Courage and Cowardice in The Hurt Locker

Article topic: 
The Hurt Locker

Aristotle argued that every virtue lies between two vices. Courage lies between cowardice and foolhardiness. But his terminology can be misleading. Although cowardice is a 'vice of deficiency' and foolhardiness a 'vice of excess', the scale is not really quantitative. It is not a matter of how frequently one faces down danger. It is rather a matter of behaving appropriately with respect to danger.

The virtuous person is sensitive to the presence of danger, the likelihood of a bad outcome, and the severity of that outcome, and knows how to respond to ensure the right result. The coward sees danger where there is none, or sees bad outcomes as more likely or more severe than they really are; in being out of tune with reality, the coward will not ensure the best outcome. Foolhardiness, on the other hand, is the failure to recognise the presence of danger or the likelihood or severity of a bad outcome, and thereby also leads to bad results.

The three main characters of The Hurt Locker might initially seem to illustrate this triad. Sanborn is clearly a model of Aristotelian courage. Not only is he adept at assessing the risks worth taking and those not worth taking, he also knows how to take the ones that are worth taking. His talk of a future family life indicates that he knows too what this job is worth in the larger scheme of things. Eldridge does seem somewhat cowardly, overestimating the likelihood of his demise, and focusing on it at the expense of other aspects of life, even at the expense of developing strategies for avoiding it.

But is the central character, James, best understood as foolhardy? Absolutely not. He is far more interesting than that.

Jon went on to write a longer paper called Virtue and Vice The Hurtlocker which can be found here:

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