Across the horizon: the rising sun and endless possibilities

Home - Studyworld Studynotes - Quotes - Reports & Essays 






Oakwood Publishing Company:


Study Material



Home :


amazon.gif (2962 bytes)

studyhead.gif (11688 bytes)


Is Courage A Gender Specific Virtue?

Both men and woman have intentions and act, so both are capable of virtue. Virtue ethics as a theory of morality has existed, most notably, since Aristotle. Courage is one such virtue and to display this persons need to experience fear and perceive danger. The circumstances surrounding an act of courage need to be proportionate to perceived risk to avoid the activity becoming an enterprise of foolishness. Also the potential costs associated with the risk must be proportionate to the ends concerning the bravery. These elements associated with courage are undoubtedly equally available to both sexes and in the sense of equality feminism woman can and have been courageous. However, in light of difference feminism, another facet may need to be added to the modern meaning of courage, as an acknowledgement that virtues are characterised with respect to attitudes held within the context of definition.

A virtue is a prescription of how someone should be. It is a component of character. Aristotle (cited in Hinman, 1998, pp. 334-335), described virtue as being a mean, or average of attitude which could be uncovered via reasoning and displayed through personality and behaviour styles. For example, the average between an excess like contrariness and a deficiency like sycophancy might be honest opinion. Hinman mentions further the difference between substantive virtues, those that are closer to the ethical good, like philanthropy, and executive virtues those less associated with being morally good and more directly linked with qualities of desirable persona. Courage is said to be an executive virtue (Ibid., p. 336).

The virtue of courage contains at least two components. First there must be an internal factor of fear or even phobia. Psychology tells us that fear is an awareness of physiological changes in response to some stimulus or other. These changes include increased respiration, heart-beat, blood-pressure, and higher production of epinephrine (adrenaline). Other changes such as pupil dilation, increased sweating and decreased production of saliva are often present too. This process occurs in a part of the autonomic, non-voluntary, nervous system called the sympathetic division (Aitkenson, Atkinson, & Hilgard, 1983 p. 331). All healthy humans, male or female have sympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system and are thus prone to the physiological, and thus the psychological, experience of fear.

Second, there must be an external factor of perceived danger in a circumstance for a courageous deed to be possible. The degree of such will depend on how the individual relates the present circumstance with experiences of past events and situations. For example, if I see a torrentially flooded river an attempt to cross it would be perceived as dangerous because I have seen many such situations on television where lives have been put at risk. This cognitive component is important in danger because I may enter a dangerous situation without realising it and thus act without courage. It could be imagined that an individual has no idea that, to get a culled animal for feeding their family, they may have to walk across a minefield. If the minefield is unknown to the individual then no fear will be experienced because no danger is attached to collecting the prey on the other side of the field. So in this case no act of bravery has been committed. Alternatively, it appears! courage can be displayed without any real danger existing. Phobias have the component of fear without physical danger. A phobia may be defined as an irrational fear, associated with a stimulus containing no objective hazard. To confront a phobia takes similar courage needed in non-phobic situations because the associated behaviours necessary to conquer the phobia are manifested despite fear or anxiety.

This is contrary to Hinman's concept of rightly ordered fears. He maintains that once phobias have been overcome courage is no longer part of the relationship between actor and situation. He also maintains that if courage is responding to objectively identifiable danger then responses to psychological dangers will not count and if individuals do not perceive objective dangers as such they will not be counted as courageous. This all appears acceptable. However, Hinman then seems to discount facing phobias as a valid form of courage (1998; p. 338).

Phobias may be placed in the objective realm of rightly ordered fears because for the phobic actor, no matter how illogical the response is to the stimulus, all elements of fear and danger still exist. The proportion of fear to actual risk to an unempathetic observer, may be unbalanced. But because fear is a subjective emotion, it seems illogical to try and objectively quantify, or comparatively ordinate it with dangers that are also subjectively assessed by the phobic. All of this infers that courage is more attached to overcoming fear rather than danger. Indeed, the dangerousness of a situation is often out of the actor's control. However, fear is not always a controllable phenomena either, and this is perhaps why when people act against perceived danger, in spite of fear, they are considered courageous (Hinman, 1998; p. 338). Again it appears that most healthy, rational humans, woman and men alike, are capable of recognising dangerous situations with the relevant knowled! ge in tow. Both men and woman also confront phobias, and so in these respects courage does not appear to be a gender specific virtue.

There must also be appropriate self-confidence and a relatively accurate assessment of the risk involved in any action for it to be courageous, rather than foolish. To skydive without training would be risky. A person who partook in such an activity without worrying about the likely consequences, would be quite foolish. However, the same act carried out by someone who is properly trained can be seen as moderately courageous, at least for the first few times. Once more skill and experience is gained the less fear is likely to be experienced. Indeed, the physiological components once associated with fear may be associated with an experience of exhilaration. Sensibility, is also a factor in courage. It would also be foolish to do something like risk one^s life for the sake of something like a TV, because the risk involved, when compared with the outcome, is just not worth it. But, to risk life or injury for the sake of another human being would not be so foolish because! the intended ends justify the possible cost (Hinman, p. 339).

As all of the above appears to be equally applicable to both men and woman it seems almost inane to ask whether or not courage is a gender specific virtue. But the context of the question needs to be illustrated. For Aristotle the virtue of courage is associated with actions of soldiers in battle and soldiers in the armies of his times were all men. Also acts of courage exhibited by woman have tended to be under-valued, or even unrecognised (Hinman, p. 341).

The above modern framing of the concept of courage is far wider than Aristotle's and woman are generally more accepted as equals to men now, and this is why it is safe to say courage is not gender-specific. Courage is not just something which can be displayed in battle, it can be displayed in any risky situation. For example, many woman become pregnant without the means material and or psychological to cope with such. Much pressure is experienced by woman who abort as a result of their immediate circumstances. Not only is there huge moral debate about the act of abortion, which must increase trauma, but the procedure is hugely stressful physically and psychologically. Surely, courage is needed to make decisions in circumstances such as these. The act of giving birth is also one which requires great courage. Historically, this ordeal was extremely risky because of crude medical technology as Hinman recognises (1998; pp. 341-342). Now, birth is still a very painful proce! ss and in order to have a child woman are still at risk of complications associated with such. Woman also partake in military roles traditionally exclusive to men. The Red Army contained female regiments, some modern Muslim armies contain female regiments also, woman fighter pilots are part of some modern airforces and, the Royal New Zealand Navy, amongst others, employs woman on its warships. M any police forces and fire departments have woman assigned to front-line duty. Courage is now equally available to woman, in consideration of this, even if the Aristotelian definition of such is adhered to. Maybe now woman, because of the sex roles they partook in historically, require another facet to be added to the definition of courage. This addition may make the acts of courage exhibited by woman more obvious.

The implications of how to act in order to display the virtue of courage appear to lean towards male sex role stereotypes. The stereotypes have been displayed over centuries by men who have been socialised accordingly. Now in the late 20th century, in order to attain gender equality, it seems as if females have to display courageous behaviours according to how men have defined them, rather than modifying how one should act in order to manifest such. Historically, it appears that Hinman^s definition of courage is applicable to how men have been defining and displaying courage. It may be argued that the traditional role of woman in the family and society is one that has been directed by men resulting in the suppression of real female freedom and ability, and thus female oppression.

Socialisation is perhaps the reason why female emancipation, to the extent it exists now, did not occur until the 1960s. This seems reasonable to assume, because if woman are as courageous as men, according to the overcoming of fear in the face of danger definition, equality should have been achieved long before it was. But it was not until late last century, and in this century, that considerations such as; females obtaining equal voting rights, having control over foetal conception, and the confirmation of potential equality in the workplace through mass employment mobilisation in the two World Wars, that notions of gender equality were seriously considered by large numbers of the female populace. All of this ascribes to the notion of ^equality feminism^, where female equality is associated with having the same opportunities and aspirations as men (Gilligan, cited in Hinman, 1998; p. 383).

However, the notion of ^difference feminism^ recognises that females see the world differently, and this may implicate, that virtues will be manifested within them in ways other than defined to date (Ibid.). In psychologist Carol Gilligan^s view, woman^s morality focuses primarily on caring, emotionality, and responsibility (Hinman, 1998; pp. 375-377). With reference to Hinman^s discussion of Gilligan^s stages of woman^s moral development, courage could be seen as maintaining a responsibility for oneself and others, despite circumstances of duress and hardship. Continuing to live one^s life as a responsible and caring agent, in spite of oppression, and making the most out of the resources available whilst being oppressed, might be seen as a form of female courage in history. In contemporary times, however, the female voice will be extended from within, to the outside world, for the purpose of recognition as a valid point of view in spite of discounting attitudes (Ibid. p. 3! 84).

Brown and Gilligan^s qualitative research (1992, cited in Hinman, 1998; p.342), concerning the hardship experienced in the female voyage from adolescence to adulthood leans towards this idea and is consistent with Gilligan^s conception of ^difference feminism^. The courage described, appears to be less of facing a concrete danger, and more of a self determined endurance concerning the righteousness of emotional, intra-personal, and interpersonal attitudes and actions. Despite apparent external pressure to the contrary, caring for oneself, and taking responsibility for acknowledging the validity of this developmental process had high priority in these young woman^s lives. Importantly, these internalised conflicting mind sets were allowed by the younger woman, to be voiced publicly. Older woman interviewed, appeared to be less forthcoming, more restrained, and self-censored in voicing opinions pertaining to similar experiences in woman-hood. The research implied the censo! rship and subjective perception of relevance of the personal voice was due to changing patterns in socialisation rather than attitudinal differences developed through the life-span (Reimer, 1996).

MacIntyre (cited in Csongradi, 1996), proposes that virtues are based on sources, gathered through historical perspectives, allowing society to retrospect and then endeavour to find standards of excellence based on such. These standards encourage individuals to behave according to moral perspectives found in areas such as in popular culture. Thus, different genders could have very different thoughts about what is an issue of courage and, also have different perspectives on how to deal with such issues. This para-evolutionary approach appears to be congruent with the Brown and Gilligan study mentioned above. An example of this is the present notion of ^girl-power^ in youth culture. Due to influences of bands such as The Spice Girls, traditionally downplayed aspects of personality like acute-femininity are being acknowledged as being as powerful and as sound as personality expressions associated with acute-masculinity. Naturally, the band is heavily marketed, but still their image gives credence to this point. The Spice Girls are unashamedly all-female, dress according to youth culture, and underline their stance with lyrics, consistently reinforcing the relevance of the young female reality, such as in the song ^One of These Girls^ (Furguson, 1998). Other bands like The All Saints, and New Zealand^s own Mary, follow along similar lines.

The discussion above highlights the relevance of Hinman^s plurality ethics (Hinman, 1998; pp. 35-36). He bases his pluralism on four principles. First, is a principal of understanding. Through a sincere desire to comprehend variance, we must effort to embrace different expressions of virtues regarding how such are defined by cultures and sub-cultures. Second, by acceptance of the validity of different manifestations of courage as a virtue in different sexes, diversity in such can be recognised and Hinman^s principal of tolerance will be accommodated. Although, tolerance appears to have a slightly negative connotation in that it implies an attitude of putting up with something. Here, a principle of acknowledgement is possibly more appropriate. Third, acceptance of multiplicity in the expression of courage endorses its non-gender specific nature. Because courage is a virtue, validating diversity in the expression of such will likely reinforce its proliferation and, wil! l apply to the principal of standing up against evil, and perhaps help extinguish the vice of cowardice. Fourth, in the above discussion, Hinman^s principle of fallibility is also relevant because, regarding Gilligan^s difference feminism, it has been the implication that a traditional male conception of the dangerousness aspect in courage may be subtly lacking in points of emotion and responsibility. Importantly, the realisation of this emotional facet in perception of danger, will validify not only difference feminism, but also related experiences faced by men. Today, although perhaps to a decreasing extent, we live in a society wherein emotionality as a part of how men experience fear and danger, and thus display courage, is inclined to be discounted too.

In conclusion, it is apparent that courage is not a gender-specific virtue. In all aspects, for courage to be expressed, males and females appear to be equally equipped. Both sexes experience fear and are capable of assessing dangerous situations, accurately or erroneously. Both sexes are involved in roles which regularly necessitate courage. These observations are aligned with the idea of equity feminism. However, recently recognised facets of the female intra-personal and inter-personal experience adds greater dimensionality to how courage may be identified and expressed by woman. Consequently, the existing framework surrounding criteria for what is an act or pre-disposition for courage may have to be modified. This point is reinforced by moral attitudes apparent in contemporary culture and, is congruent with Gilligan's notion of difference feminism and Hinman's ethics of plurality.


Aitkenson, R. L., Atkinson, R. C., & Hilgard, E. R., (1983). Introduction to Psychology (8th Ed.) San Diego; Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Csongradi, C., (1996). Why the Topic of Bioethics in Science Classes?

Furguson, G. M., (1998). The Spice Girls Space.

Hinman, L.., (1998). Ethics (2nd Ed.). San Diego. Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Reimer, S., (1996). In the Works of the Bard Woman Find True Voices.



Teacher Ratings: See what

others think

of your teachers

Copy Right