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Taking note of a living example of moral heroism

 President of Ukraine Volodymir Zelensky in 2019.
Creative Commons
President of Ukraine Volodymir Zelenskyy in 2019.

If toddlers could put words to their conception of right and wrong, it would sound something like: I want what I want when I want it. What is right is what I want!

Sound familiar? That lowest level of moral reasoning is what I hear in Russian president Vladimir Putin’s cold, twisted rationale for his heartless aggression against Ukraine. Putin brings another low level of moral development – the simplistic notion of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – even lower by threatening a nuke for a tooth.

Contrast Putin’s screeds with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s words: “Our weapon is truth. And our truth is that this is our land.”

We are witnessing a moral hero stand up to a moral coward and bully.

The world has watched this man that his people call, for very good reason, a hero, and who I deem a moral exemplar, rally his country to resist the Russian onslaught with almost unimaginable bravery.

We watched as he turned down an offer from the United States to be evacuated and responded with grim determination, reminiscent of the heroes of WWII movies of my youth: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

As did the translator, I choked up listening to his recent speech to the EU Parliament. “Nobody is going to break us. We’re strong. We’re Ukrainians.”

People who’ve shown extraordinary moral conduct offer us a glimpse into what living at the highest ranges of moral development looks like in the real world.

Would that courage, integrity, and reason were enough to turn back the relentless tanks and bombs. Words of admiration seem such an insufficient tribute to Zelensky and the Ukrainians’ inspirational heroism.

To paraphrase the words of a moral exemplar from another fraught time in history, Abraham Lincoln, the world may little note, nor long remember what we say about this remarkable moral hero, but we should never forget what he has done for his people and for the world.

Elizabeth Vozzola is a moral psychologist who lives in West Hartford. She is co-author of the upcoming second edition of “Moral Development: Theory and Applications.”