Moral theologian Jean Porter gave the talk "What should we fear? Courage and cowardice in public life" on Monday, June 5, 2017 at 7pm in the Swift Hall 3rd Floor Lecture Hall at the University of Chicago. An audience Q & A was followed by a reception in the Swift Hall Common Room.
Click here to read an interview with Jean Porter on the Virtue Blog.
Courage is pre-eminently an individual virtue. Yet we can also describe a community or a nation as courageous in its response to a threat or an attack. To take one well-known example, the behavior and attitudes of the English during the Blitz of 1940-41 offers an outstanding example of collective public courage. Somewhat to the surprise of government officials, the civilians subjected to intensive German bombing were not only relatively free of trauma, they were able to carry on with their lives, and even to be cheerful in the face of repeated attacks. The collective courage of the English under the Blitz was of course dependent on the courage of countless individuals, and yet it cannot be reduced to the sum of so many courageous acts and lives. The government promoted, and individuals cooperated in creating a set of practices and expectations that encouraged bravery and perseverance. At this point, England was a brave society, which both drew its courage from individuals and communicated it back to them.In my remarks this evening, I want to examine another example of public courage and public cowardice, which began to develop within the memory of many of us and is still unfolding today. I am referring to public reactions to the threat of terrorism since the attacks of 9/11. During and immediately after the attacks themselves, the men and women at the scene, together with the police, fire fighters, and medical personnel, behaved with exemplary bravery in the face of an unimaginable danger. These clear, unambiguous examples of courage do not call for extended analysis. However, at another level, public reactions to the threat of terrorist attacks present a more complex and ambiguous example. I want to suggest that we as a nation responded initially to terrorist assaults and the threat of further attacks with another kind of courage, not physical bravery but a firm resolve to hold onto central values, including equality, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law. However, over the past fifteen years, our attitudes as a civic society, as expressed by the actions taken in our name, reflect a growing unwillingness to live with risk and, correspondingly, a willingness to do almost anything to our supposed enemies, in order to secure our own safety. In other words, we as a nation have moved from courage to a kind of cowardice when it comes to our attitudes towards these threats. I will consider some of the possible causes of this development, and suggest some ways in which we might reclaim our initial courage.
Jean Porter is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on the moral theory of Thomas Aquinas, seen in the context of his scholastic interlocutors, on the one hand, and contemporary moral philosophy and theology, on the other. She has written on scholastic theories of natural law, Thomistic virtue theory, and philosophical and theological views on legal theory. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a past President of the Society of Christian Ethics. She is a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more about Jean Porter here.
This event was made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and is the keynote for our June 2017 working group meeting. Thank you to our co-sponsors, the University of Chicago Divinity School, Martin Marty Center, and Lumen Chrisit Institute.
Swift Hall is located centrally in the Quadrangle of the University of Chicago. You may find this UChicago interactive map useful as you plan your visit.
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Photo of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City by Sarah Tarno.