It is something of a paradox that we are inspired by fictional heroes whose actions would be unacceptable in real life. But it is a difficult call. Nelson Mandela was a true hero, as was Martin Luther King and others who risked imprisonment and/or death in order to further the empowerment of their people. In the cases of Mandela and King, the social system that they fought against was morally bankrupt and corrupt to is core and nothing other than defiance to existing political corruption and social decadence could elevate themselves to what history demanded of them; they accepted the challenge and it is a much better world today because for there sacrifices. But not all heroism can operate on this model.
More typically, heroism is a quieter internal struggle to achieve what one believes that s/he must achieve even when it is contrary to convention, the easier path, or the more profitable one. And, of course, heroism can sometimes entail personal risk against the powers that be. The cases of which I am thinking do not necessarily put the hero up against the legalized corruption and moral bankruptcy in which King and Mandela found themselves, but nonetheless power interests within the social framework—political, corporate, cultural etc.—tip the odds against them as much as in the gross injustices of, say, a legally sanctioned racist social structure.
Heroism and greatness can often require knowing when to bend or break the rules and when to stay put and accept them while enduring a struggle to change them. Nietzsche's so-called noble or master morality can be faulted because it provides no sort of dependable foundation to help negotiate the curves and the conundrums of ethical decision. Clearly this is true of the John Galt character as well. And it is also true of other heroes of forms of ideology or religion whose struggle is ultimately one of trying to force submission to an ideology they "know" is right or true. But in my mind, the most commonly needed form of heroic courage is the courage or fearlessness to question what we somehow know we are supposed not to question.
This post is a reflection on the Boston Area Philosophy Discussion meeting of 08/24/2012 entitled, "Of God, Gods and Goddesses." I have meandered in a different direction here, but the closing of my introductory remarks for that meeting is relevant here as well, I think, when it is subjected to some circumspection concerning questions of who we are and who we want to become that are always in vogue in the eyes and the spirit of the examined life. I wrote that, "Who and what do we want to become? That question sums up the topic for discussion. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, the Greek and Roman gods and other mythologies, the primary aspirations of ethics, Utopian ideals and finally, the possibilities of science all enter into the conversation. But most certainly, the question of who we want to become also implies the question, “Who do we want not to become?” And perhaps that is the more fundamental question."