Courage

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.”

Hamlet

In the comments to my last post, Andrew quite literally encouraged me to speak my mind. Truth be told, I’ve always been ambivalent about “intellectual courage”. Sometimes the exercise of our ethical obligations seems to require us to be courageous. But is courage itself an ethical obligation?

Courage is, of course, a virtue and it is presumably what is required of us when we “speak truth to power”. In the paradigm case, some form of social power asks us to lie or to remain silent, and when we defy this power we exercise courage. The consequences can be quite serious because, in so far as the power is real, it is also dangerous. If the powerful person or institution we are defying chooses to punish us for speaking the truth, then it has, by definition, the power to do so.

To understand my ambivalence, consider the ethical obligations that follow from being physically strong. “Ought,” they say, “implies can.” If someone is trapped under a car I have an ethical obligation to lift the car off them, but only, of course, if I have the strength to do so. Is courage a kind of “strength” in that sense?

Courage is a virtue and cowardice is a vice. But some part of our everyday moral psychology also sees them as character traits, i.e., as qualities we are either born with or develop through practice but, in any case, simply have a certain amount of at any given time. Suppose I know a “truth” that “power” would have me remain silent about. To speak it is to risk my career. Now, suppose I simply lack the courage to do it. I’m a “coward”, to be sure, but am I violating my ethics? How much courage can be demanded of my ethical behavior?

We are getting to the core of the issue I want to raise. How much courage should it take to speak the truth in an academic environment? Should it take courage to tell someone they are wrong?

On the one hand, we’d think universities would be a premier site of intellectual courage, much like the military should offer regular occasions for valour.* But let’s think this through. Suppose speaking the truth generally takes a great deal of courage. We will then rely on “heroes” to know what is going on. As students, we must assume that learning how the world works will itself require a great deal of courage, not just intelligence and diligence. Worse, the pressures that require truth-tellers to be courageous would also, of course, make cowards of the rest of us, those of us who are disinclined towards heroic acts of speaking truth to power.

In fact, what our academic institutions ought to do is to insulate inquirers from the social pressures that would require them to be courageous. Perhaps we could say an academic should never have to speak truth to power, but always to knowledge, i.e., to something that won’t hurt them, but might correct them. Don’t we want to know truths even if they are discovered by natural born cowards?

From this point of view, it is unfortunate that academics do, throughout the course of their career, amass real, if somewhat parochial, power. They have the power to exploit (and even harass and abuse) their students, for example, or the power to promote ideologies or products, sometimes for something as base as money. Finally, academics have the power to promote or obstruct their colleagues in their careers.

I want here to focus on the cases in which the abuse of power is also the distortion of truth. Sexual harassment, while certainly wrong, and often worse than intellectual dishonesty, does not directly distort our understanding of a given social phenomenon or exaggerate our confidence in a particular theory. (Because of the concomitant lying, to be sure, it does distort the reality experienced by the harassed persons and their colleagues. But this is not a fully or, if you will, a “merely” academic distortion.)

While it seems petty, and certainly unethical, there is really no question about whether academics have an incentive to punish each other for pointing out each other’s mistakes. An academic who is known for making mistakes will be less successful than one who is known for getting things right. So, if I have the power to prevent someone from pointing out my mistakes, I also, whatever else is true, have an incentive to use it. I may simply bribe the would-be truth-teller with promises of advancement, or I may threaten them with unpleasant consequences. This would be unethical.

In an ethical environment, of course, we would trust that I will not be punished for pointing out a mistake. But this will probably require that no one is ever punished for making them (removing the incentive to punish me for pointing it out). That is, I would be able even to be wrong about your mistakes, more or less without consequences. That’s a truly “utopian” situation.

The dystopian situation, however, is one in which it is very dangerous to speak what Al Gore famously called “an inconvenient truth”. Science would only be done by heroes, and, since these are rare, we would have to resign ourselves to the fact that most scientists are intellectual cowards. In my view, ethics is what ensures that only a reasonable, “ordinary” if you will, amount of courage is needed. We would, for the most part, rely on the decency of our colleagues.** And it would also ensure that science, as a social institution, wouldn’t have much need for cowards; wouldn’t encourage them, if you will.

We will, no doubt, always have to speak the truth, if we speak it at all, to some form of power. And so our knowledge will always depend to some extent on our intellectual courage. We can hope, however, that it does not depend on heroic amounts of courage. That same situation is much more likely to make cowards of most of us.
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*Movies that construe soldiers as heroes are, of course, very common. But we sometimes forget how rare they make real courage seem, even among soldiers. In most war movies (and novels), most members of the military, often including high-level officers, are “just following orders”, many of them out of lust for reward or fear of punishment. Much of the conflict pits the hero against these mediocrities.

Indeed, it is possible to raise the question of whether the modern army isn’t actually an attempt to wage war without courage or valour. (This is a common critique of drones, but was already an issue in the British navy, I was once told, when missiles were introduced that allowed one ship to sink another it couldn’t see.) Modernity aside, perhaps this has always been the purpose of a standing army; kings and emperors were finding heroes a bit too rare or too capricious (or perhaps even too honourable!) to realize their foreign policies.

**There’s probably an important relationship between courage and decency. I will explore this in a later post.