THR Web Features   /   October 20, 2014

Cowardice and Ebola

Jay Tolson

A Kikwit, Zaire clinic (1995).

Not long into his new book Cowardice: A Brief History, Chris Walsh, associate director of Boston University's writing program, notes that his subject has received surprisingly little direct consideration in Western letters and scholarship. Humanity responds to cowards and cowardly acts with an appalled reticence. "Let's not speak of them," Dante's Virgil says dismissively of the hundreds of cowards crowding Hell's vestibule. The philosopher Kierkegaard, who gave more thought to the subject, observed that "there must be something wrong with cowardliness, since it is so detested, so averse to being mentioned, that its name has completely disappeared from use."

Not quite completely, of course, but a certain obliquity does characterize most literate reflections on the subject, even though it's crucial to our conduct—not only in war but in those moments of choice that call for moral courage. Consider the current debate over the appropriate response to the Ebola virus as it spreads beyond its epicenter in West Africa. Does the discourse of cowardice, and its antonyms bravery and courage, play any role in this debate? Should it? Are we being evasive—even cowardly—in refusing to see the debate in those terms as well as in medical-epidemiological or national security ones? Perhaps courage and cowardice raise moral questions that we would rather ignore.

Bringing cowardice into the discussion certainly doesn't simplify matters. Even if we accept Walsh's working definition of a coward—"someone who, because of excessive fear, fails to do what he is supposed to do"—we run into problems. One person's excessive fear is another's reasonable fear, and defining our duty in any given situation invites qualifications and assorted objections.

Sure, we can easily point to the brave healthcare workers who have thoroughly acquitted themselves in fulfilling their duty, in many cases losing their lives or otherwise going far beyond duty's call. The British healthcare worker who returned to Africa after recovering from the disease fills us with highest admiration, yet the extent of his courage may cause some to wonder whether it exceeds reasonable bounds. If we explain away such courage by attributing it to perverse or even vainglorious motives, we may be admitting we hold an idea of duty that lacks firm or clear obligations. Uncomfortable as such an admission may be, we need to understand our own standards of duty so that we know when we may be shirking them.

The question of our own cowardice grows more discomfiting when we consider the most contentious proposed response to the spread of the disease: the imposition of a travel ban that would curtail international commercial flights for people from Liberia and Sierra Leone. There are opposing arguments about the efficacy of such a ban, of course. But is one side more clearly courageous and the other more clearly cowardly?

Again, answers are not easy. First, where is one's primary duty here—to one's national security and well being, or to humanity and the greater global good? We who want to participate fully in a globalized world must know that with its benefits come responsibilities. Is it not cowardice to shirk such responsibilities?

It may be another form of cowardice to rush to answers that are too easy and too quick. Are there, for example, better ways of limiting the movement of infected people than by imposing restrictions on all people who share their nationality? Have we discussed and explored those alternatives? If we say our primary and unqualified duty is to our own national good, are we certain that such a ban furthers that good in the short or long terms?

Courage and cowardice enter into these questions again when we examine the motives for our answers. "Kinds of cowardice can conflict," notes Walsh.  And he adds that "Excessive fear of being or seeming cowardly can lead to cowardice." These potential conflicts should bear heavily on the minds of our political leaders, who sometimes show more concern for appearances than for substance. Are those political leaders who are now calling for a ban merely pandering to a fearful base or taking yet another opportunity to bash whatever President Obama calls for? Conversely, could President Obama be so fearful of the disapproval of the international community that he might refuse to make certain choices? Is it cowardly not to be cruel to be kind? After all, imposing a ban on the most afflicted nations might move the elites of those nations (the citizens most likely to avail themselves of international air travel) to devote more resources and effort to containing the contagion, in the way that Nigeria's political elite did.

The discourse of cowardice may not bring easy answers to dilemmas so vexing as this one, but if it brought a little more honesty, that would be no small contribution. The somewhat paradoxical problem with facing up to cowardice, as Walsh's excellent book shows, is that it usually requires great courage.