A Brief Introduction to Ethics
BY JONATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.
- The Virtue of Fortitude
- Counterfeit Courage
- Virtues Associated with Fortitude
- Patience and Perseverance
Most everyone agrees that fortitude or courage is an admirable quality to have and it is one of the best known of the cardinal virtues. Proper understanding of this virtue, however, requires that we know something about what is called the irascible appetite.
An appetite is a striving toward or away from something. The irascible appetite is concerned with avoiding what is unpleasant to the senses. The emotion which comes readily to mind is fear. We fear what is unpleasant and threatening and we tend to flee these difficulties. Fortitude is the virtue which strengthens and moderates the irascible appetite. We can then endure physical pains and face great dangers in a reasonable way.
The emotion that is the opposite of fear is excessive boldness. Fortitude or courage, then, is the balance between fear on the one hand and excessive boldness on the other. A brave man or woman is one that operates or acts somewhere between fear and excessive boldness. If we fear too much, we are called a coward. If we fear too little and are excessively bold, we are referred to as a rash person.
There is a natural tendency in us to be fearful in the presence of danger. Our “instinct” is to flee a threatening or unpleasant situation. So, in order to moderate such fear, the brave person must incline more toward the bold end of action rather than the fear end. In other words, we should incline more toward boldness rather than fear and in this we are practicing the virtue of fortitude or courage.
Remember the term relative mean? A relative mean is not the exact middle ground between two extremes nor is it a perfect balance. A relative mean is always closer to one side than the other. Fortitude or courage is the relative mean between fear and boldness and is relative because we must incline more toward boldness than toward fear, which is our natural reaction to a threat or unpleasant situation.
You will recall that vices are either a defect or an excess in relation to a virtue. Regarding fortitude or courage, cowardice is the vice of defect and rashness or extreme boldness is the vice of excess. Sometimes this latter vice is illustrated by an old saying: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
Sometimes we may think only great military leaders or others of such stature really have the opportunity to practice the virtue of fortitude. But such is not the case. Examples of fortitude in practice are being illustrated around the world every day.
Some time ago I saw a docudrama about the crash of an airliner into the Potomac River. This film was based on an actual incident in the early 1980s and involved a plane attempting to take off from a Washington, D.C. airport during a bad snowstorm. The wings were coated with just enough ice so the plane couldn’t get any “lift.” The Potomac River was iced over and the plane sank almost completely under the freezing water.
The snowstorm was causing major delays in traffic along the streets of the city. It just happened that a maintenance man (let’s call him Joe) was stuck in traffic not too far from where the airliner went down into the Potomac. Upon seeing the crash, Joe got out of his car, ran to the water’s edge, immediately determining the urgency of the situation. He saw passengers in the freezing water and knew he had to do something. And he did. This heroic individual jumped into the icebound water, swam out to the nearest group of victims and began carrying them, one by one, back to the shore where emergency vehicles were waiting.
Obviously our hero showed no fear, at least in the sense we mean here. Was his action an act of extreme boldness? Did he act reasonably? Did he practice the virtue of fortitude or courage?
Upon reflection, it is plain that Joe did not act rashly. When he arrived at the scene, he stopped, considered the situation, and made a decision. He decided that rescuing the passengers was within his ability (an important point) and was something he just had to do. There is no doubt he was an adequate swimmer. Without question it was difficult situation; after all, who likes to plunge into freezing water during a snowstorm? (Members of the famous Polar Bear Club are an exemption!)
The only conclusion we can come to is that Joe acted reasonably. He was not fearful in the sense we mean here and he was not rash, boldly rushing off into the freezing Potomac without giving it any thought. He was also capable of meeting whatever difficulties he encountered. In short, this virtually unknown hero is an excellent example of one who practiced the virtue of fortitude in a time of crisis.
Now there may be situations which appear to be courageous but in reality are not. These are sometimes referred to as “counterfeits of courage.” For instance, if an action is performed for the sake of honor or to avoid disgrace, rather than because the act is reasonable, the action does not meet all the requirements of being courageous.
Virtue requires that an action involve the rule of reason. We face a danger virtuously in so far as our reason demands that the danger be faced. Other motives, such as honor or saving face, may be associated with a virtuous action, but they do not alone make the action necessarily virtuous.
Our maintenance man, Joe in the above story, did not carry out his virtuous act for the sake of honor or for avoiding disgrace. It is clear he was not trying to “play” the hero and, as for avoiding disgrace, this doesn’t even apply. He did not have to get involved in the first place. He could have stayed in his car and no one would have been the wiser.
Sometimes anger is involved in what may appear on the surface to be a courageous action. If it is uncontrolled anger and if it is the force that drives us into action, then we are acting more like a brute animal than a human being. We are not using our reason to determine the proper response. In this case, we are not brave, merely pugnacious.
Think for a moment about this soldier’s action during the Vietnam War. Lt. David Rizzo was, for all practical purposes, a good soldier and an admired leader, but sometimes he had trouble controlling his temper. He and his platoon were on a routine patrol when they were fired on by the enemy. Immediately taking cover, Lt. Rizzo ordered his men to return fire. A battle raged for a few minutes. Then the shooting stopped.
During the lull in the fighting, Lt. Rizzo was conferring with a sergeant who was also a personal friend of his. As they were discussing tactics, someone on the enemy’s side fired a bullet that ricocheted off the side of a disabled jeep, hitting the sergeant squarely in the eye, killing him instantly. Lt. Rizzo immediately became enraged and advanced toward where he thought the shot had come from, screaming at the top of his voice.
The rest of the platoon, thinking that they were supposed to attack, followed their leader. The enemy was surprised by the assault and retreated, but not before Lt. Rizzo was felled by an enemy bullet. The lieutenant was given posthumous honors, including a medal for bravery. Had he really earned it? Did he have the right motive and was his action the result of reasonable thought? Or was his action the result of uncontrolled anger? And finally, was his action a courageous action or was it an example of “counterfeit courage”?
Another source of counterfeit courage is overconfidence or wishful thinking. Have you ever witnessed the actions of a drunkard in a bar? Many times a drunk individual will exhibit “false” courage. He will be deceived by his present state of intoxication and will act in a rash manner. Often, once the intoxicant wears away, the drunk reverts to the opposite extreme of cowardice.
Tom used to be that way. Whenever he was “in his cups,” he was the bravest man alive. No situation was too daring for him. He would threaten people in the bars and scream menacing challenges on the street. Once Tom sobered up, however, he would creep away into his hiding place. No more “bravery.” No more threats. No more to save the damsels in distress. You may have known someone exactly like Tom.
Virtues Associated with Fortitude
There are some other “secondary” virtues associated with the virtue of fortitude which are also important. Some of these may be unfamiliar to you because the modern world has somewhat ignored them. Let’s take a look at them, however, and see why they should be considered important even in our modern day and age.
The words magnanimity and magnificence have unfortunately lost much of their force of meaning in today’s world. Magnanimity refers to a greatness of soul and mind, while magnificence refers to the making or doing of great things.
What do we mean by greatness of mind? This occurs when we value great things and aspire to great things. We not become overly engrossed with what is trivial and insignificant. (Sitcom addicts take note!) The virtue of magnanimity is the virtue which inclines us toward and gives us the mental and emotional strength to do great acts that are worthy of honor.
Now don’t go overboard on the great acts thing. You don’t have to go out searching for people in distress and there aren’t any real dragons to slay. A great act for you might be something different from a great act for someone else. I think, for instance, of Stephen Hawking, the world-famous scientist who was afflicted as a young man with the disease ALS, an illness which leaves you virtually helpless. Your heart and lungs are functioning but you have no control over your limbs and you can’t always speak.
Eventually Mr. Hawing was confined to a wheelchair. Did this stop him from valuing great things? Did this top him from aspiring to do great things? Did he just give up and become engrossed in trivial and insignificant things? No, he did not. Mr. Hawking speaks with the aid of a computer, continues to do scientific research in his mind with the aid of a disciplined imagination, and writes scientific books about space, time, and the universe. You may have read or heard about one of this best-selling books, A Brief History of Time.
There are three vices opposed to the virtue of magnanimity. The vice of presumption causes us to consistently attempt to accomplish what is beyond our ability. The vice of excessive ambition causes us to constantly strive in one way or another for honor or recognition which is not due to us and for which we have an excessive desire. The vice of vainglory is an excessive desire for fame or praise, going beyond what is reasonable.
We need to realize there are times we have tried things beyond our ability. This is not the vice of presumption. This vice occurs when, after realizing that something is beyond us, we keep at it, usually to the detriment of something else we have the ability to do and probably should do. This is sort of like beating your head against a stone wall, not giving up even though it is reasonable to do so.
Excessive ambition is an easy vice to fall into if one is not careful. We are surely entitled to honor and recognition if we have earned it. Many of us, however, have sought after unearned recognition and a few allow this to become obsessive to the point where nothing else in life matters. There is nothing wrong, of course, with being reasonably ambitious and, in fact, we should be. It is the balance that counts; it is being reasonable that matters.
Most of us have had some experience with a person who constantly seeks praise. Every little good behavior or minor accomplishment demands a pat on the head. The person seeks to be flattered and is never content unless he or she is the center of attention. This is the vice of vainglory in action.
There is an interesting vice which is opposed to the virtue of magnanimity and is also opposed to the three vices just mentioned. It has an odd name and you may not have heard of it before. Its name is pusillanimity. Even if you haven’t heard the name before, I’ll bet you can identify someone in your life at some time who has demonstrated this vice. Pusillanimity is a defect and is a kind of faintheartedness. Here is a person who avoids doing what great things he or she is capable of doing, often out of fear. Sound familiar? Many times these persons regard themselves as an unworthy individual when, in fact, it isn’t true. This could be your friend you is constantly putting herself down. Some people actually think it is a virtue to show what is really a false humility. There is nothing virtuous about this.
Then we have the virtue of magnificence which refers to the making and doing of great things. It is unfortunate that the meaning of this virtue doesn’t carry the punch in our language today as it once did. This virtue inclines us to achieve the good of reason by doing great works regardless of the cost or effort put forth. The work is not being done for the honor which may be earned, but simply because it is a great work that should be done.
Stephen Hawking, the scientist discussed above, also illustrates the practice of this virtue. It must be extremely difficult to continue to do good scientific work in his condition. Yet he does it and does it well. This virtue means accomplishing great things without considering the cost and effort. This certainly applies to Mr. Hawking. He does not work for the honors he may receive; he works because it is something he thinks should be done.
Magnificence may make more sense to you if we consider the two vices, one of defect and one of excess, which are opposed to magnificence. The vice of excess is called extravagance. This vice causes a person to spend more than is necessary to accomplish some project. Sometimes, for instance, we may call a person that throws an elaborate party a “showoff,” particularly if the amount and quality of food and beverage exceeds what is reasonable or necessary to accomplish what the host really intended. We are tempted to this vice many times because we want to impress someone.
On the other hand, we have the opposite vice, which is a vice of defect, and we are all familiar with this one I’m sure. Stinginess or niggardliness is the vice of loving money so much that one refuses to spend what is necessary to achieve the realization of the work to be done. This is the vice of the building contractor who uses cheaper and inferior materials in the construction of a building.
We now come to two virtues related to the virtue of fortitude and which should be more than familiar to you: patience and perseverance.
Patience, as common as the word is in our everyday life, is a somewhat misunderstood virtue. Modern interpretations of patience have given it a slight twist from its original meaning. We’ll pick up the old meaning here but apply it in a contemporary way.
The virtue of patience is that which moderates sadness arising from various difficulties by giving us strength against giving in to those difficulties. Patience promotes cheerfulness. And it promotes tranquility. Patience does this despite great injuries which may prevent us from realizing some good. It has often been said that a patient man owns his own soul.
There are two vices opposed to patience, one of defect and one of excess. The vice of excess we call impatience. This is the vice of giving in to sadness or irritability in the presence of some difficulty to the extent that one gives up attaining whatever good is being thwarted by the difficulty.
The vice of defect we call impassivity. This is an unreasonable lack of concern and feeling that should characterize our action. It is the defect of not being sufficiently moved by difficulties affecting ourselves or others.
It is not an easy task to deal with children. Every parent and every teacher knows this. Working with children requires a great deal of patience which is why this virtue is so important. Parents (and teachers,too) sometimes got to extremes. One moment a parent may be impatient with a child, expressing sadness and irritability because of some difficulty. The next moment the parent may be impassive, showing a lack of care and concern. Children can easily get confused with this “double-bind.”
Children need clear and consistent rules, for instance, applied consistently and patiently. It does little good, and can do great harm, for a parent to punish a child for some infraction in the morning and ignore the same infraction in the afternoon. Somewhere between the vices of impatience and impassivity is the relative mean of the virtue of patience. It has often been said that a good parent can be identified with the truly patient parent.
Perseverance is a virtue few of us have not heard about. In fact, most of us have been encouraged throughout our school years to practice the virtue of perseverance. This is the virtue which incline us to persist firmly in the pursuit of a difficult good regardless of obstacles and annoyances we may experience in trying to accomplish what it is we are pursuing.
Now there are, believe it or not, two vices associated with perseverance, one of defect and one of excess. You may not have heard this before.
One of these vices, a vice of excess, is called pertinacity or stubbornness. This vice causes one to persist unreasonably in seeking to attain some good. One is, so to speak, “spinning one’s wheels.” Sometimes we hear of someone “throwing good money after bad.” There does come a time in pursuing some goal that giving up the pursuit is reasonable. The virtue of perseverance means a reasonable pursuit for a reasonable period of time after a reasonable and attainable goal. One should not become afflicted with “tunnel vision” and fail to see other reasonable goods to be pursued which may be more attainable.
On the other hand, the vice of defect may be called the vice of softness, for want of a better term. This vice inclines one to give up too easily because of difficulties standing in the way, even though one could reasonably expect to overcome those difficulties. Sometimes we may justly be accused of “giving up too easily.” We are “too soft.”
Again, as in all cases of virtue, it is necessary to strike a balance between the defect and the excess. In other words, to find the relative mean. This is the reasonable thing to do. That’s what virtue is all about. And the virtue of perseverance says not to give up too easily, but don’t “spin your wheels” when the goal is not attainable.
The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World
The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.
Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in 2011 -2014 © The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).