Courage Seemed to Be Dead. Then Came Zelensky.

Courage can seem like an outdated virtue in a world of selfish genes and utilitarian economics. If we are meant to put ourselves first — to maximize our individual utility — then what room is left for heroism? How can a self be selfless? It sounds almost illogical.

It isn’t. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has reminded us that courage is not out of date. Refusing to seek refuge abroad when Russia attacked, he rallied first his people and then much of the free world to defy an invasion of his country ordered by President Vladimir Putin.

Zelensky has lots of company. Once you start looking, you find profiles in courage everywhere: in neighborhood watch groups that stand up to drug dealers, in nurses and doctors who expose themselves to diseases like Covid-19 in order to care for their patients, in politicians who risk losing elections to say and do what they think is right.

So courage clearly exists. But how is it defined? What counts and what doesn’t count as courage? If an act of courage can be explained, does that somehow undermine its value? And since this is an economics newsletter: Is there an economics of courage?

Aristotle, who is sometimes called the first economist, said that courage, like other virtues, was the mean between opposing vices, in this case rashness and cowardice. He added an important qualification: Courage isn’t courageous unless it’s for a worthy cause. Fighting to defend oneself is brave but not especially admirable — animals do that. Fighting to defend one’s country, he said, is courageous. If Aristotle were here today he would probably count Zelensky as courageous, but not so the 9/11 hijackers.

Modern economics rejected Aristotle’s philosophy and replaced it with utilitarianism, which is about maximizing “utility,” usually defined as pleasure. To a utilitarian, an act of heroism is wasteful if it doesn’t result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Reducing all of human experience to a quantity of “utils” is mathematically convenient but doesn’t square easily with ancient virtues such as courage, fortitude and prudence.

Another strand of modern economics is devotion to the free market. In “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.” Many economists, latching onto that concept, came to see selfishness as the engine of prosperity. Courage was, if anything, a pre-capitalist virtue — a relic of the age of chivalry.

The demolition of courage seemed to be completed by social Darwinism, a philosophy born in the 19th century that argued that survival of the fittest should apply to people, not just other reproducing organisms. Two centuries after “The Wealth of Nations,” the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote an influential book, “The Selfish Gene,” that said, “Any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it.”

The philosopher Richard Rorty was content with a lack of heroism in modern democratic societies. In a 1988 work, “The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” he wrote, “even if the typical character types of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom.”

In reality, though, courage survived — not only in reality but also in theory. Economists harked back to an earlier work by Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which explained that free markets need an ethical basis. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1938 that economics is a “moral science” that “employs introspection and judgment of value.” Kenneth Boulding and Amartya Sen also placed morality and courage squarely back in the purview of economics.

In evolutionary biology, too, there’s a new understanding that survival of the fittest doesn’t imply a war of all against all. Even if genes are selfish, the creatures they inhabit don’t have to be. A tendency to sacrifice oneself for others might be selected for by evolution if the creatures whose lives are saved by such sacrifice tend (on average) to share genes with the creature that loses its life and thus pass that trait down.

Charles Darwin had made that point himself in a passage of “The Descent of Man” that was little noticed at the time: “There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to give aid to each other and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.”

Economists may have lost track of courage, but artists never did. Maya Angelou, the American poet and activist, once echoed Aristotle: “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.”

I interviewed Geoffrey Hodgson, who was trained in economics, taught management at several British universities and wrote “From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities.” He told me that human beings are unique in that their tendency to sacrifice for one another, while having a biological basis, is reinforced by culture. “I grew up with stories of heroic individuals,” he said. “We teach kids about great heroes. People doing good. Putting others before themselves.” Zelensky will be used as an example to inculcate courage and selflessness in future generations, Hodgson predicted.

I also interviewed Al Gini, a retired professor of business ethics at Loyola University Chicago. He said it’s no coincidence that Zelensky was a comic actor before he became president. “Being a leader is playing a role,” Gini said. “A role dedicated to others.”

Zelensky is playing the role of hero, and it’s growing on him.

The readers write

I was interested to read your piece on Monday about the supposed paradox of why economists aren’t rich if they are so smart. I take your point about the Trappist monks. The similarity is closer than you may think. My late husband, Chris Taylor, a Cambridge-educated and supremely intelligent man, devoted his career (at the Bank of England) to trying to make the economy better for everyone. During a stint as a visiting fellow at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, he and his fellow economists were accommodated in a converted medieval monastery, each working away in his own monastic cell. I never saw him happier.

Leslie Turano Taylor

Cambridge, England

Quote of the day

“As I have said many times, if it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look a lot different today.”

— Christine Lagarde, a former director of the International Monetary Fund, writing in 2018 about the 2008 bankruptcy of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, which contributed to a global financial crisis

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