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Moral Courage, Heroism and Heroic Rescue

The nature and roots of moral courage and heroic actions.

Key points

  • Heroism means acting to protect or enhance the welfare of others when there is substantial danger to oneself in doing so.
  • Depending on its nature, heroism requires physical courage, or both moral and physical courage.
  • Heroes also often create themselves. People learn by doing and change as a result of their own actions.

For several decades, there has been interest in psychology in helping others, and in altruism—unselfish caring and helping. I have studied "active bystandership" both in relation to the need or distress of individuals and events in societies, particularly the evolution of increasing violence. Researchers have also studied a particular form of heroism: heroic rescue, individuals endangering themselves to save the lives of designated victims of genocide. Their attempt to rescue lives not only endangers them but often also their families, including their children. The term "rescuer" was first used in relation to the Holocaust, but there have been rescuers of Armenians at the time of the genocide in Turkey, of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in Bosnia, and probably in all genocides and mass killings.

There is now a developing interest in psychology in heroism in general. Heroism to me means a person acting to protect others or enhance the welfare of other individuals or society in significant ways when this involves substantial danger to the actor. Heroism can be a single act: jumping on train tracks to pull a person out of the way of a speedily oncoming train. Or it can be persistent action, such as a rescuer hiding people for a long time, or someone working to oppose the policies of a brutal, dictatorial system.

Depending on its nature, heroism requires physical courage, or both moral and physical courage. Moral courage means acting on one's values in the face of potential or actual opposition and negative consequences. But people can and do hold values they regard as moral that give rise to immoral goals and harmful and destructive acts. For example, obedience to authority is often held as a moral value, even when the authorities are destructive. I would restrict the meaning of moral courage to people acting on genuinely moral values which serve moral ends.

Pulling a person away from an oncoming train is a heroic act that does not require moral courage. The actor is likely to be praised, even celebrated. Some acts require moral courage, like speaking out when someone makes racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic statements, or a senator voting against authorizing President Bush to go to war right after 9/11, but depending on circumstances need not create a substantial danger to the actor. Heroic rescue usually involves both types of courage. Communities often come to support the genocidal policies of a state or a group with power. Rescuers often need to act contrary to newly developed community beliefs and standards, their actions potentially leading to imprisonment or death, and sometimes to disapproval and ostracism even after the genocide was stopped. Another significant variation in heroism has to do with whether it requires immediate action, or makes deliberation possible.

What may be characteristics or circumstances that make heroic action more likely, based on research on rescuers and extrapolation from research on helping behavior:

  • Sources of motivation to act: empathy or sympathy; a feeling of responsibility for others' welfare; a belief in justice and/or the sanctity of human life; inclusive caring that expands beyond one's immediate circle. While some people possess such characteristics to a substantial degree, most people possess at least some of them to some degree. Circumstances requiring immediate action and focusing responsibility on a person may lead some people to act who are average in these motivational dispositions but possess the next set of characteristics.
  • Contributors to the capacity/inclination to act: fast decision-making (as a child is falling out of a fourth-story window—an actual event with a person rushing over to catch the child); taking others' role or perspective: "walking in their shoes,"; feelings of or belief in one's competence to help others or influence events; an orientation to action (not just reflection and feeling). This second set of characteristics seems crucial for motivated people to become heroes. When a person possesses a combination of both types of characteristics and a situation requires immediate action, decision-making may be short-circuited, leading to "spontaneous helping" and heroism.

What may be socialization practices that would contribute to the likelihood of heroic actions, based on research on rescuers, the development of caring and helping, and recent discussions about heroism:

  • Contributors to the motivation to help others: warmth, affection, nurturance by socializers (and peers); guiding children using positive values and standards; leading them to act on these so that they make the values their own and learn by doing; models of caring, helping and heroic action, especially parents, but also societal role models, and using their example to enlarge children's heroic imagination; positive contact with people belonging to other groups to expand caring to them.
  • Socialization for moral courage and moral/heroic action: including children in discussions and decision-making about values and rules at home and in schools; encouraging them to express their values in action, with active bystandership when necessary (with proper consideration of the level of risk); the combination of practices noted so far should also foster judgment and decision-making capacity, and a feeling of confidence about one's ability to influence events. It is possible that there is a genetic/temperamental contribution to an "action tendency," but even in that case, it can be fostered by experience.

Heroes also often create themselves. People learn by doing and change as a result of their own actions. Rescuers often agreed, in response to a request, to hide someone for a short time. As they did so, they became more committed to those they were helping. Their care expanded to others and they came to see themselves as people who will help. They sometimes joined with others, supported each other, and engaged in more rescue activities. Evolution, and the role of joint action, can also be seen in other heroes, such as the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in Argentina. We are not limited to who we are but can shape and create ourselves.

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