Thinking about moral courage has led me to some odd thoughts. Let's see if I can make any sense of them, and then maybe see whether they are at all plausible. Perhaps really it's a combination of thoughts.
One of these is the idea that certain things are obviously evil, for instance cruelty. The Bible (Leviticus 19:14 to be precise) tells us not to place a stumbling block in front of blind people, which is the kind of thing you might think would go without saying. This kind of thing is just obviously wrong, it seems to me. If you want some explanation of why it is bad I guess you could talk about cruelty, human dignity, and so on, but it's hard to imagine a human being not understanding that playing tricks like this on handicapped people is evil. (It's hard also to imagine a human being who didn't understand the temptation to engage in such evil deeds, too, at least at some level, but that is a different point. Maybe it's because we hear the voice of this temptation and recognize it as a voice not to be trusted that we see its suggestions as evil. Or maybe not.)
Another is the idea that a wise person will see, know, or understand what to do in any given situation. I'm not sure that I believe this, but it seems to me that it might be true and it also seems that it might be a good thing to hold it as true. Anscombe believes in absolute moral prohibitions, which raises questions such as "Is it really wrong to lie even if doing so is the only way to save someone's life?" Her answer, as I recall, is that it really is wrong to lie, but that it might be very hard to see a way out of certain situations without doing something wrong. If you can see no other way out, she thinks, then it is better to lie than to let an innocent person be murdered, but it is still wrong to lie. After all, God has forbidden all lies. It would seem a bit unfair of God to do this unless it were not really necessary to lie ever after all. And that, I think, is what Anscombe believes: there always is a way to do the right thing, if only we are wise enough to see what it is. For this reason she sticks to her absolutism and rejects the consequentialist idea that lying, e.g., might sometimes be the right thing to do.
I don't have Anscombe's faith, so I don't believe exactly the same thing. But I agree with her that wisdom or creativity can find ways that are not obvious, and that we should not be too quick to accept the anti-absolutist idea. There are sometimes better consequences to be had by sticking to absolutism rather than weakening our commitment to such things as human rights. Anscombe says that someone who thinks in advance that we shouldn't rule out options such as executing an innocent person shows a corrupt mind. If they think we shouldn't rule it out when faced with a horrible dilemma (of which such an execution is one horn) then they are, she says, just a normally tempted human being. This seems right to me. And if we think this way then we still might end up murdering people, but only if we really are in an unusually bad situation and only after we have run out of other ideas. Justice requires a commitment not to commit such crimes as murder, wisdom requires the vision or imagination to see how to avoid committing them. And something that we might call humanity requires both justice and wisdom.
But humanity is something that we (like to think we) share with others. If others simply do not care about justice or wisdom then they are scarcely human. But what if they care, yet do not share our view of what justice or wisdom dictates? Then it seems we ought to talk to them, to try to persuade them to see the truth (unless the disagreement is about something trivial). Why? For the sake of justice or wisdom (or whatever), but also for the sake of not being alien in relation to them, for the sake of the commonality of humanity, which has to do with both our own sanity and community. (I'm conscious here that I need to read, or re-read, Gaita's A Common Humanity.)
Combining these ideas, I find myself leaning toward the following: a truly human person (by which I mean something like a truly virtuous person,a truly humane person) will be able to get other human beings to see what is required by the humanity that they share. Failure to do this is a human failure, a failure of one's humanity (which might also be called a moral or a spiritual failure). If you take a stand against injustice directed against you by saying "I am a Man," and you fail to persuade your audience, then you have failed to establish common humanity with them.
I don't mean to say that it is your fault, that you are to blame, if you fail in this kind of attempt. (It might be that you could have presented your case better, but there is no moral blame here even if you chose really bad tactics. All the moral blame goes to those who don't recognize your humanity.) But you have gambled and, in the case I'm imagining, lost some of the sense of your humanity. Whose is this sense? It might be your own. That is, you might (although you should not) start to doubt your own humanity. It might be other people's sense of your humanity, although that seems doubtful. It's more the public, shared sense of your humanity. You have made a claim to have your humanity publicly, commonly acknowledged and, I'm imagining, you have failed. The risk of such failure is part, it seems to me, of the reason why it takes courage to take this kind of stand. (There is something odd about the idea of a man holding a sign saying that he is a man, something that makes it hard to believe anyone could deny the claim. And indeed I think it is impossible to deny it. So the moral risk in this case is not great (compared with the physical risk). But the claim still needed to be made by African-Americans in the 1960s and could have been rejected in some way, even if not honestly denied.)
And (this is the point I originally wanted to make) there is a similar risk in taking such a stand for others. Imagine an old woman being racially insulted by some young men. You hesitate to get involved but realize that you cannot stand by and let this happen. So you try to persuade them to leave her alone. You risk being attacked, of course, but there are other risks, too, I'm inclined to think. What you are trying to do is, in a sense, to get them to see the woman as a human being. If you fail you might confirm them in their view that she is not really a human being. By opposing them you also create, or at least accentuate, a division between them and you. If you succeed then this division will be healed. If not, you have divided humanity still further, you have made our shared sense of common humanity weaker than it was. (Is that right, I wonder? Maybe not. But it depends who ends up knowing about your action, and how they react to it. So there is at least a risk that opposing racists will weaken the social bond.) And to the extent that you fail you will have been dismissed as someone who is not wise or just and who is, in that sense, not fully human. You speak but you are not heard, so in a sense you have no voice. You become part of the silent, faceless mass. Not in your eyes, necessarily (although you might feel that way), but in the eyes of the bullies and therefore in the eyes of the common humanity you had hoped existed, or could be made or found to exist, between you and them.
Acts of moral courage risk loss of face, I want to say, and not only in the sense that they risk social embarrassment. But I might be letting metaphors carry me away or muddy the water. I might be relying on an ill-conceived theory of virtue. I might be trying too hard to be clever or tidy without paying enough attention to reality. Let me try just to say as simply as possible the kind of theory that is appealing to me, so that its flaws might be most evident. Here, in summary and conclusion, is what I feel like saying (note, I'm not actually saying it yet):
Human beings see what is true, do what is right, and live in the same world as other human beings. If you stand up for yourself as a human being you risk having your status as a human being denied. To the extent that this is denied (though this is not your fault), you do not live in the same world as (all) other human beings and therefore do not get to be, or live as, a fully human being. If you stand up for others as human beings you run a similar risk, because your status as a being that sees what is true and does what is right is at risk of being denied. And to the extent that this is denied, your status as a human being is denied.
That's it. I'm not prepared to adopt this theory yet for various reasons, including the following: the idea of humanity seems to be doing an awful lot of work here without being very carefully examined or explained, and it comes close to saying that reality is socially constructed, which just sounds false (even if there might be a grain of truth in it). But I feel as though there is something to the theory nevertheless. So I throw it out to see whether others have any thoughts on it.