What is Moral Heroism?
In thinking about the abuse scandal at Penn State, I think we can make a pretty straightforward argument that a great many people were morally obligated to act and failed to do so. Whether or not Joe Paterno or Mike McQueary fulfilled their legal obligation by reporting what they knew to their superiors at the university, they failed to act when they might have stopped on-going crimes against defenseless children. This is a moral failure.
Moral heroes, by contrast, are those who actively choose the way their lives will unfold and act on behalf of others because they both learned altruistic behavior from a respected model and, rather than accepting the privileged status of a non-victim, can empathize with those who are suffering.
Over the past few years, I’ve written a lot about moral heroism and how it differs from others sorts of heroic behavior. In one of the first papers I’ve published from this on-going project, I consider one case of heroic behavior from amongst the many that might be found from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Paul Rusesabagina’s heroic struggle to save lives has been told a number of times (cf. Gourevitch 1998 and Rusesabagina 2006) and is also the subject of the acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda. Rather than rehearse the details of his well-known story, I look closely at an unexamined aspect of his efforts. I am interested not only in what Rusesabagina did or how he did it – saving more than a thousand refugees from the violence with little more than his charm, his connections, a telephone, and a well-stocked bar – but in why he was motivated to act as he did during the genocide. When so many others, all across the country, turned their backs on friends, neighbors, and even family members, Rusesabagina repeatedly endangered himself and his own family in an attempt to protect others with whom he had no particularly strong bond.
I argue that Rusesabagina was primarily motivated by an awareness of his own mortality, his personal history, a desire to distance himself from the negative behavior of Hutu like himself, and a strong identification with the Tutsi refugees under his protection. Able to cut through the genocidal rhetoric that gripped so many of his countrymen, he viewed these Tutsi not as a collective group of Others but as individual husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, and parents. Just as important was the experience of growing up in a household that placed little value on the Hutu/Tutsi distinction and then creating a similar household himself. Aware of himself as a Hutu from an early age, Rusesabagina was also affected by the injustice of privileging or punishing someone on this basis alone. Given this identification, paired with his recognition that the violence surrounding him would likely claim his life and the lives of his family members, Rusesabagina determined that he should do what he could to help others before he died. This focus on suffering individuals and the understanding that one’s own life is terribly brief ultimately led Rusesabagina to act against the tidal wave of violence in what he viewed as his own small way.
My conclusion has an important connection to the coverage of the abuse scandal at Penn State. Many people are baffled or disgusted by the moral failure of a supposed leader like Paterno and assume they would have acted differently; others are so troubled by Paterno’s failure that they want to suggest the problem is systemic and tied to the place of athletics at American universities. The most honest among us are asking how they would have acted if they found themselves in such a difficult and ugly situation.
My answer to all of these people is that moral heroism doesn’t arise from nowhere. Rusesabagina’s story highlights the ways in which people can be primed to act heroically, even when it’s clearly going to be very costly to do so. With that in mind, I end by arguing that it’s important to tell the stories of those who did what they could to help others, even if they were ultimately much less successful in accomplishing what they set out to do. For in celebrating moral heroism of any kind we might motivate others to act heroically, whether in a similar situation to Rusesabagina’s or a world away from such life-or-death choices.
That said, more than simply telling these stories, it is also necessary to look closely at the motivation behind the courageous actions of men like Rusesabagina. In doing so, we can learn a great deal about heroism and we can untangle heroic behavior from extraordinariness. In general, it is difficult for most people to believe Rusesabagina’s claim that he is an ordinary man, just as it is difficult not to feel awed in his presence. His actions, on the surface, seem too extraordinary. And, indeed, in looking closely at the man behind those actions, it seems clear that Rusesabagina was quite different –- even before the genocide –- than a great many of his countrymen. He was far less willing to adopt an extreme position, and far more tolerant and self-aware, than many were. In this, he was somewhat unusual for his time and place.
But this is not to say that only extraordinary people can act heroically, nor is it to suggest that he is wrong about the way he sees himself. Indeed, there is something extraordinary about Rusesabagina’s ordinariness. Rather than seeming remote from the rest of us, his example can help us to think about how we might act in his place. If an ordinary man can act so heroically, might we also be capable of it? Fortunately, for most of us, a terrible situation that calls for such heroism is unlikely to arise. But if it did, most of us would like to think that we would not be so quick to trade our values for a bit of comfort or even for an extra few hours, days, or years of life; instead, we would stand up for others. While we might never face such a test, the way to be sure we could pass it seems clear. We can follow the example put forward by people like Paul Rusesabagina by working toward greater personal identification with those who initially seem unlike us, thinking critically about the values that have been instilled in us by our families, and making choices that take into account the kind of life we want to live in the limited amount of time we have.