The Capacity to Feel Fear

ESSAY BY CORINE PELLUCHON

Why is courage a key virtue, especially in the context of the ecological, economic, social and political challenges of the 21st century? Why is it required to face the threats we are confronted with and to bring some concrete changes at the individual level which concerns our lifestyles and consuming habits at the global level which implies some structural modifications in the way we produce and in our economy?

To answer this question, we have to understand that courage supposes the awareness of the danger and does not exclude fear. A courageous person does not run away. Nor does she find refuge in denial. Moreover, the correct estimation of the risks points out our limits and prevents us from having excessive confidence. This is why courage lies between the two vices of rashness and cowardice. The fact that it is based upon a judgment that encompasses self-knowledge underscores the interconnectedness between the intellectual virtues of wisdom and prudence and the moral virtue of courage which includes moral strength and endurance. It also stresses the link between courage and humility. Courage therefore expresses our capacity to feel fear, to learn from it and to overcome it in order to act here and now to confront a danger.

Courage is the ally of the ecological transition because it is the capacity to face the worst but also because it is motivated by hope and an aspiration for a better world. It conveys the efforts of a person who converts her negative emotions into resources for action. Courage makes us fill the gap between theory and practice since it is a virtue intertwined with strong affects such as fear and hope. Instead of feeling powerless and always complaining about a catastrophic situation, a courageous person assumes her responsibility and decides to do something to initiate positive changes. This point highlights the link between courage and autonomy, on the one hand, and courage and commitment on the other hand.

We need courage to fight against the exploitation of the earth, the reification of animals, and the repression of one’s emotional life

Confronted with the ecological and economic challenges of our times, a courageous person has no option but to put into question the representations and values she inherited and which are responsible for a model of development that is neither sustainable nor fair. This critical inquiry into the moral and ontological foundations of a system that not only characterizes our economy but also colonizes our imagination requires intellectual freedom. However, the process of emancipation that leads to moral autonomy supposes that we do not only reject some values, but that we know what has value and deserves to be cherished in order to promote a better society.

Fighting against the dominant value of domination, which explains the limitless exploitation of the earth, the reification of animals, and the repression of one’s emotional life, needs courage and the ability to resist social pressure and many adverse forces that convince people that a change of paradigm is not possible. But autonomy, at its highest level, implies responsibility as well as the capacity to cooperate. It rests upon a process of individuation that enlarges the self and makes us feel the community of destiny and vulnerability we share with other human beings and with animals.

The question is not only: What do I need to flourish and have a good life? But: What kind of society do we want to live in? Therefore courage, which is not to be equated with heroism, is inspired by justice as the desire to transmit a habitable world and to live, as Paul Ricœur said, “a good live, with and for others within just institutions“.


Corine Pelluchon is Professor for Philosophy at the Université Gustave Eiffel and will join THE NEW INSTITUTE in the fall of 2021 and work on the programme “The Foundations of Value and Values”.

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