thought of the danger), an affective component (the unpleasant feeling), and a physiological component (bodily arousals of various sorts, though fainting is possible, too).
If we allow that the aversive threat to self-interest may come either from physical dangers to life, bodily integrity, and freedom from pain, as on the battlefield, or from non-physical risks—social isolation or ostracism, loss of loved ones or of contact with loved ones, shame or humiliation, financial loss, emotional exposure or intimacy, career setbacks, and so on—then this conception of fear is sufficiently broad to allow us to discuss all varieties of courage together, including physical and moral (and perhaps others). <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
So, is courage better understood to be a stalwartness in the face of trepidation-inducing dangers, as the Classical View maintains, or an intrepid stoutheartedness that recognizes dangers without fear and gamely confronts them?
Arguments for the Classical View
There is a battery of reasons that support the widespread belief that courage requires fear. Here is a survey of the major ones.
“[S]tanding firm against what is painful makes us call people brave” (NE 1117a30-b20<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>).
“[T]he man who does not fear the things he should, and neither when nor as he should, is foolhardy” (EE 1221a15-20<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>).
“[I]f he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash” (NE 1104a20-23).
“The person who is excessively fearless … would be some sort of madman, or incapable of feeling distress, if he feared nothing, neither earthquake nor waves, as they say about the Celts.” (NE 1115b25-30).
“[V]irtue of character … aims at the intermediate condition in feelings and actions” (NE 1109a20-25).
“We can be afraid, e.g., or be confident, or have appetites, or get angry, or feel pity, … both too much and too little, …; but [having these feelings] at the right times, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way, is the intermediate and best condition, and this is proper to virtue. Similarly, actions also admit of excess, deficiency and the intermediate condition” (NE 1106b18).
“In feelings of fear and confidence the mean is bravery.” (NE 1107a30+-b5).
The Doctrine of the Mean seems to require that courage involve fear; fearlessness would appear to be a non-virtuous excess.
Courage as fearlessness
On the alternative conception that I propose, the ideally or fully brave person habitually engages in mental manipulations that manage to prevent the arousal (or perhaps continuation) of fear, yet do not suppress the knowledge or ongoing awareness that is needed for rational practical reasoning and action. For example, on the battlefield, brave warrior W sees the enemy soldiers, their proximity, their large weapons, their fevered eagerness to kill him and his comrades, the dangers posed by those snipers over there. W is not unaware that there might be others waiting to pounce from behind those bushes, and that his own gun has jammed. He factors all of these circumstances into his choices of behavior, and into his planning. Yet he feels no fear as he does so.
How is this possible? By cognizing the potential fear-inspiring data ‘shallowly’—as one cognizes the information that one’s doctor is presenting about one’s festering, life-threatening wound while one is discussing intellectually with him what one’s options are, what actions one ought to take (or not take), and so on. One does not allow oneself to activate (occurrently accept) imagery that would likely cause disgust, nausea, grief, or panic. One does not allow oneself to think of the implications and consequences of one’s death, or, therefore, of the further imagery that pertains to this. (It follows, too, that second, third, and later levels of implications and consequences, along with their attendant imagery, go unthought as well.) This extra information would not be relevant to one’s task at hand—it would not significantly enhance one’s discussion and planning in the doctor’s office. On the other hand, its presence to mind could very well be distracting or debilitating in a way that would undermine the current activity. At the very least, it would demand a great effort of will to maintain one’s composure and focus adequately—effort that could otherwise be directed in more productive directions. Consequently, one keeps one’s engagement with the issues on a purely intellectual plane, thereby reproducing neither the cognitive aspect of fear, nor the exact affective and physiological aspects that accompany it.
Clearly, ordinary experience shows that we are capable of this sort of shallow cognizing, though its presence has gone unremarked in the philosophical literature. It offers a potential route—if perhaps not the only route—to the attainment of fearlessness in the face of fearsome circumstances.
Responding to the arguments
If vigilant fearlessness is the mean, and heedlessness of relevant realities the excess, the deficiency is experiencing action-inhibiting fear—cowardice—just as on the Classical View. But what of the Classical View’s ideal, of being disposed to experience, but out-wrestle, fear? This is surely a greatly superior state to simple cowardice, but it is only an intermediate, and ideally temporary and transitional, point on the path to complete courage. In this, it is parallel to other not-quite-virtues where individuals reliably display the proper conduct, yet without having their feelings in harmonious sync with such conduct. The fully temperate person feels no pain in refraining from inappropriate bodily pleasures (NE 1118b30-end); and the truly generous person’s giving is done “with pleasure or [at any rate] without pain” (NE 1120a 25-30).
Moreover, do we really regard as a lunatic the soldier who does not feel fear as s/he wades into battle, as suggested in the earlier argument for the Classical View? Or is this person actually our paragon of bravery, albeit one that most of us cannot hope to emulate?
Moreover, fear actually is often a performance degrader, not enhancer. If the benefits of arousal can be obtained without fear, then fearlessness would appear to be a superior state for someone to be in when facing dangers, on the battlefield or elsewhere. (In selection of military personnel for special forces assignments (e.g., Navy Seals), selectors tend to prefer those whose psychological profiles reveal that they have somewhat reduced emotional reactions.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>)
Fear is the common bond between fighting men. The overwhelming majority of soldiers experience fear during or before battle: what vary are its physical manifestations, its nature and intensity, the threat which induces it, and the manner in which it is managed. Only a tiny percentage of soldiers never know fear at all. (p.204)
We ought to be studying the intrepid few, to see whether in fact they experience no fear (rather than merely suppress it, leading to later breakdown) and, if so, what we might learn about how to manufacture this state in those who are not already inclined toward it.
It is important to state, in conclusion, that conceiving of courage as fearlessness does not compel us to deny the laudable, impressive achievements of those who experience and overcome fear, or to deny that they deserve recognition for their trait of imperfect courage (or maybe of some distinct related virtue involving determination or will power).
It is not even clear that fearlessness ought to be deemed as heroic as fear-overcoming. Consider another trait that bears some relation to courage: selflessness. Selflessness sometimes involves deliberate choice to set aside one’s own self-interests: despite full awareness of the stakes for oneself, one makes the tough call. Selflessness can also be unthinking, however—spontaneous acts done out of concern for others, with neglect for self. This latter variety is arguably a purer, more ideal strain of selflessness, as the stakes for self are never even taken notice of. It may also be easier to attain, with training aimed at focusing one’s attention in certain situations, rather than mainly at absorbing ideals of honor and exemplars of selfless choice to be emulated. Yet the former variety, of the deliberate sort, may therefore be, precisely because of its imperfection, more awe-inspiring and laudable due to the difficulty brought by the awareness involved, and the consequent need for direct strength of will.
Courageous conduct may, similarly, be reachable by two roads—confronting the dangers mentally, feeling the fears, yet still choosing to persevere, on the one hand; and the less conscious courage as fearlessness, avoiding a full psychological confrontation with the fearsome dimensions of one’s situation, on the other. Some people might be better suited to one than the other. Training might differ for each, and the latter may possess a great untapped potential at this point. It may also represent a higher, more desirable ideal for humans to strive for. Still, though, the former—courage as fear-overcoming—may be a more demanding and taxing achievement, and in that respect more praiseworthy. So we need to keep to keep distinct in our minds two issues: what exactly constitute the human perfections that particular virtuous character traits represent, and what moral evaluations are appropriate for those who demonstrate either these virtues or the imperfect states that resemble them.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The term “moral courage” is generally used to refer to standing up for what one believes to be morally right, despite the anticipated costs to one’s self-interests. In my discussion of courage, I would ideally like to cover all acts taken in the face of danger to self-interests, including non-physical ones, and even where the acts are not primarily motivated by moral concerns—say, a willingness to persevere in some career-furthering act despite the serious threat this will pose to a friendship or other relationship that one values, or maybe even where the act’s aversiveness derives from the unfair harm that it will inflict upon an innocent colleague.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Citations to “NE” are to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, with section references drawn from Terence Irwin’s 1985 translation for Hackett.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Citations to “EE” are to Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics, with section references drawn the second edition of Michael Woods’ Clarendon Press translation of books I, II, and VIII (1992), and from the Rackham translation at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Aristot.+Eud.+Eth.+<section #>> (10-29-03), which is based upon Aristotle. Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 20, trans. H. Rackham. (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1981).
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> See NE 1105b20+: “By feelings I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hate, longing, jealousy, pity, in general whatever implies pleasure or pain.”
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Dr. Brad Johnson, USNA, personal conversation.
Second edition, 2004 (formerly Firing Line, 1985).
My thanks go to Bob Fullinwider, Bob Schoultz,