My housemates and I have on-demand service with our cable television package. Last week was the selection of free movies available particularly exciting. Why? Because I was able to reacquaint myself with Atticus Finch.
Atticus, the main character of Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” and its 1962 film adaptation, is heroic, though not the web-slinging, caped-crusading type. Atticus is of a rarer breed – a moral hero. He is determined and destined to do what is right. Moral heroes are not people vaulted to notoriety because of their impact on the world or because of their talent, but cherished because they identify right from wrong and act accordingly. They are the ones that take the time to reflect deeply about what is right and then act morally even at their own detriment. While watching the movie, I began thinking of the moral heroes our society celebrates today.
One such hero was mentioned in President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress last month. Obama told the story of Leonard Abess, Jr., a Florida banker who divvied up a $60 million windfall to 399 current employees and 72 former employees of his bank as bonuses. The CEO spread the wealth because he always wanted to reward the employees who stuck with him and he was already well-off financially. Essentially, he did it because it was the right thing to do.
The second example I remembered were the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, who retook their hijacked plane on September 11, 2001 and crashed it in southern Pennsylvania instead of taking the risk that it might reach its intended target. Those people are celebrated as moral heroes — and rightfully so — because they sacrificed their own lives to spare many others from harm.
My list started running thin there. I could not think of any other widely recognized people who were celebrated for being moral heroes. Yes, it is an expectation to do what’s right and therefore, moral heroes’ actions may not be necessarily considered newsworthy, but signaling what’s right and wrong publicly should not stop at shaming the immoral. We should also celebrate moral heroes so more people can be inspired by their example to do what’s right.
We need to celebrate moral heroes because moral behavior matters. Think of Enron or other similar scandals in business or politics. Even though there are many factors which contribute to situations like this, if leaders of the organizations had identified right from wrong and acted accordingly, maybe those situations could have been prevented. At the very least, the harmful effects would have been minimized.
And the University campus isn’t exempt from moral interplay, either. We live in an environment where moral decision-making has serious consequences, whether it’s deciding whether or not to slip a pill into another person’s Solo cup, cheat on a significant other or steal silverware from a dormitory cafeteria. On this campus, doing the right thing isn’t always easy. When people balk on morally sound decisions, there are costs for themselves and others affected by their actions, just like in life outside the Ann Arbor bubble.
But doing the right thing is also important when it may not hurt other people. Take the example of a student using Adderall — a drug prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder that provides an unnatural ability to focus when taken by people without the disorder — as a study aid. Even though no physical harm is done to anybody else and there are no side effects to the user, it’s still wrong. Adderall is just like steroids in baseball because it taints the integrity of the game. Just like steroids, Adderall contributes to a culture of immorality that pressures other students to participate in immoral acts just to keep up.
This is where moral heroes come in. Society needs people to break with the culture of immorality on campus and across the country. We need to recognize moral heroes so that their deeds can inspire virtuous deeds instead of vicious ones. Then, the rest of us can follow in their footsteps with smaller moral acts of our own. Our campus and our society could certainly use more people like Atticus Finch.
Neil Tambe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.