What Do You Do When You See People Treated Unfairly?

In search of moral courage

Posted Feb 16, 2014

What makes the difference? Moral courage—the ability to confront abuse and injustice, risking our own well-being to affirm our deepest values and the rights of others.

Without moral courage there would be no social progress, only a chilling climate of fear and learned helplessness.

It takes courage to disagree, to stand out from the crowd. As Asch’s classic (1956) experiments on conformity reveal, only a small percentage of people will resist peer pressure to publically disagree. How comfortable are you disagreeing with the status quo or pointing out problems in your workplace?

Moral courage involves compassion, concern for the lives of others. In their study of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Fagin-Jones and Midlarsky (2007) found that the rescuers were more than three standard deviations above bystanders in empathic concern, social responsibility, and altruistic moral reasoning. But research has also shown that concern for others can be undermined by an atmosphere of chronic stress. People can become too busy, too rushed, too overwhelmed, to care (Darley & Batson, 1973). Have you ever found yourself too busy with demands and deadlines to respond to the needs of someone you know?

Yet research has shown that people with moral courage have greater self-efficacy, which contributes to greater emotional and physical health (Bandura, 1997, 1999). And acts of moral courage can produce a ripple effect, transforming the people and conditions around us. Haidt (2000) has found that the elevation we experience when witnessing acts of moral courage makes us want to help others and become better people ourselves.

Do you know someone with moral courage? If you do, what difference does it make in your life?


Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs, 70.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetuation of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 193-209.

Darley, J. M. & Batson, C. D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situation and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.

Fagin-Jones, S. & Midlarsky, E. (2007). Courageous altruism: Personal and situational correlates of rescue during the Holocaust. Journal of Positive Psychology, 2, 136-147.

Haidt, J. (2000). The Positive emotion of elevation. Prevention & Treatment, 3(1), 3c. doi:10.1037/1522-3736.3.1.33c

Thoreau, H. D. (1999). Civil disobedience. In Henry David Thoreau: Walden and civil disobedience. (pp. 265-288). New York, NY: Signet. (Original work published 1849).


Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.

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