Dialogue on Fear, pt2

Then Paul started it back up. “How about this, Bill? What if we just say that bravery and cowardice mean just what they do in our everyday talk? I think we’ve said enough here today to show that when we really dig into those concepts they kind of fall apart, but everyone seems to know what they’re saying when they talk to one another. So it’s hardly as if the words have no meaning, even if they get pretty blurry upon examination.”

“I don’t know, Paul. Do you think we said anything here today that was radically odd, that would never be said in a normal conversation? Have we been using some other language? I feel as if this whole time we’ve been saying nothing but things that are commonly said about fear and bravery. After all, people talk about the fear of shame and regrets, and they talk about being scared without even knowing it. Heck, they even talk about eating chocolate out of fear. So it’s not as if we weren’t ourselves using ordinary language.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right. We didn’t even set out to ‘discover the very essence of fear itself’ or anything as high-sounding as that. You were just trying to prove that I was a coward.”

“Quite successfully, I might add.”

“And I would hasten to disagree.”

“In that case, you ought to come up with an argument to prove me wrong.”

“Fair enough,” said Paul. And then after a little pause, “Alright, try this one on for size. You say that all actions are cowardly, because they’re all motivated by fear. Let’s say I agree with you about that. But then, brave actions, too are motivated by fear.”

“Yes, yes. Didn’t we say all this before?”

“Hold on, I’m getting to the good part. If both types of action are motivated by fear, then there really isn’t any distinction between them, except in the words we use and the social standing of the different actions. In other words, there is no intrinsic difference between a brave person and a coward. So that means that although I may be a coward, I am also brave. QED.”

“So you agree that you’re a coward, but you nonetheless continue to maintain that you are brave? That’s an interesting angle. But you know you’re flaunting the law of non-contradiction, right? The most fundamental of all logical laws?”

“Actually, Bill, I’m not. After all, cowardice and bravery are, intrinsically at least, the same thing. So there is no contradiction in being both cowardly and brave. It’s the same as being both a car and an automobile – being one doesn’t rule out being the other.”

“Ok, I see. So I guess you are brave after all. But you’re still a coward.”

“Sure, but since both are true, and I much prefer to think of myself as brave, I’ll stick with that story, thank you very much.”

“Wait a minute, Paul. Isn’t there something strange going on here? You’re saying that being brave and being a coward are the same, and yet you’re also saying that you prefer one to the other. What sense does that make? Surely you couldn’t prefer one over the other if they were both the same.”

“It’s a bit weird I’ll admit, but you can’t deny it’s true. Surely you would rather be called brave than be called a coward?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well then that’s that.”

Bill laughed. “Sure, but this is a strange phenomenon that could do with some further consideration. Because it certainly seems as if some kind of double-think is going on here. On the one hand we know that both bravery and cowardice are identical. Yet at the same time we prefer one over the other, so we don’t think they’re identical. Are our preferences just at a different level than our explicit knowledge?”

“It certainly seems like it.”

“But then, our preference for bravery is just the result of some irrational force illegitimately influencing our preferences, and should be eliminated. If we were rational, it would be a matter of indifference to us whether we were brave or cowardly.”

“Yes that sounds right. In fact, I think you could even go farther with that if you wanted to: you could even say that all the distinctions between bravery and cowardice that society routinely makes – that you and I were making at the beginning of this conversation, even – all those distinctions are products of these irrational preferences. After all, we praise the brave and shame the cowards, but rationally no distinction can be drawn between them. So what can we be basing our distinction in if not our own preferences? Were it not for these irrational preferences, we would never have been wasting our time classifying people and actions as brave or cowardly at all.”

“Slow down a second, Paul, and let me catch up. You’re saying that the distinction between the brave and the cowardly, which we have found to be at bottom without any real meaning, is ultimately rooted in some system of irrational preferences, where we prefer the brave and shun the cowardly?”


“But that doesn’t quite make sense. If there really is no distinction, how could we prefer one over the other? It wouldn’t just be irrational, it would be impossible, like preferring vanilla over vanilla at the ice cream store. Imagine the clerk’s face when you tell him that!”

“Oh, well yes that is a bit strange. It’s as if, without a real distinction, the mind can’t get the purchase it needs to prefer one thing over another.”

“Still in a poetic mood, eh, Paul? But yes, that’s about what I was thinking as well.”

Paul paused for a minute, but then he seemed to recall something. “Bill,” he said, turning to face him, “do you remember what you said about preferences being on a different level than our explicit knowledge? So what if, at the level of preferences, we believe that there is some difference between bravery and cowardice. But at the level of our explicit thoughts we know that to be false. So the preferences are irrational, because based on false beliefs, but not outright impossible, since the beliefs they’re based on do in fact exist. And so we could still tell the story I was telling about the irrational basis of our social practices regarding bravery and cowardice and so on.”

“Oh yes, sorry, you’re right. I did forget about that, and that all does seem to make sense…” Bill trailed off. 

There was another pause, and then Bill spoke. “I want to go back to something we were talking about before, though we didn’t really explore it. Do you remember what you were saying about how there is no intrinsic difference between bravery and cowardice?”

“Yes, it was just a few minutes ago.”

“Good, just checking. Now even if there is no intrinsic difference, surely we can agree that there is some extrinsic difference between the two? Society praises brave people, for example, and it insults cowards.”

“Yes Bill, but that’s just another case of irrational preferences. There isn’t any real distinction there.”

“Well, no real intrinsic difference, but a real extrinsic one. I’d much rather be praised and feel good about myself than be insulted and filled with guilt.”

“I must be missing something. Didn’t we talk about this before? We agreed that you’d rather one than the other, but then we said that your preference is irrational.”

“We said that our preference for being brave or cowardly was irrational. But surely it isn’t irrational to prefer praise over slander?”

“Oh I see. You’re saying that while it would be irrational to prefer one of the two in its own right, it would be perfectly rational to prefer the extrinsic features that separate them.”

“Exactly. And if it’s rational to prefer praise over blame, then we now have a rational reason to prefer bravery over cowardice.”

“Ok Bill, let’s stop for a moment, I can feel my head turning circles. Let me see if I’ve got this right. Now, it is not rational to prefer bravery over cowardice, since they’re the same thing. But it is rational to prefer praise over blame, since they’re different things and presumably one of them is better than the other. And since bravery leads to praise and cowardice leads to blame, this makes it rational to prefer bravery over cowardice.”

“You got it.”

“But isn’t this just a contradiction? First we said it wasn’t rational to prefer bravery, then we said that it was rational after all. Those two can’t go together.”

“Hmm, well when you put it like that it definitely sounds wrong. What happened, I wonder? Everything we were saying seemed to make sense.”

“Well, if we step back for a moment and look at the claims we made there seem to be two that stick out. The first is that bravery and cowardice are the same – that one has been our guiding thread ever since you so rudely attacked my character.”

“My apologies, I’d take it all back now if only I could make a distinction between cowardice and bravery,” Bill said with a bit of a smirk.

“I’m sure that you would. Now from that first point it followed that it was irrational to prefer being brave to being a coward, since the two were one and the same. Moving on to the second point, it seems to me that this was the claim that it is rational to prefer praise over blame. If we combine this with the fairly commonplace idea that if certain actions have different consequences, we ought to prefer those actions whose consequences we prefer, then we arrive at the problematic claim that we ought to prefer brave actions over cowardly ones, since the former, but not the latter, lead to praise.”

“Ok, I’d agree with that way of laying it out. Any thoughts on how to fix our problem?”

“Well, as always, we ought to remove one of the problematic premises. In this case, either there really is some difference between bravery and cowardice, or it won’t be rational to prefer praise over blame, contrary to popular opinion.”

“What about the premises about preferring actions with preferable consequences or the ones about the irrationality of preferences between identical things? Those were involved in the argument as well.”

“Yes, but I don’t think those are particularly debatable. And in any case, denying the first one you mention would make preferences meaningless for guiding our actions, since we couldn’t guide them based on whether preferred their consequences. And the premise about the irrationality of holding a preference between two things that are identical – well that just seems self-evident, I don’t know what else to say.”

“Ok, well although I don’t care much for appeals to self-evidence, let’s leave those aside for now then and stick with the two you isolated for us. So either we abandon our original idea that bravery and cowardice are identical, or we give up the idea that praise is preferable to blame.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Well of those two, I’d opt for keeping the former. It’s been our guiding thread, as you said, and I’m kind of interested to see how far we can follow it.”

“I agree, even if it does make me a coward. So it seems that a consequence of the identity of cowardice and bravery is that we can’t really prefer praise over blame? It’s almost as if blurring of one distinction has infected another one; I wonder how far we can take that.”

“Yes, that is interesting. But hold on a moment, I’ve just thought of something else. We said that bravery leads to praise and cowardice leads to blame. But since these two are actually the same, their different consequences can only be a result of the irrational actions of society at large. And if I’m praised without reason, surely I don’t really prefer that?”

“I agree that you ought not to prefer it over being praised with a good reason, but don’t you think it’s better than being blamed without reason? And that’s your other option, after all.”

“Yes, alright. Ok, that fixes my worry, sorry for interrupting you.”

“Not at all, I -”

“Hold on again, I’ve just had another thought.”

“What is it?” said Paul, a little flustered.

“Aren’t we equivocating a little? It isn’t that bravery leads to praise and cowardice leads to blame – how could it be, since these are the same thing? It’s the being perceived as brave that leads to praise, and so too for cowardice. So there’s no contradiction. We can’t prefer being brave, true enough, but we can prefer being perceived as brave.”

“But how could we prefer either of those if we couldn’t prefer being praised to being blamed? If we don’t have that distinction – ”

“Sure,” Bill interrupted, “but you haven’t given an independent argument for that – you arrived at that point as part of a kind of reductio from our previous argument where we thought we had found a contradiction.”

“Fine,” said Paul, “Let’s get back to where we were then. I guess it turns out that we can’t prefer bravery to cowardice, but we can prefer being thought of as brave, to being thought of as cowardly. Though all the while, we will know that the people thinking of us in these ways are wholly irrational, since in reality there is no such distinction.”


“So we can have preferences, but only about the irrational behavior of other people? This is hardly what I hoped for. What meaning can there be in being a brave person if all it amounts to is being praised by imbeciles?”

“Exactly, Paul. Think about that the next time you go boasting about all your great deeds.”

Paul glowered at Bill and clenched his fists. “Oh, I’ve still got some great deeds left to do, don’t you worry,” he said menacingly.

“Whoa now, slow down Paul,” said Bill, backing away. “Just because you’re scared that you’re wrong…”

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