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Difference Between Courage and Recklessness

Both courage and recklessness involve the taking of an risky act. But how could we actually tell the difference between courage and recklessness?

What is the difference between courage and recklessness? That is one of many questions I have been wondering for quite a long time. In most cases, most people have the capability to subjectively categorize an action by an actor as an act of courage or an act of recklessness. But without knowing the specific principle that we actually use to categorize an act as either, it is not possible to consciously examine the validity of our categorization.

When we hear the story of a soldier who uses his own body to shield his comrade from the explosion of a grenade and died, most of us would categorize the act as an act of courage. When we hear the story of a teenager who fall down a cliff because he failed to check the brake of his car before playing a game of chicken race, most of us would categorize the act as an act of recklessness.

Both people died because they choose to do an act that would put risk on their own lives. In fact the act of the soldier in the paragraph above is more risky than the act of the teenager. But while the degree of risk involved is an important part for an act to be considered as either courageous or reckless, it is not as decisive while we actually need to further categorize the action as one of either.

To understand the characteristics of an action that we actually used to categorize it as either, we will need to examine the thought process that we actually used when we do the categorization.

First, we will need to realize that human action is a deliberate action aimed to get a definite end. Both the soldier and the teenager in the example above didn’t do their actions for nothing. When the soldier decided to sacrifice himself, he did so to get a definite end, which is the safety of his comrades. When the teenager decided to play chicken race, he also did so to get a definite end, which is to earn recognition from his fellow racers.

Second, we need to realize that our act of categorizing is actually an act of valuation. Specifically, when we categorize an action as either courageous or reckless, we compare our subjective valuation of human lives with our subjective valuation of the definite ends each actor tried to achieve by doing their respective acts. If we in the end of our valuation, decided that the definite ends to be reached by the risky act is greater than our valuation of the specific human live that might be sacrificed, we would consider the act as courageous. Otherwise we would consider the act as recklessness.

Third, an act of valuation is inherently subjective to the subject who does the valuation. This is where we realize that each of us have priorities and have the tendency to sacrifice our lower priorities in favor of our higher priorities. Valuation over the priorities held by another person is an important factor when we need to consider whether we would hang out with that person or not. For example, people who prioritize human lives over fun, tends not to hang out with people who readily sacrifice human lives to get fun.

In the end, that is what courage is. As Ambrose Redmoon said it, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

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