On The Courage Needed For the Present Moment

I’ve been talking about virtue ethics in my bioethics class. This is, in part, the view that what matters in developing an ethical framework is to focus on developing good character, rather than constructing either rules of conduct honored by a sense of duty to God or reason, or in attempting to achieve good outcomes for the majority of the people. Virtue ethics was first articulated by Aristotle as part of his view that to live a flourishing human life is to achieve an excellence of virtues.

Aristotle listed many of these virtues: Things like gratitude, munificence, friendship, and a number of others. I would like to focus on two. The first is generosity. That ability to give abundantly to others. For Aristotle, every virtue was centered between extremes. For example, generosity is situated between miserliness, in which you hold back giving to maintain resources for your own purposes, and at the other extreme is being a spendthrift, in which you throw your resources into lavish gifts that you can neither afford and that the recipient does not need. Generosity walks a middle path that recognizes when to give good gifts and who should receive them.

Americans used to be known as a generous people. Is it still true? There are reasons for discouragement. As Marilynne Robinson laments in her essay Value in her recent collection [1],

I had always thought that the one thing I could assume about my country was that it was generous. Instinctively and reflexively generous.

She points to some reasons this might be so, then continues,

I hate even to admit that I fear this might have begun to change. I do believe that we stand at a threshold, as Bonhoeffer did, and that the example of his life obligates me to speak about the gravity of our historical moment as I see it, in the knowledge that no society is at any time immune to moral catastrophe.

Moral catastrophe sounds serious. It is. I see what she sees.

Which brings me to Aristotle’s grounding virtue. Grounding because all other virtues require its presence in order to emerge. That virtue is courage.

When I think of courage, I think of Malala Yousafzai. The young woman shot by a Taliban gunman because she believed that girls should be given an education. Since that time she has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and voices. She was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for her efforts. She continues despite great personal risk. She epitomizes bravery.

What is courage? Is it even still a virtue? Evidence suggests that at least in America the answer is no. There are courageous people certainly, and I know many who have faced dangers, disease, combat, sorrow, rejection, hatred, a host of prejudices in the form of many -isms, and many other ills with unwavering bravery—sometimes in the face of great odds, challenges, and danger.

I think of the Syrian refugees facing angry seas and hostile governments (among them mine) to free their families from the terror of ISIS and the terrible Syrian civil war (What would you do?). I see courage. And stories of bravery that take my breath away.

Aristotle had much to say on courage and bravery. By his lights it was the foundational virtue and the framing requirement for living a noble and excellent life. He writes, 1115b 11-14

Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while will fear even the things that are not beyond man’s strength, he will fear them as he ought and as reason directs, and he will face them for the sake of what is noble; for this is the end of excellence.

He also notes, what is not courage and he pulls out a particular case, 1117a10-20

Nor are sanguine people brave for they are confident in danger only because they have conquered often an against many foes. . . . When their adventures do not succeed, however, they run away; but it was the mark of a brave man to face things that are, and seem, terrible for a man, because it is noble to do so and disgraceful not to do so.

American leadership, I’m looking specifically at the US governors who have closed their borders to the refugees, have betrayed our most noble foundational characteristics. Because they are afraid that among the refugees there might be a few ISIS soldiers. They will let tens of thousands suffer because of their shameful fear of a few. We ask our own soldiers to face enemies often. We expect them to be courageous. But for many, including these pusillanimous governors and those that support them, the risk is too high. We cannot do our Christian duty, we cannot lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (Who are our neighbors?) because we have grown like the sanguine people Aristotle marks as cowards above—those who are only brave when all the odds are stacked in their favor. We count the risk too high because we must not even entertain a certain negligible risk to act as Christ taught us to act. We are willing to let suffering, that in many ways our nation is responsible for, go unchecked, and leaving these people and their children uncomforted and unredeemed. For fear. Because we are afraid of ISIS. Americans have been scared out of our Christian duty. We have become craven and miserly.

Ben Reed writing on the courage of George Washington highlights a letter that he sent to the governor of Rhode Island about the risks and dangers they were facing,

No danger is to be considered when put in competition with the magnitude of the cause.

What greater cause is there than expressing the love that Christ time and time again laid out was our responsibility? The responsibility to care for others? Let us be generous with our country, its opportunities, and blessings. The kind of generosity we were once known for and that Robinson laments is disappearing.

And mostly let is be courageous. Let us not shrink in a cowardly retreat or miserly grasping of our resources. We must help the disenchanted people who stand at our gate as refugees. We cannot dare think that because of an accident of our birth we have a special right to the freedoms God granted us and that we can withhold them from our fellow brothers and sisters. As a letter from the first presidency states:

“The Church’s efforts to assist refugees around the world echo a directive to take care of the poor and needy that was taught by the Savior during His mortal ministry. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in. … Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:35, 40).”

How much I would like to join with the Syrians refugees in singing our most beloved hymn, and this stanza in particular:

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints, will be blessed.
We’ll make the air, with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell –
All is well! All is well!

Can you imagine how beautiful, how meaningful, and heartfelt such words would mean to these refugees?

But to do this, we must first sing among ourselves and let our voices carry our government leaders,

Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;

Courage. It’s a virtue for that cries out for presence in the moment at hand.
Robinson, Marilynne, 2015. The Givenness of Things: Essays. pp. 175-176


  1. alesueur218 says:

    So now what do we do? Contact our state representative? Turn this article viral in hopes of convincing others? I am ready to have courage but I don’t know what to do about it.

  2. FonderSplash72 says:

    I am reminded of the scripture we currently have up on our fridge at home, 2 Timothy 1:7 – “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” It has led to some good conversations with our kids in light of recent events.

  3. Wonderful thoughts, Steve. You remind us that Christian behavior is not always supposed to be easy, or convenient, or even safe. The cost of discipleship often requires us to do things that make us very uncomfortable.

  4. Wonderful. Thanks. As I read I had two thoughts, connected only by this reading:
    1. Will this message ever reach the people who could do differently right now?
    2. I wonder if our society has warped “courage” so much that it now means “shooting people”?

  5. Not to be depressive, but I don’t know that this courage has ever been strong in the US. We don’t tend to get really involved in helping anyone unless we’re sure we can win, quickly and easily. This isn’t just wars, but poverty, drugs, most anything we’ve “declared war” on. If it drags on too long, we question why we tried in the first place, rather than putting real effort into it.

  6. Luisa Perkins says:

    Yes, Steve. Yes to all of it.

  7. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    I also say YES to all of it!

  8. Lew Scannon says:

    And yet most Mormons will continue to vote for a political party that has turned to fear-mongering (and not just in this one instance) and paranoia as its primary method of retaining power.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    While I think the refugees should be admitted (and so do many Republicans) I think this is being very unfair to those who disagree. We can see injustice yet always will have to balance the types of justice we have to deal with.

    Consider for example seeing a homeless person and bringing them in without concern of perhaps mental states or issues of abuse of children. Now those risks are likely small. But they are real. Would you condemn those who, after seeing events like Elizabeth Smart’s abuse and kidnapping, decide not to bring these people into their homes? Maybe it is fear, but it’s also a balancing of concerns, obligations and types of injustice.

    The assumption that Syrian refugees are just like all other refugees seems incorrect. I think when we balance concerns we’ll end up taking many in. But the idea that those who disagree are merely exercising “paranoia as a primary method of retaining power” seems at best to partake of the same paranoia they are judging the others of. There’s no doubt one can point to particular individuals like Trump who are misusing and misrepresenting the situation. Yet I think when the majority of Americans according to recent polls worry about admitting refugees it’s simply incorrect to discount their worries and judgments out of hand. Again, maybe they are making incorrect judgments. However to discount this a straightforward and due to our being immoral just seems incorrect.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    That’s the type of reasoning I find disturbing and somewhat disingenuous since it ignores the place of ISIS in the debate (which simply wasn’t true of those other groups)

  11. Clark Goble says:

    To be more explicit, discussions of that type intentionally repress the discussion of ISIS, it’s aims, nature and connection to Syria, and then talk about other things. So the reasoning (good or bad) about ISIS is intentionally made out of bounds.

    If you want to persuade people you disagree with then that’s absolutely the worst approach to take since you are just saying that their fears (misplaced, exaggerated or otherwise) are not allowed to be discussed and assuaged, merely ridiculed or treated as disingenuous.

  12. The refugees are fleeing ISIS. Yours is the disingenuous position. A few individuals with allegiance to ISIS might slip through posing as refugees. But that is manifestly no justification for the actions that have been taken so far to deny refugees succor and safety in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” (snort).

  13. Courage is not the absence of fear, people’s fears are real and legitimate, courage is to act rightly in spite of fears. To much hand wringing and analysis allows nothing to be done. Again. Let the refugees in. Despite and because of ISIS.

  14. Thank you john f. Well said.

  15. Clark Goble says:

    John, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around in how the issue is discussed. The right points out the hypocrisy of being willing to take refugees but not help them so they didn’t need to be refugees in the first place. (And the issue of raising a false dichotomy as if the only solution is to empty out Syria)

  16. “The refugees would see that America is not the great Satan that ISIS and Iran both make it out to be ”

    john f.
    I truly wish that were so. What if it was the case that those sinister ones in control of ISIS and Iran saw western generosity not as a sign of kindness that soften hearts but as a sign of weakness ripe for conquering? Remember, the very same people who are happy to butcher those who do not respect or follow them in Syria etc. will not suddenly discover an appreciation for western values that those them in.

    Does this mean we don’t help those in need? Of course, not. But along with all the analogies about Jewish refugees in WW2, many seem to miss the point. We could not have helped the Jews in WW2 with a more aggressive refugee program. Certainly some Jews would have been helped who were turned away (for reasons unknown to me, but I’m ok blaming governmental bureaucracy and prejudice). But the vast majority who could not flee then and cannot flee now have been waiting for several years for western resolve and military intervention in their own backyard. There is no other way.

    The problem in the middle east is one of a religious, military tyrants seizing control in the wake of western civilization power vacuum. Hitler was not removed with the kindness of a refugee program, nor could he have been. ISIS will not be either.

    Talking about 10,000 or 100,000 refugees will not help when there are millions more suffering. I can not take anyone’s grandstanding about importing 10,000 people to the USA seriously in that light. Without an actual strategy to solve this problem (which requires an aggressive military solution if we want to learn from the terrorist-attack lessons of the past) I can not fault people halfway around the world for being unwilling to support relocation of refugees in this instance to the USA.

    It’s also important to note that no one is actually answering the question about home grown terrorism as result of immigrants that do not share the host nation’s values. If that sounds terribly xenophobic, get your head out of the sand. As it’s already happening, and again pretending that our kindness will solve the ongoing development of this problem does not help. France and Belgium provided housing, healthcare, education, employment opportunity, welfare payments, transportation, vacation days, sick days, etc. There was no physical kindness or worldly necessity that those host nations did not provide. And a certain subset of that population wants to kill them.

    Why? They are religiously committed to an ideology that sees the violent conquest western civilization as their birthright. This is the real root cause.

    That fact is unfortunately incompatible with an open doors refugee policy.

  17. “Talking about 10,000 or 100,000 refugees will not help when there are millions more suffering.” It will help those 10,000 or 100,000. “What if it was the case that those sinister ones in control of ISIS and Iran saw western generosity not as a sign of kindness that soften hearts but as a sign of weakness ripe for conquering?” So what?

    Your fear is appalling.

  18. Clark Goble says:

    The refugees are fleeing ISIS. Yours is the disingenuous position. A few individuals with allegiance to ISIS might slip through posing as refugees. But that is manifestly no justification for the actions that have been taken so far to deny refugees succor and safety in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” (snort).

    Umm. My position is to let them in. You and many other are conflating several issues.

    1. Should the 10,000 refugees specified by Obama be let in. I certainly think they should be.

    2. What is the threat of terrorism if we let in 10,000 or 100,000 or more?

    3. What is the appropriate amount of refugees we should take.

    4. If people disagree with you on 1, 2 or 3 are they being irrational or uncharitable.

    What I’ve been focused on is (4) as I think especially with low information citizens they can on the basis of the information they have be perfectly rational in not wanting the refugees. I think them wrong but being reasonable and being correct are different. The main issue is most people have bad information.

    That said I think even among high information people it’s quite possible to rationally disagree with (1) and who think the threat is higher than what you think. I might think them wrong, but the approach of demonizing them and calling them unChristian is unjustified in my view.

  19. No I’m not demonizing them (funny how you use that word to cast aspersions about casting aspersions). I’m pointing out the root of their resistance is fear of harm. The Christian duty here is clear, we have a responsibility to care for the suffering. We can and should do so in this case seems an obvious christian imperative and a clear LDS requirement. The hand wringing about how to do it can go back and forth for centuries, wrestling with how many? or oohhhh what if ISIS gets us, are irrelevant to the requirements of our duty. Right now let’s bring them out of the storm. It is something we can do. How many? As many as want to come. As many as will fit. Possible harms do not get us out of doing what is required. Sometimes we have to realize doing the right thing as a Christian,( or a Muslim or a Hindu) may involve risk. Christianity may mean facing the danger of the cross. This is why this is a moment for courage and resolve rather than talk talk talk about rational responses. Sometimes we need to relieve the suffering that we see, not draw up blue prints for a homeless shelter.

  20. Clark Goble says:

    I’m trying to see how meta I can go (grin) I didn’t attribute the demonizing to any particular person. I’ve been discussing similar things in a wide range of places. However I think this thread has gone beyond saying the Christian duty is clear. But that’s just my observation. It’s worse elsewhere.

    I do think people are downplaying far too much the danger issues here. I think that even acknowledging them we should bring in refugees. But many arguing for refugees have a pretty unrealistic view of the dangers. If you’re comparing the threat of terrorism of Syrians today with Irish from a century ago I think the issues aren’t being properly dealt with.

    I think we should take them, but I think it would be extremely unwise to take “as many as will fit.”

    As I said, we have different duties. To say that doing the right thing involves risk but neglect our other duties seems incorrect. If risk doesn’t matter then exactly the same logic would apply to invading these countries and “doing the right thing.” The analogy I gave to bringing homeless into our home seems to fit and arguably applies even more since those people are of our community. Arguably we have more of a duty to our community in terms of charity than those far off.

  21. There’s a reason none of the 9/11 terrorists were refugees. It’s extremely difficult to enter the U.S. as a refugee–it involves background checks, interview, even medical exams. It’s much easier to enter on a business or visitor visa (as most of the 9/11 terrorists did). Most terrorists will continue to be homegrown, and most foreign terrorists will continue entering in on business and visitor visas.

    This isn’t an “open the flood gates” scenario like we’ve seen in Europe. Given the background checks involved, this is about as low risk as it gets. Those who say otherwise are either ignorant of the U.S. refugee process, or are scaremongers, or both.

  22. I think the French should take them all in. It’d be a lot simpler logistically, don’t you think?

  23. Let’s suppose that we have good reason to believe that admitting 5,000 Syrian refugees would include admitting say 3 ISIS terrorists. The recent Paris carnage would seem to provide good reason to believe this. Assume we cannot know who these terrorists are in spite of our best efforts at screening. Think 9-11 and again Paris. To simplify, assume you have the authority to either admit these refugees or not to admit. You choose to admit. Within the year, our 3 terrorists arrange bombings that murder say 100 innocent Americans, including children. Members of the lost Americans come to you and claim that you are partly responsible for the death of their loved ones. They assert that you were not only not courageous but reckless and in fact immoral in admitting the refugees. You reply that the good of the many outweighs the evil done to the few. They want you criminally prosecuted for making a conscious decision amounting to reckless disregard for human life that resulted in the death of 100. They say that at the very least you are morally culpable for 100 deaths. Your reply?

  24. Your reply?

    What did you do after Columbine? Aren’t you responsible for Sandy Hook under this logic?

  25. Fred, you are a top notch ignoramus.

    “The recent Paris carnage would seem to provide good reason to believe this.”

    No. No one involved in Paris was a Syrian refugee. The attackers were all French nationals. The Syrians involved had entered the country illegally and were known agents.

    “Assume we cannot know who these terrorists are in spite of our best efforts at screening. Think 9-11 and again Paris.”

    Again, total ignorance. We can know who these terrorists are, and they are almost certainly not refugees.

    “Your reply?”

    That ‘they’ (you, mostly) are wrong.

  26. “Fred, you are a top notch ignoramus.”

    Steve, I might be inclined to agree with you if your comment had anything to do with what Fred said.

    “No one involved in Paris was a Syrian refugee. The attackers were all French nationals. The Syrians involved had entered the country illegally and were known agents.”

    The Syrians will be here legally and will likely become nationalized in the future — if they so choose.

    “We can know who these terrorists are, and they are almost certainly not refugees.”

    What? After the fact?

  27. Re Fred and replies:
    1. Yes, the numbers are probably wrong, the risk much lower.
    2. Yes, as a society we take greater risks (with real consequences) all the time. Easy cases include minimal gun control and driver’s licenses issued to people under 25.
    3. But the point of the article, the point of “courage”, is that yes, we take the risk. Yes, the refugees count.

    And for what it’s worth, “all that will fit” might be right, but the if that’s read as a suggestion that there is no limit, it seems wrong to me. I’d consider the ethical or moral or Christian approach to be taking a refugee’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” into account fully and equally as anyone else, and then make decisions and trade-offs.

  28. Clark Goble says:

    Christian to add we should note that not all refugees in the world are Syrian and there are many people living under horrible conditions who arguably have just as much a right to live in good conditions. The focusing in on the Syrians to the exclusion of say Somalians seems unfortunate.

    Likewise I find it unfortunate that the only solution being considered is resettlement in western countries. A false dichotomy is being put up, primarily I suspect to avoid interacting in the countries in question. (Which need not mean invasion, BTW) I suspect that had Obama not had such a firm line on “Assad must go” that a lot of the destruction in violence in Syria could have been avoided. (Which on a per capita basis is far, far worse than Iraq ever was)

    So it’s fine to talk of courage but perhaps we’re only accepting this type of courage because we lack courage in other areas.

  29. Clark Goble says:

    Tim (3:44) while the background checks on refugees are strong, they are not as strong as many are portraying. How soon we forget that Obama halted the Iraqi refugee program because the FBI discovered some entering the US as refugees had a few months earlier been killing Americans with IEDs. It’s worth noting that we had far more intelligence on Iraqi fighters than we have of ISIS or fighters in Syria.

    The reason some people are more worried about terrorists rather than mass shooters is that even the worst mass shootings are relatively small. The last major terrorist incidence killed thousands, significantly impacting the US economy, and arguably led to a major war. The consequences are much worse. Now it’s fine to say that most terrorist attacks aren’t like that. But many are.

    Further for those advocating liberal values one should ask what the consequences of a large terrorist attack on US soil will be – especially if done by refugees. This isn’t what you think the consequences should be but what, given the practical psychology of Americans, the consequences would be. There will become more of a police state with more government surveillance. There will be more xenophobia. Probably the number of refugees brought into the US will be greatly reduced. There will also be far more pressure for an extremely hawkish foreign policy.

    So if, when considering consequences, you are only considering the immediate casualties in your calculus you are probably not calculating correctly.

  30. Yes, we can construct scenarios of harm that add to the list of fears until the cows come home. That there is suffering everywhere therefore we should do nothing in particular cases is always the excuse of the over cautious. Courage always means acting in the face of uncertainty. Do what is right let the consequence follow, as we sing. Give the Syrians place. No it will not solve all refuge problems everywhere. Yes there are dangers. Do it anyway.

    #christiankimball: wise words.

  31. I’m not going to be able to watch this anymore so I’m closing comments, but want to think everyone (even those I disagree strongly with for their comments). As a final thought consider this from Harry Potter (Another sources of scripture?)
    Harry potter

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