Moral Courage: Definition and Development

March 31, 2005

Courage is something we all admire. When asked to describe courage, most people conjure up the image of an individual running into a burning building, or maybe a fictional hero saving the day. Images of courage are prevalent in our society; from the images of our soldiers overseas to the local hero who saved her neighbor from imminent danger. But when asked to go deeper, to really define courage, the only response that comes to mind is "I know it when I see it." What makes courage so hard to define? We use the word courage to honor the firefighters, rescue workers, and police officers who ran into the two towers that were on the verge of collapse. We also use the word courage to honor the individuals who blew the whistle on corporate corruption.

The two cases are very different: in the first case the individual's very life was in jeopardy by the physical actions being performed; in the second case the individuals risked their jobs by telling the truth. For the first case, we can distinguish the actions as being physically courageous. In the second case, we can say the actions were morally courageous. We use the phrase "courage of my convictions" in our society to assign courage to less extreme actions, to mere "everyday" actions. We want to acknowledge the courage demonstrated when the right thing is done, especially when others looked away or chose to do nothing--the courage demonstrated through holding onto to one's values is moral courage.

In 2004, ERC staff member Rielle Miller began conducting research on moral courage, with specific objectives to define moral courage, determine if/how it can be developed, and determine the role of the organization in this development. Her research resulted in this in-depth discussion of moral courage.

Read Ms. Miller's paper on moral courage.