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May 28, 2009



I would actually define courage as an attitude toward fear. If I truly don't fear death in any respect, then jumping on a grenade isn't as courageous in one respect, though it remains a selfless act. We have limited control over what we fear, but we have a great deal of say over how much we let fear control us. My wife has fairly severe social anxiety but will face social situations that terrify her if she feels it's morally prescribed. That is courage despite those same scenarios offering me no discomfort, much less fear.

Further, when traveling I frequently am not sure just what will happen and I don't mind the uncertainty. My mother, on the other hand, gets very worried at the prospect of schedules diverging from plan. I don't think this makes me relatively more courageous; I'm merely less fearful.

Ultimately, however, there's so much overlap between fear and uncertainty that the two are almost always consonant.

Nathan Smith

But what is fear? :)


Though of course fear isn't easy to define - indeed, it's probably not definable past a certain point in a manner similar to baldness - the autonomic nervous system state associated with fear is so consistent and recognizable that one might be tempted to say that fear is the feeling experienced when the autonomic nervous system is doing X. This isn't always true, however, since certain conditions can divorce verbal consciousness from anything we would ordinarily describe as fear when the autonomic nervous system is doing its thing. Is the person fearful and doesn't know it? Are they not fearful but parts of their brains acting in a fear-like way? Is there any fact of that matter?

Take that!


Courage is not an introspective feeling as much as it is a quality ascribed to by others. We call people courageous who don't necessarily feel anything particularly different from what they normally feel. For instance, I might say it takes a lot of courage for a woman to dress like a westerner in an area dominated by the Taliban, but she might be completely oblivious of the danger or simply not care. A lot of times kids will do dangerous and reckless things that would give most adults pause, and we may say the kids have a lot of courage because we would be afraid to do the things they do, but the fact may be that they just haven't experienced the possible consequences of the danger yet, and thus have yet to develop the fear that we have. If a person does not experience fear when doing an action, in what way can we say they feel courage?

On the other hand, is a hypochondriac courageous when doing basically anything? Maybe the hypochondriac thinks so, but the rest of us don't. We do not generally call someone courageous when doing something that we ourselves don't fear.

Courage is a quality projected by others onto the courageous, and reflects more truth about those doing the projecting than the ones being projected on.

Joyless Moralist

"If X loves Y, A maximizes V = U(CX) + aU(CY), where CX=consumption by X, CY=consumption by Y (consumption can be as broadly defined as necessary); "a" represents the degree of love. It's a bit makeshift but captures a substantial part of the reality in a crisp, logical way."

Since I don't see how this even remotely captures the concept of love, I'm probably not the person to ask here, but if courage is to be a *virtue*, I say that we need to be able to distinguish between objects. The courageous person is the one who withstands dangers when appropriate, but is also prepared to flee when reason dictates. If you classify it as merely a willingness to endure trials or accept risks, it can't be a virtue, because it may or may not be a good thing.

Nathan Smith

Do you think "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" captures the concept of love (even remotely)?


"it can't be a virtue, because it may or may not be a good thing."

This is a very interesting statement. I wonder if anything can truly be a virtue by this rationale? It seems that at extremes there is only vice, and moderation in all things is virtuous. Perhaps in this system only Prudence is a virtue.

"The courageous person is the one who withstands dangers when appropriate, but is also prepared to flee when reason dictates."

Courage is thus not a virtue unless Prudence is also involved, as you claim by using the predicates "when appropriate" and "when reason dictates".


"Do you think 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you' captures the concept of love (even remotely)?"

Kant's Categorical Imperative? "Love" is a squishy word: it has meant so many things that it no longer has any firmness to it. If when you say "Love", you're really referring to the Golden Rule, it would probably be best to simply invoke the Golden Rule directly instead of contributing to the squishiness of Love.

Joyless Moralist

"Do unto others" is not a definition of the virtue of love. It's an injunction for how to behave towards others. It's listed as one of several injunctions, in fact, that Christ gives to people in instructing them how to treat people. Of course there is a *relationship* between treating people well and loving them, but that doesn't mean that the one adequately defines the other.

As far as Tom's remarks on courage... actually, what you say is quite near the mark, I think. It's very Aristotelian of you to place virtue as a mean between extremes, and you are absolutely right when you say that prudence is a necessary regulator of the other moral virtues. Without prudence, no other moral virtue will be complete. I also think, by the way, that prudence ultimately requires the other virtues in order to maintain itself. Hence the classical insistence (which I, you won't be surprised to hear, take entirely seriously) that the virtues must necessarily come as a unity.

Nathan Smith

Hmm. It hardly seems like writing down a mathematical formula is making love too "squishy"; rather, it is making it misleadingly precise. An "altruism coefficient" seems like a good description of "Gift-Love" in C.S. Lewis's *The Four Loves*, but not at all a description of "Need-Love." But enough on that, which to the extent that it's interesting at all would be better discussed in the comments to my longer post "What Would a Universal Altruist Look Like?" Of course it's also too focused on action and doesn't address the feelings involved.

JM's definition of courage is in a way question-begging. When is it "appropriate" to withstand dangers, and when does "reason dictate" fleeing? But of course, that might be OK; maybe it is impossible to understand courage without understanding something else. Yet I share Tom's worry that courage then collapses into a special case of some other virtue, such as prudence, or perhaps altruism. I would be more satisfied with a definition that gave the definition of courage a certain distinctness from other virtues.

Would it be possible for a man to be courageous without being just, or prudent, or altruistic? Could one fight bravely for Hitler, or in defense of stolen goods? Were the Crusaders who marched against Saladin-- assume that, in all the military circumstances, it was a strategic folly, sure to accomplish nothing but their own deaths, but that it was dangerous and for a cause they regarded not implausibly as good-- brave? My intuition says yes. If so, one might not want to attach courage too closely to other virtues like justice or prudence.

Nathan Smith

Hmm... I hadn't read JM's comment before I wrote that one. Obviously she answers some of my questions (from her own perspective). Very interesting.


Very interesting. I suspect at this point that so-called courage cannot exist without social sanction--however internalized. This is because, when you think about it, if courage could be a "private" virtue, it would be nothing more than the rational absence of risk aversion, in which case we could never distinguish "privately" the concept of courage from others like wisdom or intelligence in a large sense--as we ordinarily do. Courage cannot both be called a virtue and be irrational from a single point of view. Which is why, it cannot be love of risk in general (without qualification), as love of risk may well be irrational. So really the judgment requires a social reference: certain forms of risk-seeking or uncertainty-indifferent behaviors are praised by certain societies, and their quality is called "courage."

My reasoning could be wrong of course. Corrections welcome if anyone else ever reads this.


AK says "...if courage could be a "private" virtue, it would be nothing more than the rational absence of risk aversion..." then "Courage cannot both be called a virtue and be irrational from a single point of view"

Is it rational (in AK's view) to sacrifice oneself for a greater good? Also, if a person overcomes a fear in order to do something wise or good, can that be counted as a rational absence of risk aversion, or should we say something more like: 'The aversion remains, but her rationality is stronger'?

Basically, I think there's more unpacking to be done here before I would want to evaluate AK's position. I still think teh most useful way of defining courage is with terms of one's ability and willingness to act toward the good (as personally understood) in the face of fear*.

*Or in the face of personally-relevant risk, if one prefers a less loaded term than 'fear'. So, if I don't care about money at all, then its loss is not a personally relevant risk and it requires no courage for me to hazard it.


nato, it seems perfectly possible to value things beyond one's own survival; and therefore it is only rational to pay the necessary price for the sake of those things, whatever they are--including that of our life when necessary.

Perhaps we can rephrase the expression "overcoming an irrational fear" as "overcoming an irrational risk-aversion," or again as "LOSING the anticipation of a risk of loss of a valued asset or opportunity associated with some behavior(s), where EITHER no such risk exists OR such risk exists but cannot be avoided (except perhaps at a greater loss)." To lose such an anticipation (behavioral, perhaps even emotional and cognitive) is to be in transition from an irrational disposition to a rational one. What I am saying is that, if, say, there had always existed only one mind in the world, that mind, if it could distinguish any concepts at all, would not be able to distinguish, while she was undergoing that transition, between telling herself "I was stupid but now I am becoming smart" and "I was not courageous but now I am becoming courageous." In other words, there would be no way of distinguishing between acting intelligently and acting courageously--whereas human societies have used these words "courage" and "intelligence" quite distinctly. I conclude therefore that society created that distinction.

The initial post made an interesting distinction between risk and uncertainty (see also Frank Knight). If we can assign different probabilities to our only two options in a game, A and B (two choices for the same initial payoff), then we can in principle rationally choose between them. But if we have only uncertainty, then from a rational point of view I would say that we "should" be indifferent between our options. Furthermore, hesitating or even feeling fear at the moment of choice would be irrational (because fear, by the way, does carry a cost--like an advance on an anticipated loss--if only because it feels bad). But, of course, our romantic idea of courage does not square perfectly with this notion of indifference, I suspect because that idea is loaded with all sorts of social suggestions.

Again, my entire reasoning is based on the idea that courage cannot be both good for me and irrational to me.


I think that clarifies things enough for me to be fairly sure of where our thinking diverges. Specifically, I think that rationality comes into things because when one defines the 'good,' there's a natural assumption of its rational derivation. While necessary, then, it is not sufficient. Neither does AK think it sufficient, of course, but AK allocates the distinction to two further items: 1)the transition away from a mistaken aversion and 2) the attendant social approbation or opprobrium. I allocate the distinction based on 1)whether the action in question presents a personally-relevant risk and 2) whether that action is morally good, however the actor construes this. A soldier charging a foxhole has presumably already encoded in his reactions an evaluation of his cause and the value of his fellow soldiers' lives, but there may not be any point where he transitions away from mistaken aversion to risking his life in this way. In fact, it's hard to see how it could be rational *not* to have an aversion to risking ones life so. If the soldier has shed all care about personal safety, we call him berserk, not courageous. Construed this way, courage remains a useful distinction, marking the propensity to do right even when the course of action prescribed engenders fear. Of course, society has standard things that are considered "courageous" and doesn't always examine the details, so plenty of berserkers get labeled courageous while others facing fears not widely shared or understood aren't accorded the term, but nevertheless, I think I've described the enduring function of the term.

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