The meaning of heroism in our society
With the anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, Americans have remembered and lauded our fireman and police heroes, as we should. But now that the commemorative ceremonies are over, it is time to ask ourselves: who are America's greatest heroes?
These firemen and policemen on 9/11 risked and lost their lives to rescue others caught in horrifyingly dangerous situations. In essence, these heroes reacted to great danger with incredible courage. Courage is an important part of being a heroÃ¯Â¿Â½of being an exceptional person who overcomes great obstacles to achieve a goalÃ¯Â¿Â½but great heroism demands more.
History gives us many examples of great heroism. One is Galileo's 19-year defiance of the Catholic Church and its Inquisition by his advocacy of the heliocentric view of the solar system. Galileo's actions, like the firemen and policemen of 9/11, took courage, but there is an important difference: Galileo's actions were not primarily physical but essentially moral and intellectual. His actions challenged the dogmas and irrationalities of the time.
The life of Thomas Jefferson teaches us another lesson about great heroism: that it entails self-initiated, long-term goals and action. Jefferson's lifetime goal was the advancement of liberty. To create and preserve the freest society in the world, he struggled for more than 40 years against the British army, the machinations of the British and French governments, a venomous press, and a multitude of clerical and political opponents. This type of struggle and achievement is an order of magnitude far greater than reacting to an emergency or overcoming an adversity.
A less-accepted example of heroism is America's greatest industrialists, such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. Inspired by their own visions and self-confidence, these men spent decades, often alone, battling poverty and nature, derision and abuse, and corrupt governments, to build empires that spanned continents, mobilizing millions of workers and creating billions of dollars in wealth and opportunity that became beacons of hope to the world. Yet, these giants are often overlookedÃ¯Â¿Â½even deridedÃ¯Â¿Â½because they gained financially from their heroic acts. This brings us to a crucial moral question regarding heroism.
What motivates people to heroic acts and heroic lives? Is it to help others in emergencies or danger? Is it because a President has demanded some special sacrifice or service? No, it is because they want to do itÃ¯Â¿Â½for themselves. The greatest heroes are not fundamentally motivated by the desire to commit acts of service to others. Rather, they are motivated by self-enhancement and being creative. The stated purpose of Jonas Salk, who engaged in a five-year struggle to develop a polio vaccine, was: "I wanted to do independent work and I wanted to do it my way." Heroes like Salk derive joy from their independence, their creativity, their use of their productive minds.
And contrary to the view promoted by the media, our fire and policemen are not motivated by selfless service. They seek and gain great personal satisfaction and pride from their work. They are motivated primarily by their personal code to defend a world where justice and safety prevail.
It is an important moral point that these great creators were not risking and giving their lives for others, but were discovering and creating life-enhancing values. Man survives and enriches his life with knowledge. Yet he is born with no knowledge at all. Throughout history it has been creative geniuses such as Galileo, Jefferson, Carnegie, and Salk who have struggled to discover and apply that knowledge. It is good to save an innocent life, but it is great to fulfill your own life and goals and as a consequence allow billions to live and lead richer and happier lives. That is why the heroes for whom we should cheer loudest are the creative geniuses. They are the inspiring life givers on whom we have always depended.
In these times of economic struggle and war, America needs to understand the nature and morality of heroism. So let us remember and salute more than any others the greatest heroes: those men and women whose self-generated, long-term struggle for selfish, creative goals produce the values that make our lives possible, free, and prosperous.
This truth can only inspire us all to greater lives.