Courage is one of the classical virtues. But it is a subtle virtue. Courage can easily spill over into folly or hubris. Yet all communities need at least some people to be courageous, and not just in a martial sense. If everyone conforms, keeps their heads under the parapet and refuses to risk career or status, then progress is unlikely.
Today we badly need some extra courage for the strange times we are in. These times are in my view paradoxical. Seen through one lens they are the best times ever – with more prosperity, health, education and freedom than ever before. That perspective – represented in plenty of best-selling books - encourages many clever people to contented complacency, and the opposite of courage. The counter view sees a world hurtling towards apocalypse: climate disaster, mass extinctions, takeover by robots and the corruption of democracy. For some people that is a spur to action. But for many it encourages a dismal fatalism: if the forces are really so relentless what chance do I have as a single individual to make a difference? Again, the risk is that courage is crushed.
So what kinds of courage do we need now? Three stand out for me. The first is the courage to face uncomfortable facts and proclaim them. Climate change is an obvious example. We can pretend it will be easy to change our lives and industries and bring the world back into balance, fixing things with a few smart policy-moves or a bit of clever technology – a new carbon tax here, efficient supply chains there. But this is very unlikely to be true. Much more likely is that we will have to change our lives quite fundamentally – giving up things we are very attached to, from meat to air travel.
I admire those who are willing to jump over the precipice in the name of something bigger than us
A second is the courage to push ideas and be willing to upset. All useful ideas are abrasive and challenge existing norms and status systems. Yet there is now a crushing conformism in many fields. Economics is one: even the apparent heretics are scared to challenge the sacred cows. Too many progressives are conformist and timid too – hoping that a bit of universal basic income here, a circular economy there, a shorter working week will be enough. None of these are necessary bad ideas. But they are already very old ideas and they signal a serious loss of courage and imagination.
A third is the courage to risk action – it’s no use only having courageous ideas if you’re not willing to try them out, but that involves risks. Actions put you in contact with the feedback of reality. Yet many in the universities take refuge in becalmed opposition and criticism, a stance that involves no risk of refutation. This is why I admire the social entrepreneurs and innovators and start-ups who are willing to jump over the precipice in the name of something bigger than us. It can be vain or even delusional to want to solve the world’s problems. But it is far more likely we will fail because of a deficit of courage rather than an excess of it.
A fourth is the courage to handle opposites. No-one can be certain their ideas are right. That’s why we should embrace challenge and why I believe people should seek out their severest critics as they may be the most useful for you, and also why I believe in engaging with and learning from your enemies. Sitting safely in a filter bubble of people who think like you is a route to stagnation, whereas creativity is often sparked by having to see the world in fresh ways.
Our risk in the face of big tasks that are new to history is that we will fail to think with sufficient ambition, breadth and generosity; that we remain stuck in our safe spaces, our confirming views, our conventional wisdoms. Now is a time when we all need to be feeling a bit of vertigo and discovering, perhaps, that we are braver than we think.
Geoff Mulgan is a Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE.