I’ve just finished reading Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, by Eyal Press (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). This book shares the stories of several people in different times and different walks of life who demonstrated moral courage at great risk: a Swiss border officer who defied the law to help Jews flee from Nazi oppression; a Serb soldier who “identified” Croat prisoners as Serbian to save them from genocide; an Israeli soldier refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories; a financial adviser blowing the whistle on a Ponzi scheme that was bilking thousands of investors of their life savings; a U.S. military prosecutor questioning the treatment of Muslim POWs at Guantanamo Bay. Press interviewed all of these people, trying to dig to the bottom of what causes “ordinary” people to make decisions that turn them into rebels, renegades or outliers. It’s fascinating reading, although somewhat disconcerting. Although Hollywood would have us believe that the moral hero rides into the sunset to the sounds of a grand and inspiring soundtrack, none of these actual moral heroes obeyed their conscience without paying a heavy price.
Press points out that at the very least, refusing to conform stirs anger and resentment among those who are conforming. If you and I are both members of Group A, and I announce that the activities of Group A are morally questionable or even evil, then by implication you accept their validity if you don’t walk out with me. What is striking about the people in these profiles is that they were almost all people who fervently upheld the values and principles of their group originally; it was that very conviction that led them to break ranks when those values became distorted or poisoned. As the military prosecutor poignantly stated, his sworn duty to protect the U.S. Constitution made it impossible for him to accept what he saw without speaking out. Yet the consequences for all these conscientious resistors were significant: social exclusion, financial ruin, loss of security, loss of faith in previously esteemed institutions.
It is difficult to read these stories without feeling some misgivings about moral courage and the price it exacts. Does raising a child to be a good citizen of the world, who has conviction, integrity, and an audible conscience place that child at risk? In my opinion it does, and yet I also hear my own conscience telling me it’s the right thing for me to do.