Is Bravery Always A Good Thing?

Bravery is a popular epithet and being ‘brave’ is increasingly seen as validating behaviour, no matter how lurid or shameless. But is bravery always to be praised? The answer is, quite simply, no. Bravery is merely a quality that can be used in the service of both virtuous or unethical conduct.  

‘He is so brave,’ ‘she is so brave’ … we hear that statement a lot nowadays. Usually after someone has revealed lurid details of their life in a public forum (no doubt after being paid copious sums of money for the exclusive expose!). I’ll leave the reader to speculate on some contemporary examples.

To be brave is seen as sufficient justification and validation for whatever was done or communicated. Bravery is always a good thing. Cowardice, or perhaps reticence to broadcast one’s feelings ‘openly,’ is frowned upon. Shamelessness is the new shamefulness.

Does bravery, and by extension the brave person, always deserve to be exalted? I often fall back on syllogisms and, while I know the premises are always questionable, syllogisms enable logic to be deduced. A syllogism for the Brave New Worldly individuals might be the following:

Bravery is always virtuous.

Mr X (or Ms Y) acting bravely.

Therefore Mr X or Ms Y are virtuous.

Now it is time to throw a spanner in the works. Before I begin however, let us have some idea of bravery. I don’t want to give a bland dictionary definition of brave. Instead I’ll conjecture that bravery is a condition whereby fears are overcome, misgivings are parked and something is done even when there are trepidations running parallel to the actions that are being performed. Bravery is not the absence of fears, but the suppression thereof. I think this is a reasonable depiction.

From this depiction, it can easily be seen that it takes bravery to do a lot of things. It might be brave to rescue someone from a blazing house fire. It might be brave to take a bullet or jump in front of a car to save someone. At the same time it might be brave to rob a bank, to ship illegal drugs into the country, to carry out a ‘hit’ after being hired by a client. There are a lot of situations where bravery is required.

These are extreme examples however. How about more mundane examples which are more in the spirit of the question raised at the beginning of the blog? Here again, one can easily conjure examples that are relevant to the hypothesis that bravery is always a ‘good thing.’ For instance, it might be brave to intervene when two friends are arguing and make peace. At the same time, it might take bravery to cause trouble between the same two friends. With the latter example, there is an element of danger, there is a fear of being caught, there are emotions that must be suppressed if the act is to be prosecuted. To conciliate or to cheat require bravery.

There is another perspective on acts carried out in the face of fearful repercussions, that quality termed bravery. Acting on fear, instead of against it, may be praiseworhty because humans have consciences. They become fearful if what they are doing feels wrong and these fears are vital in constraining bad behaviour. A ‘brave’ person may set their conscience aside. But is that a good thing?

The conclusion I would draw is that bravery is a quality but not a virtue. It is an instrument that is used in a service of something. Many actions, and these actions may enable one to pursue a particular agenda, require bravery. But the agendas or actions themselves have to be assessed so as to determine whether they are virtuous. Bravery by itself does not shower inglorious behaviour with virtue.

Colm Gillis has ‘stuck his neck out’ and written two books. His latest, The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, is on the sovereign theory of Carl Schmitt.

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