16 Greater Patriotism: On Punishing Cowardice

Montaigne questioned whether cowards should be punished as harshly as traitors. To me, the answer is obvious and it arrives in his second paragraph:

It is reasonable that we should make a great difference between defects due to our weakness and those due to our wickedness. In the latter we deliberately brace ourselves against reason’s rules, which are imprinted on us by Nature; in the former it seems we can call Nature herself as a defense-witness for having left us so weak and imperfect.

I think the more interesting question is this: who is the greater patriot, the courageous or the virtuous? Montaigne argues that cowardice is a character weakness and by disgracing the coward, a culture builds an atmosphere of hostility and retribution instead of discouraging similar behavior. If that is the case, then how should you reward heroes? If you wish to encourage heroism, do you put the courageous on pedestals?

In their new book “All Things Shining,” philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly examine the question of heroism and what drives people to commit super-human actions of bravery. One anecdote concerned Wesley Autrey, a New York construction worker called the “subway superman” for acts that saved the life of a man who fell onto the subway tracks. The New York Times described his actions this way:

As a woman held Autrey’s daughters back away from the edge of the platform, Autrey dove onto the tracks. He thought he would be able to take Hollopeter off the tracks, but he realized there was not enough time to drag him away. Instead, he protected Hollopeter by throwing himself over his body in a drainage trench between the tracks, where he held him down. Though the operator of the train applied the brakes, all but two cars still passed over them, close enough to leave grease on his cap.

Clearly, Autrey’s actions were heroic and he was rightly honored by President George W. Bush during the 2007 State of the Union for his acts. But what drives people to act so heroically? Here’s what Dreyfus and Kelly say:

Although heroic actions like this are of course rare, it is not at all uncommon for the people who perform them to report that they were just doing what anybody in their situation would have. As Dr. Charles Goodstein, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, said at the time: If you look at the history of most people who are designated heroes in the military and in other places, most of the time they say the reaction they had was without any mental preparation. It was spontaneous, it was without much consideration for the practicalities, the realities of the moment. I think they’re honest when they say they don’t think of themselves as heroes, they just reacted to something they saw as an emergency.

The point here is not that anyone in a similar situation actually would do the same thing. There is ample evidence that most people would not. But perhaps what Mr. Autrey and others are honestly reporting is that when they are in the midst of acting heroically, they do not experience themselves as the source of their actions. Instead, the situation itself seems to call the action out of them.

In other words, if acts of cowardice are characters flaws that cannot be influenced by social punishments, courageous acts are character strengths that also stand outside the influence of social rewards. It feels good to honor the heroic, but whether we choose to hand out Congressional Medals of Honor is irrelevant to whether soldiers will act heroically if the moment calls for heroism. Heroes react. Even if the result is patriotic, the action itself is not committed out of patriotism.

That raises the obvious question – if you don’t prove patriotism by being a hero, how do you? I believe that Montaigne’s construction suggests an answer. If the greatest villains in a culture are the treacherous, who commit unconscionable acts out of malice and for personal gain, then the true patriots in a culture must be those who consciously and deliberately act in the social interest, even if it requires personal loss.

This is the idea behind President Kennedy’s admonition: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. It’s a call that President Obama took up this week, asking America’s business leaders to show patriotism by thinking of the American bottom line just as much as their personal and corporate bottom lines.

I’m not suggesting that only through liberal activism can someone demonstrate patriotism. Any act taken with an eye towards greater social gain than personal gain would qualify. In other words, volunteering to serve in the Armed Forces may be a greater act of patriotism than any particular action taken while serving in the military.

But while I don’t want to claim patriotism purely for one political ideology, I do hope that America can come to an understanding that patriotic acts are about more than carrying out the foreign policy will of the White House and Pentagon. Improving public education is a patriotic act. Decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels is a patriotic act. Instead of spending so much time honoring heroes so we can feel good about ourselves, perhaps we need to think of ways to encourage small patriotic acts from all Americans, every day.

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