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  • Psychological Courage
  • Daniel Putman (bio)

Beginning with Aristotle philosophers have analyzed physical courage and moral courage in great detail. However, philosophy has never addressed the type of courage involved in facing the fears generated by our habits and emotions. This essay introduces the concept of psychological courage and argues that it deserves to be recognized in ethics as a form of courage. I examine three broad areas of psychological problems: destructive habits; irrational anxieties; and psychological servitude in which one individual emotionally controls another. Psychological courage is the strength to confront and work through these problems. Such courage involves facing our deep-seated fear of psychological instability. I conclude that the development of psychological courage is essential to the well-being of many people.


courage, Aristotle, habits, dependency, rashness, cowardice, anxiety disorders, patience

The virtue of courage exhibits different forms in human life. Types of courage can be broadly differentiated in terms of the fear which must be faced and the goal to be attained. Two forms of courage have been discussed at some length in the history of ethics. “Physical courage” is characterized by overcoming a fear of death or physical harm. The goals to be achieved by its exercise are traditionally defined by society or by the requirements of survival. The paradigmatic example is Aristotle’s (1987) brave soldier who faces death to defend his city (1115a25–35). Another example would be bravely defending self and family against a threat from nature such as a flood or dangerous carnivore. The second form, “moral courage,” also has some allusions in Aristotle (1115a12–13; 1115b1–2), but Plato’s portrayal of Socrates is in many ways the archetype for moral courage in Western philosophy. While Socrates is also said to have displayed physical courage in defending Athens, it is his fearlessness in defending a deeply held greater moral good against society which has inspired untold numbers of Plato’s readers, from the Stoics to today’s students. 1 In moral courage the major fear is loss of ethical integrity or authenticity, but moral courage is also tied to dealing with social disapproval (Martin 1986, ch. 4; Walton 1986). The person confronting her peer group over a racist joke displays moral courage. In acting courageously the individual maintains moral integrity while at the same time overcoming the fear of being rejected by friends. Other examples abound: the whistle-blower facing ostracism from colleagues for calling attention to injustice in the workplace, or the Quaker or Buddhist protesting against a manufacturer of armaments. Examples of physical and moral courage often overlap. Gandhi (as well as Socrates) exhibited moral courage while facing death, and a soldier in battle may have to deal with peer rejection of his heroic actions. However, the distinction, while imprecise, does speak usefully to quite different forms of courageous experience. [End Page 1]

In this paper I want to introduce a third form of courage almost never discussed in the literature. Best called “psychological courage,” it is a form of the virtue which millions of human beings have to possess and exercise on a regular basis. The fear to be faced is not usually that of physical harm, nor is it fear of social ostracism. Nor is loss of moral integrity a major concern. The fear centers around a loss of psychological stability. I speak of the courage it takes to face our irrational fears and anxieties, those passions which, in Spinoza’s terms, hold us in bondage. These can range from habits and compulsions to phobias. Aristotle would have classified many of these under lack of temperance. A drinking habit or an irrational fear of open spaces reflects a lack of proper balance regarding the pleasures of life. But facing and working through these habits or anxieties can involve courage for several reasons. First, to admit the problem is to face the possibility of being stigmatized by society. In this sense psychological courage has some similarities to moral courage. Second, a great deal of pain, physical and psychological, can be involved in confronting the anxiety or changing the habit, and the individual knows this beforehand. Third, and most significant to this form of courage, the stability...