Carnegie Heroes know what they are getting into

By Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

It is pretty rare that a discussion of heroism erupts into the national discourse the way it did this fall. Almost everyone we meet is interested in heroism and true stories of real heroes. Why wouldn’t they be? The stories of the Carnegie heroes alone (a subset of all heroes) are marked by danger, daring, drama, and, all too often, by tragedy. Yet the number of people who spend much time thinking about heroism — trying to understand it — is vanishingly small. We are aware of a few academics around the world who work in this field, as well as awarding organizations of various kinds, but all of that adds up to a tiny portion of the population. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, or too critical, that when a debate about heroism does “erupt” between public figures, the result is a lot of heat and smoke, but not so much fire.

I am referring, of course, to the protests on the statement by the president that a soldier recently killed in Africa “knew what he was getting into.” Some protesters argued this comment denigrated the dead soldier and his service. Did it? We don’t know much about military operations and nothing at all about the circumstances of this soldier’s death. But as a general proposition, does the idea that someone attempting a difficult task “knew what he was getting into” somehow reduce the heroic potential of the act? Or is it just the opposite, that a foreknowledge of the risk is an essential element of heroism?

The Carnegie Hero Fund recognizes acts that represent a moral choice and a mortal choice. The “mortal choice” part is easy to understand. Did the rescue attempt involve a meaningful risk of death or serious injury? The “moral choice” part is slightly more complicated, but it means that the rescuer made a conscious decision to accept the risk of a rescue to save the life of another, without any obligation to do so. Plainly, knowledge of the risk involved is indispensable. If a rescuer knew nothing about the risk involved, how could we say they made a choice at all, much less a morally significant decision? How would an uninformed, unknowing act have more moral significance than, say, picking up a package a stranger had dropped?

This is not just a theoretical concept. We do see cases in which someone intervened in a situation to help another but had no idea of the real danger involved. For example, in an assault an attacker’s weapon might be hidden from the view of a rescuer. If it is clear that a rescuer did not know of the risk, we do not award the Carnegie Medal. Understand that while these cases do occur, they are rare. Usually what is going on is so dramatic that the risk is all too obvious. We see the issue more often in cases involving very young children, who might not have any appreciation of the risks involved in an act, or even the finality of death itself. If we conclude that a child did not have that understanding, we do not award the medal. Based on 113 years of experience dealing with these kinds of issues, it is our view that, within our domain at least, it is essential that the rescuer “knew what he was getting into.”

Let me conclude with some disclaimers. First, let’s not be too nerdy about this. If you are an individual in great peril, you probably don’t care whether your rescuer understood the risk. It is enough that he or she got you out of the jam you were in. Second, Andrew Carnegie gave us the task of finding and rewarding civilian heroes. Military activities are outside the scope of our experience. Finally, we have no expertise in whether one politician is more or less right or wrong than some other politician. But, having said all that, I am confident that we do understand heroism generally and that the principles involved matter to us. From this we know that what makes our heroes so morally compelling is that they knew exactly what they were getting into, and took the risk anyway. Bless them for doing that.

Return to imPULSE index.
See PDF of this issue.