Saturday, February 29, 2020

There is no courage in acting contrary to justice

There is an old debate on whether one can exhibit courage when acting in an unjust cause. I used to think that one can. But now that seems obviously wrong, given that courage is a mean between defect and excess of daring:

  1. Needlessly braving danger is not courageous.

  2. Unjust actions are needless.

  3. So, unjustly braving danger is not courageous.

Perhaps one might object to 2, on the grounds that unjust actions might be needed for some good. But one does need to do them, since no one needs to achieve the good at the expense of unjustice.

One can also vary the above argument into an a fortiori one: If braving danger pointlessly is not courageous, then a fortiori braving danger for the sake of an unjust goal is not courageous.

All that said suggests, however, that the traditional term “foolhardiness” for excess of daring isn’t quite right. For we wouldn’t call every unjust person who acts daringly for the unjust end “foolhardy”. I guess the person who acts daringly for an unjust end is worse than foolhardy: the foolhardy person’s end is good but not sufficient to justify braving the danger, while when the end is unjust, it is not only not sufficient to justify braving the danger, but it is sufficient to justify not braving the danger.


Martin Cooke said...

I think that your original intuition was correct: surely some individual could be exhibiting courage and not know that his or her cause was unjust. I am thinking of that individual being in a group ... or would his or her personal cause of loyalty be sufficiently just? It just seems to me that courage is not that closely connected to the justness of the cause. On a personal level, one might have unjust causes, perhaps because one was mad, and yet still be courageous, I feel.

Helen Watt said...


Isn't it a problem, though, that the wisdom or justice of the dangerous intervention may be a finely-balanced thing? In at least those cases, surely someone who makes the wrong judgement call whether about running into a too-hot burning building, or about the justice of some complex military operation, is showing the virtue of courage in so doing even if lacking in prudence or justice to some very slight extent. Bearing in mind that a prudent person could still be blamelessly ignorant of the facts (though someone who got most facts wrong however blamelessly could not be prudent).

After acting boldly/bravely in such a case, the person is surely more likely to act bravely in the future when a more just and prudent cause comes up. On the other hand, perhaps someone acting 'boldly' in the SS is also more likely to run into (hot but not impossibly hot) burning buildings to save his family and admittedly, it's less tempting to call him courageous than someone who makes a hairbreadth moral mistake.

Martin Cooke:

I think you're right about the mad person showing courage, though might we not have to accept that certain virtues are just less available at times when we're not compos mentis? Prudence is surely less available - which is not to say it's not available at all.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree with the criticisms. Indeed, it seems that 2 is false. For there can be a moral need to do an unjust action, namely if one's conscience requires it.

The same issue shows up with the pointless case: an action can be pointless but courageous, if one doesn't know that it's pointless.

The reason I didn't notice this is that the cases that interested me--and that I had my initial intuitions about--were actually cases where the agent knows that the action is unjust. I was thinking of things like the "brave" bank robber.

So I want to modify the argument (and its conclusions) by replacing "unjust" with "known to be unjust".

Griffin the Grey said...

If it is 'unknown to be unjust' then is it courageous or just brave?

Perhaps fool hardy exists for this: 'brave, but unknowingly wrong, and so not courageous', category of actions.

So, behaviourally indistinguishable from courage (brave action) yet a different moral category (fool-hardy, or whatever), due to non-behavioural elements.


Alexander R Pruss said...


Maybe, but I don't think so. Suppose I see a child in front of a train, and I jump in front of the train and throw the child to safety---and then the train suddenly stops, because unbeknownst to me it has been equipped with a superb new automatic breaking system. Then what I did was in one sense pointless, and hence was even in one sense unjust (it is unjust to my family to risk my life pointlessly), but it was indisputably courageous.

One might try to distinguish between cases where the error rests on empirical judgments (such as whether the train will stop) and ones where it rests on normative judgments (such as whether it is permissible to rob banks). But I do not think there is a morally significant hard-and-fast line between the two kinds of error.

Helen Watt said...


Leaping does sound courageous though pointless - but is it really unjust for you to leap if you're blamelessly unaware of the facts? Also, when you say there's a moral need to do an unjust action - isn't there rather a negative duty, compatible with other negative duties, not to choose against your conscience? If your conscience tells you to do something unjust, maybe that's one of those situations where the right thing to do is unfortunately unavailable to you: it's wrong to do X in bad faith, and it's also wrong to do Y in good faith - X in good faith is what you should do, but you honestly can't see that just at the moment (it's all a bit complicated and/or you're easily confused and/or you only have a split second left to decide).