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Courage in the Civil Society — Historical, Cultural, and Conceptual Differences of Moral Courage and Zivilcourage

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posted on 2024-02-22, 23:44 authored by Torven Schalk

Zivilcourage, as it is known in Germany, is the courage of citizens to stand up to defend democratic norms. Recent attacks on democratic institutions all over the world, e.g., the January 6th Capitol insurrection in the US, rising popularity of a right-wing party in Germany, or the election of a neo-fascist government in Italy, highlight the need to study such concepts that can strengthen social institutions and safeguard democracy. Zivilcourage is often translated to English as moral courage and given a slightly different connotation: the courage to stand up to defend personal (moral) values. Building on this my research explored (1) the current state of research on Zivilcourage and moral courage, (2) the development of the terms moral courage and Zivilcourage over time and across three societies, and (3) the evaluation of situations as representing moral courage /Zivilcourage across cultures.

In the first study of my thesis, I provide a review of the literature in the field of moral courage and civil courage, the literal translation of Zivilcourage, using bibliometric analyses supplemented with traditional literature review methods. My results show that the term moral courage is more common among US based researchers and civil courage is more common among German based researchers. Research on moral courage is divided into research on ethics in nursing, ethics in organizations, and bystander intervention, while research on civil courage is focused only on bystander intervention. I further found definitions for moral courage emphasised acting based on personal principles, while civil courage definitions emphasised intervening when social and democratic norms were violated.

In the second part of my thesis, I traced the development of the public discourse around the terms moral courage and Zivilcourage over two centuries. In Study 2, I used recent advances in natural language processing and topic modelling to analyse newspaper articles across 75 years in newspapers-of-record in three major democracies (USA, UK, Germany). I found that in relation to Zivilcourage the German newspaper emphasised acts by ordinary citizens that safeguard cooperation in society by confronting illiberal and anti-democratic behaviour. In contrast, in the English language newspapers the focus in relation to moral courage was on politicians and personal values. Behaviour based on one’s moral convictions and fundamental values, such as publicly standing up for them, may be considered moral courage, even when those values are anti-democratic. Temporal changes were linked to localised events, with relatively few persistent longer-term shifts.

In Study 3, I went further back in time and tracked the development of discourse around moral courage across 240 years in the UK. The UK is especially interesting as it is the longest standing democracy in the world and thus offers a unique view into the long-term developments of democratic concepts and values. In addition, with the Times the UK has one of the longest running national newspapers in the world providing uninterrupted access to 240 years of public discourse. Using the same methodology as in Study 2, I found that the public discourse around moral courage in the Times changed slowly over time, with an apparent consolidation of the discourse shortly after WWII, after which it became more similar between decades. The topic modelling indicated multiple topics specific to certain historical events, that could be further narrowed down to 5 broader topics, most of which capture some form of politics. These findings further highlight the apparent differences in understandings of moral courage between academia and the public.

In my next study, based on the findings of the previous studies, I focused on the usage of moral courage within foreign policy thought and debate and conducted a qualitative analysis of all articles that were published over the last 100 years in the magazine Foreign Affairs that mention moral courage. I found three main themes around moral courage: politics, military politics, and society. My results supported the existence of two different understandings of moral courage as relating to politicians versus regular citizens and suggested systematic differences between these two understandings based on the articles being related to Germany or not.

In the third part of the thesis, I moved from archival data analysis to research involving human participants and investigated the contemporary understanding of Zivilcourage and moral courage among ordinary citizens. In my last study, I used vignettes of situations that possibly describe moral courage or Zivilcourage and asked participants in Germany and the UK to evaluate the presence of certain features in these situations. Both the vignettes and the defining features used for rating the vignettes were based on the results of the previous studies, bringing together the usage of moral courage in the academic literature with the use of moral courage in newspapers and foreign policy. Using multidimensional scaling and mixed-effects modelling I found that participants in both countries were more likely to act if the behaviour was beneficial for society, considered the right thing, and was desirable in society. Participants from both countries were also more like to categorize a behaviour as moral courage if the behaviour was beneficial for society, was not beneficial for the actor themself, and was considered the right thing. Despite these cross-cultural similarities, participants from Germany tended to include societal values in their definitions of Zivilcourage, whereas participants from the UK tended to include personal (moral) values.

In the general discussion, I explored the role of moral courage in sustaining peaceful coexistence within society and discussed potential implications of cross-cultural differences in the understanding of the concept. Concerning theoretical implications, I outlined suggestions for future research on this topic and suggested the differential investigation of Zivilcourage or civil courage as the courage of ordinary citizens as a self-regulation process for small scale societal crises, and of moral courage as the courage of to stand for one’s values and make difficult decisions.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Socio-Economic Outcome code

280121 Expanding knowledge in psychology; 139999 Other culture and society not elsewhere classified

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

4 Experimental research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Fischer, Ronald; Luczak-Roesch, Markus