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What is courage? (Jan. 2012 Socrates Cafe Meetup)

From: Andy
Sent on: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 9:10 AM

Hello, Socrates Cafe-goers.

We ran out of time at our last meeting and didn't get around to choosing a topic for our meeting this month. So I picked a philosophical question that's been on my mind lately.

In the wake of the recent passing of writer and outspoken atheist Christopher Hitchens, I found myself engaged in a discussion with some Facebook friends on the question, "What is courage?" Our initial question was whether Hitchens exhibited intellectual courage as a writer. Some thought he clearly had, agreeing with an appreciation of Hitchens published on the Psychology Today website (, while others maintained that defending controversial views does not count as intellectual courage when you're being paid to do it. The ideas of "moral courage" and "physical courage" found their way into the discussion as well.

All this got me wondering about just what courage is. This broad question divides into a number of more specific subsidiary ones, such as the following:

  • Are there truly different types of courage, for example physical courage and intellectual courage? If so, can a person possess one type but not the other?
  • What character trait does courage contrast with? Most people would say that the opposite of courage is cowardice. Aristotle thought courage had two opposites: cowardice and foolhardiness. Was he right, or is foolhardiness really a kind of courage?
  • Is courage always a virtue or is it morally neutral? Put somewhat differently, can courage be exhibited for a wicked cause? George W. Bush called the 9/11 hijackings "cowardly acts." This prompted the retort from Bill Maher, then hosting a TV show fittingly titled Politically Incorrect, that "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Who was right?

I hope you can join us for the discussion Saturday.

Yours in Socrates,


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