The Moral Component of Inspirational Heroism

Art by Kasia Rosińska

I’m continuing to explore my new ideas about heroism as a force of inspiration. Today I’d like to tackle one of the biggest objections to heroism as inspiration: the moral angle.

So far this has come in two main forms. The first one was presented neatly by longtime reader Phaedra Bonewits:

“I’m not entirely willing to wholesale accept anyone who is idolized is a hero. I might have said ‘he’s my hero!’ about many a pop star in my youth, but I simply can’t see that celebrity fascination, even if it has inspirational components, as enough to make anyone an actual hero.”

I think this is a common reaction. How is Lady Gaga a hero? How is Freddie Mercury a hero? These kinds of stars don’t teach us how to save lives.

But this is where the power of inspiration takes on a very personal nature. For Phaedra, her teen idols obviously didn’t inspire such a personal transformation that she’s willing to consider them heroes. But to someone else, they may have.

We don’t get to tell anyone who does or does not inspire them to be better people. This is a personal choice. To me, Freddie Mercury is just some singer who was in Queen maybe? But to someone else his struggle with AIDS may be pivotal. It may make them contemplate how much he accomplished in a short life and whether their own life will measure up. It may even make them strive to accomplish more than they otherwise would have.

We don’t have to pretend for a moment that every celebrity is a hero, nor do I have to treat someone as heroic because you were inspired by them. But we should understand that any time an individual achieves something beyond what most of us achieve, it has the potential to move others to do the same—and this is a glimmer of heroism.

The second version is more direct. Another reader, Ken, wrote in part:

“Using your definition as is, you could come up with heroes according to the selectors’ values who were accomplished, dedicated, and effective terrorists, wealthy and ruthless corporate raiders…”

In other words, what about individuals who inspire people to do bad things? Are they “heroes” now too?

Definitely not. Not every influential person is making the world a better place, and not all of them are heroes. Let me put my definition out there again for clarity:

A hero is someone who inspires others to strive to be better people.

There are two parts to that definition. They don’t just inspire, they inspire us to become better people. Or at least to try.

This rules out a lot of types of inspiration. If a violent dictator inspires a group of extremists to become terrorists, that dictator fails the heroism test. And if a shock-value entertainer inspires 14 year old boys to act like twits, they fail the hero test too. You might be famous (or infamous) enough to have followers, but that doesn’t make you a hero.

This can easily lead to a discussion of what counts as being a “better person.” (Which, in fairness to Ken, was what he was really driving at with the full text of his comment.) I’m intentionally not addressing that, for a few reasons:

  • Most people like to say it’s all subjective. I disagree with that and I don’t enjoy having this argument.
  • I think it’s fair to leave it up to individual readers to decide what constitutes becoming a better person. I doubt any of my readers are terrorists or criminals, and I trust you guys to use your own judgment.
  • Becoming a better person doesn’t strictly speaking mean becoming a more moral person. It can also mean personal development writ large. For example, if a hip hop artist inspires my daughter to get serious about her love of singing, that’s a positive development and a form of inspiration heroism.

Without getting into theories of ethics, suffice it to say that there are certain behaviors we all recognize as wrong and others that have been agreed upon broadly, even in international law, as never acceptable. These include acts that are dehumanizing, acts of unusual cruelty, unprovoked violence and attacking civilians or non-combatants in order to make a political point or score a military victory. No one who commits these acts is heroic, ever. And no one who inspired them gets hero points for doing so.

The seemingly simple act of inspiring someone can be heroic, but only if the inspiration brings about momentum toward positive change. When somebody does that it almost always seems heroic to those affected, and we ought to acknowledge and accept that kind of heroism.


10 thoughts on “The Moral Component of Inspirational Heroism

  1. I find the subjectivity of values very interesting. A big turning point in my life was realizing that there isn’t a single definition of success or of ‘better’, that my idea of improving myself could be vastly different from someone else.

    The fringe cases are easy to handle: some actions are obviously good and some bad. But the grey areas are interesting, especially when you realize that everything is based on the perspective of the observer.

    To me, creating freedom in my life to enjoy the pursuits that bring me happiness is a good thing. That could very easily be considered wrong by someone else because I’m not devoting 100% of time and effort towards helping or inspiring other people.

    The crazy part is that depending on my mood and how I think about certain actions, I can view them as bettering myself or as hindering myself.

    In the above example, I’m bettering myself because I’m becoming better at enjoying life and spending more of my time in activities that enrich my life experience. I’m hindering myself because I’m not pushing myself to be more productive or better in a traditional sense.

    It’s interesting to me because I often have these moments of split perspective when thinking about my own actions.

    • Personally, I’ve always split the difference between objective and subjective. As you said, there are certain things we all agree are great/awful and then there’s a range of things that are worthy and different people focus on different ones. To me that doesn’t make them subjective, it just means that the objective good in life is relatively broad, so much so that it encompasses different life paths.

      • Hmm, I’ve never thought about it that way but I really like it and I want to be able to think about it that way, I’m just not sure if I’m there yet.

        There are a lot of paths out there that fall under the category of objective good, but I wonder whether the definition of good is too variable such that the subset of life paths that fit my definition of good isn’t entirely the same as someone else’s. I guess my question is: Is “good” objective enough that everyone agrees on what is good and thus if some group of people disagree on a particular point, then that point isn’t good any more? Is the determining factor whether something is good whether it is something that objectively we all agree is good. If not everyone agrees that something is good, wouldn’t the decision be a subjective one?

        I’m torn. I’d like to believe there is an objective good but life experience is so subjective that I don’t know if I can.

        • Well, just because some people disagree about something doesn’t mean there’s no true answer. It may just mean some people are wrong. In other words, let’s say you pursue a life doing what you love and are passionate about, and it makes you happy. But someone tells you it isn’t really a “good” life because, for example, you aren’t religious enough. That doesn’t make the good life subjective… it just means they are being an asshat.

          It’s also important to recognize that we strive for two competing goals in life. One involves wanting to be happy. That involves having good food, a comfortable life, friends to talk to, a partner who loves us, and financial security. The other is very different. It involves wanting a sense of meaning. And a meaningful life often comes from facing and overcoming challenges. That often requires the opposite of comfort – using your spare time to work on some thankless task, or choosing a difficult, low-paying, lonely life to chase after something important to you.

          In other words we are all pulled in two different directions by two different urges. Some people value comfort more and some people value a sense of purpose more. It is possible to achieve both but it sure isn’t easy.

          The fact that each of us has to choose which of these to put the emphasis on means we often don’t understand the choices other people make. But both are part of a good life, in my opinion. And both represent pretty basic human urges that are hard wired into us. It’s not like it’s just totally pulled out of a hat.

          At least, that’s the way I look at it. Thank you for making me thing about this.

          • Thanks again for the thoughtful response. I’m enjoying this conversation.

            I love the points you made and especially agree with what you said about humans having competing needs/desires/wants. I feel inside me both the need for happiness and for contribution to the world, or meaning. Now, for as long as I can remember I’ve felt this way, so as far as I know it’s part of my human nature, but is it possible that our desire for meaning in life is an egoistic thing that rises out of our societal conditioning or insecurity? Can we trust our own desire for meaning or is it part of our spiritual journey to rise about that?

            Regardless, it seems to be a part of life for most humans, who turn either to religion or something else to find meaning. A religious person seeks meaning in religion, a science-minded person in the pursuit of scientific truth. I try to impart meaning on my life by doing things that improve the quality of people’s lives.

            I guess at the end of the day, you can’t judge some beliefs as to whether they are true or not, and in those cases it’s best to look at their results and choose beliefs with positive results. That’s probably why we have this desire for meaning anyways, because it tends to make people more conscious about the way the act and more likely to do good things.


  2. How very kind of you to quote me.

    I still have my reservations about the connection between inspiration and heroism. We never know, of course, what about our or someone else’s life we might find inspirational. Coping with disease or disability might be inspirational to some, but some who are members of that community call it “inspiration porn” and feel exploited by it. I’m not a hero for (currently) surviving cancer, although some might find that inspirational. Actually, I don’t care for any of that “heroic” language–“fighting cancer,” “lost their battle with…”–because it discounts the fact that we are just living our lives, putting one foot in front of the other. My husband died from his cancer, and believe me, it was not inspiring; it was bloody awful.

    Here’s a celebrity example. Many people really dislike Yoko Ono, but I’ve always had a fondness for her, ever since back in the day. I credit her book Grapefruit for inspiring me to go to art school.

    More profoundly, and this is where it gets really personal, she inspired me to live. When I knew my husband was dying, I did not know how I would survive a life without him. It was just easier for me to think, well, when he goes, I go, that’s all there is to it. Then one night I had a long, complicated dream that revolved around receiving an invitation to Yoko Ono’s birthday party. When I pondered that dream the next day, I realized what it was saying was that if she could survive losing John Lennon, I could survive losing Isaac. After that, I focused on how I would continue living, not if I would.

    So, my point is, I guess, that although her example was tremendously inspiring to me at two very critical times in my life, I still don’t think of her as a hero or “heroic.” She does her thing. She lives her life. She puts one foot in front of another. What other people get out of that, or Lady Gaga, or Freddy Mercury for that matter, says perhaps more about the inspired person than it does about the source of inspiration.

    It’s a complex subject, and I appreciate your willingness to engage in complex discussions of it.

    • Thanks for this Phaedra – tremendously, especially for being so willing to share such a personal side of it.

      I do wonder what it means when we’re inspired by someone who doesn’t want to inspire, or perhaps doesn’t even feel inspired themselves. The idea of non-consensual inspiration feels icky to me, on a gut level; sort of voyeuristic and, as you said, exploitative. All the examples I gave are people who are purposefully putting themselves in the spotlight (Gaga, Mercury) or people who have a personal connection (“my grandma is my hero”). It’s sort of different when we take someone’s private story and make it our inspiration porn, isn’t it?

      On the other hand I wonder how often in history unintentional inspiration went on to cause real change. How many movements have held someone up as an example who didn’t want it? And what impetus and passion did that example give people?

      I’m not really sure how this fits into the idea of inspiration as heroism. But I suspect it comes down to the fact that inspiration, ultimately, is in the eye of the inspired. No one is saying that you have to call cancer survivors heroic; but perhaps it’s okay for other people to call them that.

      Also, I really liked the story about Yoko and I’m glad she was able to help you through such a terrible time.

  3. Ymir says:

    I do not call often someone who inspires a hero. To me, a hero has to be extraordinary, almost more than human. I think the myths in particular show this. At the same time I can value the contributions of those I do not call heroes and respect them. The people who inspire are for the most part not heroes. They are dedicated and driven people. While I believe a more open definition of heroism is needed, I worry about diluting the underlying spirit that determines it.

Please share your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s