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Book Reviews

Moral Courage

by Rushworth M. Kidder

New York: HarperCollins/William Morrow, 2005, $34.95

Reviewed by Arthur Gans

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Book Cover Moral Courage is Rushworth Kidder’s newest book, an examination of both the structures of a value system and that element – moral courage – that makes any value system work. Kidder, the founder of the Institute for Global Ethics, is a leading consultant and analyst in the area of professional and practical ethics around the world. A former correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, Kidder has worked for the past 15 years on the questions of how people make ethical decisions, and the values that can be said to be nearly universal in modern civilizations. Several years ago, Kidder was a keynote speaker at one of our Defence Ethics Conferences at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC).

There are nine chapters to the book, as follows: Standing Up for Principle; Courage, Moral and Physical; The Courage to be Moral; The First Circle: Applying the Values; The Second Circle: Recognizing the Risks; The Third Circle: Enduring the Hardship; Fakes, Frauds, and Foibles: What Moral Courage Isn’t; Learning Moral Courage; and finally, Practicing Moral Courage in the Public Square.

In the first three chapters, Kidder sets out the problem, both defining clearly what moral courage is, including distinguishing it from physical courage, and then introducing a set of what can be called universal values – values that have proven to be core values across societies, cultures and religions. These values – honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion – have been demonstrated by the Institute’s research to be universally important in all the societies and cultures they have examined.

The next three chapters demonstrate the three essential elements that combine to make up moral courage: applying values, assessing risk, and displaying a willingness to endure hardship. These are illustrated as intersecting circles that, at the point of intersection, make up the concept of moral courage.

The final three chapters look at ‘pseudo’ moral courage, provide suggestions for training people to act with moral courage, and, finally, apply the theory to the public square.

Rather than being a purely theoretical work, this book demonstrates each of its various points by stories of individuals who have demonstrated moral courage in action. All of the illustrations come out of practical life situations, presented by those who shared them in the course of various contacts with the author. Although some are anonymous at the individual’s request, all have been carefully verified for veracity and effectiveness.

This is a book that should be in the library of any person who has a sincere interest in the field of practical ethics and institutional behaviour. Its analysis of moral courage will, I believe, become classic. It will give to ethicists and others a common language and a common way to examine situations involving ethical questions, thereby enabling us to analyze those situations more precisely. For someone in the military, it will show how both truth and valour are essential values in the military life. Although valour is usually spoken of with respect to physical courage, the fact is that it often demands more of an individual to exercise moral courage than it does to exercise physical courage on the battlefield. In a hierarchical society, such as either the military or government in general, the exercise of moral courage can be particularly difficult because one is always in a context where the questioning of policy or decisions is not looked upon with favour. It is not without reason that the abbreviation ‘CYA’ is well known in hierarchical institutions such as the military.

Since the illustrations come from a broad spectrum of human experience and from differing societies, the book should be a useful tool, no matter in what area of ethics an individual is involved. It is clear, and, unlike many books in the field, it does not resort to jargon. It will, without doubt, be an important tool for practical ethics for many years to come.

I would strongly recommend this book to any and all in leadership positions or aspiring to leadership positions. It will provide a good guide to what is expected of a real leader in a difficult, often unclear, moral path.

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Major the Reverend Arthur Gans is a retired army chaplain who has a particular interest in military ethics.