Saturday, June 20, 2009

On heroism

The word hero is one that is overused and misused to the point of no longer having any meaning in popular parlance, like terrorist or producer. An act can be heroic if and only if:

  1. It comes at some substantial personal cost. Whether it's the risk of physical injury in breaking up a fight, or the risk of losing your job by refusing to certify an unsafe product, it cannot be heroic if it comes too cheaply. An inflammatory blog post, for instance, costs nothing at all.

  2. The benefits flow to others. If you gain from your act, it's not heroism.

  3. Nobody would fault you for doing less or even nothing. I wouldn't think less of you if you didn't run into a burning building. This is in some ways the reverse of (1); you should not face substantial personal cost from failing to act, or choosing a less heroic alternative.

One thing you may note is that this definition basically invalidates every sports "hero" ever (especially due to (2)). That is no accident, because they're not really heroes.

An example that clearly fits the definition is the passengers aboard United 93 who stormed the cockpit on September 11. The personal cost? The highest price of all: death. The benefit to others? Everyone on the ground who would have been killed by the kamikaze run. And doing nothing was exactly what they were supposed to do in these situations.

A somewhat more uncomfortable one is that this definition disqualifies certain acts that are nonetheless highly admirable. Take for instance the pilot who managed to (relatively) safely land his crippled aircraft in the Hudson. There was no personal risk or cost to him, and he gained from his actions. If he hadn't done what he did, he would have been just as dead as everyone else. It was still an extraordinary accomplishment, but that landing wasn't heroic. However, that he stayed aboard to make sure everyone else got to safety first at least brushes the heroic. Maybe that is trying to have it both ways, but he could easily have rushed out in the general panic to save himself.

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Blogger John Paul said...

I tend to agree with your description of a hero though the OED seems to offer more liberal definitions. The pilot making a remarkably safe splash landing on the Hudson would qualify by the definitions below:

1. Antiq. A name given (as in Homer) to men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability, favoured by the gods; at a later time regarded as intermediate between gods and men, and immortal.

2. A man distinguished by extraordinary valour or noble deeds; an illustrious warrior.

3. A man who exhibits extraordinary bravery, firmness, fortitude, or greatness of soul in any pursuit, work, or enterprise; a man admired and venerated for his achievements and noble qualities.

June 21, 2009 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger John Paul said...

(OED patriarchy in this thread. Fight the man.)

June 21, 2009 at 1:45 PM  

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