- Fear and Integrity1
I'll begin this paper with an autobiographical example — an instance of a common enough kind of case involving agents who are faced with making a choice they strongly care about, but who have tendencies that incline them towards choosing an option they prefer not to choose. Later in the paper, I apply some of the general lessons learned from this case to a philosophically more familiar example of a hard-to-make choice, and to the well-known problem the example generates for the idea of rational agency: Gregory Kavka's toxin puzzle (Kavka 1983).
Some time ago I did a bungy jump. Nothing remarkable in that (nor in the fact that I have, or had, a great fear of heights; the desire to overcome a fear of heights is common among bungy jumpers).2 What [End Page 31] I found remarkable was the fact that friends and colleagues to whom I mentioned the act thought it at best slightly bizarre. No one thought that there could be anything commendable about the way one succeeds in dealing with fear in such a situation. (Indeed, most were inclined to think the fear must have been exaggerated, since I succeeded in jumping; and all agreed that the trivial nature of the activity somehow trivialised the overcoming of the fear.)3 I disagree. In my view, the decision to jump in the face of the fear was praiseworthy in itself, but not in the way one might think. I didn't, for example, think it displayed courage, since I didn't think I was in any real danger when taking the plunge. (I knew the statistics, and rejected as urban myth, perhaps wrongly, the story about retinas detaching — indeed, I thought the way people harped on this showed a special kind of weakness.)
For many of us, bungy jumping is hard not because of what we believe will happen after we jump (a sequence of breathtaking yoyoing movements in space that poses no real danger and is terrifying for at most a second or two — or so I had been led to believe) but because of what it takes to get to the point of jumping. If you have a great fear of heights, what is hard — really hard — is coming to a sincere and stable intention to jump. Contemplating jumping leaves a tight, visceral feeling of fear that makes forming such an intention well-nigh impossible. Trying to form the intention feels like trying to penetrate a thick transparent wall. One can see what it would be like on the other side and one can't sense any physical impediment to getting there, but for all that the barrier remains unyielding.
Or rather, it remains unyielding unless one finds it 'within oneself' to set the fear aside. But the agent who manages to set her fear aside is not ipso facto deserving of special praise. For it simply shows that the agent has found the will to intend to do what she fears doing, so that the desire to perform the jump does after all trump the fear. What it doesn't reveal is the nature of the trumping: in particular, it doesn't reveal that the trumping may show something positive about the agent, that it may show 'character.' It may show no such thing. Perhaps agents succeed in forming the intention by using a form of self-deception: for example, pretending to themselves that they are in a situation where jumping is the only thing that will save them from certain death, or where certain death is precisely what they want. Should they manage this, the way in which the agents overcame their fear in coming to their intention [End Page 32] to jump disqualifies their choice from being considered praiseworthy in itself, although of course we may praise the agents for other things (e.g., for having honed their imaginative capacities to such a point).
But sometimes the nature of the way in which the desire to perform the jump trumps the fear does show something positive about the agent. Forming the intention may reveal character (rational, indeed moral...