Welcome Reader

I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

A Philosopher Examines Churchill's Moral Courage and Understanding of Evil

By Michael E. Berumen 8-7-06

Admirers and detractors might agree on at least one thing about Winston Churchill: he possessed abundant courage. The kind of courage he had, though, is of particular importance. Several millennia ago, Aristotle observed that it would be mistaken to confuse either fearlessness or recklessness with courage. He said that, as a virtue, courage lies between these at the mean, and that either extreme should be avoided. Aristotle thought that only when one’s willingness to take on a risk is done with the proper understanding could it be deemed as truly courageous, as opposed to being merely foolhardy.

I should like to argue that the most distinctive and important kind of courage is moral courage, the quality of not only being brave or of simply knowing what one ought to do, but acting upon what one knows to be right. While he was surely fearless in other respects, this is the sort of courage for which Churchill is especially admirable. I also believe that he had a profound insight into the nature of morality, especially in relation to evil, which, as I argue at length elsewhere, ought to be the primary concern of morality. Indeed, I hold that Churchill’s greatest virtue was his willingness to confront evil when he saw it, and to do so without regard to his own welfare.

I do not believe that courage, by itself, is a moral virtue. It is a personality trait, a matter of temperament; the capacity to face danger, endure pain, or suffer ignominy in pursuit of other ends; and a characteristic that can serve the ends of a pirate, a soldier, a stunt-man, a psychopath, or an athlete, something that could be ascribed to one engaged in any number of activities, including those we might deem morally neutral or even morally reprehensible. For example, Churchill’s nemesis, Adolf Hitler, showed ample daring as a courier on the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. However, few would characterize Corporal Hitler’s actions as exemplifying moral courage. It is when one combines bravery, the willingness to sacrifice one’s personal interests, with moral ends, that one also has the possibility of true, moral courage, which signifies much more than mere bravery.

Churchill’s physical courage in battle was well established on four continents. He was an intrepid warrior and completely fearless. In October, 1941, he spoke to the schoolboys at Harrow and recommended the principle by which he himself lived, “Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” However, what made him singularly courageous was his acute understanding of the greatest evil of modern times, one not discerned by many others considered to be more sensible, that is, until it was nearly too late, and, importantly, his willingness to sacrifice his own interests in pursuit of its total destruction. What in retrospect seems a preternatural insight into the ultimate designs of Nazism and its Fuhrer, whom Churchill called “the mainspring of evil,” made him a laughingstock amongst leaders of his own political party and many others. We and millions before us are the beneficiaries of the fact that he cajoled and, finally, awakened his countrymen and allies from their somnolence, and then inveighed mightily against any attempt to make a false peace with evil incarnate, even when nearly everyone else was tempted to do so

Churchill had a deep understanding of morality, and more specifically, of the special nature and gravity of evil, which I would broadly characterize as consisting of death and suffering, outcomes that all rational people avoid for themselves without overriding reasons. He was neither a philosopher nor especially prone to analytic thinking. His singular intellectual talent was to drill to the heart of a complex issue and synthesize the relevant facts into a cohesive idea, one that he could then articulate in immaculate, sparkling sentences of English prose. Of particular importance, however, was Churchill’s ability to see evil for what it was, especially when others did not, and to denounce it even when others would not. It is clear that he closely linked evil to the suffering or potential suffering of others, illustrating, I believe, a finely-tuned moral sensibility. Before anyone else in a position of prominence, Churchill recognized and denounced the evils of Nazism, a doctrine that promoted blind obedience to authority, racial dominance, and a uniquely sadistic and oppressive ethos, values antithetical to the ones that Churchill cherished.

Every student of Churchill knows that he had his share of character flaws; but throughout his life, he remained a lover of humanity, in both its personal and its abstract senses. He was also an extremely sentimental and compassionate man, one who would come to tears easily, and who was especially moved by the suffering of others. However, a sense of compassion or sentiment is simply not a sufficient condition for morality, though it certainly cannot hurt. It is more typical to have compassion for those one loves or to whom one is close, such as one’s family, friends, or even one’s countrymen; but it is often more difficult to have it for people one does not know or see, and perhaps especially those with whom we do not identify or even dislike. Morality requires us to behave morally towards people we do not know or care about in any personal sense, indeed, towards those we even might otherwise detest. I believe that Churchill had a deep understanding of this, and that this is one reason he was inclined to speak out against malefactions that were occurring elsewhere in the world that, at the time, seemed irrelevant and of no real concern to many others.

Permit me a necessary but small amount of philosophy before returning to Churchill. Most rational people know right from wrong in a basic sense, though they might disagree about the facts pertaining to moral problems, for example, who did what to whom, what were the causes, what are the consequences, etc. I believe there is a connection between morality and our common sense. This is not especially surprising, for our moral sense comes from our ability to extend our own rational requirements to others. The rational requirements I have in mind are the most crucial among our common-sense tenets, for example, not causing our own death, pain, or disability, that is, not without an overriding motivation, such as to protect someone else or to prevent an even greater malady. When we enlarge these prohibitions to include everyone else, we are abiding by the most important moral principles. While we differ on matters of detail, I owe much of my thinking on this matter to the insights of the moral philosopher, Bernard Gert.

Thus, the most important moral rules, those that all rational people can both understand and act upon, emerge from combining a small number of rational prohibitions with a separate principle of impartiality. By impartiality, I mean a willingness to apply the rules fairly and without regard to the outcome, even if it is not one we would prefer. Thereby, we are able to extend our rational prohibitions to others, notwithstanding our own interests. The specific rules we derive, e.g., do not kill, do not cause pain, do not disable, and so forth, can be generalized into the single principle of not harming others without justification. We need not go headlong into what constitutes an adequate justification for the exceptions to this rule, here; for our purposes, it is enough to say that we ought to be able to make any exception to the rule, Do No Harm, apply to everyone, including ourselves and those about whom we care, whenever the essential facts are the same.

It is clear from Churchill’s behavior that he understood the importance of impartiality in relation to morality. He had a keen understanding of fairness, which the political philosopher John Rawls has said is the central concept underlying justice. Churchill was famously unwilling to sacrifice principle merely out of self-interest, as his colleagues cynically did with poor Czechoslovakia and other nations, powerless in the path of the Nazi juggernaut. His modern critics sometimes denigrate him for his support of empire, among other things, and, to be sure, he was a product of the Victorian age and he sought to sustain the apotheosis of Britannia. However, unlike many of both his era and even afterwards, he also firmly believed that democracy and liberty were universal rights, not just the rights of Englishmen or a chosen few.

Now, I have said that our rational prohibitions deal with our own death and suffering, which all rational people avoid without an overriding reason. This, I believe, is also how one might describe the underlying properties of evil. When we attribute evil to something, we also generally mean that we want to avoid it whenever we can. And what would one want to avoid more than death or suffering, whether induced by nature or by the hand of man? Of course, morality focuses on the latter issue, namely, how we behave towards one another. I would argue that morality’s most important prescriptions deal with not causing others to die or suffer, which is to say, to avoid doing evil, as opposed to other kinds of rules that would have us promote the welfare of others, which might well be important, but just not as important. Among other reasons, rules that promote our various conceptions of beneficence or utility are not rules that all rational people can understand and follow all of the time. And it stands to reason that a universal requirement would be of supreme importance.

Churchill understood that Nazism was intrinsically evil, and that by its very nature it portended untold death and suffering. While there are other examples of his power of insight, such as having sized up Bolshevism, it is his understanding of the full moral ramifications of Nazism that made him unusually discerning and prescient, for many in both Britain and the U.S. admired the Nazis for bringing order and relief to the Germans whose privation was especially great after the First World War. Churchill, however, understood that order, sustenance, and even peace are not worth any price, and that avoiding and preventing great evil had precedence over these perceived benefits. When one examines his writings and pronouncements, it is quite clear that he was focused on the kinds of harms that this wicked ideology would impose on the whole world, plummeting us “…into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science,” as he told the House of Commons in June 1940, after having sounded his first warnings nearly a decade before.

Understanding the root of morality and identifying a menacing creed, however, were not the main reasons for Churchill’s moral greatness. While one of the first to do so, he was not alone in his understanding of the evils of “Nazidom,” as he called it. There were other influential religious figures and politicians at the time who well understood the moral dimensions of what was occurring, people who even might have done something about it. Merely understanding morality, or having a belief in this or that principle or doctrine, whether derived from religion or philosophy, is not truly indicative of being moral. To be sure, one’s thoughts might well illustrate one’s piety, faithfulness, or even wisdom; but morality is concerned with what we actually do, how we behave, and not merely what we believe, say, or even what we intend. People are often confused about this. Churchill never was.

Churchill shared with other great leaders, men such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., the determination to be moral even when it was not easy to do so. Many of us go through life doing more or less the right thing, but we do not often have occasion to choose a moral path over an immoral one when it is especially difficult, most particularly when our own interests or reputations, even our very lives are on the line. This is also what makes the depiction of Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List, so compelling. Here was a very flawed man, a con man, war profiteer, and a womanizer, who confronted evil against overwhelming odds, and, thereby, saved over a thousand people. In so doing, he lost his personal fortune and risked his life. Meanwhile, surrounded by indescribable brutality, millions of pious, church-going, and polite people... people who in more ordinary circumstances we might characterize as being more “moral” than Schindler, did absolutely nothing. Nothing! Schindler met evil head-on despite the personal risk, which, is exactly what Churchill did, ultimately helping to save millions, including future generations, from this most odious of regimes.

The reason Churchill’s name will resonate throughout the ages is not only because he was instrumental in saving Western civilization, indeed, perhaps the world, from prolonged horror... though this certainly would be enough to guarantee him a prominent place in the history books. There is something else that is especially captivating about him, namely, his penetrating understanding of what morality requires, and his readiness to act on it, which is to say, his moral courage. Virtually alone, often ignored, he struggled to show others what he knew, at last, and not a moment too soon, dragging them to their senses. Studying Churchill stirs something inside of many of us, I think, perhaps even something noble; for, while we are unlikely to ever face such tests, we would at least like to imagine ourselves as doing what we know he would have done.


Michael E. Berumen is a philosopher and businessman living in Laguna Niguel, California. Berumen has given expert testimony to the U.S. Congress on health insurance, appeared on television news broadcasts, and addressed academic, business, and community audiences on a variety of topics, including ethics, political theory, science, and economics. A member of the Churchill Centre and the Bertrand Russell Society, he is the author of Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business (2003).