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Moral Courage of Benedict Arnold Essay (Article)

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Updated: Dec 27th, 2018

It is often said that it is easy to find moral courage in various individuals that have been celebrated for their actions throughout history yet it is far harder and a lot more interesting to try to find moral courage in historical figures that have been vilified for their actions and treated as cowards.

In the history of choices and the way in which they leave an indelible mark by which a person is judged the decision of betrayal made by Benedict Arnold has forever marked him in infamy as a traitor to the American Revolution and the measure by which future traitors are compared to (Evisum, 1).

While history has marked him a traitor to America Benedict Arnold was actually a revolutionary hero before he became traitor. His actions at the Battle of Valcour Island, the Battle of Ridgefield and the Battle of Saratoga contributed immensely towards ensuring the survival of the revolution. Unfortunately, despite his successes at the battlefield he was repeatedly passed over for promotion and was accused numerous times by political and military opponents of corruption.

Despite these accusations Arnold continued to faithfully serve the early Continental Congress and was actually one of the cornerstones of the revolutionary effort as indicated by various historical records and historians alike. It must be noted that even though he had contributed vast sums to the war effort the early Continental Congress accused him of owing them money (Evisum, 1).

From these events it can be seen that initially, Arnold displayed courage, conviction and utter selflessness risking his life numerous times and nearly driving himself to bankruptcy in order to liberate the original 13 colonies from British rule. As a result of all these allegations in spite of his efforts to help win the war Arnold became disenchanted and turned traitor to the revolution.

Under the theory of utilitarianism the moral worth of a perceived action is actually reliant on its resulting outcome. This means that the overall usefulness of a particular action is dependent on the resulting positive utility created and the reduction in negative utility.

In the case of Benedict Arnold his contributions helped to ensure the success of the revolution yet the resulting outcome has him betraying his nation due to the maltreatment he suffered under their hands. American historians do agree that if it was not for the actions of Benedict Arnold the American Revolution would not have succeeded. Under the theory of utilitarianism the maximizing utility that was initially created was the contribution of Arnold towards the liberation of America under British rule.

As such, his actions could be considered as being morally courageous in the face of possible negative circumstances. His subsequent betrayal of the American people on the other hand can actually be explained by two concepts namely the theory of egoism and the psychological humanist theory under Maslow.

Under the theory of egoism it is expressly stated that people are moral agents that should accomplish actions that are in their own self-interests.

In a way the theory assumes that since people are moral agents they will not pursue lines of behavior that will negatively affect the well being of other people but rather enhances one’s own well being through self-action. In the case of Benedict Arnold his betrayal of the American Revolution was a direct result of the maltreatment he received at their hands, a facet of information conveniently left out in most historical text known to the general public.

As such in order to pursue an action that would be to his own well-being he would choose to leave those who maltreated him and join those who promised to treat him better. Records do show that after the war was over Benedict Arnold was treated rather well by the British government and as such his pursuit of ethical egoism where the self is put first before others was a success.

The humanist theory on the other hand takes a different approach to interpreting the actions of Arnold. According to the humanist theory, human behavior is motivated to achieve the so called “maximum potential” of the self and as such people will always attempt to reach this maximum potential unless they are hindered by obstacles (Hefner Media Group, 1). The best way of explaining the actions of Arnold would be to use Maslow’s pyramid of the hierarchy of needs.

Maslow suggests that all humans have specific needs which they try to meet which come in a certain hierarchical order. It can be assumed that after the war was over Arnold planned to return to his life as a merchant yet with the accusations hurled against him and his supposed debt to Congress this would not be feasible. Here the obstacles to Arnold meeting his needs under Maslow’s pyramid are the debts he has to congress and the accusations against him (Hefner Media Group, 1).

For him to continue to achieve his maximum potential he would need to overcome these obstacles and as a result he chose to betray the revolution and join the British which did result in him gaining enough money to become a merchant again. Care ethics on the other hand does not support the actions of Arnold, while it may be true that he contributed to the war the fact remains that once he betrayed the nation his knowledge of the tactics and stratagems of the various military commanders actually cost several men their lives.

The fact is care ethics focuses on the interdependence of individuals and vulnerability some individuals have over the course of actions of others. It is a theory that helps to determine whether the course of action a person took was right or wrong. In the case of Benedict Arnold, though he may have helped defend the nation early on the fact remains that his actions later on in the course of the war resulted in hundreds of deaths and as such under the theory of care ethics his actions are condemned.

The theories of intuition, Divine Command, Kant, and Ross come into play in this particular study when examining the legality, morality and ethicality behind the reasons of particular actions. In the case of Benedict Arnold his actions were in a way illegal and unethical due to the violation in trust that the American public at the time had placed in him.

It must be noted though that unethical and immoral types of behavior were first done against him by his opponents in the continental congress before he even tried to betray the American people. His actions, immoral and unethical as they may be, are nothing more than the result of him rebelling against the continued slander and torment that was hurled against him.

The most useful theory in identifying the reasoning behind the actions of Arnold would be that of Consequentialism and its judgment that a morally right act would have the consequence of producing a morally right result and vice versa. In the case of Arnold his self sacrifice on the battlefield resulted in numerous victories for the early army of the U.S. It has been clearly stated that if Arnold had not joined the revolution at the time it would have been likely that the original 13 colonies would have lost the war.

As such his morally right action produced a good result in the form of America winning the war. Arnold’s betrayal could actually be considered the result of consequentialism as well since it was the immoral and unethical actions of the continental congress against Arnold that caused him to betray them in the first place.

Though it may be somewhat morbid the best lesson that can be learned from examination of Benedict Arnold is that no matter how strong your ethical conviction is everyone has a tipping point. From being one of the revolutions greatest heroes to becoming one of its most hated villains Arnold initially did try to stay true to his ethical convictions.

Unfortunately the utterly contemptible manner in which he was treated despite his efforts resulted in him being disgusted over what the revolution was about resulting in him abandoning their cause.


Evisum. Benedict Arnold. (2000). pg.1. Retrieved from

Hefner Media Group. Personality Synopsis. Allpsychonline (2004). pg. 1.Retrieved from

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