In my last post I put forth the argument that there are two broad categories of virtues; those that are morals and those that are character strengths. I assigned ‘courage’ specifically in the camp of those virtues that are character strengths rather than morals.
A reader posted and disagreed with me, saying that he often asks himself “what is the courageous act?” to determine whether an act would be right or wrong. I’m going to argue in this post that, although this question may provide a useful clue as to whether the act would be right or wrong, it does not determine whether the act is right or wrong.
Let’s begin with a simple thought experiment. You are walking down a street at night and pass by an alley. In the alley you see two people assaulting a single person. You have two choices; you can get involved and help the person being assaulted, or you can keep walking. Helping the victim would be courageous; after all, you might get hurt in doing so. But here is the crucial point; you would not get involved simply because doing so would be courageous. The plain fact is that you would be acting on a moral imperative that is separate and distinct from courage. It could be; compassion, the desire to help a fellow human in distress; justice, the desire to thwart crime; or simply fairness, the desire to even the odds in the fight. Whichever is the case for you personally, it is the moral imperative that compels you to act, not your courage. Having the courage to act on that moral imperative is the character strength that allows you to take the action.
Courage does not exist in the absence of intent. I would suggest as well that the ADF definition of courage agrees with me in this:
Courage: the ability to act appropriately in the face of adversity.
Read carefully, this defines courage as an ability. Courage does not tell you what is “appropriate”. That is the role of your morals. Rather, courage is the strength of character which is necessary to take that action in the face of adversity.