The virtue of courage

Plato's Laches

1. The dialogue moves from the issue whether it is good to teach young man the “art of fighting in armor” (181c) to the related issue of deciding in what way “the gift of virtue” may be taught to young men in order to improve their minds (190b).   Socrates gets the interlocutors to agree that to decide the issue one must first know the nature of virtue; they also agree that since determining the nature of a part of virtue would be easier than determining the nature of virtue as a whole, and courage is both a part of virtue and allegedly inculcated in young men by the art of fighting in armor, the discussion will center on the nature of courage (190c-d).

2. Laches’ definitions:

  1. First definition:

  2.   courage consists in remaining at one's post and fighting the enemy (190e).
      Socrates’ objections:
    1. at times courageous soldiers do not stand their post but withdraw to attack later, as the Spartans at Platea(191c)
    2. more importantly, the task requires a the determination of the nature of courage, that is of what all the different manifestations of courage (in battle, at sea, in politics, in sickness, in poverty, etc.) have in common (191d).
  3. Second definition:

  4.   courage is a sort of endurance of the soul (192c).
      Socrates’ objection:
      courage is a noble and advantageous quality; but foolish endurance is evil and hurtful; hence the definition is too wide (192d).
      NOTE: The point here is that mere daring or, worse, foolhardiness is not courage
  5. Third definition:

  6. Courage is a wise endurance of the soul (192d).
    Socrates’ objection:
      Wise at what?  A qualification is needed because one who perseveres reasonably as a businessman, as a physician, as a soldier or even as a diver is not, just by that, courageous (192a-193c).
      NOTE: the point is that the businessman who is bullish about the market because he knows more than I do may seem courageous to me, but he's merely clever at his job.
3. Nicias’ definition: courage is the knowledge of what inspires fear or confidence in war, or anything (195a).
Laches’ objections:  
Socrates’ objection:  

Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics, book 3, chs. 6-9.

1. Courage is a mean regarding fear and confidence.

There are many evils we fear, and indeed some (e.g., disgrace) ought to be feared.   However, courage is primarily concerned with the most awesome of evils, death, and in the noblest of circumstances, in battle. 2. Both feelings of fear and confidence can be excessive in two directions.
  1. Fear:
  1. Confidence:
By contrast, the brave man faces and fears 3. Aristotle distinguishes between true courage and five types of “so-called” courage:
  1. The “courage” of the citizen-soldier, who faces danger because
  2. The “courage” of the professional, e.g. a mercenary, who, knowing the dangers, e.g., of war,  seems courageous to those who tend to overestimate them.  However, when danger is really great, professional soldiers turn cowards, fearing death more than disgrace.

  3.   NOTE: here the issue seems to be that the mercenary acs merely from prudential reasons.
  4. The “courage” of one who acts in the grips of passion, without deliberation, for the wrong reasons, without choosing the mean, and without seeing the dangers ahead, like an ass who’s  hungry; but he is merely pugnacious, not brave.  For although brave men are passionate, nevertheless they choose courageous acts (in part) for honor's sake, knowing the perils which lie ahead.

  5.   NOTE: here the issue seems to be that merely passionate people don't act from rational principles
  6. The “courage”  of sanguine people who seem brave only because because of previous success or because in altered mental states (e.g., drunk) are overconfident.  However, when things go badly, they run away, while the brave man stands.
  7. The “courage” of people who are just misinformed about the dangers.


Some Problems with virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics has much to command it.  To the extent that morality should tell us how to live, it should also tell us what kind of people we should be, not merely what we should do.  Certainly the virtuous man is better than the merely strong willed one, even if the latter would act in accordance with the Kantian imperative.
However, there are some problems:

NOTE: All of this suggests that perhaps rule based ethics and virtue ethics can complement each other, since for every moral rule there seems to be virtue, e.g., Tell the truth - Sincerity; Don't betray - Faithfulness; Help people - Benevolence, etc.