Moral Heroism, Pt 2: How to Become a Hero (Or At Least Get Started)

In my first “Moral Heroism” post, I argued that empathy isn’t the only trait we need to deal with moral decisions. We also need a sense of “heroism”: The feeling that propels us to make the right decision even when we have no personal connection to or emotional investment in the outcome.

When I think about heroism, I’m drawing heavily on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s concept of “heroic responsibility”, which first appeared in his fanfiction manifesto Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

“Heroic responsibility means: you’re responsible. Period. Implicitly, it is the rock-hard unwavering conviction that no one else can be trusted to do the [right] thing.” –Eliezer Yudkowsky, somewhere in this Tumblr thread

“Responsibility” is what separates heroism from empathy. The latter can inspire the kinds of feelings that lead to heroism, but when feelings aren’t enough to spur us to action, we might close the gap by thinking of ourselves as responsible for our fellow humans (and other animals). I can’t define “right” in a way that will satisfy all my readers, but later I’ll present a few examples of what “heroism” might look like to give the quotations some context. Meanwhile, the gist of heroic responsibility is that you, in accepting it, become responsible for those around you, however broadly that’s defined. That doesn’t mean you have to control their lives – just that, if they seem to be in trouble, you can’t assume anyone else will help them. And because you are responsible for those around you, it’s your job to do something helpful.

What does this mean, in a practical sense?

Everyday Examples of Heroic Actions

Bullying: When a kid sees another kid being bullied on the playground and steps in to help – even if they don’t know the kid, even if they’ve never been bullied themselves – because they recognize pain and understand that it needs to stop. It’s also heroic when an old woman does the same thing in the middle of an uncaring crowd.

College Consent: When a college student at a party notices another person taking someone upstairs who looks too drunk to give consent, and risks embarrassment to jump in and ask the drunken person if they’re all right.  And if they aren’t alright, they risk physical harm to separate the two. Especially if the people they confront are total strangers.

Reporting Crime: When a city-dweller hears someone screaming outside their house and decides to look out the window and then calls 911, or goes downstairs to intervene if the situation calls for it, rather than ignoring the sound. (The Kitty Genovese murder, while the details are controversial, seems to be a classic failure of responsibility)

Mob Rule: When an audience member on a TV game show gets the chance to vote on whether a man’s home will be destroyed, but votes “no” even knowing most of the audience will vote “yes” – that’s not quite heroism. Heroism would be shouting at the people around them, telling them to vote no, don’t they have any common decency? (The fact that this happened on a staged television show makes the situation murkier, but the same basic principle applies to any situation where a mob is making bad decisions.)

Helping Others Out of Sight: When a person learns about a horrible disease that afflicts people in another country and doesn’t think “eh, the Third World is hopeless,” but instead decides to learn more about the disease and its victims.  They then decide, after thinking carefully about their values and making use of expert sources, whether helping is one of the best things they could do with their time or money. (They become heroic when they follow through on what they’ve discovered.)

How to Think Like a Hero

It’s easy to find books about heroes. If you specifically want to find heroic responsibility, books about Righteous Gentiles (non-Jews who rescued Jews during the Holocaust) might do the trick. And there are lots of books about cultivating various personal virtues. But I don’t know of any books about becoming more heroic. (If you do, please post the title in the comments!)

So I’m working from scratch, but here are a few ideas for mental habits that might help you make more heroically responsible decisions.

Think of yourself as a hero: Here’s a helpful quote from a Tumblr discussion of heroic responsibility:

“I think the idea is basically ignoring the realistic probabilities as to whether or not you are a hero, and acting like one regardless.” Drethelin

Why does our culture lionize police officers, firefighters, and soldiers?

One reason that comes to mind: People whose jobs involve “heroism” also carry that mindset when they aren’t on the job. This may not actually be true – I can’t tell you whether people with heroic jobs are heroes at other times – but it seems possible. Searching Google News for the phrase “off-duty cop” brings up plenty of examples. I’m guessing the same would be true for medical professionals, though “off-duty nurse” isn’t yet part of the lexicon.

Most of us don’t have ‘heroic jobs’. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay careful attention to our surroundings, learn CPR, or even chase down purse-snatchers if we happen to be fast runners. The overarching trait that unites these behaviors is what some of my friends call “agentiness”, which is the habit of noticing when you wish “someone” would do “something” and then becoming the “someone” and doing that “something” yourself.

Train your empathy: As I mentioned before, empathy is a biased feeling: Most of us tend to empathize more with people we know or people who are similar to us. This opens up the risk that our heroism will also be biased – that we won’t exert effort unless we happen to feel empathy.

Thinking of yourself as a hero – someone for whom doing the right thing is a job – is one way to bypass this risk. Another way is to expand your circle of empathy by making an active effort to learn about and take seriously the lives of “outsiders”. For the average Applied Sentience reader, that could mean reading blogs written by Mormon housewives or articles on Republican news sites. For anyone living in the developed world, it could mean reading The Kojo Story or watching movies set in places you’d be scared to visit. (City of God is a good start.)

Not that there’s any need to distinguish between people who are and aren’t “similar” to you. One trick that I’ve tried with some success: As I read, I mentally replace words like “Texans” or “gang members” or “Nepalese” with “human beings” or “men and women”. Applied Sentience is a humanist blog for a reason: Anyone reading this has something enormous in common with 7.1 billion other people. And those are the only people anywhere. How can we not feel some desire to protect those people, to stop them from suffering, even if we don’t know them personally?

Don’t be embarrassed: The simplest obstacle to acting with heroic responsibility might be simple embarrassment. Breaking up an interaction between two strangers at a party is weird. Calling 911 is sort of weird, even, which is why people often fail to do it in a crowd; who wants to be the first to move? Won’t someone else eventually help? (This is called “diffusion of responsibility”, and it’s the opposite of “heroic responsibility”.)

How can we learn to not be quite so embarrassed? Fortunately, I’ve actually read a few books about this question that I can recommend:

  • The Flinch takes readers through a series of uncomfortable exercises (for instance, standing the wrong way in an elevator) meant to weaken the part of us that clinches up with fear in awkward situations.
  • The Charisma Myth, in which the rejected “myth” is that charisma can’t be taught. There are many ways not to be embarrassed, and acting charismatic seems to be a good one. (People who act charismatic tend to feel that way, too.)

In Conclusion

For me, “heroic responsibility” is the idea that helps me take my own values seriously. After all, I claim to believe that all people are of equal worth, and that suffering should be avoided in most circumstances. But what good are these beliefs if I’m not prepared to act upon them and stop bad things from happening when the chance arises?

Anyway, if you liked this article, I wish you the best of luck in being heroic. The world may need more empathy, but it certainly needs more heroes.

Other Resources

Julia Wise writes about one of the first American abolitionists, whose embarrassing behavior (trying to pay his friends’ slaves when they served his dinner) annoyed many of the people he knew. But his well-developed sense of heroic responsibility eventually helped him save a lot of people from slavery.

George Tilton writes about Clair Patterson, whose heroic responsibility led him to wage a one-man war on the lead industry after discovering horrible evidence about what lead in gasoline (and paint, and food) was doing to the human race. The lead part of the story begins on page 9.

And finally, a discussion of the limitations and flaws of heroic responsibility. There is a downside to not trusting other people to do the right thing.

Aaron Gertler (Yale University)

Aaron GertlerAaron is a member of the class of 2015 at Yale University. After he graduates, he hopes to live his life in a way that makes the lives of other people significantly better, unless he gets distracted by his dream of becoming a famous DJ/novelist/crime-fighter. His interests include electronic music, applied psychology, instrumental rationality, and effective altruism. If his beliefs are inaccurate, you should tell him so as directly as possible. You can follow him on Twitter @aarongertler, and he also writes for his own blog.

4 responses to “Moral Heroism, Pt 2: How to Become a Hero (Or At Least Get Started)

  1. Pingback: Empathy and Heroism - Alpha Gamma·

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