Motivated by Love: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Courage Is Calling" by Ryan Holiday. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the opposite of fear? When you do the right thing, how much does your motive matter?

In Courage Is Calling, Ryan Holiday asserts that love is the driving force behind heroic acts of courage. He also warns that courageous acts done for the wrong reasons aren’t virtuous at all.

Read more to learn why you should be motivated by love—and why doing the right thing for the right reason is so important.

Love Is the Opposite of Fear

According to Holiday, courage isn’t the opposite of fear. Rather, love is fear’s natural opposite. Love—for other people, for one’s country, for one’s religion, and so on—is what leads people to sacrifice their comfort, their safety, their well-being, and even their lives for a higher purpose. For example, parents are motivated by love when they place themselves in physical jeopardy to protect their children. Love drives soldiers to sacrifice their lives in a conflict to keep their people safe back home.

Love is strong enough to break through our sense of self-preservation and help us transcend from everyday acts of courage to selfless acts of heroism. When faced with a situation where the right thing to do requires you to overcome your fear for your own safety and act against your self-interest, Holiday encourages you to draw strength from your love for the people, places, and causes that matter to you. Think about what’ll happen to them if you don’t do the courageous or heroic thing—are you willing to accept the suffering they’ll endure if you choose not to act? 

Courage and Our Drive to Protect the Things We Value

Psychological research supports Holiday’s argument that love drives heroic action. According to experts, the need to create and protect value in our lives supersedes the survival instinct. We don’t live just to survive—we live for the things we value, like the people we love, the work we care about, and the places we call home. The search for value leads people to do things unnecessary for survival, like building families, creating beautiful works of art, and trying to discover the secrets of the universe.

Just as we live for the things we value most—or, in Holiday’s terms, the things we love—we also die for them. To return to our earlier examples, parents put themselves in harm’s way for their children because their children are more valuable to them than anything in the world. Likewise, soldiers give up their lives to protect the valued principles and people their country represents. The more we value something, the more we’re willing to sacrifice to keep it safe.

Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason

In his discussions of courage and heroism, Holiday gives an important caveat: To truly represent the virtue of courage, brave actions have to be done for the right reasons. Courageous acts done in the service of evil regimes and causes that aim to harm and oppress others shouldn’t be celebrated. Doing the right thing for the right reason is the only way that the act can be truly virtuous.

In today’s world, courage for the wrong reasons might look like people using social media platforms to espouse discriminatory and hateful ideologies. The people posting hateful content are willing to speak their truth despite the backlash, but they’re also contributing to suffering and injustice. 

Virtuous courage contributes to the greater good, not a greater evil. When you decide where to place your courage, make sure it’s for a just cause.

(Shortform note: The Stoics believed that courage was the virtue that championed righteous causes. However, applied without the other cardinal virtues—especially justice and wisdom—courage isn’t truly virtuous. Justice includes the sub-virtues of fairness and kindness, so a virtuous courageous person must fight for causes that support the common welfare of mankind. Additionally, to be courageous in Stoic terms, you must be a devotee to truth and a foe to deception. In other words, you can’t be the champion of causes that seek to deceive people.)

Motivated by Love: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason

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Here's what you'll find in our full Courage Is Calling summary:

  • Ryan Holiday's advice for how to be courageous in any situation
  • How to break free from the fear of what other people think of you
  • How to take control of your actions and make difficult decisions

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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