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What Is Courage

What Is Courage

What is courage research papers show that courage is an impulsive act. An individual who does a courageous act does not know he is going to be courageous in a particular circumstance. Although courage is an impulsive act, it is an act done with purpose. The purpose is ordinarily to save other persons who are in danger or something else the courageous individual regards as valuable, even more valuable than his own well-being or life.

A courageous act is often described as a selfless act. A soldier risking and often losing his life to save his fellow soldiers in combat or a mother or fireman risking their life to save a drowning child are typical courageous acts. In each of these instances, the soldier, mother, or fireman thinks only of saving another person. In this, the courageous individual somehow goes beyond the normal and understandable human concern with one's own well-being and one's own life. This concern keeps nearly all individuals from acting courageously in circumstances in which the courageous person acts. In these circumstances, most individuals act in ways making for their ownsafety. With regard to the example of the soldier, the other nearby soldiers would duck for cover when being fired upon; whereas the courageous soldier would be unmindful of this and stay in the open to rescue a fellow soldier who was wounded. The soldiers ducking for cover would not be condemned for reacting out of concern for their own safety. This concern is instinctive.

What makes the soldier who stays out in the open to rescue the wounded soldier courageous is that he somehow and for some reason not constrained by this instinct under the circumstances. Thus, courage is recognized as a special, rare, quality because it is outside of the bounds of normal, expected, and justifiable human behavior.

When Dorothy Parker asked Ernest Hemingway what he meant by the word "guts," he replied that he meant "grace under pressure". We find that this definition-which is often misquoted as "Courage is grace under pressure"--to be inadequate because:

  • Courage does not adequately state what kind of "pressure" is to be dealt with
  • Courage does not define "grace" as it applies to one's behavior in the face of that pressure

We suggest that there is a better way to define the word "courage"-or "guts" if one wants to use the colloquial term. Our definition, however, does not reduce to a pithy maxim. It cannot be so compacted because the issue of what courage is, and is not, is too complex. But in place of Hemingway's "under pressure" we suggest that the phrase "when in jeopardy, or in danger of loss". "Pressure" surely arises out of being in jeopardy or when one is in danger of loss, but it is too broad a term. A person who works long hours at a difficult job is under pressure, but he/she is not in jeopardy or in danger of loss and while the proper response to that pressure may be the capacity to endure and to muster great energy, it need not include courage.

The notions of "jeopardy" and "danger of loss" allows us to take account of the fact that people often-and correctly--speak of courage as having two forms. There is physical courage and there is moral courage. Physical courage is, of course, the most profound form of courage because it involves facing physical pain and/or physical mutilation and/or physical death, but moral courage also involves facing jeopardy and the possibility of loss. The man who jeopardizes his career by blowing the whistle on illegal activities carried out by his superior at work exhibits moral courage. The politician who places his career at risk by telling the voters unpalatable truths also exhibits moral courage. The distinction between the two types of courage is necessary because the existence of one in a given person may, but does not necessarily, imply the existence of the other in that same person. A man may be physically brave, but morally a coward. And vice versa.

What are we to replace Hemingway's "grace" with? That is, what behavioral quality constitutes the "courageous" response to being placed in jeopardy or being exposed to loss? This student would argue that the words and "fortitude" and "integrity" describe the appropriate behaviors to which the term courage refers. The soldier on the battlefield holding his position while it is being assaulted shows fortitude by not running and he shows integrity because it is the soldier's work to hold positions when they are under assault; it is what soldier's are paid to do. Likewise, the man who blows the whistle in a case of corporate corruption is showing fortitude because his career may be severely damaged by his actions and he is also showing integrity because honest people should report cases of corruption when they come to know about them.

Our definition thus becomes, "Courage is the displaying of fortitude and integrity in situations in which one is placed in jeopardy or faced with the prospect of loss." This definition is less eloquent than is Hemingway's, but it is more precise. "Grace" and "pressure" are shadowy terms. "Fortitude" and "integrity" and "jeopardy" and "loss" are much more precise terms.

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