Without doubt, courage is something we all esteem. How else can we justify our idolisation of soldiers risking their lives in faraway battlefields and fictional superheroes saving the day? There is no paucity of courageous images in our society; from traditional spear-wielding warriors to contemporary medal-adorned uniformed sergeants. From national heroes who lead their countries to victorious wars to the community hero who is bent on saving a tree from being chopped down by a major construction company looking to set up a new shopping complex. We are saturated by images of courage. Yet in the words of Mark Twain, “It is curious–curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”
What exactly is moral courage that it is so rare? Moral courage is doing the right thing simply because it is right, especially in the face of opposition. Moral courage is holding on to one’s values and principles when others choose to let go. Moral courage is what characterizes those who face the pains and dangers of disapproval in the execution of what they believe to be their obligation. To have moral courage is to be willing to speak out and act for that which is right even in the face of opposing, even superior forces. It is having the strength of character to do the right thing, even if it is not popular-especially if it is not popular. It is shunning the “easy wrong” for the “hard right.” Moral courage is less about the lofty resolve of right versus wrong and more about striving to be loyal to one’s moral values while engaging in a process of ethical reasoning, moral thinking and personal determination of what matters. Moral courage does not exist in a vacuum; it is linked to our core moral values and constitutes a willingness to stand up for fundamental virtues, such as honesty, fairness, fidelity, respect, integrity and responsibility.
If moral courage encompasses all these wonderful attributes, why is there so little of it? What makes moral courage so daunting is that it usually necessitates a robust emotional and psychological effort to go against the grain. The term moral courage itself recognizes the test of character it often takes to stand up for what is right in the real world. The quest for moral courage involves not only an understanding but also a taking up of our responsibilities.
The many freedoms that we enjoy today have been purchased with the blood, tears and sacrifice of countless men and women who were simply doing what they felt obligated to do, when they needed to do it. Moral courage is not a complicated concept, really, for in its mundane form it is merely the act of doing the right thing when it is much easier to do otherwise. Without doubt, physical courage can and is demanded and executed on many occasions in all walks of life, but in strenuous, complex circumstances, it is moral courage that makes the difference. Nelson Mandela is a beacon of moral courage. He transformed the dark historical legacy of South Africa and unified a racially segregated people because he had moral courage. Drawing lessons from Mandela’s life, we must continuously and boldly resist complacency and fear from paralyzing us. We must, because apathy like evil is something we must constantly defy. Moral courage does not always have to be a majestic, pompous act. Moral courage plays itself out daily, hourly, in the interstices of our lives, sometimes in the most trivial of our acts.
While there can be no best practices for moral courage as these kinds of situations call for a unique set of skills, perceptions and personal judgement, there can be a general process about acting from a place of moral courage and working on some of the shortcomings that prevent us from exhibiting moral courage both in our personal and professional lives as social changemakers. First a moral situation must exist and we must recognize it as such. At times such a decision involves value conflict, not always a choice between good and evil, but sometimes between two “conflicting” goods. Secondly, we must make a moral choice that we feel is best given our moral convictions. Thirdly, we must then decode that choice into behavior. One of the most common failures of moral courage is docility or callousness. Indeed what good is a strong conviction about any virtue if there is no disposition to execute it when it is most needed? Without the moral courage to act, conviction is pointless. Then we must understand that it is normal to feel fear in these kinds of situations. The important thing is not a lack of fear, but facing and then overcoming that fear. This kind of courage is best defined by John Wayne, who said that “courage is being scared to death–and saddling up anyway.” Lastly, we need to constantly look for situations that demand moral courage. Practice and repetition are the building blocks of moral courage. Eleanor Roosevelt in You Learn by Living wrote, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” Jeopardy lies in rejecting to face fear, in daring not to oppose the majority, in shunning our responsibilities.
Indeed it would be splendid if moral courage could be clearly tabulated, if it was founded on a set of clearly outlined precepts and that to do the right thing simply meant to conform to these set tenets. Unfortunately, that is not how it works. The encounters which demand moral courage require tremendous intricacy and acumen. To even begin to know what is right in these kinds of situations requires much integrity and perception, an evolving probing in the moment, and a constant navigation among our moral values.
Moral courage may sound like a lofty idea but it is actually a simple and feasible quality, one that each of us should aspire for and cultivate within ourselves because without it, our brightest virtues risk becoming dim and eventually dying out but with it we build, piece by piece, a more moral world.