Anonymous asked: You might have addressed this before on your blog, or in your books, or in a lecture, but I'll ask anyway. Do you believe there can be heroes/heroic action taken in pursuit of a morally reprehensible cause? For example, were there heroic actions taken by individuals fighting for the Confederacy or the Nazis?
Can bad people act heroically? Sure.
Can someone do something distinctly impressive in the service of a bad cause? You bet.
The philosopher Richard Rorty takes this even farther, in a essay titled “Honest Mistakes” in his Philosophy as Cultural Politics:
Galileo has become, deservedly, one of the heroes of modern times, and Orwell, no less deservedly, one of the heroes of the twentieth century. Admiration for people such as these, who had the courage to buck the received opinion of the day, is entirely appropriate, and indeed necessary. For where there is no worship of heroes and heroines, there will be little moral idealism, and therefore little moral progress….
Just as hero-worship is necessary for moral progress, so is disgust. But one can be disgusted by a person while granting, for what little that is worth, that his or her mistakes were honest ones. The abolitionists were disgusted by Lee’s decision to fight to preserve slavery, but it never occurred to them to deny that Lee was a man of honor….
Honesty and honorableness are measured by the degree of coherence of the stories people tell themselves and come to believe. Most people are able [to] construct a novel of their own lives in which they appear as, if not heroes and heroines, at least good. This is what is true in Socrates’ claim that no one consciously does evil. But if one things, as Christianity and Kant did, that people are bad only because they have deliberately turned away from the light, then one will see most of these stories as dishonest and self-deceptive. To think in that way is to infer, as Plato did, from the fact that coherence is not enough for goodness to the conclusion that there must be some recourse other than coherence — some bright star to steer by, visible to any honest mind.
Plato was wrong. The best we can do, when making moral or political choices, or when deciding between scientific theories or religious convictions, is to work out as coherent a story as we can. But doing that will not ensure that the judgment of history will be on our side. Whether sticking to our stories will make us objects of admiration or of disgust to future generations is entirely beyond our control….
The absence of such a star entails that honorable men and women are quite able to do disgusting things. It also entails that the judgment of history is quite likely to be wrong, since our remote descendants will also lack such a star. But it does not mean that we should, or that we can, stop making moral judgments (p. 68-69).
I tend to think it’s a little bit easier, at least in some cases, to know whether you’re about to act heroically in service of a bad cause (Rorty gives the Stauffenberg plot as an example and concludes that neither the Nazi officers who honored their oath to Hitler or who broke it and plotted to kill him had a star to guide them). But, in the main, I think his point is a very interesting one, that moral progress is made through the veneration of our heroes and that, quite often, their heroics are contingent on the judgments wrought by our contingent historical analysis.