Heroism, The Heroic Life

Why I’m Changing My View of Heroism

Art by Delawer-Omar

Over the past few weeks I’ve written extensively about expanding the definition of heroism. Today I’m going to wrap that up with my conclusions and what this means for my pursuit of the heroic life.

First, a recap. Among hero scholars it’s common to use a very strict definition of heroism: only those who take real personal risk (physical or non-physical) for the sake of others are heroes. But most people use “hero” more broadly. They use it to refer to individuals who go above and beyond in a variety of ways, even if there’s no risk involved. Generally, if someone accomplishes something extraordinary in the pursuit of something we value, we call them a hero.

My point has been that there may be a very good reason we call these people heroes—that their actions really are heroic on some level. For me this is an uncomfortable position. Most of the examples I gave, from artists to pop stars to athletes, don’t seem particularly heroic to me. For years I was in the camp that believes it’s wrong to call these people heroes, that it’s watering down the whole concept of heroism.

What caused me to rethink this was witnessing firsthand the effect that these heroes have. The speakers at the first Hero Round Table concentrated overwhelmingly on deeds that wouldn’t pass my “hero” litmus test, and yet these deeds hit home in a way that I’ve never seen from heroism discussion before. And this seemed to create momentum for many of the people present to want to follow in their footsteps.

And so I set off on the search for another way to define heroism, one that isn’t based just on risk. Instead, I suggested that heroism might be based on taking actions that inspire. There’s no doubt that all of our selfless risk-taking heroes inspire us, but so do lots of other folks. That might explain why we call such a large and diverse group of people heroes.

But just inspirational on its own isn’t good enough (just like not all risky things are heroic). If the old equation was risk + doing good = heroism, then my proposed replacement was heroism = inspiring others + doing good. Specifically you have to inspire others to strive to improve themselves in some way. If an action has that effect, we can call that action heroic.

Responses and Developments

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people seem to like this definition. What was more surprising is that a lot of other people seem to hate it. I always got the impression that being a heroism hardliner, back when I was one, is pretty unpopular; that most people wanted to call quarterbacks heroes and I was the odd one out. But it turns out that a whole lot of people think heroism is a word that should be used very, very selectively and that anything else just waters it down.

The responses from many of these individuals were instructive. They were essentially saying: rock stars don’t seem heroic to me, ergo, there is nothing they do that anyone can rightly call heroic. To put it another way, some people are inspired only by the most extreme acts while others are inspired more easily. This may be why there’s a debate over the meaning of heroism in the first place.

I also got a lot of insight into the other group, the people who like this definition. Their comments show a heavy emphasis on relatability. I don’t think any of them would deny that Martin Luther King, Jr. is a greater hero than, say, their lovable grandfather. Yet both individuals inspire them to strive to be a better person, and the role that their grandfather played in their life is undeniably more intimate. This, to them, makes their grandfather a greater influence on their own ability to act heroically, even if his deeds were far humbler than leading the civil rights movement.

Both of these responses were invaluable. They helped me get a better look at what’s happening when people sling around the h-word, or when they refuse to. But I’ve also begun to second guess whether inspiration is the heart of it at all. I began to wonder if feeling inspired isn’t more a symptom of what’s going on. After all, if heroism is anything that inspires us to strive to be better, what sorts of things inspire us to strive to be better?

Starting Over

If I had to start this whole series over tomorrow, I’d likely focus on values. Each of us has a set of values, some that we all agree on—like justice or selflessness—and others that are more personal, like living healthy or being a good parent. I suspect that the people who inspire us most are the ones who take extraordinary steps in living up to our values. That’s what motivates us to be better people, because such individuals are living proof that being better is possible. It’s where inspiration comes from.

If that’s the case it explains why we all agree on some heroes, like Dr. King, because they represent values we all share. And it also explains why Lady Gaga looks like a hero to some people, while to others she’s stinking up the whole notion of heroism.

Perhaps most importantly, this theory of heroism would suggest that there’s an objective mechanism behind what we call heroism, even though we each choose different people to call heroes.


I don’t think I’ve got heroism all tied up in a nice neat package. The theory I just gave would seem to explain all of the different phenomena we call heroism and what they have in common. But the truth is… I don’t feel it.

The whole reason I chase heroism is because of stories of great sacrifice. In Irish legend, when the hero Cú Chulainn is fighting alone against an entire army, 150 little boys decide they’re going to go help him. Their fathers are sick from a curse, so they take up their hurling sticks and march off to war against men armed with chariots, swords and spears. All the boys die. And the enemy’s advance is halted.

That is the spirit of heroism. From the smallest social risk to risking life itself, heroes traffic in sacrifice. They think less of their own wellbeing than of what they value. That is heroic, at least to me.

But then I have to question myself. I’m not wired any differently than the rest of humanity, and I’m doing the same thing we all do. I’m looking at what inspires me, what lives up to my values, and saying “that there is heroism.” And when you call David Bowie a hero, I don’t feel right about that. But so what? Why should heroism be based on my values, and not yours?

That’s not necessarily an argument to open heroism up. It might simply mean that basing heroism on values isn’t a productive way to go. By far the best objection to my idea came from my friend Ari Kohen, who said this:

…if Lady Gaga is your hero and if the situation ever arises where a stranger’s trapped in a burning car or someone’s fallen onto the subway tracks, you’re more likely to be a bystander than someone who steps up and does the risky thing.

This resonates with me. To me, creating heroism is about creating people who won’t be afraid to speak up. (Or who will be afraid, and speak up anyway.) People who won’t be bystanders. People who will act when no one else will.

I’m not as confident as Ari that Lady Gaga’s example can’t help you with that. Or the example of a charity founder, or your grandpa. The truth is we don’t have a lot of data on what sorts of things prime somebody to be the one who steps forward. But we know a few things that definitely do help prime you, and they all have to do with being aware of others and being able to envision yourself taking action. It’s not clear what role, if any, a celebrity hero can play in that.

So the end result of all these posts is I don’t know. I don’t know if a broader definition of heroism is a good thing because I can’t tell if it helps us make more heroes or not. And I have an inner struggle over whether the definition of heroism I really believe in—the strict, sacrifice-based one—is truly better or if it’s just me pushing my values on people. I’m deeply uncomfortable with that possibility.

For now the quest continues. I’m not going to stand firmly by the new definition I’ve proposed (with apologies to those of you who loved it). Nor can I return firmly to the narrow risk-based definition, at least not without further thought. That there has to be a way to understand this phenomenon we call heroism, and I don’t think we’re nearly there yet. I do suspect it’s connected to extraordinary acts in service of our values, and yet I feel that sacrifice is an important component. Making the two work together is likely my next step.

What does this mean for the heroic life? I don’t think  it changes much. I may not know, on paper, what makes a hero but I know, in my heart, exactly what I must do with my life. I have wandered and my journey has taught me my life purpose. Deeper, I know too what I stand for and what I must do if faced with a bad situation. I must put my ideals before everything else, hold them like a sword, and trust in them. They are the one part of me that can never be destroyed.

Here’s an index of all the posts on inspiration as a force of heroism:

Next time I’ll get back to road logs from my journey.





Philosophy, Spotlight

No One, Even Sylvia Longmire, “Deserves It”

Sylvia Longmire supports torture.

That’s Sylvia Longmire, a drug war analyst whose work I no longer follow because of her questionable views on crime and punishment.

She’s referring to the death of Clayton Darrell Lockett, a convicted murderer/rapist who was executed in Oklahoma last week. Unfortunately, Oklahoma attempted the execution using an untested blend of drugs, in an unusually low dosage; additionally, the Governor of Oklahoma refused to release details of where or how the drugs were procured. There are allegations they were purchased illegally, and the quality of the drugs themselves is thus in question.

The result was that Lockett’s execution became the chemical equivalent of a drunk axeman. A needle was inserted into a vein near his groin, which failed, and he writhed and moaned in agony for 43 minutes, regaining consciousness and even speaking. Eventually he had a heart attack and died.

Ms. Longmire not only cheerleads this horrific (and preventable) accident as a good thing, she says it wasn’t “enough,” implying we should have intentionally made his pain even worse.

But Didn’t He Deserve It?

I want to be clear: in the Nuremberg Trials, when the people who were essentially Hitler’s seconds-in-command were convicted of a genocide that killed 6 million people, and a war that killed 40 million, those Nazis were sentenced to death by hanging. Hanging has been used for many centuries because it was considered (questionably) to be fast and humane.

In other words, we wanted a humane death even for the people who committed the Holocaust.

That’s because our justice system and our sense of morals prohibit us from using torture on any prisoner for any reason. We do not ever inflict 43 minutes of pain and flailing, followed by a fatal heart attack, on any prisoner—because that would be a crime.

So when someone suggests that a prisoner “deserves” 43 minutes of pain and flailing followed by a fatal heart attack, you know automatically that that person is not in their right mind. They are suggesting something evil. They are not a good person, and they are not making good decisions.

In this particular case, Longmire came right out and admitted she was irrational (in a somewhat bizarre exchange with my friend Ari Kohen, which you can see here). But that didn’t cause her to second guess herself, or apologize for a moment of flared emotions spurred by a terrible criminal. Instead she doubled down on supporting torture. For reasons that she can’t explain and doesn’t seem inclined to examine, she just feels good that this man suffered, and wishes he had suffered more. And if it makes her feel good to see criminals suffer, then how dare anybody question that?

For Longmire, this isn’t just a poorly chosen personal opinion, it also presents a professional conflict. Her job is to objectively research and present information on international crime and violence, which sometimes influences US policy. But she has made it clear that:

  1. She openly supports illegal activity, and
  2. She supports acts of revenge and retribution, even though acts of revenge and retribution are a large part of what has made the drug war so terrible for Mexican (and US) civilians.

That’s why I no longer feel comfortable taking her reporting at face value, and am looking elsewhere for English-language analysis of the drug war. Her judgement and objectivity are both compromised by her public support of unconstitutional torture.

But I’m really spotlighting this for a bigger reason: because people who support torturing human beings will often tell us they have a very good reason. They want us to believe that we need not be frightened or disturbed by their bloodthirst, because torture is only for those who “deserved” it.

The reality is that it’s impossible to make a criminal feel exactly what they made their victims feel. And even if we could, there’s not any clear benefit to doing so. All we definitively accomplish by trying to inflict harm and suffering on criminals is degrading our own humanity. We make ourselves more willing, like the criminal himself, to ignore the pain that we cause others.

Worse, there is no objective measure of who “deserves” torture and who doesn’t. Once torture is on the menu of legal punishments, historically it gets extended to more and more types of unpopular people—including political prisoners and minorities. You might support torturing rapists, but what about torturing tax evaders? Or people who can’t pay their debts?

When a person suggests torture, they inevitably want us to believe it’s safe. That we aren’t at risk of being tortured, only the bad guys are. But to me it looks a lot like a child who abuses gerbils: they may not be dangerous yet, but they aren’t headed in a good direction.

If we need to remove a criminal from society, we can do it as cleanly and humanely as possible—indeed, our founding document requires us to. When that’s not enough for someone, I don’t just view it as a difference of opinion. I consider their moral instincts untrustworthy and I prefer not to associate with them at all.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

ExPostModern, Philosophy, Spotlight

A Bad Philosopher Answers a Bad Question Badly

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig.

Philosophers fill an important role in our society, and not only in academic circles. As specialists who use logical deduction to answer tough questions, philosophers have dominated the worlds of business leadership and law; many of us instead choose to work as authors, teachers and public intellectuals. Philosophy by its nature can come up with answers even when there is no hard empirical data to swear by—that’s both why it’s less rigorous than science, and also why it can sometimes answer questions that science can’t, such as ethical questions. Having a mind that’s trained to think calmly through great uncertainty is an asset in figuring out right from wrong in real-world situations.

That’s why it astonishes me that one academic philosopher, Oxford’s Rebecca Roache, chose not only to give an interview on what is essentially a fantasy question (should we use technology that doesn’t exist and isn’t on the horizon to create an artificial hell for criminals?) but managed to give all her answers without one whit of critical thinking. You can read the entire interview here.

Faced with this question, one might expect a philosopher to start by digging at its premise. Before addressing, “Should we use to make life hellish for prisoners,” they could ask: why are we using anything to make life hellish? It may be a natural impulse, but is it right to make criminals suffer?

That kind of questioning is the essence of what philosophers do. Most of society treats its beliefs as sacrosanct, but philosophers are that professional class trained to pick at scabs that most of us would rather keep covered. Philosophy as a discipline is perhaps most famous for asking questions like, “How do we know the world is real?” and “Do we truly know anything?” Taking that same healthy skepticism and applying it to ethics, philosophers have successfully tackled big questions like is it right to kill one person to save many and does morality mean anything if there is no God?

Dr. Roache apparently missed those classes at Leeds. She begins:

I had wondered whether the best way to achieve justice [in certain cases] was to prolong death as long as possible. Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying. And so I thought, why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?

Now, as a thought exercise, this is fine; because of our question-everything attitude, philosophers often touch on repulsive ideas as hypotheticals. But if you’re wondering whether this is merely Roache’s setup for a refreshingly ethical solution, the answer is no. The same reasoning runs throughout everything she says on the topic of life-extending punishments.

Discussing potential future technology, she suggests we may someday live for centuries or millennia (which is plausible, if you really emphasize the “someday”). And it seems to her that we should seize upon this tech to artificially extend a prisoner’s lifespan to, say, 1000 years. That way they could really, really suffer in the slammer.

Does she have any moral qualms about creating all this extra suffering? Only one:

…I soon realised it’s not that simple. [Among death row inmates] death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence. And so, if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment.

So her concern about using sci-fi to create extra suffering is that she doesn’t want to overlook ways to create even WORSE suffering.

Dr. Rebecca Roache, Philosopher.

Dr. Rebecca Roache. Photo from Oxford University.

(To be fair to Dr. Roache, she also raises an existential question about whether the individual in the cell at age 1000 is even the same person who went in at age 30, but she never explores this point—which would incidentally serve as an excellent objection to life sentences in general, even with our current 70-year lifespan.)

Now, like all the best villains, Roache has a great moral justification for the suffering she believes we should create: these are criminals. Criminals, after all, need to suffer to make up for their crimes. Everybody knows that. But few people can answer why: why exactly do criminals have to suffer? How does that help anything? That’s a question that Roache neither asks nor answers. She just assumes that they do need to suffer, and that it’s our job to make that happen.

I want to point out some reasons why we might question that assumption of hers, and these are reasons that are actually raised in the real world by legislators, criminal justice experts, human rights activists, prisoners and even the families of murder victims.

First, creating suffering seems inhumane.

As a society we have decided that some types of persons—typically those who have engaged in violence—need to be separated from the population and kept confined for our safety. As long as they are securely confined, that objective is met without piling on any extra suffering; the main point is just to keep them away from the rest of us.

Second, confinement itself is a form of suffering.

There is almost nothing as debilitating to the human psyche as loss of agency. In prison this confinement is combined with tight day-to-day control and constant observation by guards. So if we have some moral imperative to make prisoners suffer (and it’s unclear that we do), we’re already doing a darn good job of it.

Third, the law in most developed countries forbids creating extra suffering for prisoners.

If needed, we can discipline a particular prisoner for bad behavior; but it’s against laws and regulations to actually torment prisoners. They’re typically allowed beds, toilets, washing facilities, meals, health care, entertainment, religious meetings, educational opportunities, and other amenities because they are human beings and torturing human beings is wrong. If someone were to suggest, “Should we cut off three toes from every prisoner’s right foot?” or “Should we burn the eyes out of prisoner’s heads?” we would not take them seriously—or we might even wish that they themselves were locked in prison. Finding more existential ways to torture prisoners might seem cleaner, but it violates the same basic prohibition on cruel punishment.

Fourth, and most importantly: isn’t justice about something more than revenge?

If an individual commits a violent crime and is confined, wouldn’t we much rather see that individual eventually become peaceful, and thoughtful, and mentally stable, and productive? Wouldn’t that rehabilitation be a better outcome than simply flogging them, one way or another, for a few hundred years?

That last question is a point of contention—maybe the biggest point of contention—in the field of criminal justice today. Roache mentions this debate, framing it as a “long-standing philosophical question” between retributivists (punish the bastard!) and consequentialists (fix them!). She jumps away from actually engaging this important issue by claiming, perhaps wrongly, that even consequentialists want to see punishment, “because consequentialists are very concerned about deterrence.”

I understand that one can only cover so much ground in an interview for an online magazine, and Roache may have wanted to avoid directly engaging the reform-versus-revenge debate so that she could spend more time imagining make-believe ways that a make-believe society could torture its criminals. But there are ways to do that that would keep her hypotheticals tethered to the context of the most important debate in criminal justice theory. If, for example, she had framed each of her answers as, “If you wanted to maximize punishment…” or “If you believe criminals need to suffer for their crimes…” she would have constantly reminded us that this is not given. (She only does this once, when explaining why Hitler needs a really really long sentence but not a literally infinite one. Infinite prison sentences she reserves for physicists who create black holes near Earth, and other such hoodlums.)

Another way to very eloquently anchor these ideas to real-world issues would have been to directly disclose her own opinion on retribution. Imagine reading a passage something like this:

“I like to pose these futuristic scenarios to people because, generally, it makes them uncomfortable. It pokes at their fear of mankind’s ability to play God with human lives. And it might scare them a little about future technology, but we have to remember that we’ve already built some truly horrific methods of abusing prisoners, and we use them everyday. So why is that okay?”

That would have really given her imaginings a sense of connection to the real world, and it would have indicated that she has a conscience. Roache does try to ask some big questions like this, but she sort of hurriedly tacks them on at the end. Tying the future into our current debates is clearly not her first priority.

Instead, she seems to take these imaginary technologies as very realistic, very practical issues that are right on the horizon. We could be rocking thousand-year lifespans any day now. Certainly by 2015.

“The life-extension scenario may sound futuristic,” Roache tells us, “But if you look closely you can already see it in action, as people begin to live longer lives than before.” Her proof: pacemakers. Some prisoners have pacemakers, a device which primarily allows a person with certain heart conditions to live a normal lifespan instead of dying young. We may be pushing out our longevity a year or two here and there, but even just 100-year average lifespans are a long way off.

(Not all of Roache’s torture dreams involve longer lives. She’s also suggested artificially adjusting prisoners’ sense of time so they experience thousands of years of punishment in one normal lifespan—explicitly referencing torture tactics to make it sound plausible—as well as simply giving them brain implants to cure their behavior. This last option, the only one that might actually reform a criminal into a good person, is the one she warns us against: it “makes some people uneasy” and, she points out, the person whose brain is fixed so they feel remorse over their past crimes might not suffer enough from remorse alone so it’s probably a bad idea.)

But perhaps the most disappointing part of the interview is the hypotheticals that Roache doesn’t raise. For example: currently, life in prison is seen as a less severe, more lenient punishment than execution. But if we all had 1,000 year lifespans, and judges could still hand out life sentences, would that change? Instead of death row inmates begging to commute their sentence to life in jail, would we see 200 year old prisoners begging to be executed? Would suicide rates among prisoners rise, and would this affect public opinion about the use of life sentences?

That, of course, is a question Roache never raises, and seems to actively dodge when she’s asked about a world where everyone lives centuries or more. It’s not the kind of question she’s interested in, because, after all, it’s the kind of question that hints at some compassion or concern for prisoners—some need to view them as dignified human beings with feelings and rights. Roache carefully excludes any such mamsy-pamsy sentiments from her vision of the future.

Clearly I’m not voting for Rebecca Roache for Space Emperor, but fortunately we don’t have much to fear. That’s because the other practical consideration that she ignores is cost, and its perennial primacy in any discussion of prisons. Conservatives already grind their teeth at the cost of keeping a prisoner incarcerated per-year, and one of the toughest expenses to get approved is bolstering prisoner health care. That means that if life-extending technologies become available as a commodity, they certainly won’t be purchased for prisoners; and if they become ubiquitous as a basic health care product, prisoners will be among the last to receive them. In the world of future longevity, the most likely fate for prisoners is either to be denied long lives altogether, or to face a higher execution rate because of the cost of keeping them for centuries.

A better solution would be, of course, to simply reduce incarceration rates, improve rehabilitation practices, and teach our children that ideas like Roache’s are wrong and dangerous; but the thirst for revenge, I suspect, is a human failing we will still have to deal with even long after we’ve banged out longevity.

On a final note, I’ve picked a lot on Dr. Roache in this commentary, and for good reason; but I don’t think her interviewer is without blame. Ross Andersen, the Aeon Magazine editor who conducted the interview, began with an eloquent opening in which he decries the barbarism of the past. He sets the stage for a piece on the dangers of misuse of emerging technology, but that’s not what his subject gives him at all. When she focuses over and over on how to create more suffering, I would expect him to ask point-blank: why should we create more suffering at all?

An experienced philosophy journalist, Andersen should be eager to question her assumptions, twice over: not only as anyone discussing philosophy should, but also because an interview is far more interesting when the journalist asks hard questions. Instead, Andersen seems to play along with the basic presumption that prisoners deserve pain, and that they might not be getting enough of it just yet.

(Anderson also “condensed and edited” the interview for the public; while I can’t exclude the possibility that he spun it significantly, as of Sunday Roache hasn’t given any defense or correction in the comments section, which is almost entirely critical. [Edit: see update below.])

Of course, I don’t study ethics, human rights or prisons for a living. So in closing, I’ll leave you with a commentary from someone who does. And while most blog posts end with a question and a call for comments, this one ends with a more personal request: the next time someone does you wrong, think about whether it would really help the world one bit if they went to a place called Hell—whether that place was made by angels or by politicians.

Update: Dr. Roache has now come forward to say that the interview does not accurately capture her views. She replied in the comments below and has also posted a clarification on her own website. These responses partially address the points made in this essay, and she has agreed to answer follow up questions. Her answers will be posted here on Rogue Priest.

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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Personal Development, Social Skills, Writing

Spending Respect

There’s a subset of the population that values manners in all things. They don’t use diminutive nicknames for the politicans they hate. When they sense invective and personal attacks they shy away from it, even the causes they agree with. This type of person can be among the strongest allies you’ll ever have if you take the time to phrase what you say in a measured way. If they speak up for you and support you, it’s because they agree with you at a deep level, and their loyalty is long-lasting.

There is also a subset of people who value vim and fire and can be rallied with anger. It’s easy to enlist their aid by spreading profanities, sarcasm, personal insults, and trigger phrases. This type of person isn’t there for you, they’re there for what they get out of it. Something emotional drives their engine whether they admit it or not. They can leave you as quick as they showed up. They are as likely to create turmoil as they are to actually help you.

You choose which kind of person you attract by the way you speak your truth. This applies at all levels, from how you fight with your ex to how you organize, grow, and advance a vast movement.

It’s worth considering which kind of base you feed with your words.