On courage

What is courage? Let’s start with a working definition. A courageous act is one which is performed in spite of a danger (or of something taken as such), but only if it is possible to perform it.

Fear (psychologically conceived) seems irrelevant here. A simple way to show that it is so could be this. Suppose some being was in principle able to feel fear, but it was in fact fearless. Now suppose that being was in principle unable to act. If you wish, you could think of her as a necessarily contemplative being. However, since thinking could be still regarded as an act (one could speak of courageous thoughts), perhaps we should think of it as a non-thinking being. We could conceive it as an immobile non-thinking animal which could have sentiments (psychologically conceived). Even if for whatever causes it was lacking the feeling of fear, we would not speak about courage with respect to it. It cannot perform courageous acts (or any acts, for that matter), so how could it be courageous? To ask whether it was would be similar to asking whether a number is green or not.

Here the point is not to provide counterexamples – to show that one can be courageous in spite of feeling fear or to show that one could simply lack courage in spite of not feeling fear. The point is to show that the psychological state of fear – which one could identify in a non-thinking animal – has absolutely nothing to do with courage, in the same way in which no “royal sentiment” could have anything to do with playing the social role of royalty.

Actually, a “no private language” thinker should perhaps say that fear is just some brain state identified by its functional role – it is caused by perceiving a situation as dangerous and produces some bodily changes (and the reluctance to perform certain acts in those animals which are able to do so).

From this point of view, a neuroscientist might tell us a lot of things about what happens in the brain and the body of a person performing “an act of courage” and in doing so she might talk about fear, but if she was an eliminativist it would be more clear that what she says is not relevant to our concept of courage. This is because we reserve our concept of courage for persons performing intentional actions (i.e. actions under some descriptions) which they assume responsibility for a.s.o.

Now, what is a danger, what is it to do something “in spite of danger” and how should we modify the qualification according to which an act performed in spite of danger is courageous only if it is possible to perform it?

A danger is something which could render a person unable to act (in different ways).

“So there are no courageous thoughts?”

Thinking, I would say, is simulated speech. It is not essentially private, but by being private makes some consequences (being imprisoned, killed, punished in other ways, stopped from doing similar things etc.) improbable. This, however, does not exclude all dangers. Perhaps there are dangerous thoughts. They are such that by thinking them one would render oneself unable to perform certain acts. Pondering on some atheist arguments might render a Christian unable to pray to God anymore. In this respect, those thoughts could be considered dangerous and the believer who is willing to consider them could be considered courageous.

“So, if you are a serial killer, undergoing a psychological treatment which might render you unable to kill more people is dangerous?”

Of course it is for you, if you do not want to give up being a killer. Danger does not have to be a moral concept.

“So courage is not necessarily a moral concept?”

This is what I think.

“In any case, you would distinguish between something being a danger and something being a danger for a person, right?”

Sure. Also, this is a different distinction from: something being a danger vs. something being “perceived” as a danger.

“So, if I do not care about being able to skate and I use a skateboard, which I was only carrying as a gift for someone else, to save somebody, destroying it in the process, and there were no other dangers involved etc. I am not courageous?”

I suppose not.

“But if it was important for me to be able to write using a certain pen and I use it to save somebody while wrongly believing that I could damage my pen in the process, am I courageous?”

The second case only raises the problem of what should one perceive as a danger.

“Isn’t ‘perceiving’ something as dangerous’ also a psychological state? If so, why should it be relevant when fear (conceding that it could be a different state) is not?”

Perhaps we could talk about what should be considered dangerous instead. Thus, a revised definition would be:

An act A is courageous iff:
(a) It is possible (or even feasible) to perform A,
(b) A is performed in spite of D, and
(c) D should be considered dangerous.

And then we could add that an act A is performed in spite of a danger D iff:
(a) By the performance of A the agent of A could be rendered unable to perform other acts (all acts, if the agent dies, or a great part of them – here one could talk about degrees of danger etc.) due to D.
(b) The agent of A cannot do A without facing D.

Here it could be noted that D is not necessarily an act. It is not necessarily an occurring event as well. In fact, perhaps it is never an occurring event, but a possible event.

Let us take an example. There is an earthquake. Instead of running outside, I help some kids etc. (side note: doing what one was responsible to do is considered less courageous; if they were my kids…).

What is the danger I am facing? The earthquake or the collapse of the building I am in?

“The earthquake could cause the collapse, thus killing you. There is a causal chain here. Why not say that you face the danger of dying?”

One could say any of the three, indeed, and perhaps other things as well. In talking about “great courage” we might think of the actual danger or of the “perceived” danger as well. We do all these things. A conceptual proposal, however, could regulate our talk in some ways.

“Sure, but only if it has to do so.”

Ok. Let’s say, then, that in talking about the “perceived danger” we are not interested in a psychological state, but in an appraisal of the danger by the agent. The appraisal could be made at any time (in the same way in which a justification of an action could be provided after the action was performed – we would say that the action was rational even if the agent did not think of that particular justification before performing the action).

So now (c) becomes: The appraisal of D by the agent of A as dangerous is justified.

“So risk evaluation abilities are necessary for courage?”

It seems so. Wouldn’t Aristotle say something similar?

“Does it matter what would Aristotle say?”

Perhaps not. The talk about risks, however, could be useful, since it might simplify a few things. We could, for instance sketch the appraisal of a danger along the following blueprint: “there were j in k chances to get killed, l in m chances of a head injury etc.”

“Indeed. You might want to note, in addition, that the risks involved are not necessarily dependent on the performance of A, since they could depend on a condition for doing A – remaining in the building, in your example above, for instance.”

Quite so. Here it could be asked whether something was a necessary condition for doing A or not.

“What if it wasn’t?”

If it wasn’t, I might have been reckless, not courageous.

“What if you had good reasons to believe it was a necessary condition?”

Then it could be said that my act was courageous.

“Isn’t this getting too complicated?”

I do not think so. It is, however, interesting, since courage admits of degrees (in contrast to knowledge, for instance).

“Do you want to provide a mathematical formula for courage?”

Not necessarily. In any case, the most difficult problem (still) seems to be that of combining “action-talk” with “causal-talk”. One has to do so when talking about courage, since “danger” seems to require some “causal-talk”, while “courage”, as we stipulated in the beginning, has to be used to talk about actions (intentional actions) performed by persons.

“So one could not talk about courage if one wanted to use ‘action-talk’ only?”

Something cannot be dangerous only in virtue of having some logical consequences. One could try to reduce “causal-talk” to “action-talk” (actions figuring in “the space of reasons” etc.), but that would be forceful, in my opinion.

That is, a general reduction would require speakers to radically change the way they talk, while a local reduction would be useless, since the problem would resurface again and again.

So, in short, here it seems that one could make the connection by saying that:
(i) Some of the necessary conditions for an action do not need to be actions, but could be events instead.
(ii) Events could cause effects.

“The problem seems to be with (i).”

Perhaps there is something pertaining to the concept of a necessary condition. Procuring a key is a necessary condition for unlocking a door in the space of reasons, so to speak, while removing an obstacle might be a necessary condition for performing a certain action (in some context) in the “space of nature”.

In any case, one could say that the occurrence of a certain kind of event is always a necessary condition for the performance of a certain kind of action. For instance, it is a necessary condition that my arm raises for me to raise my arm.

“So actions are a kind of events, after all.”

They do not need to be so. Even if A is a necessary condition for B, from this it does not follow that A is some sort of B. Signing a marriage certificate, which is an action, is a necessary condition for being legally married, but being legally married is not some sort of action and it does not have any “ontological weight”.

“So opening the door, conceived as an action, is not necessarily an event and does not need to have any ‘ontological weight’, even if it has the event of ‘the door opening’ as a necessary condition?”


[to be continued]