What compels people to risk their lives for complete strangers, not just once but many times over? Perhaps it is heroic empathy, a compassionate identification with others combined with a bias towards action. U.S. Coast Guard rescuers provide an ideal example of this. Every year they save 3,000 lives, often putting their own lives in danger while so doing (Phillips & Loy, 2003). For example, Patrick was fresh out of his aviation survival technician training program when he demonstrated heroic empathy (case example based on Humphrey, 2013; Phillips & Loy, 2003). A fishing boat had sent an emergency call to his base in Kodiak, Alaska. One of the boat’s crew members had been badly injured, his arm almost cut off. Without a quick rescue, the crewman would die. To complicate matters, it was night time, and the raging snow storm meant visibility would be especially poor. The 25-foot waves would make landing on the boat difficult and dangerous. Undeterred, Patrick let himself be lowered from the helicopter towards the boat. A huge wave hit the fishing boat, causing a steel girder to smack into Patrick. Back on the helicopter, the flight attendant thought that the girder might have killed or seriously injured Patrick, so he quickly hoisted him back up. Patrick was aching but avowed himself fit for duty. The pilot wondered if the bad conditions meant the rescue should be called off. The decision

was Patrick’s, and he knew that calling off the rescue would mean the injured fisherman would die. Patrick decided to try again, this time with a new plan. Instead of dropping straight into the boat, Patrick had the helicopter swing him along the waterline towards the side of the boat. This meant that Patrick would be swamped with freezing cold seawater during the big waves, but the plan worked and Patrick was able to board the boat and rescue the fisherman. The fisherman lived as a result of Patrick’s bravery and competence. The above case illustrates three of the defining characteristics of heroes. According to

Goethals and Allison (2012), heroes are courageous, competent, and virtuous. This matches well with the seven characteristics that the U.S. Coast Guard looks for in recruits:

1 intelligence; 2 high energy; 3 self-confidence; 4 continual learning; 5 compassion; 6 courage with a bias toward action; and

7 character. (Phillips & Loy, 2003)

Obviously characteristic 6, courage with a bias toward action, matches with being courageous. Characteristics 1-4 match with competence, and compassion and character match with virtue. It is this special combination of courage, competence, and virtue that separates heroes from

others. Courage, like that shown by Patrick in the U.S. Coast Guard case, is characteristic of many types of heroes, and certainly many people would not be brave enough to jump out of a helicopter into a winter storm at sea. However, courage by itself is not enough. A person may perform a risky behavior, and thus act courageously, but unless this risk is taken on behalf of a moral purpose it is not a heroic act. As Goethals and Allison (2012, p. 186) state, “First and foremost, heroes are people who do something that is moral.” Extreme sports enthusiasts, race car drivers, and other dare devils risk their lives for thrills, but they are not heroes according to this moral standard. However, it must be admitted that they may be seen as heroes by their fellow enthusiasts, as heroic status is in many ways in the eyes of the beholders (Goethals & Allison, 2012). Perhaps their followers find some way to attach a moral purpose to these pursuits, for instance, by believing that these activities develop courage, self-confidence, and discipline, or are a worthy life goal (i.e., living ones’ dreams for adventure). However, when risky behaviors endanger others the actors may even be seen as villains instead of heroes. For example, when people drive recklessly on public roads. Thus overall a moral purpose is still one of the key defining characteristics of courageous heroes. Support for the dual roles of bravery and moral purpose is provided by the study by Kinsella,

Ritchie, and Igou (2015). Among the 8 features they found that were central to prototypical perceptions of heroes, the three features seen as most prototypical of heroes are brave, moral integrity, and courageous. Competence is also crucial to heroes. Heroes need to be competent enough to achieve their

moral purpose and to aid those they are trying to help. This is clearly shown in the U.S. Coast Guard case discussed earlier. Patrick had to have the skills to carry out a dangerous and difficult mission in order to achieve his moral purpose, rescuing the injured fisherman. Carrying out tasks that are easily performed by most people, no matter how important, is not enough to garner one attributions of heroism. As Goethals and Allison (2012) observed, heroic status is more likely to be given to those who overcome obstacles and task difficulties that would defeat the average person. Heroes are often depicted as struggling against almost overwhelming odds, and their heroic status is conferred when they finally succeed through their competence and ingenuity. People tend to have sympathy for underdogs (Allison & Burnette, 2009; Allison & Goethals, 2008). Indeed, underdogs are particularly likely to be accorded heroic status, provided they go on to win (Kim et al., 2008). An important exception to this is in the case of martyrs, who may not personally succeed in achieving their goals, but who inspire others to take up the cause and the struggle. Although history books and popular culture are full of heroes who have performed truly

outstanding achievements, it must be recognized that many people are heroes in the eyes of their friends and family members. Indeed, Allison and Goethals (2011) conducted a national survey of adults, and they asked respondents to list heroes. They found that 32 percent of the heroes listed were family members. In their open-ended explanations of their choices, participants were grateful for the generosity their heroic family members showed, and they appreciated the sacrifices that their family members made and the struggles that they went through in order to help them out. Although courage and competence are two of the three key characteristics of heroes, the

moral purpose, often accompanied by self-sacrifice and struggle, is at the heart of heroism. It is this moral purpose that motivates the heroic behavior and that makes heroes willing to endure

struggles and persevere in the face of obstacles. In this chapter we will develop the argument that empathy is one of the core motivating forces behind moral purpose and heroic action. This emphasis on empathy is consistent with Goethals and Allison’s (2012) view of the origins of moral thinking as it relates to heroes. They draw upon the work on moral development in children by Kohlberg (1969; Kohlberg & Hersh, 1977). According to Kohlberg’s model, moral development depends on being able to take the perspective of other people. At the first level in Kohlberg’s model, the pre-conventional stage, children are concerned with rewards and punishments and their own self-interests. As the children gain in the ability to perceive others’ perspectives, they move to the conventional level, where they consider social norms, authority figures, and other social groups’ standards for behavior. Kohlberg believed that most people remained at the conventional level of morality and only a few progressed to the highest level, post-conventional morality, which requires a deeper level of empathy. As Goethals and Allison (2012) put it, life experiences may push or pull people into thinking more deeply about others’ needs and perspectives, and thus into the post-conventional stage. The ability to perceive others’ thoughts, feelings and needs is the essence of cognitive forms of empathy and thus empathy is crucial to moral development and virtue. Hoffman (2001) has also related empathy to moral development, and reasons that empathy is

a major motivator promoting caring and justice. He maintains that our empathic instincts had great survival value and thus lead to the development of an empathy instinct or trait. Groups of humans that had empathic concern for each other survived and propagated more than those that did not, thus leading to ever greater levels of empathy among humans. Further support for the role of empathy in heroism is provided by Goethals and Allison’s

(2012) study of heroic traits. They used a trait listing and sorting methodology to discover how students perceive heroes. They found that the list of traits sorted into 8 clusters: Caring, Charismatic, Inspiring, Reliable, Resilient, Selfless, Smart, and Strong. Relevant to this chapter, the first cluster, Caring, includes the traits compassionate, empathic, and kind. As we shall see from the later review of the literature on empathy, empathy’s role in heroic behavior may be even greater than this suggests.