Aristotle, sometimes called the first economist, said that courage, like other virtues, was the happy medium between opposite vices, in this case recklessness and cowardice. He added an important qualification: courage is not courageous unless it is for a good cause. Fighting to defend yourself is brave but not particularly admirable – animals do. Fighting to defend your country, he says, is courageous. If Aristotle were here today, he would probably consider Zelensky brave, but not the 9/11 hijackers.
Modern economics has rejected Aristotle’s philosophy and replaced it with utilitarianism, which is to maximize “utility”, generally defined as pleasure. For a utilitarian, an act of heroism is a waste if it does not result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Reducing all human experience to a quantity of “useful” is mathematically convenient, but does not easily square with ancient virtues such as courage, fortitude, and prudence.
Another aspect of modern economics is the devotion to the free market. In “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith writes, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, or baker that we look to our dinner, but from their concern for their own interests. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-esteem, and never speak to them of our necessities, but of their advantages. Many economists, clinging to this concept, have come to see selfishness as the engine of prosperity. Rather, courage was a pre-capitalist virtue – a relic of the age of chivalry.
The gutting of courage seemed to be complemented by Social Darwinism, a philosophy born in the 19th century that held that survival of the fittest should apply to people, not just other reproductive organisms. Two centuries after “The Wealth of Nations”, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote an influential book, “The Selfish Gene”, which said: “Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, as it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to use it. »
The philosopher Richard Rorty was content with a lack of heroism in modern democratic societies. In a 1988 book, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” he wrote, “even if the character types typical of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty and unheroic, the prevalence of such people can be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom.