Mixed signals on the virtue of courage

When Londoners climbed back on buses July 8, just one day after bombs ripped through the city's transportation system, reports hailed the display of a virtue much esteemed in an age of terror: courage.

But cultivating courage - a willingness to take personal risk for the sake of a larger purpose - promises to be an uphill battle in the 21st century, ethicists say, whether the enemy is terrorism, local bullies, or moral decay.

The reasons are many, starting with the demands of the modern workplace. Business fosters "an environment in which there are competing values," says Daniel Terris, author of "Ethics at Work" and director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "The value of loyalty to the corporation, the value of containing bad publicity, the value of maintaining a spirit of community and teamwork all work against courage in a lot of specific situations."

More than a few voices in recent years have prescribed a fresh dose of courage to treat society's current ills. Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather made courage the centerpiece of his closing comments from that post in March. In the past two years, reflections on the ancient virtue have been published by people such as US Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, leadership guru David Cottrell, ethicist Rushworth Kidder, and - through a posthumous reissue of his "Profiles in Courage" - the late President John F. Kennedy. And companies such as Deloitte & Touche have begun emphasizing in employee training the importance of courageous refusal when a client requests illegal or unethical services.

Yet for all its acclaim, courage might exist more as an ideal than a reality. A society geared to prize health, wealth, and social status needs much persuading, observers say, in order to put such hard-earned spoils at risk, no matter the principle.

Moral decisionmaking "becomes a problem about courage precisely when our personal interests seem to be at stake," says Paul Woodruff, an ethicist at the University of Texas. "In order to do what is right, we may have to risk our lives or our property.... Is it more important to pursue justice, or is it more important to protect your retirement account? Your retirement account is very important. But from the ethical point of view, living an ethical life is more important.... I think people get confused about this."

Similar thinking led the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to enshrine courage as the "handmaiden of all virtues." Plato and Thomas Aquinas built upon Aristotle's understanding, regarding courage or "fortitude" as indispensable to the moral life.

Courageous action demands awareness of the actual risks involved in a proposed course of action. But in a time of globalization and rapid advances in technology, ramifications from a local decision can be difficult to anticipate. "The pace of our society in many ways makes courage difficult," says Prof. Tom Leininger, a moral theologian at Regis University in Denver. "You can't be courageous if you don't have a clue what the risks and dangers are."

To make matters even more challenging, Mr. Terris argues, courage is "like speed in an athlete ... It can't be kind of counted on or trained in some way."

Others, however, insist courage is not only teachable but a necessary legacy to pass on to the next generation. That starts with rejecting moral relativism, says Mr. Kidder, founder and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Camden, Maine, because "if there are no standards to stand up for, why would anybody take a moral stand?" He encourages people to tell the stories of courageous heroes, such as Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela, and to create situations in which children have a chance to take courageous action of their own.

"We, all of us, need to be better models of courage for the young," Kidder says. "We need to be mentoring them in that specific way. Let's find situations that have a responsible amount of safety in them but nevertheless are inherently dangerous, and ask our kids to experience those and to grow up." Examples: sports and adventures.

Others agree that courage is learned over many years, often through example. Baylor University ethicist Robert Roberts, for instance, says would-be students of courage profit most from time in a "community of wise people," such as elders who are capable of distinguishing between noble, courageous acts and foolish, risky ones.

In the end, however, some see American culture at large taking steps to make courage an unnecessary virtue. In the corporate world, for instance, Terris sees new steps to protect potential whistleblowers as efforts to "encourage a situation where the individual does not have to be out on a limb by himself or herself," because "heroism, action taken at great risk ... [is] not going to happen as often as we'd like it to."

It is a step of progress when "we don't need [courage] to negotiate our daily lives," Kidder says. Yet he says courage will always have a role to play, because human beings crave to demonstrate it in rites of passage from youth to adulthood.

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