Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moral Courage

Image result for moral courageMoved from working on the chapter about fear and courage to the impulse to action component within the survival process which enables courage, however, while researching fear and courage I came across the common military distinction between physical courage and moral courage.
Physical courage is acting in spite of fear. Fighting when Nature screams to flee. Moral courage ... now that is another beast entirely.

Moral courage is doing what is 'right' even though it may be unpopular. Writers on the subject suggest that men are prepared to walk into the face of cannons but are reluctant to stand up and be recognised when moral courage is required. In fact, they suggest that those with moral courage possess physical courage but those with physical courage do not necessarily possess moral courage.

From my work, what I am investigating is the role of emotion in the moral concept of courage. Physical courage involves the use of will-power to override the instinctive impulses of fear. Moral courage does not tend to involve the emotion of fear. It involves the cognitive/intellectual concept of fear but not the 'real' emotional experience of fear.

I was involved with a school where a particular situation tested the moral courage of the instructors and senior personnel. To a person they failed. There is no doubt they possessed physical courage as they'd demonstrated it on many occasions, however, they failed when moral courage was called for. Why? How?

Loyalty is the enemy of moral courage. Take the military for instance. Loyalty to the chain of command, to a commander, to one's own fellow troops can compromise an individual's moral courage.

The most common way to train physical courage is to engage in 'realistic' training. How do you train moral courage? ... and does it really matter?


  1. Hmmm, not sure I can agree with your assessment of physical courage vs. moral courage. In my mind there is no such thing as physical courage, i.e., courage is a product of our mind-set and mind-state. To act always takes a mind-set in taking that first step especially when facing fear.

    Physical actions come from a mind-set to act regardless of any emotional state, it is a mind-set and mind-state that overcomes the normal effects of fear, etc.

    Even moral courage to act when all else says don't is also a product of fear and fear is only overcome from a decision making process solely within out own minds.

    I do get the sense of what you are trying to say simply because we all tend to think of actions in self-defense, combat, fighting or other as a physical act of courage and in a sense it is true but reality says it is a psychological courage from a moral state that is also courage.

    In my view there is not distinction between psychological or moral, both are demonstrated as courage when done for a moral and social benefit.

    I would say to act in a moral manner is courage.

    1. G'day Charles

      Thanks for commenting. It's good to engage in conversation over these and other issues.

      (a) It's not my distinction between physical and moral courage. It is a common one espoused by various militaries around the world. In fact, it goes back to Plato and Aristotle.

      (b) Emotion involves an appraisal process which elicits a subjective feeling that motivates an action tendency that a physiological reaction prepares the body to enact.

      Contemplating doing something that is unpopular may or may not elicit an emotion. In fact, various authorities also refer to 'cognitive emotions' which are not 'emotion emotions.'

      Physical courage refers to overcoming the emotion of fear which was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual. It is the use of intellect to overcome emotion, and as I'm writing, it is only possible because of the decoupling of stimulus and response by the impulse to action component in the emotion process.

      Without that decoupling, there would be no possibility of courage in whatever form.

      Courage is a fascinating subject. Read The Mystery of Courage by Ian Miller. Fascinating. How do you train physical courage; the use of will-power to override the emotion of fear? Through realistic training according to most military experts. The irony is that through realistic training you reduce the fear experienced on the battlefield which in turn reduces the need for courage/will-power to override fear.

      Where I started thinking about this is when writers talk about the fear of failure or letting your mates down overriding the fear of death and injury on the battlefield. Is the former a 'real' fear, i.e. is it an emotion? I'm coming to the conclusion that it is not and is more aptly described as a 'cognitive emotion' at best.

      Still a fascinating subject.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.