Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What’s so good about being brave?

Norm wonders:

Suppose that someone acts in a way we might normally describe as brave, but that they do so in pursuit of a bad purpose - for example, in carrying out a political assassination we consider to be without justification. Bravery is something we generally admire; we think of it as a virtue. In the example supposed, does this mean we allow that the assassin has shown himself to possess at least one of the virtues?
A way of avoiding this conclusion would be to say that the qualities of mind and conduct we call bravery are not bravery - or courage - when put to the service of a bad moral purpose. In that case, though, you wouldn't be able to say that soldiers can fight bravely in an unjust war, or that an individual can show courage in carrying out a daring criminal raid…

Norm has his own idea of how to resolve this: that virtues can be “packaged together” with vices in the same person at the same time, even in the same action. That’s surely true, but I think this particular case could be handled on different grounds.

Here are two ways we might treat the issue:

(1) Courage and bravery (is there a difference?) are partly about overcoming fear. There remains a question about what one overcomes one’s fear with. In the case of somebody who risks their life to unjustly assassinate a politician, fear of death has been overcome by hatred of that politician and what she stands for. In the case of somebody who runs into a burning building to save a stranger, fear of death has been overcome by concern for the person whose life is threatened.

Fear might also be overcome by love, ideology, greed, sense of duty, another fear…

Courage and bravery, then, are the virtuous overcoming of fear. Other cases of overcoming fear might be bold or daring, say, but they still lack that vital normative element.

(2) Courage and bravery are simply about overcoming fear. However, they are not, as such, virtues. We might think that intelligence, for instance, is a virtue, but it isn’t. It’s a value-neutral ability, or set of abilities, which is very useful but can be used virtuously or otherwise.

The ability to overcome fear is likewise: it may be desirable to have, but its moral evaluation will depend on which fear is being overcome, and to what end.

I think both of these approaches have some truth in them, but from a purely semantic point of view, I’d personally tend to go with (1). A quick dictionary check favours (2), with value-neutral definitions of courage and bravery, but I think the words do have strongly virtuous connotations.

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