In Praise of Rashness

In The Mysteries of Courage, the legal scholar William Ian Miller invites us to take a second look at rashness. Might rashness be worthy of praise, if only praise in halves?

In the endnotes, Miller references Urmson’s essay on Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. On this view, cowardice is identified with excessive caution or timidity, courage (the mean) with caution or confidence, and rashness with fearlessness or insensibility. But, as Miller observes, courage isn’t really “equidistant” (if I may put it that way) between cowardice and rashness. If anything, rashness is quite close to courage, timidity being far away. But how can rashness exist in such close proximity to courage?

Miller defines rashness as an “irrational embarkation on a new course of action” (155). We can easily get behind the thought that in times calling for toughness we may need to embark on a new course of action. Indeed, the cowardly person may grant as much but–alas–just pussyfoot around things, never getting around to taking off. So far, so good, we might think. But what about the irrational part in rashness? What makes rashness so irrational?

This doesn’t seem that hard to see, at least not on first acquaintance. The rash person acts without haste or delay and without prior thought. But surely, we might reply, there are plenty of swift actions that are not, for all that, rash. Moreover, there are many actions–take habits–that do not require prior thought. Clearly, we must reply, rashness must be put in the context where there is danger or risk. The conditional matters: when it’s the case that there is danger or considerable risk, to act rashly is to embark on a course of action without delay or prior thought. 

All right, we might say, we know what rashness is, but what is so interesting about rashness anyway? I think it’s that

(a) our time has for too long urged upon us the thought that we must “create safe spaces,” that we must become comfortable and seek comforts,

(b) we have (think “helicopter parents”) inculcated in young persons the vices of softness and timidity (they seem incapable of withstanding much pressure or of surging forth),

(c) we can expect that the coming time will quite possibly be very, very rough, and

(d) rash persons are good at pushing the envelope, going forth, at pressing on.

Hence, let us praise rashness up to a point. A Platonic image will aid us when it comes to the education of the rash person: one who is headstrong can always be tamed so that he can grasp the nature of courage and can become courageous himself, yet the timid man will be too overcome with fear to be able to trained to become courageous. This tracks my own experience in my philosophy practice. Time and again, when the going gets tough, the rash, bold, and daring remain–indeed, expand into the danger–while the timid and overly cautious flee without a word. You will never hear from them again.