Reposted from September 11, 2009, in honor of the heroes herein commemorated:
May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.
In recent weeks I have distinguished and criticized numerous distinct belief formation and justification practices which go by the name of “faith.” I have argued that it is neither rational nor ethically responsible to believe in propositions for whose truth you do not have sufficient evidence. It is neither rational nor ethically responsible to believe people on authority when they do not have adequately demonstrated qualifications as authorities (or worse, when their credentials are in principle unverifiable). It is intellectually dishonest and unethical to commit yourself to a course of deliberate rationalization to make yourself believe what you want to believe in order to preserve your way of life or your tradition when either lack adequate rational justifications. It is detrimental to the development and advance of human reason to inculcate in children habits of rationalization, superstition, and traditionalism out of fear they will think differently than I (or we) do now.
And along the way, I’ve argued that while faith is a form of trust, it’s not a virtuous kind. We also have some rational processes of belief formation from intuition which reliably yield true beliefs. These processes are distinguishable from specifically faith-based beliefs because in the case of faith, we do not generate beliefs which can then be double checked for rational justification after the fact but instead by faith we refuse subsequent demands for justification altogether and refuse all genuine doubt as an option. Rejecting faith means acknowledging that we can rely on gut intuitions as gut intuitions only until we have reasons to doubt them, at which point they must be scrutinizable or have belief in them be suspended or altogether abandoned. I have also rejected defining faith as the rational decision to act on the hope that something unlikely yet still significantly possible is the case. In many such cases such hope is justified and actions in accord with that hope are justified but neither belief that the hoped for situation is the case nor the faith commitment to deliberately believe in the hoped for scenario are rationally justified.
Now it comes time to explore faith’s complicated relationship to courage. I love the Bruce Springsteen quoted above and every time I hear it I struggle with his use of the word faith. Did the amazingly courageous firefighters who died on September 11, 2001 have faith? We should take from them inspirations to hope, strength, and love, for sure—but did they have “faith” and should we wish that they give us “faith”? Let’s distinguish the various components of their bravery:
1. They acted on moral duty. It seems to me wholly rational for them to respond to their sense of duty with action. Of itself, that requires no faith but only a rational grasp of what their obligation requires of them and a powerful will capable of motivating themselves to follow it out, even in the face of mortal danger. This can be justified without faith-based reasoning but entirely in terms of rationalistic moral arguments.
2. Despite some qualifications I may discuss at another time, I generally agree with the Aristotelian view of courage such that the firefighters would not have been courageous in an admirable way if they recklessly put themselves in danger at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way. Their courage, to be the most admirable species of courage, must have been guided by rational decisions about what the good was and how best to achieve it.
By contrast, the religious fools flying the airplanes into the buildings were reckless rather than courageous precisely because they chose their date with mortality out of irrational and palpably immoral faith-based beliefs. They were motivated by belief in what are rationally demonstrable lies.
But the firefighters were motivated by rationally defensible moral principles of duty that bound them to commit to dying for the sake of saving however many they could in those buildings. Many of the firefighters must have realized they were effectively on a suicide mission but also understood that sometimes the moral and rationally defensible thing is to face one’s death in the process of saving others. It is the complete inverse of the suicide pilots’ suicide missions, motivated as they were by the evil intentions of murdering innocents for the sake of obedience to authoritarian figures (both those in Afghanistan and the one believed to be in heaven). The difference between the self-sacrifice of the firefighter and the self-sacrifice of the suicide bomber is the difference between reason and faith.
So insofar as the firefighters’ courage was rationally justifiable, it was ethically justifiable and had nothing to do with faith-based justifications. We can fully understand within moral terms why those firefighters were morally justified. And it was faith alone that convinced those suicide pilots that palpably evil acts were acceptable when they clearly violated all moral prohibitions against the direct, unforced political murders of innocents.
3. Nonetheless, I do think that there is a certain connotation of the word “faith” that does apply to the firefighters and is not only commendable but supremely admirable. While the firefighters’ reasoning was indeed rationally and morally confirmable and, so, justifiable, nonetheless from a subjective, personal point of view to commit one’s life to the fire as they did, even in the cause of justice, requires an infinite commitment beyond rational justification.
Reason can justify only finite actions for us. It can tell us that “this specific act is good for that, for these reasons.” Existentially however to lay down one’s life is to commit the entirety of what you are. Even in the most rational deduction of one’s moral duty, the fallibility of human reason is such that there is still some room for doubt. I categorically deny that one should make the infinite commitment of surrendering one’s life for less than the highest levels of certainty. I categorically reject Kiekegaard’s crude permissiveness to stake an infinite commitment on the highly unlikely, the outright absurd, the obviously contradictory, or even the merely probable. That is rankly reckless, irresponsible irrationalism which should never be romanticized.
But even where there is a 99% moral and rational certainty of an action’s worth, when one’s very existence is on the line the commitment to act even on 99% certainty is not completely existentially justified as far as I can see. This is because even more primarily than rational or moral beings, we are rightly and necessarily self-concerned creatures with a primary commitment to our fundamental interests in our minimal survival and our maximum flourishing. To be willing to surrender the entirety of what you are requires, I think, entire certainty that you should—a certainty that is never possible as long as the voice of one’s own survival concern is permitted even .01% weight in the calculations. The act of accepting the dictates of one’s moral reasoning where it compels one only 99% but it costs you 100% of all you are and ever will be and fundamentally vetoes your rational concern for survival, makes one astoundingly heroic. Quite simply it is the essence of heroism itself.
The fullest, most courageous realization of heroism trusts so completely in the dictates of moral conscience as to go beyond merely moral and rational reasonableness, prudence, decency, and dutifulness to make an absolute commitment of one’s entire self to the noble. And such an absolute commitment can never be rationally justified, morally, or existentially justified by anything less than absolute rational, moral, and existential justification. And given the finitude of our minds it is hard to say we ever have anything like that kind of absoluteness of justification present to our minds outside of only the most formal logical necessities like the law of non-contradiction. No premise in a practical syllogism can be truly absolute and warrant a truly absolute conclusion upon which to have enough basis to make an absolute commitment.
So, when one commits one’s will to what reason and morality favor with great probability and with overwhelming calculation of relative goodness, but which nonetheless they cannot guarantee with absolute certainty or with absolute justification according to all the goods for which one lives, one makes as courageous and admirable a leap possible. It is a leap of faith beyond mere reasonableness, prudence, and dutifulness to a sort of perfection of will according to reason and morality, a complete uniting of will to these things above and to the exclusion of everything else the will could ever attach itself to existentially, including the very conditions of its being itself. And the commitment this embodies when the sacrifice is for others’ lives (which seems the only time we could ever be asked to knowingly give up our own) represents a bond of faithfulness to our community (however widely or narrow this word is interpreted) that goes so far beyond all of our finite contractual and moral obligations to others to be worth calling only a profound kind of “keeping faith” with those to whom and for whom we give our lives.
For further discussion of the ideas in this post, see the post “Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice“, in which I develop a reply to KM’s objection to this post found in the comments section below.
For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series. It is unnecessary to read all its posts to understand any given one.