Friday, December 12, 2014

A scout's virtues: bravery

A scout is brave: He has the courage to face danger in spite of fear and has to stand up for the right against the coaxings of friends or the jeers or threats of enemies, and defeat does not down him.
You can see Alasdair MacIntyre both affirmed and refuted in that. 

On the one hand, you can see, even in this scout handbook, evidence that the tradition of virtue ethics is deep and that it runs along lines that only superficially resemble the way academic ethics operate. Academic ethics would look right past "face danger in spite of fear", "coaxings of friends", "jeers or threats of enemies" and "feat" that "does not down him" and say, "All these things are good but how do we define bravery?"The scout outlook is that we already know what bravery is. We might worry about refining our definition to deal with weird cases at the margins but the simple fact that the word exists and is commonly used in our language says that we have a good grasp on the concept. The problem, as I have said many times before, is training ourselves to actually be brave. (Academics have degraded ethics by making it entirely about making moral decisions.)

The refutation lies in the very existence of this text. Here is a tradition of passing along virtue ethics in a meaningful way that continued long after the collapse that McIntyre wrote about. 

You might be inclined to sneer at that. You might be inclined to say that it is so commonplace and light as to be insignificant.

That sort of move has a long history in philosophy. The Greco-Roman moralists—figures such as Cicero and Seneca—were similarly brushed off. In more modern terms, people study Kant's ethics at university, even though Kant has virtually nothing to teach us about how to actually live our lives, while regarding his contemporary Jane Austen, who can teach us a lot, as merely a source of entertainment.

There isn't much more that needs to be said. We know what bravery is and we have a list of small things that we need to train ourselves to overcome. Once we have mastered those small things, we will be ready to deal with bigger ones.

That—the realization that being trustworthy in small things means we could be assigned bigger ones—requires bravery all by itself.

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