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The ethics of bravery: why a Black Saturday ‘hero’ lost his award

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.” It urged readers to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery…

Jeannie Blackburn was the victim of horrific domestic violence from a man commended for heroism. AAP/Julian Smith

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.”

It urged readers to sign a Change.org petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery award. Paul McCuskey, a volunteer firefighter, had been given a “Certificate of Merit” for helping to save the life of an elderly woman during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Yet McCuskey is now in prison for a series of vicious assaults on his partner Jeannie Blackburn - attacks that caused a miscarriage and left her blind in one eye. In the face of 18,000 petition signatures and calls from Humane Society patron Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the remarkably courageous Ms. Blackburn herself, the Society finally withdrew the award.

It’s a tragic case, and one that, as Suzy Freeman-Greene points out, raises complex issues. But whether you think websites like Change.org, GetUp! and All Out are genuine forces for progress or mere conduits for feel-good “slacktivism”, complexity is not something they are set up to handle well. Like their ideological opposite numbers in talkback radio, they need to present clear-cut narratives of right and wrong, with an unambiguous call-to-action at the end.

Yet these issues are unavoidably complex. In fact, the language we saw last week involved a clash between two ancient, competing understandings of morality.

The Humane Society’s objective is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others". The emphasis here is focused on the moral quality of particular actions. It could be maintained – as the society reportedly initially did – that McCuskey’s actions on Black Saturday were morally praiseworthy, whatever else he’s done. But this way of thinking can easily lead to a sort of ethically crude arithmetic, as if we’re supposed to weigh rights against wrongs and come out with an overall score.

Much of the anger directed at the Humane Society’s decision to award the certificate in the first place, on the other hand, used a very different type of moral language: not evaluation of the action, but evaluation of the agent. Awards, we’re told, are for heroes - and a man who beats his partner cannot be a hero.

This focus on character belongs to the “virtue ethics” tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Virtues, according to Aristotle, are a job lot: you can’t be a generous thief or an honest glutton, because your vices will eventually disrupt and defeat your virtues.

But moral heroes often turn out to be flawed. Oskar Schindler, for instance, saved thousands of lives yet was unfaithful to his wife.

Even more troubling are the monsters who seem distressingly normal in other contexts. We find Stalin warmly addressing his daughter as “my little sparrow, my great joy” or tucking Beria’s children into bed disturbingly humanising, as if these scenes somehow mitigate his crimes. Or perhaps it actually makes him more monstrous somehow.

So, what should the Humane Society have done?

Let’s go back a step. Why do we have bravery awards? Not because we want to reward the virtue of courage per se, nor because we want to reward people for saving lives; otherwise every skydiver and surgeon would get one.

Rather, we give such awards in the aftermath of crises where the value and meaning of human life has nearly been obliterated by the absurdity of senseless, arbitrary destruction.

We reward those who hold that threat back, who in risking their own lives testify to the depth of the ways in which we value each other and thereby keep the moral sphere from coming apart. In chaotic moments that threaten to engulf us in meaninglessness, those who perform such acts keep the fabric of our moral universe temporarily intact.

You might say that a violent person can still perform such an act. But the “domestic” in “domestic violence” doesn’t just refer to a location, and the evil of domestic violence is not simply in the horrific physical and psychological harm it causes.

To understand the scale of its moral obscenity we must appreciate the depth of what it violates: the web of vulnerability, love, trust and security that unites us to those we live in the greatest intimacy with. An assault on the people given to us to love unconditionally shatters the moral sense and meaning of our most vital relationships. It is not simply violence in the home, but violence against the home, with everything that “home” implies.

Domestic violence is therefore more than violence: it’s a treason against the moral sphere itself.

To award someone for preserving the moral sphere who had also betrayed it in such a repugnant way would have been perverse.

Grappling with questions like this is hard work. It takes patience, an openness to dialogue and a certain degree of humility. But when our main avenues for talking about these issues are through soundbites and tweets, those virtues can be in short supply.

Online petitions are great - I’ve signed quite a few myself. But let’s not pretend we can just click our way out of moral perplexity.

Join the conversation

34 Comments sorted by

  1. Geoff Bartlett

    IT Consultant

    Is the problem here that the recipient of the award for bravery was contemporaneously beating his wife? (I hadn't previously heard about the case)
    If a former perpetrator of domestic violence did something heroic, should they be recognised? If a recipient of an award subsequently (say a year or two later) committed a crime of domestic violence, should the award be stripped?
    The article seemed to be "could be the this, could be that" before rising to a crescendo of "... treason against the moral sphere itself". That treason being the reason for domestic violence cancelling out an action that in itself could be heroic.
    I liked the explanation of why domestic violence is more heinous than non-domestic violence. It provided a clear ground for domestic violence being qualitatively different and perhaps worse (usually, but possibly not always), but no where near enough ground for treason, and hence the conclusion.
    An issue with the course of the argument, not necessarily the result.

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Geoff Bartlett

      Thanks for the great comments, Geoff. The timing issue is quite interesting. On one level it arguably shouldn't matter, but here I think it does make at least a first-blush intuitive difference that the assaults occurred after the rescue but before the rescue was recognised. If it had gone rescue-award-assault, or assault-[repentance]-rescue-award, the intuitions might fall out quite differently. What significance, if any, those intuitions have is a further question of course.

      On the use of the…

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    1. Chris Aitchison

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      As a former soldier who is very familiar with the culture of deep respect for honours and awards winners (every Army boozer is named after a Victoria Cross winner, for example), I have always believed that the true purpose of these 'hero' awards is to inspire future heroic acts, and that the reward of previous acts is a means to that end... not an end in itself. Perhaps if you hear enough tales and sing enough songs about brave men who face near certain death (not all survive) to save a bunch of…

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    2. cMo

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Allow me to ask few questions to quantify the problem.

      What is the time limit within which the misdeed should happen to gain this much interest? Does it get easier as the years go by? Does s/he have to be alive? What if the convict was proven innocent 10s of years later; will s/he get his/her withdrawn award back?

      I believe that an award is an award. It was awarded to the awardee at a particular instance of time and is not supposed to account for what the awardee will do in the future. Organisations should seriously think twice before showering alleged/potential heroes with awards to make a political statements or gain publicity.

      Finally, unless the misdeed is negatively correlating with the heroic deed in a sense that may render the heroic deed to have happened by pure chance, I believe there is no point in withdrawing the award.

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    3. Yoron Hamber

      Thinking

      In reply to Chris Aitchison

      Pretty much my thinking too.

      Don't throw stones in glass houses as someone once said :)
      None of us are without faults, and bravery will be bravery.
      Although? What that guy did to his partner makes me wonder about his sanity.

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    4. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Chris Aitchison

      Some really good points here Chris, thanks! Interested to hear your thoughts on this question: is there a difference between bravery in the context of a bravery-culture and spontaneous bravery? I imagine that in the culture you describe, the virtue of bravery is very closely tied up with fulfilling the identity of the good soldier - to get all Aristotelian again, valour being one of the 'excellences' of soldier-hood. Equally, the vice of cowardice would have a very particular status in that culture…

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    5. Chris Aitchison

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      That is a really insightful question, Patrick, and when I think about it maybe spontaneous 'civilian' bravery and 'expected' professional bravery (firemen, soldiers, etc) are not as closely related as I first thought.

      I think the bravery culture that surrounds professions where bravery makes the force more effective at its job (military, emergency response teams, etc) really does have the desired effect of increasing the overall effectiveness of the organisation through subtle increases in team…

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    6. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Chris Aitchison

      Interesting stuff, isn't it? I guess someone might reply that what soldiers are doing is taking a basic human reaction and bolstering it through social reinforcement so it's more reliable in extreme situations. Spontaneous bravery is notoriously unreliable, and "notoriously unreliable" is probably not a phrase you want to be thinking about in combat!

      One thing I find really interesting is the way in which some acts seem more morally valuable the more spontaneous they are. You drop your wallet…

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  2. Dirk Baltzly

    Professor of Philosophy

    I think this is very insightful -- up to the final few paragraphs which, I think, don't actually follow the best insight in the paper to its logical conclusion. If I've understood correctly, then Stokes thinks that there is a way in which bravery awards are neither awards to agents for the kind of *moral character* they exhibit nor are they awards to agents for the *concrete actions* that they perform. Rather, bravery awards celebrate the fact that sometimes people are able to 'keep the fabric of…

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Dirk Baltzly

      Thanks Dirk, for an insightful and, I think, really important objection. I concede that the argument needs to show that the recipients of bravery awards aren't incidental to what these awards celebrate, such that the recipients become mere symbols for a celebration of human decency as such. I suspect that will be doable, but I’m not yet quite sure how to do it, other than some vague thoughts about gratitude and reciprocal recognition of the value of rescued (who was nearly destroyed) and rescuer…

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    2. Dirk Baltzly

      Professor of Philosophy

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      That sounds right. What I liked was the way you shifted the question. Not 'does this bloke deserve his award or should it be taken away?' but rather 'what are we doing when to give or remove such awards?'

      To really have the perspective necessary to answer the former, we need to make progress on the latter.

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  3. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    I think it important to acknowledge the seriousness and sadness of Jeannie Blackburn's experience prior to commenting. So sorry this happened to you.

    A very interesting article Patrick for which thanks. Your general argument about not making bravery awards or revoking bravery awards to people who have committed serious crime seems good to me. My concern is your suggestion, deriving from Aristotle's virtue ethics, that virtue reflects a virtuous *character* which itself is an achievement of lifetime…

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      Thanks for the kind words Anthony, and for making a strong case for a virtue-ethical defence of the Humane Society's purpose. It's interesting though that the actions that we reward in these cases aren't just brave, but also selflessly altruistic (in that the recipient has risked - and in some cases lost - their life with the specific goal of trying to save someone else's life), so a virtue ethics account of bravery awards might turn out to be somewhat more complex than the term 'bravery award' would suggest.

      I'm not sure if PTSD was raised as a factor in this case (and I wouldn't want to speculate), but the point is well-taken, as is the wider point about the need to engage with the deliverances with the sciences more in philosophical psychology.

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  4. Philip Dowling

    IT teacher

    It has been recognised in psychology for some time that we always attribute other people's specific behaviour to a particular character trait. "This illustrates once again his aggressiveness" whereas the individual attributes his/her behaviour to the situation. (I was upset because I hadn't slept all night as I just found out my wife has cancer.)
    The problem with change.org type petitions which have a person as their subject is that there is no governance associated with them. One could question whether they are any better than the crowds cheering the French aristocrats as they were trundled to the guillotine or the crowd in the soccer stadium watching the Taliban execute women.
    On the other hand, it is curious how celebrity can so often "inoculate" certain categories of people for behaviour that would for others be considered unforgivable.

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    1. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email @hotmail.com

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      "One could question whether they are any better than the crowds cheering the French aristocrats as they were trundled to the guillotine..." No sense of fun Philip.

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    2. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Philip Dowling

      The power of the internet to intervene cuts both ways really. Last week we also saw the case of Karen Klein: a 68 year old bus monitor who was verbally abused by a group of 13 year olds. Video of the abuse went viral, and within a couple of days, two things had happened: an internet fundraiser to raise enough money to give Klein a vacation quickly raised over US$300,000 donated by complete strangers moved by her case, and the children who taunted her were identified online and started receiving death threats, also from complete strangers. That's pretty much the internet summed up right there (or rather, that story badly spelled and then superimposed on a picture of a cat sums up the internet perfectly).

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  5. James Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    This neglects that it works both ways - the sentence he was given took into account his actions fighting the fires.
    Since he is spending less time in prison due to his heroics fighting the fires, letting him keep the award would have meant rewarding him twice.

    More importantly, the other members of his team, who had also recieved the award, were disgusted with what he had done and felt that their own awards were tainted by his inclusion - so stripping his award 'cleansed' their awards.

    So relax, some of us do research before signing petitions :)

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to James Walker

      Yes, some of us do :) (And I should note here that not all online petitions are the same. GetUp! is quite a different animal to Change.org, for instance. Their campaigns always strike me as well-researched and generally quite clever in their approach).

      It's interesting: on one level it makes sense that judges say thinks like "Well, you embezzled half a million from your employer, but you also do heaps of charity work so we need to take that into account." But on the other hand, are we comparing apples with oranges here? Should we think of people who do supererogatory good deeds as somehow 'banking' discounts against punishments for future misdeeds? I'm genuinely not sure how that should work, but I'm wary of going too much down the 'moral arithmetic' road.

      A couple of other people also said they'd give up their RHSA awards if McCuskey's wasn't withdrawn. Understandable why they might think the award had been sullied. I guess their interests too need to be considered.

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    2. Jonathan Maddox

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      Isn't it the case that GetUp is a centralised organisation with a mandate to campaign on specific public policy issues, whereas change.org is a forum for people to campaign on any issue that appeals to them? Given that the change.org petitions originate with individuals, it is unsurprising that they're more of a mixed bag than those from the "professionals".

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  6. Brian Stout

    Associate Professor of Social Work

    Thanks Patrick for presenting such complex issues in such a clear way. According to this account:

    http://www.news.com.au/national/black-saturday-bushfire-hero-stripped-of-bravery-award/story-e6frfkvr-1226402942393

    the assaults happened in 2006 & 7, the rescue happened in 2009, he was convicted & sentenced in 2010 and then awarded in 2012, while in prison. This timeline suggests we can rule out PTSD from the rescue as a factor in the assaults. For me, a key factor then is remorse. If McCuskey expressed remorse for his violent behaviour and took steps to make amends, including by giving something back to the community by volunteering as a firefighter, then this seems to be the sort of behaviour we would wish to encourage and reward. However, I have seen no evidence to suggest this is the case. In the absence of this remorse, removing the award seems right as awarding McCuskey adds to Ms Blackburn's injuries by labelling her assailant as a hero.

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Brian Stout

      Thanks Brian. Remorse is definitely relevant, though as you say it's not clear that McCuskey's heroics on Black Saturday were part of some redemption narrative. If, per my account, the reason McCuskey wasn't a fit person to receive an award is that he wasn't a 'member in good standing' of the moral community due to his repudiation of moral norms, then we do need an account of how one can come back into good standing. Timing really seems to matter here: someone who, having done something terrible…

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    2. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Patrick Stokes

      I fully support the idea of redemption. Just as I do not support capital punishment.

      Despite my personal experience (above mentioned) I do applaud bravery and acknowledge that heroes are often flawed - that's the nature of being human.

      I think the aspect of remorse is important. The ability to consider the consequences of actions we take. It is this lack of remorse and the fact Ms Blackburn's experience with Paul McCuskey was factored into the reasoning behind the decision to rescind the bravery…

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  7. Dianna Arthur
    Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Environmentalist

    I can only comment from personal experience. My ex-husband was capable of and did subdue and throw out an obnoxious drunk from a hotel. He did this quickly and efficiently - the local bouncer did not have to raise a finger. The patrons thought he was a hero.

    Equally efficient at home, my then husband could knock me to the floor before I even saw him move - and point out how 'lucky' I was that he could do this without leaving a mark. Mostly he played mind games and I have still have nightmares.

    The man I married was a coward and a bully. I know he was a coward because when I moved out I made sure I had friends around me and he behaved like a little lamb.

    Would I have felt the same as Jeannie Blackburn if my ex had been awarded a bravery medal. Absolutely.

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Thanks for sharing Dianna. I'm glad you got out of that situation, though as you say these things don't simply go away. The stark clarity with which you describe things is both sobering and heartening.

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  8. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    I signed that petition myself, and while at no time did I think to revoke my decision it did raise a number of serious questions in my mind, partly because the previous petition I had signed was concerned with a rugby player who had also beaten his intimate partner.

    My view is that most men do not do these things, that indeed a good measure of a man that can be taught to boys and girls alike, is the patience and courage to refrain from doing such things even under domestic or other duress (and…

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  9. Geoff Schmidt

    Project Manager

    Thanks, Patrick. I have been following this topic in detail.

    The conflict as to whether we should be judging the recipient as well as the deed is very difficult. I cannot condone domestic violence in any form, and I am a strong supporter the white ribbon campaign. However, incorporating the character of the person opens up a can of worms as to who is making this judgement using what criteria. The Humane Society are not the only institutions issuing bravery awards, and I don't believe any of the…

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    1. Patrick Stokes

      Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University

      In reply to Geoff Schmidt

      Thanks Geoff, and thanks too for your CFA service and your efforts on Black Saturday. I don't doubt there was far more in the way of bravery that day than was acknowledged publicly, and as you say that makes things even more complicated.

      I agree that if we make these awards about 'character' we'll run into definite problems. (The Schindler objection springs to mind. I've actually seen philosophers argue that Schindler's infidelity means his heroic actions, though admirable, were not *ethically…

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    2. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Geoff Schmidt

      "Indeed, I witnessed many that I would consider we're even braver, yet only those "nominated" we're considered for receiving the award. This adds to the complexity of this particular issue as to who is deserving and who isn't. "

      A war veteran once said to me that to be a hero one must be observed in action.

      Many heroic acts go unnoticed, forgotten or even dismissed. I guess this underlies the importance of the circumstances and to whom a bravery award is made.

      The CFA colleagues who offered to return their bravery medals (if McCuskey retained his), showed a level of virtue I deeply respect.

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  10. Nick Stafford

    writer

    Hi Patrick,

    thanks for a stimulating read, and for your timing; a friend and I were talking about this last night. As a sociologist, and human I am fascinated by the role of morality and the way we live through an ongoing conversation about morality. But I have not explored morality philosophically, and I liked the questions you brought out in the situation.

    Yes, domestic violence is more destructive than random public violence
    Yes. Jeannie Blackburn is a courageous woman
    Yes, McCusky''s…

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  11. Ben Cronan

    Free Lance Writer

    First, Oskar Schindler was not simply saving one person from death (not to trivialize McCuskey's actions), but hundreds of thousands from fates much worse. in Nor was his behavior towards his wife anything like McCuskey's (which more closely resembled that of the Nazis towards Jewish women and children). Second, what difference does it make whether the award is withdrawn or not? It's a status symbol. As long as McCuskey is in jail and can't do any more damage to anyone else, and the government are not the ones bestowing the award, I honestly don't see there's an issue unless you're a regular Nazi or Feminazi.

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