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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.

This discussion is taking place in a room that has a big pink elephant at its centre, whom we have thus far ignored. The elephant screams that our understanding of human agency and the motivations that are so central to the analysis, have been abstracted so much that they do not describe human beings who, contrary to the account given here, are complicated and multifaceted, and don’t always make rational and calculated decisions.

The elephant is not only taking issue with the psychological simplifications that were made in the course of the argument, but also with the physiological simplifications. For instance, the elephant argues that when adrenaline kicks in, it is very difficult to distinguish between a reflex response and the exercise of individual agency. When high on adrenaline, one is hardly a rational agent able to make informed decisions, the elephant’s argument goes.

In most cases where abstractions are used, the usual routine is that reality is abstracted in order to avoid complexities, so that the competing principles at play are teased out and become crystallised. Ideal theorists claim that the complexity of reality is subsequently factored back in the theory, and the desirable principles generated from the idealised thought experiment, are weighted against considerations of implementation, scarcity and feasibility.

Unfortunately, the process of deciding what makes a hero, cannot fit the (idealised) process of ideal to non-ideal transition. The difficulty — and essence — of heroism, relies on the understanding of how a human will react in a high-stress situation vis-à-vis how she is naturally predisposed to react . Whereas ideal theorists abstract from human nature, assuming characteristics that are fundamentally non-human — like the assumption that everyone will comply with an agreed principle — the same cannot be done in our present discussion because we are interested at the cliff moment when a regular human does something out of the ordinary, possibly something that goes beyond his or her natural instincts.

To this end, and until we have more data about how humans react in such situations, the elephant will have to remain in the room if we are to reach any meaningful conclusions. Every statement that we make needs to be accompanied by the phrase “to the extent that we know.” Obviously, I’m not a natural scientist, so if anyone has any input, it would much appreciated.