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Instances of human tragedy often provide us with stories of exceptional heroism. Emerging from the fires of Black Saturday were several examples of extraordinary courage. One such case was Paul McCuskey. From Reefton in northern Victoria, McCuskey served as a volunteer firefighter in the Country Fire Authority. On Black Saturday, McCuskey placed himself at great risk in rescuing an elderly woman and her pets from the approaching fire.

There seems no purer demonstration of bravery than such a willingness to lay down one’s life for another. These displays of character seem worthy of social recognition. In publicly honouring examples of exceptional character, we hold up certain virtues – such as bravery, selflessness, and hard work – as constituents of a good human life, and ideals towards which we should all strive.

In the case of bravery, one institution fulfilling this function of public recognition is the Royal Humane Society. The society’s brief is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” McCuskey certainly seemed to fit the Humane Society’s eligibility conditions: he risked his own life in his efforts to save others. On February 17th this year, he was one of 60 people who received bravery awards for their conduct on Black Saturday.

The Black Saturday bushfires (Photo: Jason South)

But these questions of moral character and public recognition are complex. In the aftermath of McCuskey’s recognition, further information emerged surrounding his past. Several months after the bushfires, McCuskey was convicted of serious assault on his partner, Jeannie Blackburn. McCuskey’s violence left Blackburn permanently blind in her left eye, while his savage kicks to her stomach had caused her to miscarriage.  For his brutality, McCuskey received five-and-a-half years in prison. In response to a growing public campaign against their decision, championed by Governor-General Quentin Bryce and Lord-Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle, the Humane Society decided on June 20th to strip McCuskey of his award.

In light of both his conduct on Black Saturday, and the broader details of his personal life, should the Humane Society have honoured McCuskey with an award? It might be argued that the Humane Society aims only to give public recognition to acts of bravery, not to give an appraisal of a person’s character in its entirety. McCuskey fulfilled the conditions to be eligible for the award. He is serving jail time for his misdeeds; stripping him of the award would merely be punishing him twice.

I think the first point to establish is that not all acts of bravery are owed public recognition. McCuskey does not appear to have a strict claim to an award. Individuals are selected to receive these awards as a symbolic gesture. They are bestowed to pursue the end of public recognition, rather than a strict claim of desert. Contrast the presentation of symbolic bravery awards with the presentation of medals for the 400 metres at the Olympics. In the latter case, the relevant act (winning the 400 metres in accordance with the specified rules) is sufficient to generate a strict claim of desert: an athlete could legitimately claim to have been wronged if denied the gold medal after winning the 400 metres fairly and squarely. There might be thousands of brave acts that occur throughout Australia every year, of which the Humane Society recognises only a fraction. The unrecognised heroes do not seem entitled to a claim of injustice comparable to that of the athlete.

But there seem to be circumstances in which McCuskey would be wronged by the decision to strip him of the award. If the Humane Society decided to rescind its recognition of McCuskey’s bravery based on his hair colour or football team, this would be illegitimate.  These grounds seem irrelevant with respect to the stated end of the award: public recognition of bravery. Therefore, we need to consider the actual purpose of the bravery awards to determine whether McCuskey’s public stripping wronged him.

The stated focus of the Humane Society is to recognise certain “acts of bravery”. If we look more closely at this purpose, however, we can see that the actual award attaches to the agent, rather than the action. The public recognition is achieved by “bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives”. Whether we like it or not, the award goes to a person, not an act. I believe that this explains why McCuskey was not wronged by the refusal to grant him an award.  The nature of a symbolic award is that it does not generate strict claims of desert. There were relevant aspects of McCuskey’s character that were anathema to the virtues honoured by the award. And the public recognition that accompanies these awards cannot be restricted to a particular act. It encompasses their character as a whole. Publicly recognising McCuskey’s bravery meant honouring him as an individual.

I think the nature of McCuskey’s crime provides particular reinforcement for this last point. Part of the reason it seems troubling to try to attach this award to a certain act of McCuskey’s (rather than his entire character) is that this would endorse the very kind of moral fracture common in perpetrators of domestic violence. By ‘moral fracture’, I mean the arbitrary separation between private and public often drawn by the abusive: the maintenance of a respectable public persona, which hides the brutal private reality. These individuals suffer from an internal rupture. The attitudes constitutive of their admirable facades do not apply behind closed doors.  This fracture undermines the very virtue for which the award is bestowed.

For this reason, I believe the Humane Society was justified in stripping McCuskey of his award. As Jeannie Blackburn asserted soon after McCuskey’s actions were made public, “Brave men don’t bash women.”

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One thought on “The Ethics of Public Honours

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