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Moral Courage
Taking Action when your values
are put to the test.

By Rushworth M. Kidder

When you hear the term "moral courage" you think of the larger-than-life kind of heroics that Kennedy wrote about in Profiles in Courage. But, as the preface to this book says, "Moral courage is not restricted to great events and famous individuals. It is relevant not only in the boardroom but also in the kitchen and schoolhouse."

Ethics is a hot topic now but Kidder, as founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, has been researching it for years. This is his third book on the subject.

The book is loaded with examples from all walks of life. For example, when a jock posted a video of his escapade with a girl, the headmaster expelled the offender and 30 varsity players were suspended for 3 days - because they watched and failed to stop its posting - and the varsity season was canceled for the first time in over 150 years.

The headmaster told parents and alums that "we should expect each boy here will, in the future, have the courage to stand up for…'The hard right against the easy wrong.'"

Moral courage doesn't always produce an immediate benefit. In fact, it can cause negatives to occur in the courageous person's life. That headmaster suffered serious repercussions for canceling the season.

So what is courage?

Webster's defines it as "that quality of mind which enables one to encounter danger and difficulties with firmness, or without fear, or fainting of heart."

John Wayne said "Courage is being scared to death - and saddling up anyway."

General William T. Sherman (of tank fame) called it "a perfect sensibility of the measure of danger and a mental willingness to endure it."

Adding morality to the mix goes from the principle-related courage to the principle driven. "Moral courage is not only about facing physical challenges that could harm your body - it's about facing mental challenges that could wreck your reputation and emotional well-being, your adherence to conscience, your self-esteem, your bank account, your health."

Kidder defines Moral Courage as the intersection (in a Venn diagram) of Principles, Danger and Endurance.

"Simply put, moral courage is the courage to be moral." Kidder says the values are shared in a global commonality - the 5 core values of honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion - are consistent among races, cultures, gender, politics, education and economics.

Ethical concerns can get very complex but Kidder suggests that humanity's dilemmas fall into 4 broad paradigms (which he gives examples of):

  • Truth vs. Loyalty
  • Individual vs. Community
  • Short term vs. long term
  • Justice vs. Mercy
Challenges to moral courage include bystander apathy, groupthink (the effect where a team, for example, makes decisions none of the individuals would have made on their own, deviancy and altruism.

New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote how it was becoming more common for society to "choose not to notice behavior that would otherwise be controlled, or disapproved or even punished."

Kidder gives a great example of altruism threatening moral courage. When a high school quarterback was within 30 yards of breaking the all-time conference reword, his coach and the opposing coach secretly comprised a scheme to get him the record. In exchange for a meaningless touchdown, the other team would allow a long reception.

The student showed great moral courage when he later asked, after learning of the well-meaning scheme, that the record be changed back. The coaches altruism, led to a challenge to moral courage that this young man met.

How do you get or enhance moral courage?

Eleanor Roosevelt said, "You gain strength, courage, and confidence in every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'…You must do the thing you think you cannot do."

Aristotle said "We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts." So we get moral courage by acting that way.

The numerous case studies in the book will get you thinking. As in most real-world situations, it is rare that a situation is 100% black and white. Kidder's book helps you deal with those inevitable gray areas.

Review by Dan Hanson




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