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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.

We now turn to motives. By the end of the discussion we must be in position to consider whether our determination of the heroism attached to saving the schoolchildren from the burning building changes if the random bystander is replaced by a fireman.

The parameters of the example remain the same. The only change is the actor. It is no longer a third-party, an unrelated by-stander that runs into the burning building. Now, the actor is a fireman whose very job description includes him going into burning buildings and saving people like the two schoolchildren trapped in the burning school. Under what conditions would that person be described as a hero?

Motivations are more important than outcomes. The motivations behind the hero-yielding attempt far outweigh considerations of outcome. The outcome only conditions the magnitude of heroism. The task itself, provided the right motives, is heroic irrespective of the outcome.

Is a fireman who goes into a burning building a hero? Only under certain circumstances where his mandate and his agency are in a disequilibrium. A fireman is someone who has signed a contract to fulfil tasks such as entering burning buildings and saving children. This is his mandate to which he has agreed. The mandate is contractually constrained by considerations of his own personal safety: he is obliged to keep himself, to the best of his abilities, out of harm’s way.

Thus, a fireman or a firewoman are heroes only when they exercise their individual agency in ways that violate their mandate, which protects their safety and constraints the amount of risk that they can take. A hero is he or her that goes beyond and against the mandate.

What about the fireman who unknowingly finds himself violating his mandate? He goes into the building but does not notice the extent to which the fire has corroded the ceiling. Miscalculating the circumstances our fireman enters the room and moves to the next one to save the two children. In doing so the building collapses and they all die. In this instance, the fireman is not a hero because his violation of his mandate was a product of accident or personal error, and as such, not an exercise of his individual agency.

The distinction of motives and outcomes is important. The outcomes condition and decide the extent to which an act or an actor is heroic, but not whether the actor has indeed partaken in a heroic act. The initial classification of an act as heroic rests on the actor’s motives. At this stage, the argument supports that an act is heroic insofar as the actor knowingly exceed any mandate he might have relating to the act in question.

In the next section, we will talk about different kinds of motives, in order to get a better understanding of the function of motives in evaluating whether an act is heroic.