Acton Institute Powerblog

Shock Value vs. Moral Courage

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Salman Rushdie, the British Indian novelist, has a piece in The New York Times entitled “Wither Moral Courage?” He is saddened that we have “no Gandhis, no Lincolns anymore” and that those who do stand up to the “abuses of power and dogma” are quickly imprisoned or vilified.

While it’s true that it is increasingly difficult to speak freely or practice one’s religious faith without fear of retribution, Rushdie confuses moral courage with shock. He cites the members of the Russian Pussy Riot as courageous, yet they refused to use their real names and disguised themselves in their protests against the Russian Orthodox Church. He also touts the “highly-effective” Occupy Wall Street movement here in the US as those with the courage to stand up against the establishment.

Pussy-Riot_2339711bThe problem here is that Rushdie isn’t really talking about moral courage. He’s talking about shock value. Courage, classically  understood, is a virtue; Cicero (106-43 BC) said, “Virtue may be defined as a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature.” While we can find many acts of courage around us every day (the fireman who rushes into a burning building to save a child, the soldier who holds his ground under enemy fire), moral courage is more than just this.

Rielle Miller, in a paper that explores moral courage, defines it as having “five major components: presence and recognition of a moral situation, moral choice, behavior, individuality, and fear.” She points to the Righteous Gentiles of WW II who protected Jews from certain death at great risk to their own lives as example. John Paul II, more deeply, viewed moral courage as a response to God’s goodness, but requiring knowledge of objective truth, not an individual choice in a given situation.

The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality. Hence human activity cannot be judged as morally good merely because it is a means for attaining one or another of its goals, or simply because the subject’s intention is good.Activity is morally good when it attests to and expresses the voluntary ordering of the person to his ultimate end and the conformity of a concrete action with the human good as it is acknowledged in its truth by reason. (emphasis added) If the object of the concrete action is not in harmony with the true good of the person, the choice of that action makes our will and ourselves morally evil, thus putting us in conflict with our ultimate end, the supreme good, God himself.

It is hard to imagine how the actions of Pussy Riot fit this definition of morally good actions. When the group stormed Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow and (in the words of a cathedral guard), “…were dancing the cancan, waving their hands and shouting swear words”, were they truly acting with courage?

Rushdie goes on to say,

It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world. There’s nothing to be done but to go on restating the importance of this kind of courage, and to try to make sure that these oppressed individuals…are seen for what they are: men and women standing on the front line of liberty.

Artists, intellectuals and others are free to speak, write and create as they wish, within the boundaries of just law. Let us not, however, confuse the immature antics of those whose primary quest is to shock rather than educate, horrify rather than illumine, or titillate rather improve with those men and women who thoughtfully, prayerfully, and judiciously make choices that put themselves at risk for a greater objective good. Mr. Rushdie, moral courage is all around us; you are just looking in the wrong places.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Tim Booth

    I really appreciate the deeper thinking about moral courage in this article. Having directed an annual moral courage lecture series at at a small religiously-oriented Liberal Arts college (1997-2012), I constantly wrestled with the concept and the definition.

    It was relatively easy to find someone to address moral courage they had observed or experienced indirectly. It was also possible to find the fireman who rushed into the burning building at risk to life and limb. It was much more challenging to find individuals who had chosen to take a courageous stand for a moral principal in the face of a certain adverse or dangerous reaction — like a whistleblower.

    As your article also clearly points out, one person’s moral courage is another person’s terrorist. As much as we would like to consider morality as a fixed and absolute principle, it often depends on perspective whether or not one’s actions are deemed courageous. For example, Salman Rushdie is clearly courageous (I would even say morally courageous), but it would have been improbable for our little religious college to present an unbeliever — courageous or not — as an example of morality.

    So, the bottom line is, it is difficult to find morally courageous individuals for two reasons. First, there are few who are willing to take the chance of suffering. Second, few are willing to embrace those who hold beliefs that are radically contrary to their own beliefs.

    Regardless of the above observation, does anyone reading this have suggestions of individuals who have demonstrated moral courage? You can contact me at

    Tim Booth