Courage Under Fire – Both Physical And Moral Courage Are Complex Phenomena

The week past at work was a challenging one, with a number of different issues to deal with that were and are complex, and perhaps more political and moral than medical, and all which needed, or do need, some moral courage to resolve. I have also been reading the autobiography of American president and most famous civil war general, Ulysses S. Grant (Personal Memoirs), and watched a video called American Sniper, about the USA’s most successful sniper, who showed great physical bravery, albeit in a morally challenging environment. The advertising for the video suggested that it would be a great father’s day gift, but while being thought-provoking, I was left feeling distinctly ‘queasy’ after watching it, for a number of moral / ethical reasons (which the film subtly attempted to address). All three ‘events’ this week got me thinking about courage, how it is defined and what it really is. The dictionary definition of courage is the ability to disregard fear. Clearly, courage is related to fear, or at least resisting the life-preserving emotion which the sensation of fear essentially is. Courage is also defined as the choice and willingness to confront agony, pain, danger uncertainty and / or intimidation, and not ‘back away’ from any of these challenges. There are also perhaps different types of courage, with two broad categories being physical courage, which is defined as courage in the face of physical pain, hardship, death or threat, and moral courage being defined a the ability to act ‘rightly’ in the face of popular opposition or the potential for shame, scandal or discouragement to be the consequence of enacting one’s moral standpoint. But, many acts of heroism and many human actions which have been defined as being courageous may be rooted in activity which is self-serving, or may occur in individuals who do not ‘feel’ fear to the degree that most folk do. In these cases the concept of courage becomes more complex, and may be underpinned by human impulses not as noble as they would be if ‘pure’ courage was the ultimate source of the actions.

To understand courage one also has to understand and acknowledge the existence of fear. Fear is defined as an emotion induced by a threat perceived to be a risk to life, status, power, security, wealth or anything perceived to be valuable to the individual who becomes aware of the threat, which causes changes in brain and organ function, and ultimately behavioural changes, such as freezing, hiding, running away from, or confronting, the source of the fear in order to attenuate it by removing the threat. There are physical symptoms of fear, including increased breathe rate, heart rate, increased muscle tension, ‘goose bumps’ and raised hair follicles, sweating, increased blood glucose, sleep disturbances and dyspepsia (nausea and ‘butterflies in one’s stomach’). All of these changes serve purposive functions, and result from primitive protective functions known as the ‘fight or flight response’, which make the individual ‘ready’ to either flee or fight the danger which causes the development of these symptoms, with the sensation of all of these changes as a collective becoming the ‘feeling’ of the emotion we call fear. Fear is an important life-preserving complex emotion, without which both humans and animals would not last long in either wild or modern environments. It’s important to note that not all people ‘feel’ fear, for example sociopaths and psychopaths do not, while in some folk fear is felt to extreme levels, where it is defined as a phobia. A 2005 Gallup poll of adolescents in the USA between the ages of 13 and 17 suggested that that the top 10 fears of the folk interviewed were, in order, terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. A further analysis of top ten online searches with the phrase ‘fear of…’ by Bill Tancer in 2008 described fear of flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving as being the most searched for. It is clear from these that folk have fear for a wide variety of ‘thing’s, some personal, some social, some physical and some psychological.

As described above, the ability to ‘stand up to’ one’s own personal fears, whatever these are, is described as courage. Courage appears to be a ‘learnt’ behavioural trait, with most folk remembering with clarity the first occasion they showed physical courage / stood up to the local bully that was tormenting them, and understood what it meant by doing so. For example, in his excellent book on Courage, the previous Prime Minister of the UK, Gordon Brown, could pinpoint / remembered the age / date / time of the situation that required him to be courageous and which made him aware of it as a concept. In the classic book on courage written by Lord Charles Moran (also well known for being Winston Churchill’s personal physician during World War Two), titled The Anatomy of Courage, four ‘orders’ of people were described based on how they showed physical courage, or the lack of, according to his observations of soldiers under fire in World War One. These were firstly people who did not feel fear (today these would be called sociopaths/psychopaths), secondly people who felt fear but did not show it, thirdly people who felt fear and showed it but did their job, and fourthly people who felt fear, showed fear, and shirked their responsibilities. He perceived that level of fatigue or length of exposure to situations which induced fear (such as constant shelling during World War One) could ‘wear out’ any person, and could lead to any person changing who were in one of the first three categories to eventually ‘fall into’ the fourth. He suggested that imaginative / intelligent (sic) folk felt fear more than unimaginative ‘bovine’ individuals (one could add sociopaths to this latter group, though he did not discuss them), and that it was more challenging for ‘imaginative’ folk to show courage because of this, and perhaps more exemplary when they did. Finally, he felt courage was all ‘in the head’, and that moral courage was one step ‘higher’ than physical courage, and needed even greater ‘levels’ of whatever it was that created courage in someone to occur, and that ‘few men had the stuff of leadership (moral courage) in them, they were like rafts to which all the rest of humanity clung for support and for hope’

Moral courage is usually understood and enacted later in life, often when one is in a leadership position for the first time. For Ulysses S. Grant, it was in 1861, when being confronted by a rival ‘rebel’ force led by a General whom he knew. Grant felt terrified that if he ordered an attack it could potentially fail and he would be both blamed for and responsible for it. He perceived that, as had been the case in his military career to that point in time, if he was one or any rank lower than the General in command, he would have no hesitation on acting on the orders given, but that it was very different when all the responsibility for success or failure rested on him, and for the first time he felt ‘moral fear’. In a life changing moment for him, and perhaps the history of the USA, when he finally ordered the attack, his troops found that the rebel General and his troops had deserted their camp and retreated, and Grant realized that his opposite number was as fearful as he was and had acted on this fear before Grant had. In Grant’s words, ‘From that point on to the close of the war, I never experienced trepidation upon confronting an enemy, though I always felt more or less anxiety. I never forgot that he had as much reason to fear my forces as I had his. The lesson was valuable.’ While some historians have pointed out that Grant may have taken this lesson too much to heart, and that he should have respected his enemies capacities more in later engagements, a lack of which perhaps resulted in high levels of blood-letting in all the future battles Grant led, ultimately it was his moral courage that led to the war being won for the United States’s Union armies.

It must be noted that to take a stance or way of leading that requires moral courage requires a belief that there are virtues higher than ‘natural’ ones that needs to be protected, as the philosopher Hobbes pointed out. In the example of Grant, he was fortunate to win the war and be famous because of it, and in his case he was on the side of ‘good’, from the context that the American civil war, while starting out ostensibly as a conflict about states staying in or withdrawing from the Union, was really about slavery and its abolishment in the rebel states, and there are few folk that would not agree that the Union cause, and therefore that of Grant’s, had the moral high ground in the conflict. There are other examples, such as religious or national wars, where the issue of moral courage because more ‘cloudy’, as when folk take a stand, maintain a conflict or start a war against other folk due to some religious or national belief or doctrine, which could be defined as morally courageous (and indeed physically too) from that person’s or nation’s perspective, but would be defined by other folk as being that of a zealot or being misguided courage as best. There are also innumerable folk in history who took a morally courageous standpoint and ended up on the ‘losing’ side or died for their standpoints, or whose morally courageous standpoint was in the context of a greater morally corrupt environment, and for which they received no reward or respect for doing so. An example of this would be the Japanese Kamikaze pilots during World War Two, who sacrificed their own lives by crashing their planes into Allied ships in order to save the Japanese empire. These folk must have been hugely brave, and believe their stance was morally correct (Japanese dogma during the war was that it was the Allies, rather than Japan that were the aggressors). But most folk would now say, and said then, that the cause they were dying for was morally bereft. So for folk like these Kamikaze pilots, doing what was for them both a physically and morally courageous thing had no ‘upside’ in the long term. While this example is an extreme one, it perhaps does help explain why it is often so difficult to be morally brave in times where those against whom one takes a morally courageous standpoint are much stronger than the individual taking the morally courageous stand, or when the moral standpoint is perceived to be one which other folk believe is actually an immoral one, or later will declare it to be so, either for genuine or political reasons (and history is always written by the winners of any conflict or debate).

So how does this all help with the decisions on a daily basis that one has to make, and surely most folk do, that are complex, have many issues, and require moral courage to take a particular viewpoint or decide to enact a particular change that will not go down well with most folk one works with or interacts with, even if it is perceived by oneself as being the morally correct one. Firstly, one needs to think very carefully about the issue that is requiring a decision or action, to be sure that one is making a difficult decision with the highest level of certainty in the correctness of one’s decision as one can possibly be. Second, one has to be aware of one’s one moral ‘blind spots’, and that one is not doing something for personal gain or one’s own benefit when making a tough decision involving others or big groups of people that could be affected by one’s decisions. Thirdly, one has to valence the viewpoint, desires or ethical beliefs of a particular group of people, about whom the decision needs to be made or action taken, or are influencing one to make a decision, to be sure they are not out of kilter with the viewpoints of the greater society in general. Lastly, one has to be clear about the consequences of each potential decision, and whether one can live with these, even if it means a change to one’s lifestyle and circumstances which may affect not just oneself, but one’s family and loved ones, who will suffer if one is fired or even killed for taking a morally courageous standpoint. There are two opposing moral courage perspectives that could occur or be needed in each decision, firstly to be morally brave from a societal or situational perspective, or secondly to be morally brave in protecting one’s family and loved ones by not taking the morally brave societal or situational perspective. So being morally courageous can often be both complex and paradoxical. Ultimately, one has to decide each time one is faced with a challenging situation that produces a fear of consequences, whether to avoid it, or to act. To not act is often prudent. To act requires moral courage, but as above, moral courage is often complex. As Pastor Martin Niemoller’s haunting words remind us ‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me’. Unless one is a sociopath, each of us feels fear the same as everyone else. Each one of us has to learn first physical courage, and later moral courage. Each one of us on a daily basis has decisions to make which require either physical or moral courage. Each decision we make, or do not make, causes ripples that effect both our lives and those around us. In a complex world, full of complex issues, especially where there is no clear wrong and right, or paradoxically particularly when it is obvious what is wrong and right, physical courage, and perhaps even more so moral courage, is often all that stands in the way between societal annihilation and salvation, and perhaps more importantly, underpins us attaining our own state of grace, whatever its level or importance or influence. To be is to do. Or was that to do is to be?


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

3 responses to “Courage Under Fire – Both Physical And Moral Courage Are Complex Phenomena

  • Leon van Rooyen

    Great article although I think a lot of what is considered moral or imoral stems from the type of brainwashing that individuals have been subjected to from mainstream media etc which then effects which side of the fence they coming from

    • Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

      Thanks for your kind words, and excellent point Leon and I do agree with you – that’s what so much of state newspapers and supportive media are about – and even perhaps schools etc. A little bit harder to do this in the contemporary word of internet and social media, where everyone has their say, and such ‘brainwashing’ / controlled discourse is often exposed…. (-:

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