Why Courage is Better than Moral Clarity

Then Samson said to Delilah: “if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”—Judges 16:17 (King James Version)

Samson_and_Delilah_mg_0034The philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb was once offered a piece of unsolicited advice from an unnamed correspondent: “Dear Mr Taleb, I like your work but I feel compelled to give you a piece of advice. An intellectual like you would greatly gain in influence if he avoided using foul language.” Taleb’s reply consisted of two words: “Fuck off.” What I love about this comical anecdote is that it makes manifest a particular kind of cluelessness which is often present but rarely visible. Telling Taleb to refrain from using foul language in his books is about as absurd as telling him to avoid using personal anecdotes (or telling him to avoid talking about trading or New York or Lebanon or anything else that makes him who he is). Form and content are inextricably linked in any truly philosophical work. And, as a consequence, you can’t limit the vitality of a book’s form without limiting the vitality of a book’s content. Besides, a cleaned-up Taleb would be about as powerful as clean-cut Samson. Moral clarity’s great, but courage is better. Because your heart can be in the right place; but if your balls aren’t, well, you’re probably not going to do the right thing when it matters.

Shamelessness is often mistaken for courage. Sometimes we think we’re looking at courage, when we’re actually just looking at a sociopath with the empathetic capacity of a turnip. Recklessness is also often mistaken for courage. Sometimes we think we’re looking at courage, when we’re actually just looking at an asshole. Alas, how are we to know when we’re looking at the real thing—true courage—as opposed to shamelessness or recklessness? As Aristotle made clear long ago, in Book 3 of the Nicomachean Ethics, it’s not easy. You need to look at the overall pattern of a person’s behavior. For instance, when a normally shy woman stands up to the sexist pig at the dinner party and puts him in his place, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at courage. But when an abusive loudmouth (with an overgrown sense of entitlement) tells off the waitress in a crowded restaurant—because her food isn’t coming fast enough—you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at recklessness. Likewise, when you watch a proud single-mom walk into a food-bank—red-faced and downcast—because her three kids need to eat, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at courage. But when you listen to a bunch of drunken salesmen at a sports bar bragging about their latest exploits, you can be pretty sure that you’re looking at shamelessness.

Normal people find it very hard to violate social norms. My wife, a sociologist, illustrates this point experientially for her students by having them get on a crowded bus or metro, walk up to a complete stranger, and ask them to give up their seat. Most of her students find it impossible to complete the task, no matter how hard they try. They are quite literally crippled by embarrassment. This is because they’re normal. This is because they have shame. The shameless don’t have this problem. For instance, when I mentioned this experiment to the most shameless I guy I know—a douche-bag I know from high school, who I ran into last year on the metro—he walked right up to a middle-aged woman and asked her for her seat—without hesitation, right in front of me. The woman looked surprised and shocked, but she got up regardless. And he sat down in her seat, smirking. Clearly it was effortless for him. Do I even need to tell you what he does for a living? Yes, he’s in sales. And he’s very good at it. Why? Because he’s shameless.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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