Submission for presentation at JSCOPE 2005,

The Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics

Hilton Springfield Hotel, Springfield, VA, 27-28 January

Courage as Fearlessness

Lawrence Adam Lengbeyer

Department of Leadership, Ethics, & Law

United States Naval Academy

Annapolis, MD 21402

(410) 757-5175



            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). [1]  

            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.

  1. For one thing, the authority of Aristotle carries substantial weight, and Aristotle is widely read as claiming that courage in facing the dangers of battle (which is his focus) involves the mastery, rather than elimination, of fear.     

“[S]tanding firm against what is painful makes us call people brave” (NE 1117a30-b20[2]). 

“[T]he man who does not fear the things he should, and neither when nor as he should, is foolhardy” (EE 1221a15-20[3]). 

“[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). 

  1. More important than the mere fact that Aristotle apparently regards fear as present in bravery, is that Aristotle’s view, it is commonly thought, is true and well-supported by his broader view of character traits, namely, his so-called Doctrine of the Mean. 

“[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. 

  1. The Classical View seems supported also by ordinary intuitions about familiar cases.  Surely, we regard the person who strides across a busy highway—or a busy battlefield—without experiencing fear as a lunatic, do we not?  This isn’t bravery, a character excellence, but something like foolhardiness, recklessness, rashness, or an excess of daring. 
  2. Researchers are increasingly in agreement about the utility of emotions like fear.  They are functional, leading those who experience them toward better practical choices.  Fear, for instance, is the product of conscious and subliminal monitoring of our environment, and feeling it commonly causes us to become both more perceptually alert and more physiologically aroused—hence stronger and faster, better equipped for ‘fight or flight.’  It makes sense that an excellence of character like courage would not forgo such advantage. 
  3. If we require fearlessness for courage, then we may be setting the bar unrealistically high.  Courage will not then be found ‘in the wild.’  Is it not unrealistic to think that humans can operate in highly dangerous circumstances, such as intense combat, without experiencing fear?  Combat veterans often attest to the universality of fear amongst themselves and their comrades, the central challenge that they faced being to cope with that fear and perform their duties. 


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

  1. The first challenge is to provide a convincing interpretation of Aristotle’s statements (including those quoted earlier) that portrays him as accepting that courage does not require fear.  Naturally, this is the least important task facing a challenge to the Classical View, as the challenger can always concede that Aristotle simply got courage wrong.  This is a task to be left for another time, but allow me to point to a few sources of evidence in favor of reading Aristotle as imagining brave warriors to be fearless though they make rational, accurate appraisals of the dangers facing them.  First, and maybe most crucial, Aristotle insists that courage (or other virtue) involves having the proper, concordant feelings, rather than a struggle of will power to control improper ones.  Thus, “if he stands firm against terrifying situations and enjoys it, or at least does not find it painful, then he is brave, and if he finds it painful, he is cowardly” (NE 1104b5+)  Fear is painful as experienced (and Aristotle apparently regards it as such[4]), which thus implies that bravery involves not feeling fear.  Second, Aristotle never supplies an example indicating unequivocally that fear of battlefield dangers is proper.  His specific examples include the “earthquake” and “waves” mentioned earlier, and also “bad reputation” (NE 1115a10-15) and being “afraid of committing wanton aggression on children and women, or of being envious or anything of that [presumably, unethical] sort” (NE 1115a20-25).  His position seems to be that some things—vicious behavior, and the dishonor that accompanies it—are rightly to be feared, and that other things—natural forces like earthquakes—are naturally and inevitably “frightening for everyone, at least for anyone with any sense” (NE 1115b7-10), but that warfare and its dangers, including death, are in neither of these categories, and thus might be appropriately encountered with no fear at all.  Third, there are several passages in which Aristotle suggests that the brave person is in fact fearless, or nearly so:  “someone is called brave to the fullest extent if he is intrepid in facing a fine death and the immediate dangers that bring death—and this is above all true of the dangers of war” (NE 1115a30-35); “[C]ourage makes a man fearless, and … fearlessness consists in fearing nothing, or else few things, and those slightly and reluctantly” (EE 1228b1-20). 
  2. Courage as fearlessness can be reconciled with the Doctrine of the Mean.  It is neither a deficiency nor an excess, because the beneficial alertness, arousal, and stalwart behavior are still achieved even in the absence of fear.  Rather, courage as fearlessness is itself a mean beyond which lies a further, vicious extreme:  irrational heedlessness of dangerous realities, of facts that need to enter into effective practical reasoning about how to act.  Rash or foolhardy persons do not even take cognitive account of the relevant fearsome circumstances in choosing their actions.  Fearlessness, though, does not entail this.  Courageously fearless persons are aware of these circumstances, and take them into account; they simply do not allow these realities to scare them, to get them off their game, to distract or terrorize them.             

            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).

  1. The lunacy on display in certain examples of fearlessness is readily erased when the individual possesses a rational heedfulness of relevant circumstances.  It is unnecessary to resort to fear for this purpose, and thus a false dichotomy to suggest that the only alternatives are insane fearlessness and rational fear.  If people have good reasons to undertake actions (and so are not mad in their choices of ends, or their aimless lack of ends), and are alert to the dangers and their proper weights (so are not mad in their practical/instrumental reasoning), then they can be both fearless and entirely sane.   Their internal mental manipulations do not involve forgetting, even temporarily, about the dangers to be avoided, or convincing themselves that the dangers are nonexistent.  Rather, they involve a lack of emotionally affecting vividness, because they are cognized only shallowly and intellectually, without making contact with the mental states that would lend them an emotional power and attentional magnetism. 

            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?  

  1. Courage as fearlessness does not actually forgo the perceptual and bodily advantages provided by experiences of fear.  Fearlessness does not mean inattentiveness, or slackness, or lack of energy.  Consider the mental and physical state of a basketball player who is undistracted by fear or anxiety.  Perceptually, he is highly alert to all threats, opportunities, and other circumstances, and he has complete command over his rational capacities.  Moreover, he walks onto the court ready for a physical challenge, and is then able to meet the demands of banging his body against others for rebounding or shooting position, or blanketing an opponent, or jumping out to help a teammate on defense.  He may be experiencing strong competitive feelings, yet he keeps a cool head.  This is the sort of ‘passion’ that is demanded on the battlefield, only with the stakes immeasurably higher.  As Aristotle notes, “brave people are … full of emotion”; “their emotion cooperates with them,” by contrast with those (like animals) whose distress and emotion drives them in an impulsive rush to meet danger, foreseeing none of the terrifying prospects (NE 1116b25-35, emph. added). 

            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.[5]) 

  1. As for whether fearlessness actually currently exists ‘in the wild’ in highly dangerous circumstances, including mortal combat, I have precious little evidence on the matter.  My impression is that the typical report from the front lines reaches conclusions like the following, by Richard Holmes, in his (2003) Acts of War: The Behaviour of Men in Battle.[6] 

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.[7]  



[1] 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.

[2] Citations to “NE” are to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, with section references drawn from Terence Irwin’s 1985 translation for Hackett. 

[3] 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<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).

[4] 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.”

[5] Dr. Brad Johnson, USNA, personal conversation. 

[6] Second edition, 2004 (formerly Firing Line, 1985).  London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[7] My thanks go to Bob Fullinwider, Bob Schoultz, Shannon French, Brad Johnson, and George Lucas for their helpful comments on a presentation of this paper at the Naval Academy’s LEL Research Workshop.