In 2015, Stanford graduate students Carl-Frederik Arndt and Peter Jonsson (both from Sweden) found Chanel Miller being sexually assaulted while unconscious. As soon as they got a sense that something was not right, the two prioritized the well-being of a stranger over their own safety and convenience. They approached and stopped the perpetrator and, when he tried to escape, held him down until the police arrived at the scene.

By saving Miller and stopping her perpetrator, Arndt and Jonsson showed moral courage.

Moral courage is needed when we see that our principles have been violated, social norms were transgressed, or the law was broken. If we act to stop these wrongdoings, despite the risk of backlash, we act morally courageous.

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That can involve a range of behaviors. The Swedes acted morally courageous by helping a person in danger. As Miller wrote about the two in her 2019 book, Know My Name: “You’ve taught us that we all bear responsibility to speak up, wrestle down, make safe, give hope, take action. . . . We must protect the vulnerable and hold each other accountable. May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.”

In other realms, a student can be morally courageous by confronting bullies, speaking up against discriminating behavior, or reporting cheating. And an employee can act morally courageously by making corporate fraud public. The potential backlash to such acts could, for example, be physical attacks or social exclusion by peers. By standing up in defense of their moral principles despite risks, morally courageous individuals can become a protective force for individuals, a catalyst for social change, and an inspiration for others, thereby making a crucial contribution to the greater good.

Against this backdrop, we hope for a society where many people show moral courage. Instead, however, moral courage is relatively rare. We can probably all recall reports of violent fights, sexual harassment, or racist attacks in which no one intervened, or perhaps we have found ourselves in such situations and remained inactive.

Such personal experiences are backed up by research. Studies that assess morally courageous behavior find that only about 20% of participants who witness wrongdoings intervene against them. At the same time, many more people intend to intervene. What, then, stops them from putting their intentions into action? If we understand why moral courage is rare, we can better find effective ways to promote it. Here are two potential explanations for the rareness of moral courage.

Moral courage can break down at many points

Moral courage involves a complicated internal process—and that very complexity can foil morally courageous actions.

In a 2016 chapter, Anna Halmburger and her colleagues suggest that this process can be broken down into five stages, and at each stage, the process may be interrupted, leading to a lack of morally courageous behavior:

  • Witnesses need to notice an incident, and
  • they need to interpret it as wrongdoing.
  • Then, witnesses need to assume responsibility, and
  • they need to believe they possess effective intervention skills.
  • Ultimately, witnesses need to decide whether to intervene despite potential risks.

Let’s use an example of bullying at school to illustrate the model. Imagine you are a student witnessing classmates pushing another student into a corner. You might instantaneously think this treatment is hurtful and wrong for your classmate. Perhaps seeing someone treated in an unjust way also angers you—or you might see it as playful teasing among friends and find it funny.

If you interpret the treatment as wrong, you might feel responsible for stopping it—or you might think that other classmates or a teacher should handle it. If you assume responsibility, you need to know how to intervene, like calling a teacher or confronting the bullies—but maybe you are unsure how to proceed. Ultimately, you need to believe that intervening can make a difference, even if you fear backlash, like becoming the bullies’ next target. As this illustration shows, much can go wrong and hinder moral courage.

In a recent study, we investigated the process of moral courage in a so-called experience-sampling study. Participants reported wrongdoings they observed in their everyday lives over seven days via prompts on their mobile phones. For any wrongdoing reported, participants then answered questions that addressed the different stages of the model of moral courage. Our findings aligned with the model, showing that moral courage was more likely when participants felt responsible and efficacious but less likely when they perceived the situation as risky.

We also wanted to know whether some people are more prone to show moral courage than others due to their personality. We found that participants who generally tend to morally disengage—that is, to not take their own moral standards all too seriously at times—felt less responsibility and thus showed less moral courage. Conversely, participants who generally believe themselves to be well-equipped to deal with challenges felt more efficacious and thus showed more moral courage. Accordingly, aspects of our personality shape the process of moral courage.

Besides personality, situational factors can affect the different stages of moral courage. For example, often, we could lack essential information about a situation. This makes it difficult to confidently say whether someone’s actions are morally wrong. Also, if other people are present, we might be less likely to feel responsible for intervening. A lack of information and the presence of other people can thus be barriers to moral courage.

Taken together, it is essential to understand that moral courage is a complex process and how the process pans out is shaped, to some extent, by our personality and the situation.

It’s difficult to see the big picture

When we find ourselves in a situation that requires moral courage, it can sometimes be challenging to see its benefits for the greater good. This can be because some forms of moral courage do not feel exactly agreeable.

For instance, it often requires calling perpetrators out on their wrongdoings or even using physical force to stop them, and confronting others in such ways can feel unpleasant. Also, reporting others’ wrongdoings to authorities can feel wrong since it might be seen as tattling. This is especially the case if we know the perpetrator, when they are our friends, family, or colleagues.

Consider our example of moral courage in the context of bullying: Calling out classmates or reporting them to a teacher may be all the more difficult because we feel a sense of loyalty toward them. The need to be loyal to those we are close to can conflict with our goal to stand up for fairness or justice and can hold us back.

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When it comes to standing up to others’ wrongdoings, anger plays an important role—but that’s an emotion we may not readily associate with the greater good. We often think of anger as a negative emotion linked to aggression, but it turns out that it can also be a force for good. Anger is a common reaction to wrongdoings, and it provides us with a strong urge to make things right.

What does that mean for moral courage? In a recent study in which participants—seemingly casually—witnessed the embezzlement of research funds, their prime reaction was anger (rather than, for example, empathy), and the more anger they experienced, the more likely they were to show moral courage. In other words, it seems that anger can spark moral courage. But since anger has a rather bad reputation, we might be tempted to push it down, thereby extinguishing the spark.

Taken together, it is often challenging to show moral courage. But knowing all those things that make it difficult should not discourage us. Instead, we can use this knowledge to develop concrete ideas on how to promote moral courage.

How can we foster moral courage?

Every person can try to become more morally courageous. However, it does not have to be a solitary effort. Instead, institutions such as schools, companies, or social media platforms play a significant role. So, what are concrete recommendations to foster moral courage?

  • Establish and strengthen social and moral norms: With a solid understanding of what we consider right and wrong, it becomes easier to detect wrongdoings. Institutions can facilitate this process by identifying and modeling fundamental values. For example, norms and values expressed by teachers can be important points of reference for children and young adults.
  • Overcome uncertainty: If it is unclear whether someone’s behavior is wrong, witnesses should feel comfortable to inquire, for example, by asking other bystanders how they judge the situation or a potential victim whether they are all right.
  • Contextualize anger: In the face of wrongdoings, anger should not be suppressed since it can provide motivational fuel for intervention. Conversely, if someone expresses anger, it should not be diminished as irrational but considered a response to something unjust. 
  • Provide and advertise reporting systems: By providing reporting systems, institutions relieve witnesses from the burden of selecting and evaluating individual means of intervention and reduce the need for direct confrontation.
  • Show social support: If witnesses directly confront a perpetrator, others should be motivated to support them to reduce risks.

We see that there are several ways to make moral courage less difficult, but they do require effort from individuals and institutions. Why is that effort worth it? Because if more individuals are willing and able to show moral courage, more wrongdoings would be addressed and rectified—and that could help us to become a more responsible and just society.

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