Moral, mortal choices as defining heroism

medal of valor

By Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

Andrew Carnegie created the Hero Fund to recognize “men or women [who] are injured or lose their lives in attempting to preserve or rescue their fellows.” He appointed members to the Commission who, with their successors and staff, have honed his charge into the following standard:

The candidate for an award must be a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her life to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person. The rescuer must have no full measure of responsibility for the safety of the victim.

I like to say that this standard demands that an awardee make a moral and a mortal choice. The choice to rescue is moral because it is done for purely altruistic reasons – the rescuer must have no obligation to attempt the rescue. The choice to rescue is mortal because it involves a very real risk of death or serious injury. Indeed, 20% of the Carnegie Medals are awarded to heroes who died in their rescue attempt.

Given this high standard of heroism, I personally get a little crotchety when I hear the word “hero” applied to, say, a field goal kicker who wins a game as time runs out, or a volunteer worker who finds just the perfect – perfect! – decorations for the fund-raising gala when others have run out of ideas. All good work, mind you, but not work involving much risk of death. The members and staff of the Carnegie Hero fund are super-specialists in the subject of heroism and understandably guard against dilution of the concept when it is applied to trivial situations. I apologize for my occasional crotchetiness on the topic, but perhaps you will forgive me when you consider the extraordinary sacrifices the Carnegie Medal winners have made.

Now, in fairness, let us consider this question: Are there other forms of heroism, outside the definition of the Carnegie Medal, which nevertheless represent the same high level of moral behavior and sacrifice? It takes nothing away from the Carnegie Medal to answer, “yes.” Consider, for example, a hypothetical campaigner for democracy and human rights in a totalitarian state with a record of violence against its own citizens. First, our human rights campaigner seems to be making a moral choice, in that she is seeking enhanced political rights for all citizens, rather than higher office for herself. Second, she seems to be making a mortal choice, since the regime had shown it would act against opponents. Andrew Carnegie specifically limited the Carnegie Medal to those who undertake physical rescues of fellow human beings, but otherwise the principles are the same. Our human rights campaigner voluntarily took mortal risk for moral reasons.

defining heroism
Aung San Suu Kyi

The hypothetical example here is roughly based on the case of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Her case also demonstrates the difficulties of this awarding business. How would one prove conclusively that she pursued only the interests of her people, considering that she came from a politically prominent family and ultimately did hold high office in Myanmar’s government? In her favor, I would say that enduring 15 years of confinement and considerable risk of a harsher fate seems a hard way to earn a position in the government of Myanmar.

The Hero Fund deals with this particular problem by avoiding the question of subjective intent. We focus instead on the more objective question of whether the rescuer had a duty to act. It is possible one of our Carnegie Medal recipients somewhere, at some time, was motivated by the possible fame that a heroic act might bring. We do not concern ourselves with this. Objectively, if you jump from a station platform in front of an onrushing train to pin a fallen victim beneath your body as that train roars by above the two of you, we won’t be asking what was going through your mind as you did it.

It takes nothing at all away from Carnegie Medal recipients to acknowledge that there are others who have performed acts outside the Hero Fund’s scope, but nevertheless on the same moral plane. We tip our hats to them, even as we turn back to the joyful work given us by Andrew Carnegie 114 years ago.  

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