What is Moral Courage?
Courage. What is it? Is it bravery? Is it the strength of one’s convictions? Is it the same as integrity? Is it an ethical value that we all should aspire to achieve? Ayn Rand said in her classic book The Fountainhead that “Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea.” That seems about right but it’s missing one important ingredient -- the word moral before integrity or simply moral courage. Courage is an important value but not a virtue unless it is moral courage.
Lots of people have courage. In most cases we think of it as a positive way to live. After all, courageous people are not afraid to stand up and be counted. But to have moral courage means to do what is right simply because it is the right thing to do even at personal sacrifice.
Courage is an ethical value if it is applied in a moral way. What does that mean? It means to distinguish right from wrong; good from bad and act out of the conviction that morality is the basis of an ethical community/society.
Moral courage in our personal lives means to stand up and be counted when a wrongdoing occurs. It means to support people of good will. It means, at least sometimes, to put the interests of others ahead of our own self-interest. After all, if you run into a burning building to save the occupants you certainly have done just that.
Workplaces can provide many challenges that test our ability and willingness to act with courage. If you see someone do something wrong – i.e., steal from the employer; take credit for someone else’s work; falsify data and records, it takes a person of courage to inform higher-ups in the organization about the misdeeds even if it means you will be retaliated against. Doing what is right is not always easy but it is moral behavior.
Moral courage also occurs in our online activities. If you know someone is being bullied in cyber space it takes a person of courage to stand up against the bully -- to protect the innocent. And, to report the misdeed where and whenever necessary.
In today’s society it has become more difficult than ever, it seems, for people to act courageously. Politicians vote with their party even if they disagree about a particular issue. This is why votes are often 100 percent split as to Republicans and Democrats. Putting loyalty ahead of acting on the belief that something is the right thing to do is to lack the integrity to act on one’s (moral) convictions. We send politicians to Washington to vote in ways that best represent our best interests, not their own and certainly not their political party simply because it is their party.
There is a famous quote that is attributed to a variety of people including Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman, author and philosopher: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing.” This says a lot about the fact that moral courage is not for bystanders. It’s for those who don’t mind getting down and dirty to act on the knowledge that the sacrifices made bring more good things to those affected than harm to oneself and others – when the matter at hand deals with right versus wrong.