You understand the dangers, you feel the fear, and you find the courage to do the right thing.
Strength and wisdom combine as you ward off temptation and act according to your
- Overcoming Fear
- Grace under pressure (attributed to Ernest Hemingway)
- Choosing self respect
- Wise endurance (attributed to
- Uncomplaining acceptance of unendurable conditions (attributed to
- Doing right despite the fright
- Value-based action despite temptation.
A courageous person understands danger, and chooses to overcome their
fear and proceed to face the danger and act according to
their values. It is not fearlessness, recklessness, or
rashness. It is a well considered, wise, and brave decision to behave constructively
despite the fear, discomfort, or temptation. Courage is a strength drawn from a wise balance between the
weaknesses of cowardice and recklessness. It is the discipline to act on
wisely-chosen values rather than an impulse.
Because courage allows us to act on our values rather than our impulses, its
virtue has long been recognized.
Synonyms for courage include: bravery, valor, resoluteness, boldness, spirit,
daring, pluck, gallantry, intrepidity, confidence, self-reliance, fortitude, and
heroism. It also includes patience, impulse control, perseverance, endurance,
integrity, and discipline.
Courage allows for cunning, it may or may not include rashness, but it
definitely excludes recklessness, thrill seeking, bullying, and stupidity.
Courage may be manifest as:
- Valor and bravery - Often called physical courage.
- Perseverance, industry, or diligence - often called endurance.
- Integrity, genuineness, or honesty - often called moral courage.
Each of these manifestations are described further
Manifestations of Courage
The fear of violent and painful death lies at the core of courage. In
the fear of having to kill, the strength and perseverance required to endure
prolonged hardships, and the agonizing and solitary decisions to risk ridicule
and isolation to do the right thing are also important manifestations of
courage. Each is described here in more detail.
Valor and Bravery—Physical Courage
Aristotle believed that the epitome of courage is facing noble death at the
hands of the enemy during your offensive attack in a just war for the people. Demonstrating physical prowess, overcoming fear—especially fear of death, and
launching an attack or an offensive effort are often considered the hallmarks of
courage. Examples of physical courage are often drawn from military encounters
such as the heroic acts recognized by the
US Medal of Honor. This award
recognizes members of the United States armed forces who distinguish themselves
conspicuously by “gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his[sic] life above
and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the
Consider the courage of Private First Class
Albert Schwab as just one of the more than 3,400 recipients of the medal of
honor. On May 7, 1945 Pfc. Schwab was operating a flamethrower in World War II action against enemy Japanese
forces on Okinawa Shima in the Rykuyu Islands. Quick to take action when his
company was pinned down in a valley and suffered resultant heavy casualties
under blanketing machinegun fire emanating from a high ridge to the front, Pfc.
Schwab, unable to flank the enemy emplacement because of steep cliffs on either
side, advanced up the face of the ridge in bold defiance of the intense barrage
and, skillfully directing the fire of his flamethrower, quickly demolished the
hostile gun position, thereby enabling his company to occupy the ridge. Suddenly
a second enemy machinegun opened fire, killing and wounding several marines with
its initial bursts. Estimating with split-second decision the tactical
difficulties confronting his comrades, Pfc. Schwab elected to continue his one-man
assault despite a diminished supply of fuel for his flamethrower. Cool and
indomitable, he moved forward in the face of a direct concentration of hostile
fire, relentlessly closed the enemy position and attacked. Although severely
wounded by a final vicious blast from the enemy weapon, Pfc. Schwab had
succeeded in destroying two highly strategic Japanese gun positions during a
critical stage of the operation and, by his dauntless, single-handed efforts,
had materially furthered the advance of his company. His aggressive initiative,
outstanding valor and professional skill throughout the bitter conflict sustain
and enhance the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Perseverance, industry, and diligence—Wise Endurance
Sometimes the most difficult obstacles are fatigue, boredom, and other
chronic stressors such as relentless bad weather, lack of food or shelter,
disrespect, uncertainty, and other annoyances and
difficulties. Enduring in the face of these obstacles requires courage. Bike Riders
in the Race Across
set out on route of over 3000 miles, touching 14 states and climbing over
100,000 feet. Solo racers finish in 9 to 12 days, averaging 250 to 350 miles per
day. In RAAM, once the clock starts on the west coast, it doesn't stop
until each racer reaches the finish line on the east coast. Racers ride about 22
hours each day and get almost no sleep. In 1986
completed the 3107 miles in under 8 days and 10 hours.
In a similar test of endurance, the
Leadville Trail 100-mile run awards a hand-crafted gold and silver belt
buckle to the runners who complete the course in under 25 hours. These amazing
racers are enduring remarkable hardships for the sake of their own
material awards are trivial, and these races don't specifically improve the wellbeing of
others. But courageous people sometimes endure hardship to help others.
Three Cups of Tea tells the courageous story of
perseverance to keep his promise and provide a school for girls in a small
Pakistani village. Dangerously ill when he finished his failed climb of K2
mountain in 1993, Greg Mortenson was sheltered for seven weeks by the villagers of Korphe. In return, he promised to build the impoverished
town's first school, a project that grew into the Central Asia Institute, which
has since constructed more than 150 schools across rural Pakistan and
Afghanistan. Keeping his promise required Mortenson to sleep in his car for a
year to help save money for the project; survive an eight-day-long armed 1996
kidnapping in the tribal areas of Waziristan in Pakistan's North-West Frontier
Province; escape a 2003 firefight between Afghan opium warlords; endure two fatwas by Islamic clerics angry at him for educating girls; and tolerate
hate mail and threats from fellow Americans opposed to him helping educate
Ordinary people also courageously persevere over fatigue, temptation, and
hardship to benefit others. The single mother who gets her children dressed for
school each day before she goes to work herself, the unskilled worker who
endures a low-paying, demeaning, and exhausting job to earn the money to send
his children off to college, and the alcoholic who never indulges in a drink are all choosing to do the right thing despite
Parents change the messy diapers of their infant children, nurses empty
bedpans, proctologists routinely perform colonoscopies, veterinarians insert
their entire arm into the birth canal of large animals, and other courageous
people overcome disgusting challenges to fulfill their
duty and serve others.
Integrity, genuineness, and honesty—Moral Courage
Can firm minds and souls be as courageous as firm arms and legs? In the
first defined moral courage as: “facing the pains and dangers of social
disapproval in the performance of what they believe to be duty.” The moral hero
often overcomes shame and humiliation, rejects conformity, risks ostracism,
jeopardizes career and status, and sets out alone to take an unpopular
stand and do the right thing. Moral courage is choosing to risk embarrassment
rather than tolerate injustice.
Rielle Miller describes these five essential elements of moral courage:
- Presence and recognition of a moral situation—I realize I am now facing
a moral choice,
- Moral choice—I must draw on my values, decide what is most important to
me, and do the right thing,
- Behavior—I must act to carry out the moral decision,
- Individuality—I am stepping away from the group and taking personal
responsibility for this action, and
- Fear—I know the risks; I can face the fear and overcome it.
While physical courage is inevitably defeated by fatigue or age, moral
courage can be strengthened by repeated use. Moral courage allows people to act on their moral duty
despite real threats of physical harm, arrest, isolation, ridicule, and
banishment. Here are some prominent examples.
Women's suffrage activist Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested seven times before
women gained the right to vote in the United States. During her trial in 1908, she told the court: “We are
here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become
Mohandas Gandhi led campaigns throughout India to ease
poverty, expand women's rights, build religious and ethnic amity, end
untouchability, and increase economic self-reliance. Above all, he aimed to
achieve Swaraj or the independence of India
from foreign domination. He ate simple vegetarian food and also undertook long fasts as a means of both
self-purification and social protest. Gandhi spent a number of years in jail in
both South Africa
On August 15,
India became a free republic.
30, 1948, Gandhi was shot while he was walking to a platform from
which he was to address a prayer meeting.
On December 1,
1955 in Montgomery, Alabama,
Rosa Parks, age 42, refused to obey bus driver James
Blake's order that she give up her seat to make room for a white passenger. She
was arrested and unlike previous individual actions of civil disobedience,
Parks' action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After her arrest, Parks became
an icon of the Civil Rights Movement but suffered hardships as a result. She
lost her job, and her husband quit his job after his boss forbade him to talk
about his wife or the legal case. The U.S. Congress later called her the “Mother
of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement.”
n 11 June 1963
burned himself to death at a busy intersection on the road outside the
Cambodian embassy in Saigon to
protest the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam's Ngô Đình Diệm
administration. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his
outward composure was in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him. When
U.S. President John F. Kennedy
saw the photograph of the self-immolation he said “no news picture in history
has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Nelson Mandela, and the “tank man” who
stopped a line of tanks during the Tiananmen Square
protests of 1989 are all legendary.
Three whistle blowers,
Coleen Rowley, and
Sherron Watkins were selected as the Time
Magazine persons of the year in 2002.
risking imprisonment or making headlines, you can exercise moral courage every
day by being impeccable with your word, doing your best,
acting on your well-chosen values, and refusing the
temptation to comply with, assist with, or ignore: dishonest,
unfair, coercive, cruel, wasteful, or
deceptive practices encountered during your everyday activities.
Proving his courage was the rite of passage into
manhood in many cultures. Accusing a man of being a sissy is a powerful and
humiliating insult. What space does this leave for women in the territory of courage? In many cultures
while valor was central to being a man, chastity was central to being a
virtuous woman. Furthermore, if the men were courageous enough to defend women
from unwanted advances, their woman would be chaste.
More recently, however, women are respected for displaying physical courage.
In addition to the many courageous women already mentioned,
Dr. Mary E. Walker was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for her role
as a Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon at the Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
Valentina Tereshkova was selected to pilot the Vostok 6 spacecraft on 16
June 1963 and become the first woman to fly in space. Women have served as
fighter pilots in the United States since 1993. In 2006, seven women broke into
one of Pakistan’s most exclusive male clubs to graduate as fighter pilots. Maj.
Malachowski is the first woman pilot on the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds
demonstration team. Her first public performance was in March 2006 and she spent
the 2006 and 2007 air show seasons flying the Number 3 (Right Wing) aircraft in
the diamond formation.
In June 1997
Julia Hill toured California’s “Lost Coast” and fell in love with the
ancient giant redwood trees growing there. She sold her belongings, left home,
and committed herself to doing whatever she could to preserve these magnificent
trees. Almost by chance she was invited to climb and sit-in a 1,000 year old
redwood in Humbold County, California. The tree was named “Luna” by the Earth
First! environmental action group that was protecting it from Pacific Lumber
loggers who were clear cutting the area. On December 10, 1997 in an act of moral
courage she chose the name “Butterfly”, climbed 180 feet up into the tree and
stayed there with other activists. Soon the others left and she became the lone
activist living in the tree to protect it. The stakes were high, her sit-in was
costing Pacific Lumber enormous sums of money while living high in a tree is
difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous. Her physical courage soon became
apparent when the loggers hovered a huge twin-rotor helicopter directly overhead
in an illegal attempt to force her from the tree. She overcame her terror, held
on, and then worked with the FAA to get future close encounters banned. Her
endurance was tested everyday for the two years she remained in the tree through
cold winters, high winds, many disappointments, and loneliness. Her commitment
was manifest in each of the three styles of courage on each of the 738 days she
remained in the tree. An agreement to protect the tree was eventually signed and
25-year old Julia Butterfly returned triumphantly to the ground on December 18,
Semblances of Courage
Aristotle was a stickler when it came to acknowledging courage. He felt that
for an action to demonstrate courage it had to be pursued as its own virtue
rather than to avoid the negative consequences of shame, ostracization, disgrace or other consequences.
Furthermore, courage required “deliberate choice and purpose.”
He lists these five specific semblances of courage are actions based on:
Fear of Shame or the desire for honor (which he calls civic
courage)—not desiring courage for the sake of its own virtue.
Experience or skill in facing the particular danger—Is the sword
swallower in the circus truly courageous, or a highly skilled performer
taking only modest risks?
Spirit, fury, or rage (although these lack reason they may be helpful
accessories to true courage)
optimism about the chances of succeeding and avoiding the danger
ignorance of the danger.
Aristotle felt that some aspect of
wisdom—the ability to deliberate,
decide, and then act—is absent from each. These are described in more detail
Fear of Shame
If you were all alone, and could back out of the confrontation unseen, would
you still proceed with the courageous deed? If the answer is “yes”, then you are
acting to avoid shame rather than to achieve the virtue of courage. Because of
this distinction Aristotle considers acting to avoid shame a semblance of
courage rather than genuine courage. One example is accepting an arbitrary dare
rather than having the courage to refuse the pointless challenge.
Experience in facing the particular danger
Circus performers, paratroopers, sky diving instructors, firefighters,
mineworkers, mariners, aviators, police officers, military, and many others face real dangers—existential
These professionals are experts at what they do, and their skill reduces the
danger of each encounter to a manageable and often acceptable levels. Their
increased skill results in decreased danger and less fear at each encounter.
However, the endurance these professionals demonstrate in regularly facing risk
demonstrates their courage.
Aristotle defines rashness as a manifestation of overconfidence, not as a
result of fearlessness. Teenage games of “chicken” are foolish, not courageous,
regardless of the age of the participants. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is not
Bungee jumping, skydiving, running with the bulls, and even riding the roller
coaster are forms of thrill seeking. If these are inherently safe, then they are
simply high profile forms of fun. However, if an
unnecessary risk is taken, such as unprotected sex, unsafe driving; abusing
drugs, tobacco, or alcohol; or careless use of guns or knives, the behavior is
reckless, not courageous.
Rashness includes stupidity, stubbornness, rage, haste, unnecessary risks,
and ignorance including: unfounded optimism, lack of awareness of the dangers,
and taking risks to pursue an unworthy goal.
Bullies and brutes exploit a substantial power advantage to cruelly harass or
attack weaker victims. Because of the power differential they have nothing to
fear; they are demonstrating cowardliness rather than courage.
Bluffs are more subtle. For a threat to be effective the threatened person
has to believe the person making the threat has the ability and courage to carry
out the threat. Credibility of a threat may be the best measure of perceived
Courage does not tolerate whining. Criticize if you must, but never ever
whine. Whiners are playing the victim and acting like they have no choices, no
responsibility, and certainly no courage. If you must complain, restrict your complaints to the
abusing power or the well-recognized enemy causing the problems. Also, don't be
a jerk—have the courage to overlook annoyances and the courtesy not to become
Conditions for Courage
Balancing Fear and Confidence
Differentiating courage from cowardice or rashness requires examining a balance between fear and confidence.
is the well-known emotion related to our assessment of possible loss or
other danger. In this context, confidence refers to both: 1)
the belief that I have the skills to persevere, overcome the obstacles, and
attain the goal, and 2) I believe the cause is worthy. Assessing fear requires
estimating the dangers that lie ahead. Assessing confidence requires estimating:
1) our own capabilities, and 2) the worthiness of the goal. Each of these estimates
will be inherently subjective, approximate,
uncertain, and error prone. Inevitably the
assessments may be accurate, inappropriately high, or inappropriate low. Courage
is the decision to act based on an accurate assessment of both the dangers and
confidence level. The courageous person has an accurate estimate of the dangers,
feels the fear, and uses their accurate assessment of confidence in their own
abilities and of the worthiness of the goal to move foreword and persevere. Rashness describes deciding to encounter danger based on
overconfidence; an inappropriately high confidence. Cowardice is deciding not to
act based on unfounded fears. If both fears and confidence are estimated as
inappropriately low, ambivalence results and action is delayed, perhaps
indefinitely. If both fears and confidence are low, the person has probably
checked out, become
apathetic, is paralyzed by learned helplessness, and declining to act. The
possible configurations of fear and confidence are summarized in the table
Is courage a characteristic of the person or of the event? Must a person be
brave on all occasions to be considered a brave person, or is one heroic deed
sufficient to identify a hero? If it exists at all, what characterizes the
If you believe their threat, then you probably judge them to be a courageous
person, because who would believe a threat made by a coward? A threat is most
successful if it never has to be carried out.
Heroes are not thrill seekers; in one study [Levenson, 1990] they scored
significantly lower than other risk takers (e.g. rock climbers and drug rehabilitation unit
residents) on measurements of general sensation seeking and experience seeking.
The relative rank of Harris sparrows is conspicuously marked by a patch of
dark plumage on the breast and head. Experimenters painted the feathers of
low-status birds to provide them with this badge of courage. Faking it, however,
did not work. These counterfeits did not advance in the dominance hierarchy
until they were injected with testosterone and genuinely became stronger and
more aggressive. Birds injected with the testosterone but without the plumage
were also ignored. Only the birds that looked tough and were tough gained the
respect of the other birds and were able to make their threats believable.
Confidence—believing in your own capabilities
The more you sincerely believe you are capable of meeting the challenge the
more relentless you will be in meeting, persevering, and overcoming that
challenge. Self-efficacy—your estimate of your own ability to handle a
challenge—is an essential characteristic that predicts how much effort you will
exert and how long you will persevere to overcome obstacles and meet your goal.
Prior success with similar challenges and an accurate assessment of your own
strengths combine to increase your confidence. Consciously recognizing your
successful record in overcoming similar challenges, and explicitly listing and
reminding yourself of the strengths you bring to the
task can increase your confidence and improve your chances for success.
Gaining experience in successfully facing and overcoming risks also increases
your confidence. Gradually taking risks that are just beyond your comfort zone,
feeling the fear, staying in control, and persisting on to a successful outcome
is an effective way to practice courage. Exhilaration often lies just beyond the
fear; learn to enjoy getting there. Sports such as rock climbing, hang gliding,
ski jumping, sky diving, motocross, freestyle skiing, mountain biking, open
water swimming, surfing, kayaking, and other adventure activities can provide
Repeatedly having the confidence to apply your competence to increasingly
difficult tasks, and succeeding most of the time, will strengthen your courage.
Seeing others succeed at similar tasks also builds confidence.
Encouragement in the form of genuine praise, highlighting
strengths, and belonging to a group or
community can also boost confidence. Being cheered
on can help if it is a genuine recognition and celebration of your strengths,
capabilities, and contributions. This must not be overdone however, because
courage requires an accurate estimate of capabilities so they can be steadily
maintained throughout the struggle as the dangers and difficulties are actually encountered.
Will—Perceiving a worthy purpose
Feeling a sense of purpose increases your commitment to overcoming fear and
acting with courage. Recognizing your important contribution to a
community can often provide this purpose.
Courageous Disposition—Overcoming Fear
The worst fears are those that you have no control over. Gaining control via
increasing confidence, competence, and experience helps to reduce fears. Courage
does not come from banishing fear, but through overcoming it enough to act.
Courage requires conquering fear, not eliminating or ignoring it.
has performed more than 22,000 stunts and holds 23 danger-related world records.
He often jumps from a platform or hot air balloon more 150 feet in the air and
free-falls onto an air bag on the ground. He says: “I do stunts for the love of
it, not for the records.” His longevity is testimony to his skill, experience,
and careful preparations.
Skill and Practicing bravery (circus performers, paratroopers, fire
“Death before dishonor” is the rallying cry of many honor cultures, including
many military organizations, World War II Japan, and perhaps the Mafia and
Courage is almost as contagious as fear. There is comfort, if not safety in
numbers, especially when there is someone you can literally lean on.
Death before dishonor, avenging the wrongs, adolescence, street gangs, WWII
Events and Opportunities for Demonstrating Courage
Threat, fear, risk assessment, "Critical Distance" (can this hurt me, can I
prevail?), physical condition, value of the goal.
Fight = courage or rashness, Flight = cowardice or prudence.
Heroes often say that they were able to act courageously simply because they
saw what had to be done.
When both engines failed on US Airways Flight 1549 shortly after taking off
from LaGuardia Airport on the afternoon of January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley
Sullenberger faced an urgent and essential choice; he could demonstrate grace
under immense pressure, or 155 people would die. He immediately applied his
decades of experience and skill and safely landed the plane in the Hudson river.
After he checked the passenger cabin twice to make sure everyone had evacuated
he retrieved the plane's maintenance logbook and was the last to evacuate the
The situation revealed his latent courage as a quietly competent man became a
Tuskegee airmen, burning monks, Rosa parks and other "moral courage"
Noble and Ignoble Values
Are suicide bombers courageous? According to Aristotle: “It is for the sake
of what is noble that the courageous faces and does all that courage
demands.” In other words, unless the cause is noble the act cannot be
courageous, regardless of the dangers or other difficulties that have been
overcome. Courage demands upholding a value that goes beyond self-interest.
Similarly, “in the Laches Socrates and his interlocutors have determined that physical
acts without the
knowledge of good and bad (morality) can never be courage.” [Moral Courage:]
These ancient Greeks were clear: courage loses its virtue, regardless of the
resolve that may have been required, when it is squandered on an ignoble cause.
But both Plato and Aristotle defined courage in the context of battlefield
courage—a warrior's victory in battle. The nobility of the war itself was never
brought into question. However, from the vantage point of
wisdom or simply human rights, the virtue
of war is always doubtful.
Marksmanship is a valuable skill that is morally neutral. The marksman
may be practicing at a rifle range, engaged in battle, committing a crime, or
from predators or assassins. Resolve is similar to marksmanship in this respect;
both are morally neutral. However, the word courage is reserved for those
occasions when resolve advances a constructive end.
The Moments of Truth
Defining moments in our lives, and every day. Don't accept bribes, cheat on
your taxes, or pad your expense vouchers. Also, overcoming or at least
controlling addictions is courageous.
- “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something
else is more important than fear.” ~ Ambrose Redmoon
- “One man with courage makes a majority.” ~ Andrew Jackson
- “Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at
the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” ~ Mary Anne
- “Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.” ~ Amelia
- “Courage is a special kind of know-how. It’s knowing how to fear what
ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not be feared.” ~ David
- “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue
at the testing point.” ~ C.S. Lewis
- “Many would be cowards if they had courage enough.” ~ Thomas Fuller
- “I'd rather be brave than almost anything. How does that strike you?” ~
- “There is very little distinction between the boast and the vow.” ~
William Ian Miller
- “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities.
The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to
hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence.”
~ Albert Einstein
- “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” ~
The Mystery of Courage,
by William Ian Miller
Find Your Courage: 12 Acts for Becoming Fearless at Work and in Life,
by Margie Warrell
Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts Of Ordinary People,
by Samuel P Oliner
Strength in What Remains,
by Tracy Kidder
Three Cups of Tea,
by Greg Mortenson
movie portrayal of remarkable perseverance.
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission
Profiles in Courage,
by John F. Kennedy
Profiles In Courage For Our Time,
by Caroline Kennedy
The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and the Struggle to Save the Redwoods,
by Julia Hill
Courage: Its nature and Development, by Nelson H. Goud, Journal of Humanistic
Counseling, Education and Development, Spring 2005, Volume 44.
The Anatomy of Courage, by David Pears, Social Research, Volume 71, Number 1,
Courage as a Virtue, George Kateb, Social Research, Volume 71, Number 1,
The Emotions of Courage, by Daniel Putman, Journal of Social Philosophy,
Volume 32, Number 4. Winter 2001.
Definition and Development, Rielle Miller, March 2005, Ethics Resource Center
or Courage, by Plato, 380 B.C.E.
Risk Taking and Personality,
Michael R. Levenson, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1990, Vol. 58,
No. 6, 1073-1080
Hardiness and the Concept of Courage, Cooper R. Woodard,
Summer 2004, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research