On Moral Courage

During the years of transition from apartheid to representative government in South Africa, Professor Ruth Purtilo conducted a study into what constituted moral courage amongst those persons who, at great risk to themselves, defied the regime. She conducted numerous interviews and participated as a witness on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. During the course of the study she discovered that persons of courage could not deny the truth and felt compelled to act. Yet none thought of themselves as courageous. There was an implicit humility in their actions. A deep commitment to what was right and just even though most of them thought that apartheid would not end in their lifetime. There was also a sense of camaraderie in being part of a greater cause. Professor Purtilo went on to demonstrate the importance of recognising moral courage in the less extreme circumstances of the caring professions.

So what is it that compels a person to embrace a truth and act against the odds? When is compromise a valid course of action? I believe our immediate challenge is to have the courage to face reality and allow the shock of it and the cleanness of it to embed in us. Then when the time comes for compromise and reasonableness, we still have access to the connective tissue that gives our actions meaning. It is also easier if we are part of a community that supports and recognises authentic action. There is a greater sense of being part of something good. Can you imagine a society that places a high value on moral courage in decision making? I feel excited by the possibility. People who lived through the London blitz in the Second World War have talked about the sense of togetherness and aliveness they felt in facing the adversity. Can we access this sense of togetherness and aliveness when we are not under a perceived immediate threat?

Author: Simon Davison