In contemporary society, perhaps all societies, violent actions are often applauded and labelled heroic — and especially actions in war. And so the question arises: what makes actions such heroic, if at all?

This is a question close to pure moral philosophy. It is really just the question of which actions involving physical violence count as morally exemplary.

The most insular, reactionary answer to this question is the one that applies the labels to acts of might or power by one’s own military, and not to others. This answer, of course, can be dismissed out of hand.

A somewhat more enlightened answer goes along the following lines: heroism and courage know no external context. There is heroism implicit in anyone who, even misguidedly, gives their life for their country. Even if the cause is bad, the action itself is virtuous, if it is brave, even if misguided.

Let us consider this argument.

Well, if we take context the statement about context literally, the argument is ludicrous. How can we even refer to an event without describing any of the context? A bullet entered someone’s body, is that heroic per se? No, clearly not, at the very least the identity of the person whose body was entered by the bullet is relevant, and that is contextual. So the question is better phrased as what contexts can make actions heroic, how broadly do our considerations have to extend; and the argument becomes: the context of serving one’s country bravely is per se virtuous and heroic.

This argument is still indefensible.

If a general orders cannon fodder-soldiers to certain death and they accept it and die, for no good cause other than “for the country”, then I certainly wouldn’t regard that as heroic. Rather, the general is morally criminal and the soldiers are pitiable. The country, the geographical State, is not a worthy moral thing per se in any case.

In fact, the war which most typified this absurd and pointless massacre of cannon fodder — the first World War of 1914–1918 — produced probably the strongest, most graphic and most touching artistic denunciation of this absurdity: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, one of the greatest antiwar poems ever written. The title is half of an ancient Latin adage: “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — “it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country”. The adage is given its modern, civilized interpretation: “The old lie”. To idea that dying for one’s country, per se, is noble: this is a lie that has led humanity to untold sorrow, and still does.

That is, in Owen’s poem, this Latin adage is meant, not earnestly or even ironically, but as a bald-faced lie, yet regarded as ancient and venerable, sending millions to their deaths — which it still does.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

So I think that the context of “doing it for one’s country” is not enough.

Another context often advanced is that of “following orders”. Again, this is indefensible. Acting according to orders conveys no positive moral status to an action, let alone exemplary status. Consider the famous anti-militarist passage of Einstein: he specifically denounces heroism and love of country, per se, in this context. (I think this quote is often clipped; the full version, which I believe is the following one, is much better.)

He who joyfully marches to the music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.

And I agree: violent action, even “selfless” action which prevents the death of others by whatever means (taking bullets for them, shooting more enemies, etc.), when done purely on orders, does basically not involve higher brain function. Here Einstein by “heroism” clearly means this kind of physical violence. For something to be “heroic”, in the sense of morally exemplary, I would say, it must involve higher brain function. It must be self-actuated.

The counterargument, I suppose, is that actions can be heroic even when not self-actuated; mere “physical courage” can be heroic. Well, if it does not involve higher brain function then it is just the activation of primordial violent instincts, senseless or family-protecting etc, or conditioning to be violent. Perhaps one can
justify violence on the ground that it protects people the family or tribe — or in general, people to whom one has a close emotional connection — but that is an independent moral justification. There is nothing moral about conditioning or violent instincts per se. The inculcation of violent conditioning, especially as refined an art as it has become in contemporary militaries, should be properly regarded as a debasement of soldiers’ humanity. It is of course true that humans tend not to kill each other, even in a war context; there are striking and surprising statistics from various wars that large numbers of soldiers simply did not shoot at each other. So then, an efficient (i.e. efficiently conquering and death-producing) military is one that debases its members’ humanity. Of course this requires ideological glorification of this debasement, which is then called “heroism”.

I can imagine selfless physical violence, taking bullets, etc, to be heroic in certain contexts extending to various ranges of considerations: where the alleged hero honestly believes it is for the greater good, for protecting family or friends, for for the protection of another human being. I can even imagine a motivation “for the country” in certain contexts really being a shorthand for “for independence from foreign domination” or “for self-determination” or “for international law” or “for democracy” or “for socialism”, etc. These are the sorts of things which make actions morally exemplary, because they are moral considerations, whether small-scale ethics (“inner politics”) or large-scale political philosophy. They come from intentionality and will, from higher cognitive capacities.

One can enter, I suppose, into more difficult questions about the relationship between conditioning/instinct and intentionality/will. This is an interesting question for philosophers and for neuroscientists alike. But for practical purposes — even though I tend to think we ought to condition ourselves to act in ways we agree in advance are morally good, and that part of being a developed human being is having developed the habit to act for the good — I think we can draw a distinction between these for present purposes. If one wants to get technical, one should probably say that those actions brought about by reflexive conditioning which is itself self-actuated for moral reasons, can be heroic actions; and now I suppose we are entering a convoluted philosophical realm. But in general it is the intentionality and will which makes actions moral.

Anyway, these are some considerations. They are very different, I assume, from the considerations the military uses to award its medals.

Heroism in War
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