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Circumstances of Courage !


Andrew Sabl ! Visiting Associate Professor ! Harvard University ! Department of Government ! 1737 Cambridge St., N-410! Cambridge, MA 02138 ! (617) 496-0234 ! asabl@gov.harvard.edu ! (Permanent Affiliation: ! Public Policy and Political Science, UCLA ! sabl@ucla.edu) !

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I would like to thank Chenelle Idehen for research assistance.


Draft prepared for the Brown University Political Theory Workshop, 12 October 2006. This is a very rough and preliminary draft; comments of any length are therefore very welcome but please do not cite without permission. !







My topic is political courage: specifically, the extent to which courage is a

civic virtue in a liberal democracy. The question is both whether certain kinds of

courage are necessary for ordinary citizens of a liberal democracy and whether

certain kinds of courage (the same, or others) are even compatible with it. That

certain specialized political offices call for something called political courage I do

not doubt, but my subject is whether liberal democracy requires such a thing of

ordinary citizens and if so what shape it might take. !

I assume at the start an instrumental view of political virtue: a political virtue

is one that benefits the polity or the values it ought to embody rather than

(necessarily) the person who holds the virtue. Thus many ancient discussions of

virtue, as well as contemporary “virtue ethics” to the extent that tit builds on

these discussions,” will be either irrelevant or relevant in accidental and

unintended ways. For instance, in discussing true courage, which “chooses and

stands firm because that is fine or because anything else is shameful,” Aristotle

says that “it is quite possible for brave people not to be the best soldiers”—for

instance, those who have nothing to lose might fight more fiercely than those

with the proper motivational structure.

2 If that is the case, the place to look for

politically useful military courage is clear: it is those with nothing to lose who

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Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985): 1116a10-13,


2 !

most have it, not those who are so well constituted that they think more about

what is shameful than about fighting. !

In previous work, I have put forth a framework on political virtue that is


meant to make sense of these questions. I distinguished between core virtues,

those which are really necessary for most members of a liberal democracy to

possess most of the time if the polity is to continue functioning, and ideal virtues,

those conducive to one vision among many of how a liberal democracy ought to

progress or flourish. I also claimed that most virtues are pluralistic and episodic:

it is legitimate for some citizens to specialize in some, others in others; and many

virtues are called for only in certain circumstances, useless or harmful in others.

The same article asserted, briefly, that a certain radical and world-changing

conception of courage fit the last category: it is useful in times of radical crisis

when liberals must dare to act before liberalism’s enemies do, but “a danger to

the polity” when this is not the case and existing institutions demand our

qualified support. !

A similar conclusion has long been associated with liberal theory but has

always lacked intuitive appeal. Hannah Arendt wrote that “courage is one of the

cardinal political virtues”—and that “we” all hold this “as a matter of course”

3 "

Andrew Sabl, “Virtue for Pluralists,” Journal of Moral Philosophy 2, No. 2 (July 2005): 207-235.

even though our theories of politics give little reason for doing so.

3 !

4 Both parts of

her claim still have force. The Rawlsian liberalism that serves as political

theorists’ default assumption now seems to have no more room for courage than

did the more pluralistic liberalism that reigned when Arendt wrote.

5 The first

virtue of social institutions is of course justice. And to avoid an incoherent

destabilizing clash between private and political duties, our private morality

must (roughly speaking) put justice first as well. The primary “natural duty” is

one of justice, “to support and to further” arrangements that satisfy the

principles of justice.

6 Other duties considered necessary for the just society’s

stability include civility and mutual aid—but not courage. Later Rawls, which

focuses more on reasonable pluralism, still stresses other values, and other


virtues, but not courage. In a well-ordered society based on an overlapping

consensus rather than on agreement regarding comprehensive doctrines, “a

normally effective sense of justice” is essential (the purely political conception


4 Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future, 156.


5 The word “courage” does not appear in the index of John Rawls’ major works: A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1971); Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993); Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Belknap, 2001).


6 Theory of Justice, §51, p. 335.


7 I do not mean to suggest a one-to-one correspondence, nor indeed any necessary correspondence, between values and virtues, least of all between their names. To use the most obvious example, a peaceful society may require aggressiveness in the soldiers defending it.

that cements the polity is still a “political conception of justice” ) but courage is


4 !

not: the “very great virtues” “that make a constitutional regime possible” are

“the virtues of political cooperation” (tolerance, “being ready to meet others

halfway,” reasonableness, fairness)—not the virtue of courage.

9 To be sure,

courage might be praised or valued within a particular comprehensive

conception, but politics, it seems, can do without it as it cannot do without

fairness, toleration, or a sense of justice. !

This seems both intuitively wrong and theoretically correct. A nation of

political cowards sounds like a candidate for liberal failure—for instability and

injustice—let alone for ignobility. On the other hand, there seem good reasons

for the internal processes of liberal democracy, where it is hoped law and

peaceful dispute resolution reign, to downplay the role of courage, whose

paradigmatic sphere of operation is war.

10 In this essay I shall sketch a defense of

both our intuitive attachment to political courage and the reasons for liberal

theory to reject the claim that it is central to political life. Courage is a political

virtue in certain circumstances, but not those Arendt envisioned and not for the

reasons she had in mind. There is nothing in general wrong with liberal

8 ibid., 44

9 Political Liberalism 35, 44 (emphasis added), 157.

10 As noted by Holloway Sparks, “Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women,” Hypatia 12, No. 4 (Fall 1997): 74-110 at 92.

5 !

democracy’s aspiring to make many kinds of courage obsolete—to make

democracy as safe for cowards as for the rest of us who are imperfect in other


The form of courage that has the best claim to be enduringly necessary

and more of a help to liberal democracy than a hindrance is neither the martial

courage of the ancients nor the existential courage of Arendt and her followers

but what the Germans call civil courage: and it too must, if it is to be tamed for

democratic purposes, play a more limited role than many think. For the qualities

that make it so attractive as a counterweight to political evil also represent a

threat to political justice. Thus civil courage will be arguably a liberal-democratic

core virtue—but the fact that its presence in the core is arguable means that it

must either grudgingly take its place among “ideal” virtues or stand with those

who question altogether the worth of liberal democracy or the way we think

about it. !


I. Red herrings: preservationist courage and military valor.!

Courage can mean many things; political courage, almost as many. A matrix

combining all the possible ways of defining the virtue of courage (not having a

certain kind of fear, or overcoming it? If overcoming: by means of feelings of

solidarity, rational knowledge of the good, patriotism, animal spirit, or does it

not matter?) with all the possible definitions of political goods worth being

6 !

courageous for, would have a great many boxes. Since no claim is made here

about permissible “ideal” virtues or goals—everyone is entitled to praise all sorts

of motivations for standing fast in pursuit of all kinds of potential goods in the

face of all kinds of temptations—I shall start by talking about two kinds of

courage that might seem both fundamental to liberal democracy and related to

each other, but (I shall claim) are neither. !

Holloway Sparks has described the “classical” portrait of political courage as

the “warrior courage of soldiers and heroes” that “enables the warrior to gain

personal glory while defending the existing community from external harm.” We

might note at least four distinct propositions involved in this “classical” or epic

view: courage is (1) the special province of soldiers and heroes; (2) oriented

towards glory; (3) what might be called preservationist or conservative,

involving steadiness in defense of the existing order; and (4) addressed towards

external enemies. Sparks notes that Plato’s “civic” (or “political”) courage in the

Republic is a version of courage in this sense (we might add, without the glory

but with more immediate, i.e. romantic, compensations): it is preservationist, and

the quality above all of the Guardians. !




Sparks, 93, citing Plato, Republic 429. Sparks does not mention Socrates’ explicit refusal (430) to identify this preservationist, warrior courage with courage simply. To be sure, Allan Bloom’s claim (in his translation of the Republic [New York: Basic Books, 1968], 456n16) that “[c]ourage, simply, without the qualification political,…consists precisely in the willingness to question opinions, even the most authoritative ones” may be admirable but seems without warrant in the text.

7 !

Considered as a specialized or else episodic virtue, this seems, once more,

unexceptionable. Surely every liberal democracy sometimes faces military

threats, and surely some people some of the time must be able to brave danger in

repelling them. The extent of those threats, and therefore the frequency and

scope in which warrior virtue must operate, is a persistent partisan dispute

between conservatives and liberals, one which theory can hardly illuminate

reliably. One thing the theorist can do is point out how the claims made for

warrior courage typically metastasize in ways that make no logical but keen

political and psychological sense. !

Put simply, the four above qualities have little logical connection to one

another, and none has any logical connection to a willingness to repress domestic

dissenters who lack alliance with foreign enemies. The tendency to conflate the

two, accidentally or as a deliberate evasion, is of course very ancient. Even

Plato’s own treatment, which he carefully limits to specialized, political courage

in the hypothetical ideal city, engages in such slippage. Courage is sought in the

warrior class because it seems the quintessential quality of warriors (429b)—but

then is inconsistently asserted to serve a more generalized political end. The

guardians’ steadfastness in the face of external threats is conflated with their

refusal to tolerate any changes in the politeia (430b). The very quality with which

the guardians were first identified—the ability to distinguish enemies to be

8 !

attacked from friends to be treated kindly—is quickly forgotten: the response to

domestic innovation is placed in the portfolio of those entrusted with

ruthlessness towards foreign threats. !

It is hardly new to note that times of war present the danger of domestic

conformity and political repression, but not always recognized that it often does

so through appeals to political courage—identified with this narrow or military

ideal. The soldier’s values of obedience, patriotism, and steadfastness in the face

of death come to be conflated with civic virtues that ought in many cases to be

opposites of these; veterans are assumed to be preferred candidates for office, as

if physical bravery entailed general civic devotion or selflessness; the

contentment with the status quo that is a good thing in the professional soldier (it

prevents coups) is made a virtue of the whole citizenry, precisely the body

entrusted with making and evaluating demands for change; !

The link between valuing soldiers and punishing dissenters is so strong

largely because the slide between very different claims about courage is so easy.

While an extreme version of the military-civic slide—that career soldiers are best

suited to monopolize political power—is restricted to military dictatorships,

subtler versions can be found across the political spectrum. On the (non-

authoritarian) Right, it is common to assert or at least imply that domestic

dissenters are allied with foreign enemies precisely because the former often

9 !

refuse the demand to heap plaudits on those who attack the latter—appear, that

is, insufficiently appreciative of military courage, thus cowards by association. 12

In the republican or “civil liberal” center, preference for a draftee over a

professional army is sometimes linked to unrelated values like social mixing or

fair distribution of military risk but just as often to the idea that the military

virtues or their civilian analogue make for more steadfast citizens. But there is no

a priori reason to suppose this. Even habits of cooperation and sacrifice common

in civilian service projects might be double-edged if they (as alleged) spill over

into civic life. As Richard Posner has pointed out, the “GI generation’s” ethos of

service and sacrifice made them poor critics of government misbehavior

precisely because they were !


particularly good at keeping secrets and at lying for the greater good, tactics of solidarity which boomeranged when the [Vietnam] war turned

sour. Their whimpy [sic] successors, the ‘Silent Generation,’ turned out to

have deeper insights into the war.



But perhaps most interesting is a recent claim from a leading left-liberal that

turns out to be a version of this argument. In attacking what he sees as



An extreme example is the physical violence practiced and promoted by the American Legion against a religious sect that refused the flag salute as idolatrous. Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (Lawrence, KS: Univ. Press of Kansas, 2000).


David Kaiser, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War (2000) at 8 [confirmation of source tk: my notes are unclear.]



dangerous talk of “balancing” security and liberty, restricting the latter in the face

of threats to the former, Jeremy Waldron writes: !

Of course, it is possible that we could make the adjustment in the other direction. Instead of beginning with an idea of the maximum risk…we

were prepared to bear as a result of people’s liberty, we might begin with an idea of the minimum liberty…we were prepared to accept. The recalculation after September 11 would then require us not to accept less liberty but to brave a higher risk for the sake of the liberty we cherish. The appropriate changes in public policy, then, would be calls to greater

courage, rather than diminutions of liberty.




Leaving aside that “calls to greater courage” seems not quite a public policy (any

more than calls to tighten one’s belt are a social policy), the question is who is

being called to greater courage, and greater than what. The idea seems to be that

we must all display something like warrior courage, since terrorists intend to

make all of civilian society a battlefield.

15 But the word “greater” is problematic

here, as the amount of warrior courage normally expected of, say, four-year old

children is normally zero. To accept even a small but pervasive degree of violent

insecurity is to display the kind of virtues that liberal governments are supposed

to render obsolete for most people and required only in a few. Waldron resists

talk of “balancing” liberty against security partly because such talk is too


14 Jeremy Waldron, “Security and Liberty: The Image of Balance,” Journal of Political Philosophy 11, No. 2 (2003): 191-210 at 194.


15 That everyone must now display civil courage rather than shrinking from small but important contributions to a common effort would be an interesting claim. Camus’ Plague presents something like this case, but I do not think Waldron intends it.



casually consequentialist whereas liberty is supposed to be at least quasi-


16 But perhaps virtues, or their absence, are tacitly regarded as quasi-

absolute as well. One way of reformulating the goal of a liberal society is that of

making the truly necessary civic virtues as few as possible and their necessary

level as close to zero as possible. The call for everyone to get used to needing

warrior courage is much more radical than it seems.



To sum up: That warrior courage translates particularly well into the courage

necessary for domestic political life is a claim that can certainly be made. But it is

an ideological claim: it presents a certain story about what ails politics, a claim

that must stand on its specific causal arguments and cannot claim to rest on

anything inherent in the logic of either courage or liberal democracy. That is: it is

no more plausible to suppose that military or preservationist courage is related to

the (nebulous) courage appropriate to citizens than to suppose it is related to

anything else: generosity, or courtesy, or drunkenness, or skill at pole vaulting. !


II. Arendtian Courage: Radical Virtue for Dark Times.!

16 Ibid.

17 That the level of warrior courage required of citizens ought to be zero does not imply that it is. After September 11, one sometimes heard it said that middle-class White Americans were now experiencing the kind of violent insecurity that minorities in crime-ridden neighborhoods felt every day. But no one claims that the existence of violent crime should be met by a call for greater courage among its usual victims.


Arendt’s claim that courage is crucial to politics is very specific and surprisingly

hard to gloss. She endorses the claim attributed to Churchill that courage is the

first of all human qualities” because it “guarantees all others.”

18 This could on the

surface mean many things, for instance a point about weakness of will, but in

citing it Arendt means very specifically the courage necessary to leave the private

realm and engage in public action.


In her discussion of political freedom Arendt writes that courage !

Does not gratify our individual sense of vitality but is demanded of us by the very nature of the public realm. For this world of ours, because it existed before us and is meant to outlast our lives in it, simply cannot afford to give primary concern to individual lives and the interests connected with them; as such the public realm stands in the sharpest

possible contrast to our private domain, where, in the protection of family and home, everything serves and must serve the security of the life process. It requires courage to leave the protective security of our four walls and enter the public realm, not because of particular dangers which may lie in wait for us, but because we have arrived in a realm where the concern for life has lost its validity. Courage liberates men from their worry about life for the freedom of the world. Courage is indispensable

because in politics not life but the world is at stake (emphasis added)”



The degree of actual danger or threat to our persons is not, it seems, even

relevant; military courage is not at issue. (In another passage Arendt says, yet

18 Hannah Arendt, “What is Freedom?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Viking Compass ed., 1968; reprint, Penguin, 1987), 156. I have been unable to far to find the original source of the Churchill quotation (not cited by Arendt) and would be interested in its original context or even its genuineness.

19 Ibid. Just before the text quotation, Arendt explicitly stresses the contrast between this sort of courage and the physical courage of the one who seeks “the daring of adventure.”


more vividly, that even cowards can be heroes and that being a coward may even

increase the courage displayed by leaving one’s “private hiding place.”

20 )


takes courage to face not so much physical danger but the insecurity specific to

politics, in which how our private lives go is not of concern. But it remains

unclear why politics should be insecure at all, why it should seem threatening to

leave home and engage with others, why “the public realm” in general and

politics in particular (a word that Arendt uses sparingly) should involve such risk.

A common answer given by Arendt scholars involves the uncertainties and

vagaries of risking one’s private identity in the world of public perception, an

answer that focuses on authority rather than identity seems more convincing and

harder to claim as universally valid. !

Arendt’s work was born in what she (following Brecht) called “dark times”:

specifically the “first half of the twentieth century,”

21 which saw two world wars,

Depression, Holocaust, and the unprecedented political structure that Arendt

would analyze as Totalitarianism. Arendt took for granted that as a result of

these experiences (and only these experiences) “the thread of tradition finally

broke”: “the gap between past and future,” once a construct of intellectuals who

can stop time notionally, in thought, is now “a tangible reality” and has “political

20 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1958): 186-7.

21 Hannah Arendt, “Preface” to Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968):



22 The vigor and brilliance of Arendt’s attempts to make sense of such

times resonated with an entire postwar generation with personal or familial

memories of these catastrophes and of the multiples losses of certainty, hope, and



Hannah Arendt, “Preface” to Between Past and Future, 14. Compare “Tradition and the Modern Age,” in ibid., 26: “Totalitarian domination as an established fact, which in its unprecedentedness cannot be comprehended through the usual categories of political thought, and whose ‘crimes’ cannot be judged by traditional moral standards or punished within the legal framework of our civilization, has broken the continuity of Occidental history. The break in our tradition is now an accomplished fact. It is neither the result of anyone’s deliberate choice nor subject to further decision,” and “What is Authority?” in ibid., 91, which starts from the bald premise that “authority has vanished from the modern world.” [More citations tk: Origins of Totalitarianism, Men in Dark Times, others. Also chase down in secondary literature the link to Benjamin and to Zionist thought; a start is Eyal Chowers, “Time in Zionism: The Life and Afterlife of a Temporal Revolution,” Political Theory 26, No. 5 (October 1998): 652-685.


identity that went with them.

23 Arendt’s self-consciously literary, baroque,

evocative rather than careful words and arguments, praised as a new way of

doing political theory by Arendt’s Continental or postmodern followers and

often so infuriating to Anglo-American critics,

24 track more closely than either

group recognizes a particular set of political experiences. Arendt’s method, akin

to Socrates’ (tentative, original, prone to use everyday metaphors, non-

There were specifically dark places, not just dark times. Those who grew up in interwar Central Europe, laid low by defeat, hunger, the loss of “imperial” political identities, and hot (Germany) or cold (Austria) civil wars among dueling revolutionary

and counterrevolutionary factions could well believe that taking any political role was a


the empire’s collapse, to a smallish provincial republic of great beauty [Austria, in both cases], which did not believe it ought to exist,” writes Eric Hobsbawm, born eleven years after Arendt. And of his own communism: “It was easy enough in Europe during and between the world wars to conclude that only revolution could give the world a future. The old world was in any case doomed.” Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (New York:

Pantheon Books, 2002): 8, 137. Compare Michael Frayn’s Heisenberg, whose life is framed by the sight of starving children and rotting corpses, and the experience of having bought his own life from a jumpy fellow-German soldier for a pack of (American) cigarettes: when it is suggested that his actions might stand up well “if people are to be measured strictly in terms of observable quantities,” “then we should need,” replies Heisenberg, “a strange new quantum ethics” (Michael Frayn, Copenhagen [New York:

Anchor Books, 2000]: Act Two, 92). (Arendt herself stresses that even the greatest crises of authority need not lead to revolution if the regime in question is lucky enough to avoid defeat in war—Crises of the Republic [cite tk; near the quotation below about De Gaulle.] The despair and vertigo that Arendt takes for granted as the starting points of honest “modern” thought were the taken-for granted childhood experiences of Hobsbawm and Heisenberg; of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (rich, conservative) brother, who shot himself on Austria’s Eastern Front after his Slavic troops deserted. Not to overstress autobiography, they were also my father’s, and I can attest to the relevance of Judith Shklar’s statement that the difference between her work and Michael Walzer’s was “the

difference between a refugee and a citizen” [cite tk].

“I spent my childhood in the impoverished capital of a great empire, attached, after





As noted by Elizabeth Young-Bruel in Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World [cite tk], citing Stuart Hampshire.


systematic) makes sense if and only if one thinks that there is no alternative to

starting anew, that the world no longer contains solid premises from which to

reason and make systematic progress through logic alone. Considering “all our

experiences in this century, which has constantly confronted us with the totally

unexpected,” optimistic doctrines of continuity and Progress (here Marxist, but

Arendt blames liberal ones just as much) represent “a comfortable, speculative or

pseudo-scientific refuge from reality.”



Both those who want to claim Arendt’s insights are undoubtedly true and

those who want to dismiss them as undoubtedly nonsense should recognize that

Arendt explicitly links her theoretical claims to specific kinds of experiences and

political conditions.

26 “Anglo-American” theory sounds very different from

Arendt because it is written by Britons and Americans who have no reason to

believe the claim that modernity has catastrophically disrupted political and

cultural life: whose traditions never stopped working.

Where constitutional

traditions persist, even grow stronger over time, Arendt’s answers can still

fascinate but they seem the mere intellectual games that Arendt granted they

would have been absent the experience of Dark Times: !


25 Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972),



26 “My assumption is that thought itself arises out of incidents of living experience and must remain bound to them as the only guideposts by which to take its bearings.” “Preface” to Between Past and Future, 14.


“the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no

outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well- founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious

about it.”




But it is mysterious now: her experience, not ours. Arendt’s apparently

obscure political categories—power vs. authority vs. strength vs. violence;

courage is the central political virtue but toleration is not—are often seen by both

her partisans and enemies as resting on abstract theses about the human

condition when they could be read as attempts to make sense of political

circumstances. !

This has clear implications for courage and explains why courage is so

important and so central to Arendt’s politics. Arendt sees revolutions as a matter

of power’s slow disintegration followed by a contest of initiative: !

Disintegration often becomes manifest only in direct confrontation; and even then, when power is already in the street, some group of men prepared for such an eventuality is needed to pick it up and assume responsibility. !




27 Arendt, “Preface” to Men in Dark Times: viii. Compare the “Walter Benjamin” essay in ibid., 191-2, especially on Benjamin’s reaction to Scholem’s advice not to abandon “the most fruitful and most genuine traditions of a Hamann and a Humboldt.” Benjamin started from the assumption that these traditions were no longer of any use.


28 Arendt, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic, 148.


Arendt’s example of this is France in 1968, where the students were not ready to

pick up the power lying in the street—but de Gaulle was.

29 Arendt’s metaphors,

like Socrates’, should be taken very seriously as attempts to create new premises

when old ones are inapt. If revolution means a rush to pick up power, and if

power in most modern societies is so fragile that it is often lying there to be picked

up—this is what a crisis of authority means—then politics is like a game of

Australian Rules football. The ball is propelled forwards through rough kicks

and fist-socks: it typically lands close to players on both sides (more like soccer

than like a U.S. football pass) and whoever gets it first wins possession. Many

players running hard and trying to scoop up the ball in their hands means that

head-on collisions are very common and are more serious the harder the players

are competing. Now make the prize for getting the ball not a possession but the

right to write the constitution and dominate the political system. This is no

longer a game in which toleration could possibly be more important than


30 Even an agreement not to play, to let the ball lie there, would only

entail that someone else, perhaps a great enemy, could break the deal and pick it


29 Ibid., 149.


30 Now consider soccer, otherwise very similar except that one may not use one’s hands. This is like liberalism: infuriating to those who want to see the full extension of our human capacities, rational to those who care more about players’ being able to walk away. Baseball is more liberal still: the least “republican” of sports, the most individualistic and quantifiably meritocratic, the least amenable to genius and innovation in tactics and strategy, the one in which boldness and initiative count for least and practice and routine for most, easily the dullest, easily the safest.


up without effort—much as fascism in fact seemed in the eyes of a generation

that ten or twenty years before saw no reason to doubt that liberalism would

survive forever only to see it die utterly, defended by no one. !

This is not our game. There is simply no good reason to believe that authority

in liberal democracies is now fragile, that alternative claimants to power fail

mostly or even partly because they fail to take initiative Arendt’s defense of

courage is not “wrong” but describes political circumstances that simply are less

relevant here and now than they did in her day and her birthplace. (It is no

accident that the active politicians most influenced by Arendt mostly grew up in

Eastern Europe, or Iraq.) Short of portraying our times so pessimistically that we

forget the profound difference between the problems of the U.S. today and those

of interwar Germany or Austria,

31 we cannot easily claim that politics today

requires the courage Arendt described. We can now enter politics without

risking either life or security and without expecting the “miracles” that Arendt



For examples of this see Dianna Taylor, “Hannah Arendt on Judgment: Thinking for Politics,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 10, No. 2 (2002): 151-169 at 156-159 and, on a much more sophisticated level, Jeffrey C. Isaac, Democracy in Dark Times (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press,



saw in the political realm.

32 And we can fail to enter politics without leaving

politics to fascists and communists: in a stable liberal democracy, a moderate

preference for our private shelters simply does not do the polity fundamental

harm. !


III. Civil courage: antipolitical society vs. rational publicity. !

If any kind of courage seems suited for liberal democracy, it is what the

French and (especially) Germans call civil courage. The term is ubiquitous in

civics lessons and newspaper commentary but mostly ignored by philosophers:

one must therefore start with origins and definitions. !

Zivilcourage in its origins is diametrically opposed to warrior or military

courage, originating in a complaint by Bismarck that “courage on the battlefield”


“What is Freedom?” 168. To be sure, the politics of the civil rights era did require both crisis- type courage and belief in something like a miracle in social relations; see the reflections on Ella Baker and other Civil Rights leaders in Sparks, passim. I merely question whether direct analogies can still be drawn to such situations. Sparks’ assimilation of the concrete physical and economic risks posed by Civil Rights activism to the more rarified “risk, uncertainty” of forming coalitions and challenging one’s comfortable social assumptions in feminist meetings and similar fora (97, with citations to several feminist theorists) seems too quick. In particular, one wonders whether the feigned confidence known as “stage presence” would not solve the latter problem more simply than appeals to radical courage do. Cultivating the appearance of courage rather than speculating about its reality would respect as well Arendt’s desire to leave political personae masks in place, to avoid the politics of hypocrisy and (alleged) authenticity, to acknowledge that “in politics, more than anywhere else, we have no possibility of distinguishing between being and appearance” (Arendt, On Revolution, Viking Compass edition [New York: Viking, 1965], 98). There are practical implications as well: while feminists were engaged in consciousness-raising, aiming at a deep and conscious political awareness and close understandings among women of different backgrounds, anti-feminist groups that concentrated on training nervous traditionalist homemakers in the practical skill of looking and sounding good on television. gained a certain advantage. Jane Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, (University of Chicago Press, 1986). [This deserves further exploration; it probably needs to be a separate article.]



was a common Prussian quality, but “Zivilcourage” (i.e. here civilian courage)

less so.

33 If the original context opposed “civil” courage to “military,” the current

meaning is clearly closer to civil or civic: the courage appropriate to ordinary

citizens is meant.

34 Beyond this, however, agreement on what this term entails

and even what it basically refers to (on conception as well as concept, in

Rawlsian terms) becomes elusive. One foundation that gives prizes for civil

courage defines it as “steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk.”

35 In this

context, civil courage is regularly ascribed to anti-Nazi martyrs like Dietrich

Bonhoeffer, who wrote some famous (though brief and cryptic) remarks on civil


36 and won that prize posthumously. Civil courage in this heroic sense is

certainly admirable but will be of limited use in functioning liberal democracies,


33 The universally cited sentence is “Mut auf dem Schlachtfeld is bei uns Gemeingut, aber Sie werden nicht selten finden, daß es ganz achtbaren Leuten an Zivilcourage fehlt.” (“Courage on the battlefield is common property among us, but you will not seldom find that quite respectable people lack civil courage.”) Unfortunately, the source is elusive and one of the few attempts at scholarly citation cites a page where no such sentence appears. Till Bastian, Zivilcourage: Von der Banalität des Guten (Hamburg: Rotbuch Verlag, 1996): 38. citing (spuriously) Felix Max Robert von Keudell, Fürst und Fürstin Bismarck (Berlin: W. Spemann, 1901; Bastian’s citation gives no publisher but there is no other edition). I continue to search.


34 In German as (more or less) in English, “Zivil-“ attached to a noun has meant since the nineteenth century (1) “civil” in the sense of “pertaining to a citizen” (as in Zivilkrieg = Bürgerkrieg civil war), or (2) “civilian,” not military, or (3) civil as opposed to canon law, or (4) a civil as opposed to a criminal lawsuit. Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm’s Deutsches Wörterbuch, 32 volumes (Leipzig: S. Hirzel 1854-1960): volume 31, pp. 1727-31. Bismarck meant the second sense; modern commentators, clearly the first.


The Northcote Parkinson Prize. http://www.civilcourageprize.org/about-prize.htm As many people have received the prize posthumously (including Bonhoeffer) as when still alive.


36 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Civil Courage?” in “Letters and Papers from Prison,” ed. Eberhard Bethge (London: S.C.M. Press, 1967): 5-6.


in which standing up against injustice, almost by definition, entails no such

danger. On the other hand, civil courage is very often spoken of in the context of

the ability to take actions that entail no risk, except perhaps embarrassment: in

the case of Kitty Genovese, whose neighbors would have risked little or nothing

by calling the police, or foreign equivalents thereof. Even a soccer star’s choice to

found a charity is said to demonstrate Zivilcourage.

37 These things involve

(some) altruism, or perhaps mere helpfulness—the “willingness to do small

favors” lauded by Kant and Rawls—but their connection to courage is doubtful;

they seem related to the Nazi rescuer case only in the sense that both may serve

as very different antonyms for apathy. !

Between these heroic and petty definitions lie the idea that Zivilcourage

involves “courage of one’s convictions,”

38 which implies attachment to moral

values and some disregard for possible consequences for oneself, but not

necessarily that those consequences be dire. A risk to one’s job, for instance,

might be sufficient. Also consistent is John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage

(whose heroes lost elections but no more) was rendered as Zivilcourage in


39 And sociologist Richard Swedberg’s treatment of the concept, which

37 Bastian, chapter 1, who rightly uses “Altruismus” as a synonym for this sense. His subtitle, “of the banality of good,” is unintentionally comical in some of his contexts, though of course (p. 20) he intends to explore how we can avoid following Arendt’s Eichmann in the banality of evil.

38 The rendering in the Oxford-Duden Concise dictionary.

39 I have checked this and it is true but [cite tk] for where I first read it.


focuses on Knut Wicksell, a sort of Bertrand Russell figure in Sweden—like

Russell, greatly influenced by J.S. Mill—who faced social and academic

disapproval and a brief stay in jail for his anti-nationalist, pro-contraception and

freethinking views but certainly no grave physical risks (he did not even lose his


40 This might be called the social conception of civil courage, or perhaps

the antisocial, since it involves risking social approval and economic position

rather than letting civil society serve as an instrument of fear.

41 Not the courage

but the risks faced are social in character. The ends may either be social, even

private—here versions of subway muggings where the rescuers face some risk

might qualify,

42 as would some anti-Nazi rescuers of Jews—or we could require

that they be, as with Wicksell or with Kennedy’s senators, political. This

corresponds to the two senses of Zivil- or Bürger-/bürgerlich- in German (both

mean either “pertaining to bourgeois, ordinary people in civil society” or

“pertaining to citizens”) and roughly to the distinction in English between “civil”

40 Richard Swedberg, “Civil Courage (‘Zivilcourage’): The Case of Knut Wicksell,” Theory and Society 28, No. 4 (August 1999): 501-528. Wicksell’s jail term does not alter the assessment: it was relatively brief and very comfortable—he got lots of writing done—as well as accidental: Wicksell thought his position meant he would not be arrested for blasphemy.

41 For a somewhat overheated treatment of the latter tendency, see Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (Oxford: Oxford Trade, 2004).

42 As per Gesine Schwan, “Civil Courage and Human Dignity: How to Regain Respect for the Fundamental Values of Western Democracy,” Social Research 71, No. 1 (Spring 2004): 115.


duties, which can have a social or private character, and “civic” ones, which

involve political citizenship.



Such courage might seem dangerously ineffable and, precisely because it is so

praiseworthy, antidemocratic. The egalitarian moral psychology characteristic of

most contemporary political thought supposes that everyone, by nature or more

likely socialization, has values and can act on them: justice is no specialized skill.

It seems difficult simultaneously to praise civil courage and to rescue such a

moral psychology. Put differently, either civil courage is superogatory—which

would place it outside the core and make it much less fun to lament its absence—

or it is a crucial citizen virtue for all of us but one that most lack. Or, finally, civil

courage could be crucial in some repressive regimes—those in which defying an

official order or suggestion endangers one’s career or position but not one’s life—

but not so much in ours. Absent blasphemy laws or even economically

significant blacklists, there is little occasion for ordinary citizens to display even

Wicksell’s or Russell’s courage. !

Gesine Schwan, author of possibly the only scholarly treatment of civil

courage from a moral perspective, claims that the case of a repressive but mostly

non-murderous regime, the German Democratic Republic (in German DDR)

teaches wider lessons. She asks why some people had the civil courage to refuse



I owe the last distinction to forthcoming work by Ben Berger.


to cooperate with the Stasi, the DDR’s secret police. Schwan claims that civil

courage involves several essential aspects: !

—we “intuitively associate civil courage with situations in which people

behave in a nonconformist manner, contradicting or acting counter to a majority of

the people who surround them.” !

—These individuals “have the courage to follow their own reflections or

consciences” [but…] !

—“Whereas courage can be shown and practiced by an isolated individual,

civil courage refers to a social and political frame regardless of whether it is actually

present or only imagined.” !

—civil courage involves not mere “querulous” or stubborn noncooperation

for its own sake but involves “reflection,” thinking and responding to arguments.

“To accept the necessity of thinking and arguing means that we accept the

principal realm of arguments and thus, at least to a certain degree, the equality of

the participants who are engaged in the argument. We find therein an affinity for

a democratic regime.”



There is an unresolved tension here between individualism and social

responsibility. Civil courage is by definition (rightly, it seems) nonconformist:

but not too nonconformist. An aristocratic, perhaps “querulous” defiance of



Schwan, “Civil Courage and Human Dignity,” 108-110 (emphases added)); extended quotation on 109-110.


conformity as praised by Tocqueville

45 could certainly ground noncooperation

with official injustice—but, being insufficiently rationalist, it might also threaten

noncooperation with official justice, which Schwan (who seems to follow

Habermas on most things) will not risk. But if a society is as morally and

politically rotten as the DDR was, communication will be too risky: the “social or

political frame” must be notional. One must apparently act on conscience but be

confident, somehow, that if there were a public sphere, arguments within it

would justify one’s conduct. !

Schwan’s examples belie her theory: this will to hypothetical, reflective, and

egalitarian justification seems unnecessary for actual resistance and rarely

something resisters think about. Rescuers in the Nazi era “acted

spontaneously” (Schwan notes that this supports Aristotle’s theory of virtue but

fails to note the tension between this and Habermas); had “personal contacts and

friendships” with Jews; got their ideas of human dignity and equality not from

argument but from “mostly personal examples from their youth”; did not reflect

upon possible advantages or disadvantages but simply felt the impulse to

help” (emphasis added); felt “personal strength and they also felt strong”; had

“an intense empathy with and fidelity to their life principles”; prized the



See Delba Winthrop, “Rights: A Point of Honor,” in Ken Masugi, ed., Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Savage, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991); for an extended treatment see Sharon R. Krause, Liberalism with Honor (Harvard Univ. Press, 2002).


“secondary virtues” like “reliability, punctuality, and friendliness” rather than


46 Those who turned down invitations from the Stasi were

disproportionately female; were relatively unimpressed by the promise of power;

had a strong sense of autonomy or independence; and “of course, belong[ed] to

non-Communist ideological groups that abhorred betrayal.”



Thus it seems that the roots of civil courage lay in personal experience,

immediate empathy, a feeling of strength, habit, social ties that were proof

against official claims of political duty; and a tendency to prize private

helpfulness over public duty. To this extent, civil courage seems accidentally

well named: it stems from Tocquevillean roots, from the contingent and

differentiated experiences of civil society, not from the state and still less from the

public sphere of argument. Civil courage, on this preliminary account, works by

virtue of being antipolitical: to the extent that it is “civic” it defines citizenship in

ways that do not require either official authority or general agreement. Refusing

to join the Stasi is easier if one is deaf to the claims of faithful DDR citizenship;

casting a lone dissenting vote in the Senate or a faculty meeting is easier if one

doubts that the quintessential exemplars of rational argument and deliberation

46 Schwan, 114.

47 Schwan, 115.


have presumptive validity; even intervening to stop a crime on the subway may

be easier if one takes for granted that the police will never come. !

If civil courage is antipolitical, it need not be antisocial. Making the

interesting suggestion that civil courage be viewed as akin to Robert Merton’s

study of nonconformity, Swedberg notes that Merton saw the nonconformist as

far from an a antinomian “deviant”: her or she appeals rather to a group other

than the one he refuses to conform to. It is with support from this outside

reference group that he is “prepared to accept, if not to welcome, the almost

certain and painful consequences of dissent.”

48 Literature on Nazi-era protectors

of Jews often stresses similarly the links between civil courage and small gestures

of resistance rooted in social, corporate, or bureaucratic rather than universal

loyalties: Bonhoeffer smuggled Jews not for himself but for German military

intelligence, which had traditionalist military but non-Nazi commitments

49 ; one

study of a politically neutral aviation scientist in the Third Reich finds him

simultaneously working feverishly for aircraft production and (for that reason)

protesting at risk of the concentration camp and contrary to very clear Nazi


48 Swedberg, 517, citing Merton, “Nonconformity as a Type of Reference Group Behavior,” Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: The Free Press, 1968): 411-422.


49 [cite tk: I have a poor source for this but need to check.]


policies against dismissals of Jewish scientists.

50 Here corporate and social

loyalties trumped—fortunately!—assertions of political duty. We must

remember that the latter were very strong and often took the form of exalting

duty and the public sphere over the pettiness of civil society and the squabbling

of interest-group politics.



Civil courage is in fact often contrasted with outright revolutionary or

militant resistance and associated instead with Resistenz, a term brought into

historians’ debates by historian Martin Broszat, who means by it a willingness to

oppose the Nazis’ policies but not Nazism itself, “the many ‘small’ forms of civil

courage that could be expected from every contemporary as opposed to the main

stream of fearful adjustment or enthusiastic support for the regime” (emphasis


50 Helmuth Trischler, “Self-mobilization or resistance? Aeronautical research and National Socialism,” In Monika Renneberg and Mark Walker, eds. Science, Technology and National Socialism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994): 72-87.


51 Fritz Stern, “National Socialism as Temptation,” in Dreams and Delusions (New York: Knopf, 1987): 147-91.



52 One summary of this school, associated with the Alltagsgeschichte

(history of the everyday) movement in German history, notes that !


“The many small forms of civil courage” with which historians of

everyday life have been so concerned are attributed less to political beliefs than to the pursuit of interest, the strength of local communities, and the defense of cultural autonomy. Politics seem as irrelevant of Resistenz as to

daily life.



Lest all this seem insufficiently engaged or altruistic, one might note both that

open resistance was utterly futile and guaranteed not to teach general lessons

(due to lack of publicity) and that the Gestapo were few, and depended on

denunciations for the secret police system to function: mere lack of active


Martin Broszat, “Resistenz und Widerstand: Zwischenbilanz eines Forschungsprojekts,” in Herrschaft und Gesellschaft im Konflikt, vol. 4 of Martin Broszat, Elke, Fröhlich, and Anton Grossmann, eds., Bayern in der NS Zeit (Munich and Vienna, 1981), p. 693, quoted by Michael Geyer, “Resistance as Ongoing Project: Visions of Order, Obligations to Strangers, Struggles for Civil Society,” Journal of Modern History 64, Supplement (December 1992): S223-4. Other definitions of Resistenz, include: “morally neutral impenetrability or immunity rather than actively motivated opposition”—Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship, 15 [full cite tk]; and most concisely “individual acts of opposition coupled with a fundamental loyalty to authority”— Renneberg and Walker, “Scientists, engineers and National Socialism,” in Renneberg and Walker, op. cit., 20. Trischler at 73 notes that Resistenz is precisely not properly translated by English or French “resistance,” résistance. “The concept of ‘Resistenz’ does not include systematic efforts for overcoming the system. It is characterized instead by the rejection of and refusal to support the system, the limitation and the containment of Nazi power and its claims, irrespective of the reigning power or dominant interests involved. [More needs to be researched and said here.]



Mary Nolan, “The Historikerstriet and Social History,” New German Critique 44, Special Issue (Spring-Summer 1988): 51-80 at 73. I must add that Nolan is quite critical of the Alltagsgeschichte school for overvalorizing everyday life and ignoring the ways in which apathetic private withdrawal actually served the Nazi regime. I have no quarrel with this critique, and would merely note that to the extent that nothing substantial was done to frustrate the regime’s goals and the Nazis were satisfied with the outcome, the moral critic may say that nobody in fact showed civil courage. No one claims that the presence of daily life or civil society is sufficient for civil courage.



cooperation would have been enough to make the terror system largely




On one level, then civil courage so understood has impeccable Kantian

credentials: if everyone in the Nazi regime or the DDR had cared enough to take

small risks in defiance of the regime for private reasons, neither regime could

have functioned. They would have become, like Eastern Europe in 1989, would-

be or former totalitarian states, but failed ones. (In this context, Vaclav Havel’s

“The Power of the Powerless,” in praise of a shopkeeper’s refusal to post the

required political slogan in his window, fits perfectly with the account of civil

courage given here.

55 ) On another level, civil courage is radically anti-Kantian,

since it relies not on the free public use of one’s reason but on either an

impossibility of appealing to that, or else a relative lack of concern as to what

public reason might conclude. Private and social sources of judgment are more

important. Schwan claims that civil courage “strengthens the institutions that

require support from the subjective behavior of citizens in order to remain alive

and strong”: one might only add that these institutions need not be, as Schwan

implies, either political or politically approved of. !


54 Robert Gellately, “The Gestapo and German Society: Political Denunciation in the Gestapo Case Files,” Journal of Modern History 60 (1988): 693.


55 Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” in John Keane, ed., The Power of the Powerless:

Citizens against the State in East-Central Europe (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1985).


This raises the question of whether we can call civil courage what pursues

immoral ends. Swedberg considers !

the imaginary case of a racist who stands up in front of an audience, which consists of convinced anti-racists, and launches into a violent

speech in favor of a race war. Does this represent and [sic] act of civil

courage or not?




Swedberg answers no, justifying this by linking civil courage to the ideal of civil

society (as above) but endorsing a morally demanding conception of the latter


57 Schwan makes a very similar appeal: suicide attacks, however brave, lack

civil courage because !

[t]he civitas—the civil community—that civil courage is to serve implies as a supreme value the dignity of people, expressed in their right to self- determination; it requires nonconformism and the pondering of

arguments; it is used to strengthen the rule of law and thus to find ways of

compromise and it seeks to avoid violence.



But a more honest and less question-begging answer would be that of course

civil courage can be evil, just as military courage can be found in soldiers fighting

a war of conquest. (And of course, in neither do people regard themselves as evil

or non-civil in the first person but on the contrary see themselves as good and

steadfast: we have a speech by Goebbels praising Hitler for having “the civil

56 Swedberg, 522.

57 Swedberg, 523, citing somewhat out of context Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), xiii.

58 Schwan, 116.


courage in the face of nearly everyone else to express with iron logic what had to

be done.”

59 )

The right response to the presence of each is the same: a desire to

foster greater courage—and, more important, proper tools and organizations—

on the side that is just. We must get used to the fact that justice is the only

personal virtue that tracks the metaphorical “virtue” of social institutions, as well

as the only social value for which the anthropomorphizing term “virtue” makes

much sense.



IV. Circumstances of courage !

Above I mentioned that the specialized and episodic virtue of warrior

courage seems more than episodic from a certain ideological or partisan

perspective, one which stresses the presence of a dangerous world full of

frightening enemies. The question here is one of assessing risks: necessarily an

59 Joseph Goebbels, "Der Führer als Redner," in Adolf Hitler. Bilder aus dem Leben des Führers (Hamburg: Cigaretten/Bilderdienst [sic it seems] Hamburg/Bahrenfeld, 1936, pp. 27-34. Trans. By Randall Bytwerk at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/ahspeak.htm; See also Dr. [no first name given] Ellenbeck, Der Offizier als Führer im Kampf gegen die feindliche Propaganda (OKW, January 1943), trans. Bytwerk at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/officer.htm. Both accessed 3 October 2006.

60 Institutions may be said to “allocate” and “judge” things—and in doing so their lack of human feelings may be seen as an advantage, as with the Social Security system that churns out checks to all on a list without knowing anything about them. But this lack of feeling makes courage impossible, since courage is only called for when one feels fear, or does not feeling fear when others might. Nor can institutions face death or physical harm, so even a standard of “objective” fear makes no sense. To the extent that a political institution could be “fear” extinction, the proper response would seem to be rational cowardice, as with the Supreme Court’s New Deal-era “switch in time that saved Nine.”


ideological and partisan question because the level of risks like this is bound up

with controversial world-views about what human beings can foresee, what is in

our control, what kinds of social actors we trust or distrust, and which social and

political institutions are likely to protect us or threaten us.

61 Just as warrior

courage seems to conservatives not a peripheral but a core virtue or something

close to it, civil courage can seem the same thing to certain political radicals. If

the regime of the United States amounts to fascism, the lessons of Bonhoeffer and

Wallenberg will be of daily application. At some point, world-views will differ

so greatly that useful arguments cannot be joined. But theory can still illuminate

what is at stake and what is not. If the points above about Arendtian courage are

correct, radical, existential courage will be relevant only where politics poses

threats of a certain kind: threats of imminent political takeover by the forces of evil,

so that political action and initiative are absolutely imperative. Citizens’ alleged

helplessness in the face of subtler forms of ideological domination make entry

into the public realm not courageous but nonsensical. !

Civil courage will clearly be continually relevant if the government’s

principles are thoroughly evil: here almost any form of resistance grounded in

social or private allegiances or values will be better than doing one’s “political”



For arguments on this point by scholars whose professional training might bias them towards “rational” accounts of risk assessment, see Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture (Univ. of California Press, 1982) and Aaron Wildavsky and Karl Dake, "Theories of Risk Perception: Who Fears What and Why", Daedalus 119 No.4 (Fall 1990): 41-60.


duty. In other sorts of regimes, the question is more difficult. If one could

smuggle evil into the definition of civil courage, there would be an easy answer:

civil courage would justify exactly as much resistance as the objective evil

demanded by the regime required, and no more.

But if defining civil courage in

terms of its goodness is, as suggested above, a cheat, this answer will not work.

The would-be virtuous Tocquevillean may, as far as a more rational public

judgment is concerned, be a racist or worse.

62 That is, the antipolitical and

prerational tendencies that distinguish civil courage from other phenomena and

explain its distinctive role also set it up in potential conflict with justice. !

Two responses are possible. The first is that actions based on civil courage

must abjure violence—not because civil courage is inherently civil in the

normative sense, but because it is inherently civil in the Bismarck sense: civilian,

non-military, unofficial. Lacking a claim to legitimately command the state, such

actions cannot presume to challenge the state’s monopoly on legitimate force. 63

The racist at the meeting may say racist things but he cannot declare a race war

because he lacks the authority to wage any war. Similarly, a suicide protestor

who had civil courage might set himself on fire, but if he blew up others he


62 Cf. Simone Chambers and Jeffrey Kopstein, “Bad Civil Society,” Political Theory 29, No. 6 (December 2001): 837-865.


63 Swedberg, 523, makes this argument as well but without distinguishing it from the one mentioned above that defines the racist speech as non-“civil” by fiat.


would be a murderer, not because killing is always wrong but because only the

state may kill in pursuit of justice.



We might still hope that the racist not speak at all, regardless of violence. It

would be better if, preferably out of a sense of justice or equality but if necessary

out of conformity or shame, he were to keep quiet and go along with the

prevailing norm against violent racism. This suggests that civil courage is

morally praiseworthy precisely to the extent that the relevant portion of civil

society embodies values “better” than those of the polity—and much will

depend on one’s assessment, a fundamentally ideological assessment, of how

often this is likely to be the case. Perhaps it is a good thing if a vigorous civil

society makes it always possible to dissent from public values and to weather the

resulting storm. (Surely the price of racism should not be a loss of all

employment.) But the desirable amount of civil courage, and of the civil

institutions and mores that might support it in particular cases, will essentially

be a mean between too much conformity and too little respect for values that

others after long debate have found ethically compelling. It is no secret that

those who resisted Hitler often had resisted Weimar as well: the values



A suicide bomber who attacked only military targets could be claiming to fight a just guerilla war. This might actually be justifiable, but then it would be a form of warrior courage. Of course, all the requirements and caveats of just war theory would apply in such cases, which have moved beyond “civil” conditions.


embodying their dissent were in both cases aristocratic (or illiberally Catholic or

militaristic), not egalitarian. !

Civil courage, on this view, may tend to replicate the usual questions of the

civil society argument and the larger debate on the private-public distinction.

Those who above all fear tyranny, or Tocqueville’s “despotism,” will want to

strengthen civil society and will fear the power of public opinion to force

conformity of moral views; those who above all fear inequality will be suspicious

of civil society and will welcome a uniform realm of equal rights in polity and

society alike. “Antitotalitarian” theories, often sympathetic to civil society’s elites

and more libertarian than egalitarian, clearly have greater sympathies with the

former position; Rawls, with the latter.

65 The assertion that the justice of the state

is always radically imperfect and that one should heed the voices of injustice’s



Consider Rawls’ reassuring response to Susan Okin’s feminist critique of his polity-centered justice: “A domain so-called, or a sphere of life, is not…something already given apart from principles of justice. A domain is not a kind of space, or place, but rather is simply the result, or upshot, of how the principles of political justice are applied, directly to the basic structure and indirectly to the associations within it. … So the spheres of the political and the public, and of the not-public and the private, take their shape from the content and application of the conception of justice and its principles. If the so-called private sphere is a space alleged to be exempt from justice, then there is no such thing” Justice as Fairness, 166 . To define domains in terms of justice rather than the other way around is (quite purposely) to deny to civil society as such any possible critical role as a source of moral action independent of what the society holds as publicly justified. In contrast, Arendt expresses regret that the old elites that once provided conceptual and moral order in Europe can no longer play this role [cite tk], and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America seeks in jealous associations, legal formality, and other mechanisms a substitute for the absence of aristocrats in American democracy.


continuing victims

66 only has bite if one also accepts the implicit premise that

forces in civil society consistently provide hope for more justice than the state

guarantees, and that unleashing those forces is on balance good even if voices

calling for injustice—believing it just—are also encouraged as a result.

Conversely, the Rawlsian insistence on the difference between pluralism and

reasonable pluralism, only the former deserving respect and political


67 implicitly reflects the opposite assumption: that a sufficiently

just public realm of reason will consistently do better than a politics that

encourages action based on the assumptions of individuals or social groups

whose mores and principles have never passed public tests. !

Civil courage will be acknowledged by all as the least bad thing in truly dark

times, when liberal democracy’s legal mechanisms of opposition and dissent are

not available. The extent to which it is a good thing in times of fairly secure

liberty and aspirations to equality will be a controversial and partisan position

that divides people with different elemental concerns and fears within liberal

democracy—not a conviction, grounding a virtue, essential to it. !



66 Examples in very different modes Judith Shklar, The Faces of Injustice (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990) and Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993).


67 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 36, crediting Joshua Cohen and his “Moral Pluralism and Political Consensus,” in David Copp and Jean Hampton, eds., The Idea of Democracy (Cambridge:

Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993).