The Nature Of Cowardice

Reading the draft debate, I was struck by the number of times someone was called a coward, chiefly for not wanting to be drafted and shot at.

Leaving the issue of the draft aside, I was left to wonder why being called a coward is such a big insult, so big that otherwise intelligent people have lost their lives trying to prove that they are not.(Barfights, gang fights, trying to avenge an insult in front of one’s girl, etc.)

Look at it this way. I know of no example in nature where even the most powerful predator outside of survival imperatives (hunting, mating) will pick a fight with another creature. Indeed, given the choice, MOST animals, even predators, will rather run than fight, fighting only when given no other option. We even call self-preservation the First Law Of Survival.

So why are humans who are only acting sensibly so looked down upon?

Also, back to the draft, if you don’t like cowards, why would you WANT one in the military?

I would imagine it is all due to propaganda. From Grendel to Top Gun, hero stories are an attempt to recruit people into the military, engraining bravery into the culture.

While hero stories may sometimes be used as propaganda, most of them have to do with an individual heading off to fight monsters/dragons/Blofeld/whatever. The last thing the military wants is an individual. In fact, modern propaganda seems to be based on a more capitalist idea; join the army, get a good career. They never want to emphasize the storm the beaches and get shot at aspect.

I’d say it is more closely related to our primate ancestry, where the biggest, strongest, toughest male got more mating opportunities than the peaceful, non-violent ones. It didn’t necessarily mean the smartest or longest-lived came out on top (sound familiar?) Millions of years of evolution will easily trump “civilized” behavior nearly all the time when the two are in conflict. How else do you explain the popularity of loud, showy, violent sports like WWF or American football?

As for the draft, the military has spent a long time developing a system whereby you can take someone who is initially terrified of the whole thing, tear down their personality, and turn them into a team member, used to following orders, loyal at least to the guys he’s been through boot camp with. You can at least get them over there and be reasonably sure they won’t collapse right away.

You must have missed the latest “Army of One” ad campaign. One soldier, running with his rifle through the desert chanting “I am an Army of One.” I admit I don’t know how well it went over.

I’ve heard that isn’t true. The leaders of a primate group usually get the most mating oportunities, and the leaders are usually the ones who can make peace between the big, tough males. I can try and track down a cite.

If you are thinking this doesn’t matter since the brutes can just rape the females, at least in humans a woman is more likely to get pregnant if she orgasms, which is unlikely in a rape situation. Primate females also do a good job of hiding when they are fetile, even from their conscious selves, which helps keep the rapist from having an inkling too. See the book Sperm Wars.

Repressed homosexuality? :smiley:

What I have found interesting is that whenever there is an act of terrorism, the President and others will get up before the cameras and invariably call the terrorist a coward and the act cowardly. This is even when the terrorist blows himself or herself up in the process. Now, I’m not sympathizing with terrorists here, but you have to give the guy who blows himself to smithereens some credit for bravery, misguided though it may be.

Calling these folks cowards is such a stock phrase that I have to believe that there is some compelling reason behind it.

Unfortunately, war works. For a given group of humans, winning (or, at least, not losing) a war has sometimes been crucial to survival. E.g., the European Jews effectively lost a war to Hitler, and most of them were killed.

So, it’s important to the group to encourage “heroes” who risk death for the benefit of the rest of us, and similarly for the group to discourage “cowards,” who don’t act for the good of the rest of us.

This could explain why terrorists are called “cowards.” Their risk-taking is not on behalf of those who call them “cowards.” However, they generally are heroes to their particular movement.

On a more mundane plane, parents who sacrifice their own welfare or satisfaction for the sake of their children are also sort-of heroic, in acting for the good of their group. I suppose that’s why societies typically encourage good parenting.

No Exit.


Esthete: “I take the position that…because of the ontological dichotomy…which precludes a unity of…”

Bubba: “Yer a coward!”

Esthete’s news soundbite: “I take the position that”///CUT SHORT DUE TO TIME.

Bubba’s news soundbite: “Yer a coward!”

Esthete’s unsuccessful politician: “Vote for me because…I take the position that…because of the ontological dichotomy…which precludes a unity of…”

Bubba’s successful politician: “Yer a coward!”


On-line, non-accredited, half-baked courses offered by Muffin, B.A.(Hons.), LL.B., M.A.

I believe cowardice is not considered a noble trait because it implies a higher degree of selfishness. Whether you are talking about a reluctance on the part of the individual to give back to society in the form of service to their country or even a reluctance to make certain commitments in their interpersonal relationships. I think there is a difference between cowardice and fear. Fear is a natural response to something that threatens. The threat can be physical or even something simple that challenges an emotional comfort zone. Cowardice might be a different matter. It’s an unwillingness to sacrifice your own comfort or well being for another. I’m sure some people might challenge this idea. I realize that there isn’t nearly as much negative reaction to people who are unwilling to make sacrifices for others. Our society has become more calloused and self centered. But I don’t think society will ever completely abandon their admiration for those members who are willing to put their own personal safety, their energies, and pleasures aside in the services of others.

Of course I might have a different view of what some people consider to be cowardly behavior. I’m also not very strong at articulating my thoughts on this.


my WAG

Since humans are by nature pack animals, group survival is more important than individual survival. The willingness to make personal sacrifice to protect the group translates to bravery, the reverse to cowardice. Also, since primates in general nurture their young , a “coward” is unlikely to stick around to protect their young, and therefore is a poor mating choice.

Now that I’ve thought of this a little more…directly to the OP. (And I’d also like to add that my views on this have been altered from what they were in say 1972.)

Some of us may consider the calculated evasion of military service practiced by say…William Clinton and George W. Bush during this time as something even more disgusting than simple cowardice. Both of these men were in a position to understand exactly how the privledge of their circumstances allowed them to evade service. I’d also imagine that both of them were aware of how many average young men with far less resources were showing up because they had been called. There might even be an argument for the guys that ran off to Canada. By then the public perception of the war had become one of not just futility but whether or not it was even the right thing for our country to do. (Let’s not debate the right or wrong of this now either.) Neither one of these men through words or deeds since then have been able to justify their actions during this time as a commitment to a higher cause. They simply found a way to stay out of harms way. They used their money and connections. Many people do not find that unusual or even a little bit creepy. And it may not be if they had just been a couple of well off guys that ended up working in the oil industry or for some big law firm. But they aren’t, they are politicians, men that have chosen to go into public service. Men who presume to have the fortitude, commitment and knowledge to lead the most powerful country in the free world. And I believe that is why for them their lack of service is an issue.


Because all virtues, no matter what they are, hang on the central core of bravery.

An honesty that is only honest when there is no penalty is no virtue at all; anyone can be honest when everyone approves of what he is being honest about. It is being honest when being honest will cause embarrassment or shame that is virtuous. A coward cannot be honest when it will count.

Doing what is right is only virtuous when it is hard to do. Pilate did what was right until the crowd got unruly. A coward does what is right until the going gets a little rough — then the right goes out the window.

Anyone can stand up for minorities and blacks when political correctness is the order of the day. When bigots are standing around in white hoods with shotguns and torches, taking a stand for civil rights takes courage. Cowards become bigots among bigots.

Cowardice is the sin that has nothing to be said for it. It is horrible to contemplate, awful to feel, and truly guilt-ridden to look back on. Fear is not cowardice, and I think the OP confuses the two. The coward has nothing upon which to build any other virtue, and trying to erect any kind of goodness on a base of cowardice is building on sand. I can’t speak for any one else, but my own episodes of cowardice are among the bitterest in my memory, and the most awful periods in my self-examination.

The military has the task of building character in general. This means making honest men out of liars and brave men out of cowards. They may not be able to claim total success, but in many cases people look back on their time in the military as that period of their lives that formed their moral fiber, and taught them what honor, fortitude, and courage means. You might want to re-read the history of Guadalcanal.

To be fair, and present the other side, the military also sometimes breeds repression, comtempt for those beneath you, and a bad tendancy to follow orders to the exclusion of moral responsibility. Talking to social workers and therapists on military bases can be eye-opening, and the ways that some (not all, or even most) commanding officers deal with wife beating and child abuse is a crime. I have lived in Washington D.C. all my life, which has a very, very high percentage of military people, and I have seen the best and worst. It’s not all JAG, but it can be a way of service that deserves respect and praise.

Well said dlb.