Courage: Evil People versus Morally Upright Individuals

Are evil people courageous? Indeed, can evil people even be courageous? What intrigues me is that it is far from obvious that the answer is absolutely and without question “Yes”, For instance, there is no doubt whatsoever that Adolf Hitler was out to destroy the Jewish people. And to that end, he exercised considerable power and determination. Yet, if someone were asked to make a list of 10 very, very, very courageous people, it is quite unlikely that he would make that list. Indeed, it is not clear that he would make any list of courageous individuals.

In the struggle for racial equality in the United States, an indisputable truth is that many blacks exhibited considerable courage. For it is well-known that many blacks put their very life on the line in the struggle for equality. But notice that we do not refer to members of the Klu Klux Klan as being courageous, although surely many of them took risks as well in expressing their opposition to the equality of blacks and in the harm that they committed against blacks, including hanging innocent blacks.

What is obvious, of course, is that in terms of the moral nature of the risks taken, there is absolutely a world of difference between the risks taken by members of the KKK and the risks taken by blacks in the struggle for equality. And that is because there is a profound moral difference between (A) making oneself publicly vulnerable in order to achieve a fundamental moral excellence and (B) engaging in sly behavior with the aim of killing another.

The profound difference between (A) and (B) brings out the sublime truth that moral excellence is a constitutive feature of courage. And the behavior of participants in the Civil Rights Movement mightily affirms the point just made; for the objective of the participants was as clear as the night follows the day. And so it was with each and every instance of civil disobedience in which folks engaged. By contrast, KKK folks have always supposed that it is perfectly acceptable for them to be horrifically perceptive in their endeavor to harm blacks.

The honesty that is definitive of being courageous sheds tremendous insight upon why it is that courage is such a deep, deep form of moral excellence; for with courage, there is no deception at all with respect to what is the objective of the moral behavior in which one engages. Whatever KKK folks might have thought about participants in the Civil Rights movement, it was not possible for the KKK folks to say that they were tremendously deceived by Civil Rights activists in the endeavor to bring about equality for blacks. Not at all. Quite the contrary; for it was manifestly clear that people were willing to put their very lives on the line in order to bring about the reality of justice for all. Thus, there is a truly profound respect in which justice was given priority over life itself.

Of course, it is certainly arguable that no one can be required to put her or his life on the line in order to bring about justice. Alas, that truth is quite compatible with the reality that there can be no greater commitment to the realization of justice than the reality that individuals are willing to put their life on the line in order to bring about that reality.

© 2016 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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