Courage seemed dead. Then came Zelensky.


Courage may seem like an outdated virtue in a world of selfish genes and utilitarian economics. If we’re supposed to put ourselves first – to maximize our individual utility – then what room is there for heroism? How can a self be altruistic? It seems almost illogical.

This is not the case. Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, reminded us that courage is not old fashioned. 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 a lot of company. Once you start looking, you find courageous profiles everywhere: in neighborhood watch groups who stand up to drug traffickers, in nurses and doctors who expose themselves to diseases like Covid-19 to care for their patients, among politicians who risk losing elections. say and do what they think is right.

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

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, “Democracy Prioritizes Philosophy,” he wrote, “even though the typical character types of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, mean-spirited, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people can be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom.”

In reality, however, courage survived – not only in reality but also in theory. Economists pointed to an earlier book by Smith, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” which explained that free markets needed an ethical basis. John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1938 that economics is a “moral science” that “employs introspection and value judgment”. Kenneth Boulding and Amartya Sen also placed morality and courage squarely within the scope of economics.

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

Charles Darwin had himself pointed this out in a passage from “The Descent of Man” little noticed at the time: “There is no doubt that a tribe comprising many members who, to possess in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage and sympathy, always ready to help each other and to sacrifice for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and that would be natural selection.

Economists may have lost track of courage, but artists never have. Maya Angelou, American poet and activist, once echoed Aristotle: “Courage is the most important of all virtues, for without courage you cannot 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 UK universities and wrote “From Pleasure Machines to Moral Communities”. He told me that human beings are unique in that their tendency to sacrifice for each other, while having a biological basis, is reinforced by culture. “I grew up with stories of heroic individuals,” he said. “We teach children about great heroes. People who do good. Put others before themselves. Zelensky will be used as an example to instill 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 comedian before becoming president. “Being a leader is about playing a role,” Gini said. “A role dedicated to others.”

Zelensky plays the role of the hero, and it grows in him.

The New York Times


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