Notes on Courage

by David_Gross4 min read24th Oct 20203 comments

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This post examines the virtue of courage and explores some avenues for how to improve it. This could be a starting point for expanding the LessWrong Wiki entry on Courage, and I encourage you add comments/questions to help guide that effort.

Courage (sometimes “bravery” or the closely-related virtue of “valor”) is one of the most frequently-mentioned virtues in virtue-oriented traditions. It was one of the four “cardinal virtues” of ancient Greece, for example.

Courage is also often recommended as something that undergirds other virtues. C.S. Lewis wrote, for instance, that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” And Maya Angelou wrote that “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

Fear

Courage has to do with our response to fear. This response has at least three components:

  1. One concerns the way we judge how threatening a situation is — how easily spooked we are (emotional) and how sensible our risk assessment is (cognitive).
  2. Another is how we act when we are immediately confronted with a frightening scenario — how well we think and perform while afraid.
  3. The third is how we respond to the possibility of being in a fearful scenario at some future time (sometimes “fear” in this anticipatory context is called “anxiety,” “worry,” or “dread”) — whether our risk-aversion is well-honed or whether we are overly risk averse because we “fear fear itself.”

Fear is an unpleasant good in the same sort of way that pain and nausea are: Such things are no fun, but they are useful. Fear (when it is operating properly) informs you that you have managed to put yourself in a situation in which you run the risk of harm, and the unpleasantness of the sensation of fear prompts you to be averse to doing it again. Fear also can prepare you for an immediate, protective fight-or-flight response.

(Although we are averse to fear, we sometimes also perversely seek it out. In a similar way perhaps to how some people crave the pain of ghost chilies or spankings; some people crave the fright of horror movies and roller-coasters. Is this perhaps a way of helping to regulate our fear response through practice or inoculation?)

The visceral fear response is adaptive and it’s no surprise that we see it in other animals and that it seems to be to some extent a “deep,” subconscious part of our mental make-up. This can also make our fears difficult to work with on a conscious, rational level, as the experiences of people with phobias, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress show.

Is there One Courage or Many?

In a lot of my reading from virtue-based traditions, courage is exemplified by the bravery of the warrior in battle. Aristotle, for example, started there and then generalized this to courage in the face of other deliberate human-caused threats, but he was reluctant to go further and say that the courage of someone who behaves bravely when threatened with disease or impoverishment was quite in the same ballpark. Nowadays we’re more likely to recognize a variety of fears as being things we need courage to confront: fear of rejection, fear of mortality, fear of humiliation, fear of standing out, and so forth. We may speak of the “intellectual courage” it takes to resist the temptation to sweep an inconvenient truth under the rug, or the “moral courage” it takes to stand up for what you know is right in the face of social disapproval. (See for example, Rushworth M. Kidder’s Moral Courage.)

But it may be that when you stretch the word courage to cover so much territory, you are no longer describing a single virtue. When I was putting together this post I saw this tweet from Zach Weinersmith (of SMBC comics fame) who has been researching the history of space exploration: “For the space book, I am reading about people in extreme environments. Interesting thing: bravery is not cross contextual. You can be a brave mountaineer and still not brave at social situations.”

Counterfeit Courage

In addition to the more common failure of cowardice, our response to fear can also fail in the opposite direction. There are brain disorders that can disable the ability to feel fear viscerally (see this brief Smithsonian article for example), thus throwing you back on mere conscious evaluation. Alcohol use is notorious for inducing temporary YOLO-recklessness and failure to recognize and respond appropriately to danger. Aristotle for this reason put the courageous “golden mean” at a mid-point between the vice of over-sensitivity to fear (cowardice) and the vice of under-sensitivity (rashness).

People without real courage will often try to counterfeit courage in social situations (“braggadocio”), as Shakespeare so vividly put it:

How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
as stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
the beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
who inward searched, have livers white as milk;
and these assume but valour’s excrement
to render them redoubted.

Another form of counterfeit courage is exhibited by someone who is forced to to choose between fearful things — a soldier who seems brave in battle only because he fears being shot for desertion or being disgraced in his community, for instance. Sometimes people suggest “hacks” for changing behaviors that seem to rely on this sort of thing (i.e. set up an artificial scenario in which if you fail to do frightening thing X, $100 will be donated in your name to something you would be horrified to be associated with).

There is also a way of resolving fear that mostly side-steps the issue of cowardice or courage: that is, to make the fearful situation less fearful. One way to do this is to increase your competence. So for example if you have a fear of public speaking, you might participate in Toastmasters, which is designed to create a non-threatening environment in which to practice a variety of public speaking skills. As your abilities improve, so does your confidence, and what was fear-inducing no longer is. This in a way is another form of counterfeit courage (Aristotle said, for example, that in a storm, sailors were not exhibiting more courage than their frightened passengers, but merely a better handle on the situation). On the other hand, it is a way of meeting a frightening situation head-on and proving your mastery over it, which strikes me as something that could be a helpful way of bolstering courage.

Becoming Courageous

Zach Weinersmith, in that tweet above, cited the book Extreme: Why some people thrive at the limits by Emma Barrett and Paul Martin. Barrett & Martin conclude that “We all have a greater capacity to be brave than we sometimes appreciate” and identify three elements of the fear response — “physiological, cognitive, and behavioral” — each of which comes with handles we can learn to manipulate in order to take more conscious control over how we respond to fear and thereby develop more courage:

  1. If you are aware and observant of your physiological response to fear, you can (once the initial shock passes, perhaps) take conscious steps to regulate it rather than just reacting to it or letting it take the reins. This implicates the additional virtues of mindfulness and emotional intelligence.
  2. If you assess risk more rationally, you will save your anxiety for situations that deserve it.
  3. And with deliberation and practice, you can adjust how you respond while in fearful or anxiety-provoking scenarios.

Another suggestion, and again this comes from Aristotle, is to try to look on courage as a valuable end in itself and not just as something instrumental. In other words, rather than just saying “I wish I were more courageous, for then I could do scary things like X, Y, & Z, which I value” say also “and furthermore I would exhibit courage, which I also value.” This may improve the motivation you have for being courageous, and increase the pleasure you feel from your courageous acts (and therefore the reward you receive).

Additional Resources

If you’re fond of audio/visual learning, there are a couple of nice short videos out there: How to stop feeling scared all the time from School of Life, which concerns how to short-circuit excess anxiety, and How to stop being a coward from Academy of Ideas, which is a bit more on the philosophical side.

The Getselfhelp.co.uk site has some worksheets and suggestions you can use if anxiety is causing you to avoid situations that would be beneficial to you. Skills You Need has a page on courage.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:52 PM
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Courage can be viewed as a skill.

As you might expect, the military has a strong interest in the development and maintenance of courage. The United States Army is formally of the opinion that courage can be instilled in recruits, and basic training is oriented largely around this problem.

The strategy for courage development used by the Army has three basic factors that stood out to me:

  • Social reinforcement: Messaging is clear: courage is the expectation; cowardice is evil. Further, cowardice is treachery; to be ruled by fear is to betray your brethren unto death. Finally, historically most casualties are among fleeing soldiers; the causal relationship is that cowardice makes it less likely you will survive.

  • Incremental challenges: The iconic item here is the obstacle course. The point of an obstacle course is not to test your physical fitness; rather it is to present you with novel physical challenge that you doubt you can do.[1] Then it presents you with another, slightly more intense novel challenge. By the time you've done the course, you have been proven wrong about your limits up to a dozen times. This reduces doubt for all future challenges.

  • Take the hit: Recruits get gassed. This entails standing in a small concrete building while it is filled with military tear gas, with your mask on. Then you have to take the mask off, and still stand there, breathing in the tear gas. Then they line you up, let everyone out in a flood, and you get to run around in a dirt circle while coughing, puking, crying and everything in your sinuses drain down your face.[2] The exercise has two purposes: one, trust the equipment; two, you will be okay.

    In the same vein, there is the ever popular hand-to-hand training, called "combatives." In basic training to reduce injury this must be done from the knees and there is no striking, so it is kind of a goofy grapple. There are always a handful of collegiate wrestlers or jiu-jitsu experts in every group, and further the physical fitness variance is pretty high, which means almost everyone spends some time getting pulverized by someone more skilled and powerful (I was no exception). At the end of the day, you wipe your nose off, and are okay.

    The consequences usually aren't as bad as you think they are; this makes them easier to accept up front.

It is worth mentioning that the real focus of military training is a different trick, which is to reduce the relevance of courage as much as possible. You can summarize this as Trigger Action Plans for violence; we spent a lot of time training about what to do in certain situations, so when that situation arises we just do whatever the training says. The result is that even in nominally scary situations fear is irrelevant because we aren't thinking about things, just executing the first thing that comes to mind (which is always training). Even in combat there is virtually no opportunity for cowardice.


  1. You might reasonably wonder what happens to the people who actually can't do the obstacle. The trick is this: they still can, with a little help from their buddies. In every group there are a few who simply can't make progress alone; after the rest of the group goes through, they cycle back to physically help the stragglers over whichever obstacle is stopping them (even if that is all of them). These are not formal instructions, but it always happens anyway. ↩︎

  2. As unpleasant as this sounds, it is usually one of the most fondly remembered events. The central reason for this is that when people from all over the country are subjected to close contact, sleep deprivation, high stress, and unhygienic conditions everyone gets sick - and nothing clears the sinuses like literally clearing all of your sinuses. The days after this event might be the first clear breath you got all month. Also your buddies running blindly into a tree is hilarious. There is always one just off-center of a straight line out the door. Do they do this on purpose? I believe it. ↩︎

I think the archetypal form of courage is courage before physical enemies. Can't say I have it permanently, but a few times in my life I managed to muster it and it feels amazing. But I have no idea how you can deliberately develop it in a safe Western country. The boxing ring gives a diluted experience, because you know there are limits and no real enmity. Things like climbing or public speaking are even more diluted, you can be good at them but turn to jelly when a street situation comes up.

Thanks for the post!

The Zach Weinersmith quote you mentioned goes further, in a direction that might also be relevant:

"...bravery is not cross contextual... Conversely, recklessness *is* cross contextual. Unsafe sex correlates to drug abuse."

I'm pretty reckless in some ways, but need to build courage in other areas.Fostering courage where I need it, turning my recklessness into courage where it's helping me, and minimising it where it isn't, all seem like worthwhile things to try.