Are courage and fearlessness the same thing?
It's a subject on which people differ. Aristotle would say that fearing some things is not only natural, it's wise. It would be wise of us to fear the loss of honor, the loss of reputation and the loss of life. The courageous person is the one who overcomes such fears at important moments. With mindless courage, a person might have no wisdom at all, and yet be physically brave. What's at risk in an instance of moral courage?
Many things. In the case of the nurse working with patients suffering from contagious diseases, her own good health. A judge who goes against popular opinion to uphold the law, especially in some countries, can risk his position, popular good will and sometimes life itself. If the popular opinion is the right opinion, does it take any courage to go along with that?
Not at all as much. It may still take courage to try to implement, because very often people have an opinion about what's right, and the society may not do very much about it. What kinds of situations provoke moral courage?
Nearly all situations. In family life, it can take a lot of courage to keep on working at problems even when they seem overwhelming. With friends, it can take courage to tell them that they are hurting themselves or other people, or to refuse to go along with something that friends ask you to do. In political and religious life, courage is involved when it becomes a question of standing up for what one believes in, even at personal risk. Is moral courage a necessary part of physical courage?
Physical courage is often expressed so quickly that there is no chance to stand back and think, "Do I want to do this in a righteous cause?" And moral courage is when a person has a chance to think about what he's about to do?
Yes, exactly. Practical wisdom should go into the decision. What happens to the person who always leads a life of moral courage?
It's hard for me to imagine someone so noble. Most of us have to select the times at which we're going to stand up for what we believe. But I would say it's very unlikely to do that over and over without suffering some of the consequences. So it's not only taking risks that's important, but also suffering occasionally as a result?
Yes, I think that's very important from the point of view of the example that you set. If we think of people like Lech Walesa, Raoul Wallenberg, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, their examples are especially important, because they give other people the sense of not being alone --that there are people who are willing to suffer for what they believe in. Does literature play any role in our ideas of moral courage?
Yes, I think literature plays an immense role, to the extent that people are familiar with it. Not only in giving us examples of courage but in making us understand how moral decisions become important for people and how they struggle with themselves to decide what to do. Is there always a struggle?
No, I don't think so. There are times when it's very clear what you shouldn't or should do. In the latter case, there can still be a struggle over whether you have the strength to carry it out. Are there situations where there is just no right thing?
Well, there are situations where all the choices are dismal. It may still be right to refuse to go along with any of the dismal alternatives. Let's say that somebody's trying to force you to commit one of two evil acts. Then, the courage may enter into it when you say, "I'm sorry, I can't do either one." And that, depending on the circumstances, can place you at enormous risk. The book, Sophie's Choice, poses such a nightmarish question; the Nazis were masters at putting people in that position. Is there any point in showing moral courage when it's clearly self-destructive and useless?
It's very hard to know in advance that one is going to fail. Defeatists are the people who say, "It's not worth struggling for; it's bound to fail." If everyone argued like that, very little would get done in the world. Inner strength and courage go together.
But it's not enough just to have inner strength. It must always be supplemented by honesty in looking squarely at the dangers, and wisdom in weighing what to do. And humility, I think, in recognizing that one might be wrong. That comes up very often. In most exercises of courage, some humility is necessary, and it sometimes results in a change of mind. So in any case of moral courage, the person must consider the possibility that he may be wrong?
Absolutely. It's almost a process of purposely chipping away at your resolve, isn't it?
But you can come out of that process and say, "I still think I'm right." Why don't politicians show more moral courage?
Many do show courage. We may not even know about all the ones who do. Sometimes it can take courage to do something that will never be in the headlines. Just where are these politicians who show moral courage and keep it a secret?
They don't necessarily keep it a secret. Maybe the press simply doesn't pay attention to them. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in our society does not promote the exercise of political courage. By the time politicians take office they've invested so much in their own success that it may be very hard for them to risk too much. The political process, in fact, fosters a kind of self-concern: concern for personal safety or personal success that may not be most conducive to moral courage. That's the general atmosphere not only in politics but in our society.