A police officer, responding to a call of armed robbery, sees a fellow officer lying on the ground, shot. He immediately runs into the line of fire, risking his life to save his colleague’s.
When we read about this event in the news the next day, we unhesitatingly call this officer a hero. And this is true! In his bravery, in his disregard for the risk to himself, he exemplifies the virtue of courage.
But let us say that this same officer is someone who believes that non-violent drug users should not be subject to legal discrimination or prosecution. But, he fails to speak up when opportunities to do so arise. Every day he goes in knowing that the drug war is wrong, but he also knows that if he is to say that aloud within his department, he will be ostracized by the other officers. In failing to do this, is he not failing to show courage?
Indeed, how can the same officer who is so bold in standing up to criminals, and risking everything, his very life, in the line of duty, simultaneously be unable to bring himself to speak up for something that he believes in?
To analyze this, let me break down “courage” into two types.
The first type of courage is the situational (or circumstantial) type of courage. When faced with a situation where there is one action that is universally agreed to be courageous, one can, if he is made of strong enough stuff, demonstrate courage in reacting to the situation correctly. For example: if your regiment is about to charge onto a battlefield, you can demonstrate situational courage by joining the charge, or demonstrate situational cowardice by staying and hiding in the trenches.
The results of demonstrating situational courage are always clear: the situationally courageous hero will receive backslaps, applause, rewards, and medals. Situational heroes are tremendous people, and their acts are valorous and great, but they always can know how their peers will react to their acts of courage. Situational courage always takes place on a very clear horizon.
I must point out that situational courage is not the only type of courage. Though the situationally courageous hero is a tremendous and laudable individual, he not as much a hero as is someone who exemplifies the other type of courage.
This second type of courage is moral courage. When faced with a situation where he is morally uncomfortable, the morally courageous hero speaks his mind about this, no matter what risks he puts himself at by doing so. For example: if there is a war going on, and you are a pacifist, you can demonstrate moral courage by protesting against it, or demonstrate moral cowardice (popularly nicknamed “apathy”) by not speaking up.
The results of demonstrating moral courage are not nearly as favorable as those of demonstrating situational courage are: the morally courageous hero will make people uncomfortable. These uncomfortable people will react with jeers, insults, derision, and threats. Moral courage exists on a murkier horizon, and many contemporaries will view some particular moral hero as an anti-hero.
So, where the situational hero is universally lauded by the community, the moral hero is often booed. The moral hero most often finds himself in tension with the opinions of others.
And, in the context of the judgment of other people, we humans are irrational. Some of us even say that we would prefer to die than to speak before the public! The fear of being judged, the fear of making others uncomfortable, the fear of upsetting the order of things in society – these fears are so great that they can and will overwhelm many otherwise courageous people – even those who are courageous enough to perform great acts of situational courage!
And this is why there are so many police who will engage armed criminals, and so many military who will charge onto battlefields, and so many firefighters who will rush into burning buildings, but yet so few of these people, when they return to work the next day, will speak their minds about injustices that they see around them in the world.
For, indeed, the fear of upsetting the majority, the fear of incurring the derision of their friends and family and neighbors, these are the paramount fears to most people. And this is why the situational heroes outnumber the moral heroes.
A final thought – reflect for a moment on the heroes of the past. Almost all of history’s leaders were great situational heroes when circumstances called for them to be. But the greatest historic leaders, they were also moral heroes. They were the ones who held themselves to high moral standards and never backed down, even when their lives were at risk.
And that is the type of hero who history immortalizes.