Would you ever call a terrorist brave? Were there brave Nazis? Does fighting using unjust tactics or fighting for an unjust cause make one’s own willingness to face mortal threats less brave or can one have the virtue of bravery even though one resorts to evil techniques or serves evil purposes?
Assuming the soldier or the terrorist really believes that he fights on the side of justice and to loyally protect and advance his people’s well being, should we strip him for all credit for courage simply if his cause is wrongheaded? And if we should ever do so, then just how wrongheaded must the cause be? Are all soldiers who fight on what turns out to be the less morally justified side equally undue any credit as brave? Or must your cause be unambiguously evil?
What about people who knowingly intend to do what they think is evil but exhibit fearlessness in the face of danger in the process? Can a fearless murderer ever be judged brave, even as we rightly condemn all his other character flaws, his deeds, and his overall person?
To call someone brave is to honor them and acknowledge an excellence in them. Must this always be an overall character assessment that their brave actions were simultaneously compatible with all the other virtues—justice, mercy, kindness, truthfulness, loyalty, humaneness, etc.—or can we say that sometimes an action which is unjust, unmerciful, unkind, untruthful, disloyal, and/or inhumane, etc. is nonetheless brave in one regard. Or if an action fails with respect to other virtues does this ruin all creditableness even for its otherwise impressive dimensions?
Might there ever be a case in which a morally preferable and admirable instance of bravery involved disloyalty, dishonesty, injustice, etc.? What if you had to break the law, lie to numerous people, and even disloyally betray one’s own family in order to bravely help a slave escape your plantation during the days of slavery, at risk to your own life? Does one virtue always have to depend on adhering to all the others? Or, on the other hand, should we just make sure we understand that proper loyalty should be to the person who is being unjustly treated (the slave) rather than necessarily to one’s relations, that true moral justice means violating unjust laws, etc. and that there really is no conflict?
Clearly we would call you brave despite your breaking with other virtues when the brave action is the morally superior one, but why not call you brave even when bravery your bravery involves you in wickedness? Why moralize the term? And similarly, if you betray your slaveholding parents’ wishes and sneak out a slave, should we not call you disloyal just because what you do is moral? Why moralize loyalty like that?
Is a snitch not a disloyal person simply because she does what justice requires? Is someone who breaks both legal and moral law by covering up a murder for her mother not a loyal person just because what she does is legally and morally unjust? You may call her someone who abets a crime but would you really deny her the name “loyalty”? (Another solution to this problem is to do as Christopher Hitchens does and just call loyalty a pseudo-virtue and a vice, which I think he does because so often loyalty is most relevant in precisely these choices between the just thing and the faithful one.)
I have a lot of thoughts on these issues as I spent a good amount of time working them out in my dissertation. I will likely, sooner or later, explore my views in a future blog post. But in the meantime, I’m keenly interested in Your Thoughts on the subject.
So, today’s open philosophical question, put in a nutshell is, “Can virtues conflict or must every truly virtuous action be approvable according to every other virtue as well?”
Other open questions: