In this paper, I argue against the widespread but mistaken understanding of heroism as related to altruism. I rely on the definition proposed by Franco et al (2011) that ties heroism to dedication to a particular value. With this insight in mind, I turn to an analysis of various specific examples of individuals who are regarded as heroes as well as the ways in which the notion of a hero is usually applied. Furthermore, I draw a direct connection between the key values of Saint Leo University, excellence and integrity, and the definition of a hero advocated in the paper.
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Definition and Discussion of a Hero
Mankind’s fascination with heroes is as old as civilization itself. Mythic characters like Beowulf or Gilgamesh are integral and perhaps defining features of every great culture or tradition. Yet, people are often confused when they need to explain what is it that leads us to regard someone as a hero. In this essay, I propose a definition of heroism that relies not on the altruistic actions as is often suggested, but on firm belief and dedication to some important principle or value.
When they first hear of the word “hero” many people think of someone who does something good for others. Indeed, heroes are often defined as those people who contribute to their community in some important way usually by helping others. However, when we actually look at the ways in which the title of a hero is assigned to individuals, we can see that there is very little connection between altruism or the will to help others in an immediate sense and heroism. For instance, children will often say that some sportsman is their hero or that some musician is their hero even though that individual never helped them in any direct way.
Also, in Knight’s poem, we see that the poet describes a rather unusual, even violent, character in a way that conjures up the image of a hero. He writes, “He had been our Destroyer, the doer of things we dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do” (James & Merickel 2012, p. 195). These facts force us to look for a definition of a hero outside the notion of altruism.
Upon closer analysis, it turns out that the status of a hero is usually assigned to individuals who become embodiments of certain values irrespective of the amount of help that they do to the community. Franco et al (2011) argue precisely for this approach. Having conducted a study in which they examined all the ways in which individuals come to be seen as heroes, the authors proposed a complete dissociation of the notion of heroism from the idea of altruism. In their view, heroes are often even violent and extremely eccentric but their uncompromised attachment to a particular principle makes them heroes in the eyes of those who embrace that principle or a value.
When discussing the kinds of values that could make an individual a hero, they would certainly depend on many things. However, the two values singled out by Saint Leo University, namely Integrity and Excellence, seem to be the foundational heroic traits. If we define a hero as a person with an outstanding dedication to a certain principle, excellence and integrity are already implied in the definition of such a person and a person without integrity and excellence cannot be a hero by definition.
A person of integrity is a person who is deeply committed or dedicated to a certain value and the outstanding nature of such a person entails a certain form of excellence. This also means that excellence and integrity are necessary features of a hero but they are by no means sufficient. These two basic values or characteristics have to be complemented by some other guiding principle. For instance, a hero is a person who excels in and is deeply committed to spreading knowledge and educating others.
Now, with this definition of a hero, one can easily approach specific examples of people who are described as heroes and explain why they are seen as such. First, there is no problem in explaining why Hard Rock is seen as a hero in the poem by Knight. Even though he is extremely dangerous and violent and does not help people in any way, he is still seen as a hero by other inmates.
The question is, of course, why that would be the case. Hard Rock’s uncompromised commitment to disobeying the authorities and confronting power represents a clear example of a firm dedication to a certain value. Given that the authority of prison guards is generally seen as illegitimate, it becomes obvious why Hard Rock emerges as a hero to other prisoners. For that reason, it is by no means surprising that he was lobotomized by the prison authorities as they clearly recognized that he was making confrontation with the guards much more appealing to others.
Even in Franklin’s short story we see the inception of this kind of reasoning. Namely, Franklin is not satisfied with his mother’s explanation that the law is to blame for the fact that they have been thrown out of the train because the conductor simply followed the rules (James & Merickel 2012, p. 223). Franklin believes that it is the duty of every individual to confront an unjust system of rules and never to compromise one’s deeply held values. Unfortunately, it seems that only heroes are able to do so.
James, M., & Merickel, A. (2012). Reading literature & writing argument: with additional research and documentation materials (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: Pearson Custom Pub.
Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of general psychology, 15(2), 99-113.