Previous post: What makes a hero? — introduction (part 1)

In this series of posts I try to make sense of what makes a hero. These posts are a record of my thoughts on the matter, and might not always be coherent. If you have feedback or thoughts you want to share, I would love to read them either in the comments below, or via email.

This is the second post on What makes a hero? Here, I will explore two scenaria in order to tease out our intuitions on outcomes; whether the outcomes of an act play a role in determining if the act is indeed heroic.

In the first scenario, our hero is someone who enters into a burning school and saves the lives of two children who are trapped inside. If our rescuer is a random bystander who is unrelated to the children that are trapped in the burning school, then we can reasonably, and without much controversy, argue that he or she is a hero.

Let us consider a twist to the first scenario. Would that person still be considered a hero if the school ceiling collapsed and she got trapped insight, effectively burning to death along with the two schoolchildren? We would probably say that she is indeed a hero.

Would she still be a hero if she came out of the burning building without the schoolchildren? Some people would hesitate to call her a “hero,” but would almost unequivocally call her act “a heroic act” or “an act of great heroism.”

What if the rescuer comes out of the building without the schoolchildren whom she failed to safe, but with severe burning injuries to her hands and face? The evidence of the detrimental effects of the act performed, will likely warrant her a “hero-status,” even if she failed to save the schoolchildren.

It therefore seems prudent to distinguish between the two outcomes.

First, the outcome in relation to the original act; in this case, saving the kids — call this the original outcome. This, I will henceforth argue, is secondary to our evaluation of whether an act merits a hero-badge.

What is most decisive in evaluating the hero-type statement is the second type of outcome: the costs suffered by the act-doer in virtue of the act she performed — call this the personal outcome.

Assume a second example that illustrates the distinction to a better degree. An aeroplane is flying over the desert. The two pilots are dead. A courageous flight attendant attempts to land the failing aeroplane. If he lands it and everyone but himself dies, it is unlikely that he will be called a hero; he fails on both outcomes. If everyone but two people and himself die, he will likely be called a hero in virtue of the additional two lives that he saved; he scores some points in relation to the original outcome. If everyone but himself dies, but in trying to land the aeroplane he manages to avert a further catastrophe such as the aeroplane falling on a major city, then we would unequivocally call him a hero; again, in relation to the original outcome. If all die, himself included, and we acquire knowledge of his attempt to avert the accident through the black box, then we will likely call his attempt a heroic one and him possibly a hero; this assessment is based on the personal outcome.

In the second example we have seen, the flight attendant is a hero irrespective of the destiny of the passengers — the original outcome — provided that he has endured personally detrimental damages. Thus, if everyone but himself died, he would still be considered a hero, conditional upon the personal detrimental effects generated by the act, or in relation to the act attempted; in this case, on whether he has endured any injuries or whether he has averted a further tragedy such as the aeroplane falling on a congested city.

To summarise the position thus far, we can say that a hero must be judged on the motives underpinning the act, as well as from the outcome of the act itself. The outcome can be divided into two categories: the success of the act itself, saving the schoolchildren or the passengers in the aeroplane; and the outcomes in relation to the effects that the act had upon the act-doer, whether the lady rushing in the burning school or the flight attendant trying to land the aeroplane died or suffer any injuries. The two different outcomes have been summarised under the terms original outcome and personal outcome.

In the next post, we will consider the motives behind the act, in order to find out what role, if any, personal motives play in determining whether someone is a hero.