Civil Courage in a Free Society
As discussed in a previous blog post[i] taking a solemn oath imposes a moral duty to act consistent with it, and yet we too often fall short. Why? [ii] In and of itself an ‘oath’ does not imbue one with the will to act. It serves as a mere guide post on how we should act. Taking moral action requires exercising one of the four cardinal virtues, courage. Not the martial courage of Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae or Henry the IV and his men at the Battle of Agincourt, but rather ‘civil courage.’[iii]
The great Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote that civil courage begins with getting up every morning to face the duties of the day:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own - not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
Simply put, civil courage calls on us to be civil to our fellow citizens even if they do not reciprocate. In this way we can work together as members of the same society, of the same human race. This is not always easy, but once we have seen the ‘good’ we can act accordingly no matter how we might be treated. It takes courage not to give in to our anger and frustration when those around us act in an ‘uncivil’ manner, and without this courage civil society breaks down.
Another important aspect of civil courage to a free society was given full expression in the writings of the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill. His essay “On Liberty” has influenced political thought since its publication in 1859. For Mill, the maintenance of a free government requires its citizens to actively exhibit ‘civil courage’ lest their freedom be imperiled:
A people may prefer a free government but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it, if by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions, they are more or less unfit for liberty: and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it.” [iv]
For Mill 'civil courage' requires political awareness, and social or political action when necessary to preserve a free government. Together, Marcus Aurelius’ and Mill’s vision of ‘civil courage’ are two sides of the same coin. For Marcus a civil society is maintained by being ‘good’, i.e. being civil even during trying times amidst trying people. For Mill it takes ‘civil courage’ to thwart indolence, carelessness, and cowardice while maintaining public spiritedness to hold on to freedom once attained. This is their formula for maintaining a free and flourishing society. But as individuals acting within the vast web of modern society how do we do this?
In essence, this formula for acting with civil courage requires balancing self-interest against the greater good. The fabric of our society often unwittingly infects the way we approach decision making.[v] For example, we live in a capitalist economy and it is often said that capitalism works best when individuals act in their own self-interest, and yet this maxim often undercuts acting for the greater good. What is often overlooked in this conundrum is that by its nature capitalism is transactional while acting in accordance with the greater good is often not. At election time some proclaim ‘I am voting for the person who will lower my taxes,’ yet we rarely if ever hear our fellow citizens proclaim ‘I am voting for the person who is going to do the most good for the most people in my community.’ Consciously recognizing that living in a capitalist society often effects the way we approach matters that are properly outside of capitalist considerations can help us more carefully navigate moral decision making. Whichever side you find yourself on in this particular discussion, consider that acting with civil courage requires looking beyond naked self-interest.
In sum, our daily activities present us with challenges to act civilly to one another strengthening society, which in turn encourages making decisions for the greater good. Failing to act with civil courage slowly yet inevitably erodes the foundations of a free society. So when you arise in the morning remember- you currently live in a free society which requires acting with civil courage if we are to maintain a civil society, our political freedoms, and to flourish as human beings.
[ii] There is of course the ever present issue of ‘moral uncertainty’ when trying to live up to our oath. That is, how do we decide a course of action even when we are clear about our moral obligations? The Lawyer’s Oath requires supporting the Constitution, which in and of itself opens a hornet’s nest of determining exactly what that means. For a recent discussion of this moral morass see “Moral Uncertainty”, W. MacAskill and T. Ord (Oxford, 2020). But the issue need not be taken up here.
[iii] It is also referred to as ‘civic courage.' I prefer ‘civiil’ since it denotes a form of conduct.
[iv] John Stuart Mill, “Essay on Representative Government” (1860).
[v] For an insightful and practical approach to better decision making see Annie Duke, “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” (Portfolio, 2018)
Image: Courage, Anxiety and Despair-Watching A Battle, James Sant (1820-1916).