The question of moral courage – and whether you can get better at it – has stayed with me ever since I was shot at by Israelis
by Giles Fraser in The Guardian
OK, we all get it. Captain Francesco Schettino was a coward. Sinking the Costa Concordia was one thing – a mistake, even. The running away bit, though: that's a different order of moral failure. But how do we know what sort of person we would turn out to be in such circumstances? Hero or villain?
Years ago I was shot at by Israeli soldiers on the Gaza/Egypt border. Bullets kicked up a line of dust a few feet to my right. Despite being in the company of a dozen Palestinian children, I ran and hid. Sick with adrenaline, I cowered behind a block of flats for a good 10 minutes. To be fair on myself, we all did, and that may well have been the only thing to do. Nobody got hurt. But the question of moral courage has remained with me ever since: in particular, the question of how those who do this sort of thing, day in day out, build up the emotional resources to confront danger with bravery. Is courage something you are born with; or can you get better at it?
"Each of us has a bank of courage," explains Peter de la Billière, a former commander of the SAS. "Some have a significant credit balance, others little or nothing; but in war we are all able to make the balance last longer if we have training, discipline, patriotism and faith." This feels so much like the advice of a bygone age. For these are values whose stock has not fared well in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. Indeed, those of us who at school learned by heart the war poem Dulce et Decorum Est have come to associate a whole cluster of courage-based values – valour, sacrifice, etc – with what Wilfred Owen called "The old Lie". For these were values so soaked in blood, so purloined for the purposes of militaristic propaganda, that their rehabilitation remains problematic, even now.
But the idea that courage requires discipline and training needs a fairer hearing. For at least since Aristotle there has been an important strain of moral thought that has recognised human virtue not as some innate given, but rather as something that one can prepare for, and indeed get better at. The reason the soldier strips and re-strips his weapon a thousand tedious times on the parade ground is so that he can do it, without thought, when he hasn't slept for days and the bullets are pinging about his ears. Over time, it becomes a matter of instinct. And the advice of the modern army is that the same is true of courage. If you rehearse "doing the right thing" enough, you are much more likely to do the right thing when terrified or confused.
This sort of advice is not peculiar to the army. Alcoholics Anonymous has the phrase: "Fake it till you make it." If you want to become a different sort of person, first act like you are, and the acting will eventually transform you. Pretend to be the person you want to be and you will end up becoming more like that person. This cuts right against the grain of familiar assumptions that moral change comes from within, that the most important thing is expressing who you really are – "To thine own self be true", as Polonius puts it in Hamlet. From this perspective, an honest confession of our own weakness – our lack of courage, for instance – becomes the only real expression of virtue. In other words, an emphasis on authenticity can easily become an alibi for a refusal of character development.
While awaiting execution in Flossenburg concentration camp for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an extraordinary poem entitled Who Am I? that dramatised the gap between his outward display of courage and his inner fear. "I stepped from my cell's confinement … like a squire from his country house"; and yet inwardly he was "faint and ready to say farewell to it all". Which is the real me, he ponders. "Am I both at once?"
Courage isn't about not being afraid. Indeed, not being afraid in life-threatening situations is simply foolishness or foolhardiness. Rather, courage is being afraid and doing the right thing nonetheless. Which is why Bonhoeffer is remembered for his bravery and not for being the "contemptibly woebegone weakling" he so feared himself to be. Faith may have been a part of his moral construction. But, a propos Peter de la Billière's list of what boosts courage, I suspect faith itself is considerably less significant than the sort of moral formation that comes from inculcating certain habits of behaviour.
Yes, church itself can be a school of virtue, encouraging a set of practices that transform character. In the trade it is known as formation. But the faith bit may well be incidental. For we can be schooled in virtue by a whole range of institutional practices, the army and AA being two others. The Jesuits believed that the acting out of virtue as expressed in theatre could function in this way too.
All of which suggests that it's not the fear of our inner Captain Shettino that matters most. He lurks within us all. The real question is how we shape our behaviour. Which is why the issue of being true to oneself offers so little to the task of becoming the person we would want to be. Change requires practice.