Heroism

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.

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