"Beautiful Souls"

Those who write about moral courage invariably wonder if there is anything that individuals who have acted courageously have in common. Their usual method is to undertake a series of case studies and then try to identify a factor(s) that motivated their actions.

So for example, Eyal Press in describing his recent book Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks and Heading the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times writes:

This is a book about such nonconformists, about the mystery of what impels people to do something risky and transgressive when thrust into a morally compromising situation: stop, say no, resist.

Who among us has not asked ourselves how we would react when placed in a situation that required risking our life when doing so was contrary to the law, group pressure or a strong cultural norm? Whatever prediction is made cannot hope to capture the dilemma that would confront us if we were, in fact, placed such a situation.

None of the individuals Press portrays had given any thought to the matter, to prepare, for example, to act courageously when faced with such a situation.

Paul Gruninger was the police chief of a state in Switzerland along the Austrian border in 1938. It was illegal in Switzerland then to allow Jews fleeing the Nazis to enter the country. In spite of the law and the compliance of other officials, Gruninger put his career at risk to allow Jewish individuals to enter Switzerland. He said,

“Whoever had the opportunity as I had to repeatedly witness the heartbreaking scenes of the people concerned, the screaming and crying of mothers and children, the threats and suicide and attempts to do it, could….ultimately not bear it anymore.”

Aleksander Jevtie was a Serbian soldier at the time of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina who was ordered to pull fellow Serbs out of a line of Croatians about to be beaten or executed. Instead of obeying the order, Jevtie began pulling Croatians from the group by giving them a Serbian name, thereby avoiding whatever fate was in store for them. He said,

“I thought these people needed help the most, from the look in their eyes.”

Avner Wishnitzer was a soldier in the Israel Defense Force who refused to serve in the occupied territories. As many other Jewish Refusenks have said, Wishnitzer felt the policies of his government violated the traditions upon which it was founded, his own moral convictions, and what he viewed as the inhumane treatment of the people he was asked to control.

Leyla Wydler was an investment adviser for the Stanford Group, a large financial organization in Houston, who became suspicious about the securities she was asked to sell. Unlike her other colleagues, she started asking questions, too many as it turned out. In spite of Federal regulations prohibiting corporations from sacking employees before they have a proper hearing, she was soon thereafter fired. Subsequent investigations revealed the entire Stanford financial organization was a vast Ponzi scheme, second only to Madoff’s.

Wydler, a divorced single parent who like many of her clients was Hispanic, realized she could no longer in good conscience sell them ”products” that would lead only to their financial ruin. When Press asked her if she would come forward with her allegations again, she said, “Probably so. Yeah, I would. I would have done it again, because it was the right thing to do.”

If there is anything in common among these four courageous individuals, I sense it might be the empathy they felt for the individuals who sought their help or that they were required to harm, their ability, if you will, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I say this with reservations since I do not know of any direct evidence. The sources of such courage still seem to me pretty much a mystery.

While I greatly admired Eyal Press’s study, at the same time, I would have appreciated knowing something about those individuals who did not act so courageously even though they also knew full well the consequences of their failure to disobey or resist or speak their voice? Why didn’t they intervene? A comparable set of four such individuals placed in the same situation might have shed some light on this question.